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Remembering when Science was Fun

The Retired

When I came to Mount St. Mary's in 1957, one of the first courses I was assigned to teach was General Science. I was adequately prepared to teach biology, and I knew enough chemistry and physics to get by, but that was not sufficient; "general" science included astronomy, geology and meteorology. Furthermore, those topics could not just be skimmed over; 1957 had been designated as the International Geophysical Year, and it also marked the beginning of the Space Age when Sputnik was launched that fall. Science was in the news. So I had three choices. I could give up and quit (not a good thing to have on my resume`, and besides, there was a family to support); I could sit down and cry (not considered a "manly" thing to do at an all-male institution, and not very productive in any case); or I could get busy and learn the necessary information on my own.

So I started reading. The library had a limited selection of textbooks, but most of them were out of date and useless as sources of information on space and earth science. So I stretched my meager budget and subscribed to Scientific American, a monthly magazine that covered the latest developments in all fields of science. It turned out to be a godsend. Its feature articles were well-written, often by internationally known scientists; I remember reading James Van Allen's article on the Van Allen Belt, a radiation zone that was discovered by instruments on the first American satellite, and which won the first Nobel Prize from the area of space science. In addition to such current topics, the magazine also had a column called "The Amateur Scientist," which provided ideas for demonstrations and lab exercises. Reading it became a joy as well as a necessity.

I also began learning the history of science. Scientific American was founded sometime before the Civil War, and one of its most interesting features was a column called "50 and 100 Years Ago," which told what had been the latest discoveries in those days. It recounted the controversy over Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, and the bewilderment that followed Einstein's Theory of Relativity in 1905. Even though Einstein was still living, those things seemed like ancient history, for I was only 24 at the time. But age brings with it an altered perspective. The column is now called "50, 100 and 150 Years Ago," and it no longer seems so ancient; it now features things I remember happening.

The May, 2009, column had a note on the Mohole Project, which probably set the all-time record for combining pure, goofy fun with genuine scientific inquiry. In the late 1950s there was a revolution in the science of geology which explained why earthquakes and volcanoes occur and how continents drift over the face of the earth through time. The explanation was based on a theory proposed in 1909 by a Croatian geologist with the unpronounceable name of Andrija Mohorovicic. He discovered that earthquake waves suddenly speed up at a point located a few miles beneath the earth's surface, and he proposed there was a boundary there between two layers of rock, the Crust and the Mantle, which conduct waves at different speeds. This boundary was named the Mohorovicic Discontinuity in his honor, but it quickly became known among geologists as "The Moho." To everyone else, it was unknown… until 1958.

In the mid-50s, government funding was made available for the International Geophysical Year, and the National Science Foundation was flooded with research grant proposals. Some of them did not fit into any specific category, which was frustrating to the scientists who had to evaluate them. One evening, relaxing over drinks, one evaluator remarked that there should be a "miscellaneous" grant category. Obviously, grants in that category would have to be evaluated, so someone proposed a special group to do it. Everyone immediately volunteered, and they agreed to call themselves the American Miscellaneous Society, or AMSOC. As the evening wore on, they proceeded to draw up bylaws. The first rule would be that there were no rules; any time two or more members passed in the hallway could constitute an official meeting; there would be no officers; and no minutes would be taken. An annual ceremony was planned at which the author of the most unusual proposal was awarded a stuffed albatross.

Amid the general hilarity at a subsequent meeting, someone asked a profound question: If money were no object, what would be the single project that would produce the greatest amount of completely new scientific knowledge? After deliberation, it was agreed that the best project would be to drill a hole down to the Moho, because no one knew what was really down there, or even how deep it was. One of the culprits was Walter Munk, a widely respected geologist and oceanographer who was gifted with both a sense of humor and a name no one could take seriously; it is believed that he was the one who remarked that such drilling would produce a "Mohole." Eventually a grant proposal was drawn up and submitted to NSF, with Munk as the project director, and the Mohole Project was funded in 1958.

There were a host of problems. It made sense to start drilling on the floor of the ocean, where the crust is thinnest, but at that time there was no equipment for deep-sea drilling. So an immense raft was designed with giant outboard motors to keep it in the same place, and an oil drilling rig was mounted on it. Equipment was adapted to withstand the corrosion of salt water, the flexing of pipes when waves moved the raft, and the extreme heat of deep rock formations. Someone asked an obvious question that had been overlooked: "What happens if we strike oil?" Special measures were designed to plug the hole with concrete and prevent polluting the ocean in that eventuality. Then the Russians got wind of it and, in the spirit of the Cold War, started their own Mohole Project. The news media loved it, the public were fascinated; the budget kept growing, and congress appropriated more funds each year. Phase I of the project was completed at a cost of over $50 million… a trivial amount today, but a lot of money back then. Eventually Senator Proxmire noticed it and gave it his "Golden Fleece Award;" and in 1967 congress refused to fund Phase II. Unencumbered by such democratic decision-making, the Russians kept drilling until the mid-'70s; they produced the world's deepest hole, 40,226 feet deep, but never reached the Moho.

In the eyes of some, the Mohole Project resulted in $50 million wasted by a bunch of impractical scientists to dig five holes in the ocean. But it was not a waste; it yielded drilling technology and knowledge of the composition of the earth's crust that made off-shore oil wells possible, and also led to information about prehistoric climates and changes in ocean currents. And it also marked a time of change, a loss of innocence. After the intellectual excitement and optimism of the Kennedy years, we lived through assassinations, war and radical protests in the '60s, the OPEC disruption and Presidential resignation in the 70s, AIDS and anti-environmentalism in the '80s, legislative gridlock and Presidential disgrace in the '90s, and terrorism and economic collapse in the new millennium. Perhaps I'm just getting old, but nothing is as much fun as it was when people dared to dream of going to the moon or drilling to the Moho. But I have memories, reinforced by 52 years worth of Scientific American magazines piled in my basement. And Dr. Walter Munk is still alive and working at the age of 91; and I'll bet he is still able to laugh.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith