|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Friday, February 01, 2008
We're here to celebrate the launch of Sputnik 1. Now, when I was asked to talk about it I realised that there was no point in mugging up on the history of space exploration, because there are people here like Robert Law and Duncan Lunan who know much more about it than I do, and can say it much better. So instead I'm going to give you what I can do, which is a rambling rant about the cultural consequences of Sputnik. We have an hour but you'll be relieved to hear I'm not going to talk for an hour. I understand from this week's news that if you can talk for an hour without notes you're somehow qualified to be the next Prime Minister. So there'll be plenty of time for questions and I hope contradictions, because this is fandom and as someone once said on rec.arts.sf.fandom, fandom is where people contradict you just to be polite. Someone should make a T-shirt with that slogan. Come to think of it, I'd like to make one that says: Fandom. Where the guy staring at your tits is trying to read your name-badge.
What I'm going to say about Sputnik is that it was a great achievement of Soviet socialism, and that it was for that very reason a great setback for human expansion into space; that it started the culture wars which are still shaking our world; and that it's why most of you are, like me, functionally innumerate.
The impact of the Sputnik launch was enormous. I know that because it was the first historical event I actually remember, and I was three years old at the time. I'm not saying I understood it. What I knew was that there was this thing in the sky that bleeped, and that it was very scary, and that it was going to come back to Earth. What that meant to me in 1957 was that I expected Sputnik to come back to Earth in the scariest place I knew, which was the dark cold passageway between the kitchen and the back door. I remember a Giles cartoon of the Giles kids looking at this spiky thing in a smoking hole in the ground, and this disturbed me too. A few months later we had Sputnik egg-cups, which were hemispherical and had four pointy legs, and which were really space-age because they had a vacuum between their outer and inner surfaces to ... but you're SF fans, you're ahead of me.
All this in a small way does indicate the astonishing scale and depth of how Sputnik entered popular consciousness. And in the context of the Cold War, the way it entered consciousness was that the Soviet Union had leapt ahead of the United States. That was certainly how the Soviet Union projected it. I have here on my jacket four Soviet space badges. One of Gagarin, one of Apollo-Soyuz, one of Koralyev, and one commemorating Sputnik. The last has a globe with a stylised orbit wrapped in yer-actual hammer and sickle, which is pretty much how it came across. It was seen as the socialist planned economy stealing a march on the capitalist market economy.
The people who saw it this way weren't just the Soviets. No, there were those in America who saw it the same way. In every rich, complacent, easy-going society, such as the US was - for all its tensions and fault-lines, such as at Little Rock - during Eisenhower's presidency, there are malcontents. People who just can't accept the self-indulgent, go-getting, individualistic way of life, with everyone living under his own vine and under his own fig-tree, and who have a radical programme to turn society upside down. They're called conservatives.
And it was the conservatives who went ballistic about Sputnik. They demanded that America pull its socks up and get with the programme. And how did they set out to show these upstart commies - and more importantly, the then-undecided mass of humanity outside the rich countries - that America's way was best? By establishing a national, planned effort, implemented by a gigantic government programme co-ordinating the nation's resources, to get ahead of the USSR in space. This culminated in JFK's commitment to an eight-year plan to land a man on the Moon, around which which the nation could unite regardless of short-term profit calculations ... but you're ahead of me again.
Yes, establishing a big government bureaucracy to show the superiority of the market over planning has certain flaws. I have to say this point would never have occurred to me, and I would never have thought there was anything problematic about Project Apollo, if I hadn't come across a paper by James P. Hogan, Boom and Slump in Space, some years ago. Hogan has more recently gone off on the deep end about various matters but I think his argument here bears thinking about. He points out that with the X-15, and all the Right Stuff stuff, Americans were already on the edge of space, and there's no reason why further development on those lines couldn't have led to a space-plane. They were close to launching satellites. There was a whole range of different approaches back then, and if they'd been left to develop - driven partly by commercial interest, partly by military - instead of being subsumed by the one-track Apollo project, who knows where we might be now?
So much for Sputnik as a setback for space. On to the culture wars. One consequence of the Sputnik crisis was that the US authorities became presuaded that Soviet kids were getting a better science education, and indeed better education in general - there was a book called 'What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn't'. So, naturally, there was a big government enquiry and they revamped all the textbooks. One thing they rejigged was biology. US school textbooks had kept very quiet about evolution since the Drayton case. Now they put Darwin back in. Across the country, parents went apeshit.
Until then, creationism had been something of a backwater in the US. Back in the twenties a Seventh Day Adventist called Gearge McCready Price wrote a book called The New Geology, which argued that the entire geological column and the faunal succession shown in the fossil record was an artefact of Noah's Flood. Martin Gardner gives it a chapter in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952, 1956) and you can see how he treats it as just another wacky fringe idea. By then, most Christian denominations accepted evolution. Young fundamentalists who'd been trained in geology rejected McCready Price's notions as soon as they did some actual fieldwork. They were particularly impressed with what they learned from geologists who worked for oil companies, and made decisions costing millions of dollars based on conventional geology. Most even of the creationists were reconciled to an old Earth, through the day-age theory, the gap theory, or whatever. One who wasn't was Henry Morris, a civil engineer who specialised in hydraulics. You can see where this is going. Together with a theologian, John Whitcomb, he wrote The Genesis Flood and scientific creationism was born. Parents who objected to Darwin in the schoolbooks now had a science book of their own. It was no longer a matter of science versus a literal reading of Genesis, it was godly science versus godless science, and the long march through the school boards began.
Secondly, I mean thirdly, innumeracy. When I was in primary school I was quite good at arithmetic. I used to read ahead in the textbook. Then I went to high school, and mathematics became incomprehensible. This was partly because my maths teacher was a war veteran whose wounds had left him with a neurological disability, a speech defect, and a short temper. Years later I met him and his wife in the street and he was the soul of kindness, pleased to hear how I was doing as a student, but when I was a schoolkid I didn't see that he was a good man trying to do his best by some very intractable pupils, and coping with his disability with commendable aplomb. No, he simply terrified me. But it was the content of the textbooks that baffled me. We spent years learning about set theory, Venn diagrams, linear programming, binary and octal arithmetic, matrix algebra, and such-like arcana. Besides that we were supposed to learn geometry, trigonometry, algebra and I think finally calculus. I just couldn't see the connection. I left school with three maths O-levels, two of them compensatory for failing my Highers, and an inability to look at an equation without a feeling like you might get from electrodes stuck to your head.
It was only years later I found out that the New Maths had originated in the Sputnik crisis, out of some confused idea that it was very important for kids to understand how computers did sums and that the best way to understand arithmetic was to begin with its logical foundations. So as well as learning what had been worked out in the thousand-odd years between Euclid and Descartes, and which in a few centuries had been hammered into a fairly reliable curriculum, we had to learn stuff that a generation or two back was taxing minds like Frege and Russell.
Now, the question is, was all that really necessary? Take evolution in school biology. Evolution was absolutely pervasive in US culture in the 50s, in popular science, in science fiction, in museums. Would it have been such a disaster to leave it out of schoolbooks? When I went to Glasgow University and wanted to take biology, I mentioned that I hadn't studied it at school. In the UK, of course, there's no problem with evolution in school textbooks, and never has been, until very recently - there certainly wasn't a problem in the 70s. I was told that school biology was such rubbish anyway that the university biology course just started from scratch.
Or take the question of 50s America's decadent luxury production, which was alleged to be causing them to fall behind the Soviet Union in military and technological hardware. What the people who made that criticism forgot is a basic feature of the market economy, which is that frivolity is the wave of the future. England industrialised by pioneering the industrial production of cotton frocks. Think of the role of sugar, tea, coffee, cotton, groundnut oil for soap ... serious consequences came from these frivolous demands.
Now, there's no doubt that Sputnik, Apollo, Mir, Skylab and now the International Space Station were great achievements. But without them, who knows what might have been? What if space travel had been driven by frivolity? We might then be having this con in an orbital pleasure palace, where ... but you're SF fans, you're ahead of me.