The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, February 01, 2008

How Sputnik changed your life

[This isn't exactly the talk I gave at Satellite 1. I've cut out a chunk that was fine before the give-and-take of discussion, but didn't work here. I'll rework that for another post.]

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.


Or going further back, look at the role of the spice trade in the formation of the contemporary capitalist world-system, and the results; the discovery of America, the seizure of India, etc.

It's highly doubtful that spices were coveted for their role in preserving meat, or disguising the taste of rotten meat. If you were poor in that era, you probably couldn't afford meat anyway, and if you were rich you wouldn't have to make do with meat that wasn't fresh. So the spice trade is another example of frivolity's role in history.

Whether it could have played that role in the era of space travel is doubtful, IMV. The structures necessary to put a Sputnik in orbit or a Neil Armstrong on the moon are rather more complex than the sort of kit a Lancashire mill owner could use to make his cotton frocks. Furthermore, you can't run a space programme on child labour.

The Economist magazine ran a short piece a few years back arguing that since private expeditions to Antartica had been more successful (in the Scott-Amundsen era) than public ones (I don't know if they were, but this is what the Economist was claiming) therefore private expeditions to Mars would be more viable than public expeditions. The problem there is that once you consider the differences in scale between a journey to Antartica and a voyage to Mars, the analogy begins to break down. . .

Brilliant post, Ken. The 'new math' bit makes a lot of sense. I don't remember new math being called as such here, but I remember it from Charlie Brown. And a few years ago I was at a friend's house and his daughter had left her maths homework out and I looked at said something like, "Good grief, she's learning Russell and Whitehead!" I thought that was great; my friend thought it was nonsense (the maths and the teaching of it), he was probably right. Nice to see confirmation of that though.

I'm a great believer in private space exploration. I think state funded probes - Pioneer, Voyager, the Messenger mission to Mercury, Hubble and all the other space telescopes have been great successes. Manned missions on the other hand have usually been pointless willy waving. I think commercial motivations would concentrate minds wonderfully: there's no point in going to Mars - a voyage would take too long, an astronauts bones would deteriorate in zero-G and cosmic radiation would be a serious health hazard. Commercial space flight looks like it'll stay in earth orbit, where it might do something worthwhile.

I'm not sure that I agree that cotton frocks are 'frivolous' or that soap is.

Marshall Sahlins has a useful book called 'Culture and Practical Reason' which argues (I'm simplifying for brevity) that choices in economic activity are never merely rational or pragmatic, but are also strongly shaped by cultural factors.

A frock may be a practical item of apparel, but the length of its skirt will be determined by reasons other than mere practicality - and some of those reasons may indeed be 'frivolous'.

"Think of the role of sugar, tea, coffee, cotton, groundnut oil for soap ... serious consequences came from these frivolous demands".

Those might look frivolous now, but they weren't then, not by a long shot. Imported vegetable oil for soap came late (at first it was for industrial lubrication). Cotton beat linen for clothing the working poor hands down, for cost (none of that time consuming retting and so on that had to fit into the agricultural seasonal work). Tea made water safer and cheaper to drink than beer. Sugar boosted a poor diet (there's no such thing as "empty" calories if you're short of calories). You should read up the decoded meaning of "Pop goes the Weasel" sometime; it depicts the daily struggle for existence of the London working poor. "Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle" describes the cheap way of getting calories, getting fed day by day and damn the dietary deficiencies.

And it's not so far removed from us either - once in a while my father would let slip something about his late 1920s/early '30s childhood in a Dundee tenement, with the stairhead gas fittings bent upside down so the gas could be bubbled through milk to infuse carbon monoxide until the milk turned blue and could give a cheap drunk...

I sailed through new maths, by the way - I even got an exhibition to Trinity and read maths at Cambridge. It's just a knack (which you lose young), and if you've got it there's no point working at it unless you want an academic career in it.

The 9/11 of its day, but with more benign policy fallout.

(at least I hope it had—certainly I never heard anyone say if the Vietnamese didn't want to be invaded, they should have thought about that before launching Sputnik!)

Hmmm. I remember the 30th anniversary of the Sputnik launch. Irish radio carried a piece one morning on their equivalent of 'Today' which argued that Sputnik didn't just spark fears in the USA about being overtaken by the USSR, but in particular sparked fears about an apparently superior Soviet military capacity.

Which is not to say that 3.1 million people were killed by the imperialist war machine in Vietnam because of Sputnik, but just that in the context of the Cold War the military and the non-military couldn't really be separated in the final analysis.

The apparent military superiority if the USSR was only apparent, of course. I read once that JFK offered Kruschev a deal about US/SU cooperation in space. Kruschev's son asked him why he didn't accept it, and Kruschev said (reputedly), 'We have nothing to hide. We have nothing, and we must hide it'. Anyone know if there's any truth in that one?

I managed to avoid innumeracy by teaching myself math out of a math review aimed at adults. I was about to start third grade at the time, which would make it 1958. I think New Math came out a few years later, about when I was in junior high school.

Anyway, I worked my way up through simple algebra in third grade (and then my teacher's reaction was, "That's nice. Now work on the multiplication tables with the rest of the class"—as a result of which I became utterly indifferent to grades and schoolwork), and then struggled through differential calculus when I was fifteen or so. It took taking a math degree to show me that I wasn't a mathematician—because I didn't like the kind of abstract thinking that New Math was designed to teach; I liked calculating things.

Kruschev said (reputedly), 'We have nothing to hide. We have nothing, and we must hide it'. Anyone know if there's any truth in that one?

I don't know, but it's very reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's reported conversation with George Galloway, which (according to the latter) went something like

GG: Come on, we're not in public here, you can tell me... why don't you throw the UN inspectors a bone, show them something?
SH: Because we've got nothing to show - it's all been destroyed. No, really, it has. Oh no, not you as well...

The New Maths thing resonates. I'm six years younger than Ken & was sort of half-good at Maths - I got an A at O Level and didn't have to try very hard, but I did have to pick the questions I answered quite carefully. We never did anything calling itself calculus - which has consequently remained a dark mystery to me to this day, and if anyone slightly less innumerate can point me towards an English-language introduction I'd be very grateful - but I do remember being terrified by vector mathematics. On the other hand, I thought sets and topology and matrix algebra were fun, so maybe I was just locally dim.

What I do resent is that they never gave us so much of a hint of what sets and topology and matrix algebra are about, let alone what they're for. Thirty years later, I was picking my way through something about SemWeb reasoners when I was brought up short - wait a minute, did you say nodes?

We never did anything calling itself calculus - which has consequently remained a dark mystery to me to this day, and if anyone slightly less innumerate can point me towards an English-language introduction I'd be very grateful

I first began trying to teach myself calculus out of Serge Lang's A First Course in Calculus, and I was able to find a used copy a few years ago and buy it. It's fairly short and one of the clearest expositions of a mathematical subject that I've seen; when a friend needed some calculus for her MBA a couple of years ago I loaned her my copy. I recommend it, if you can track it down. (Checking on, I find that they have a listing for the 1998 edition.)

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Posting here because it is closest to on-topic...

I'm rather eager to hear your thoughts on the "Spirit of the Lone Eagle" one-way, one-person mission to Mars proposal, if you have any.

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