Sixty years ago, in October of 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into outer space, becoming the first man-made object to orbit the Earth. Its mission rocked the United States, because it heralded the start of the space era, and it meant our country had not led the way.
The reaction in America was immediate. How could the Soviets have beaten us to space? The outcry that America had to get better at science was instant.
I was eight years old. Boys got matching cap pistols for Christmas at that age. But Christmas of 1957 saw something else take center stage: science. I got my cap pistols that year, but I also got a science kit. For the next several years I would be getting science oriented presents for Christmas.
One year I got a telescope. Looking through it at the moon was a whole new experience. Pulling out the Encyclopedia Americana's Science Books and studying photos and maps of the moon became part of a new wrinkle in education. There were pages and pages of color transparencies of our solar system. There were comparisons of size of planets and the sun. Contemplating the size of the Sun and Jupiter compared to Earth was mind-bending.
Learning about the positions of the stars and the learning the various constellations in our night sky was the beginning of knowing the size and grandeur of the universe.
One year I got an electric kit for Christmas. With it I built a motorized miniature car that used a battery for power. I built a functioning miniature traffic light. There were other things I created with it, but my functioning AM radio was the biggest success. With it I could dial up the local AM station and listen to music, faint though it was.
Another year I got a chemistry kit for Christmas. It contained a wide variety of chemicals in little glass jars, and instructions for scientific experiments using them. To think that grade school boys in the late 1950s had these kits is a little amazing. Every boy worth his salt had a small glass bottle of mercury, which he often carried in his pocket. Dimes were plentiful in those days, and they were pure silver. Rubbing a tiny amount of mercury on a dime made it shine with a sheen incomparable. Of course, we used no precautions whatsoever. If mercury is bad for you, there's a legion of guys my age who never knew that.
Sometimes I worry about childhood development changing from experimenting with life, with sciences, with things one builds or takes apart, and being replaced with things that turn on, reveal a TV screen, and then have on-screen figures and things which interact. If the user is active, it is operating buttons which make the figures on the screen interact with one another. Is watching TV figures engage in action the same as being active oneself? I don't really think so.
Science challenges the mind to think, to ponder things known and things unknown. It helps us understand cause and effect. It familiarizes us with the elements of the world we live in. It helps us comprehend atoms and their parts, molecules and their construction, and how atoms and molecules are the building blocks of our entire world.
Science enlightens us, helps us visualize things we cannot readily see, such as the biology of humans and the biology of animals. Breaking life down to its most basic components and understanding the one cell animals to the most complex organisms is one gigantic thing science accomplishes.
Without science, we really have little understanding of this world, this life, this body we live in, the effect on this world of human created conditions. The drive for better science in America was lit in 1957 when a Soviet satellite circled the globe for ninety days, and science presents became standard gifts for Christmas. Maybe it needs another boost.
Copyright 2017, Jim "Pappy" Moore, all rights reserved.