The genesis of the International Geophysical Year

Fae L. Korsmo in Physics Today:

Screenhunter_02_aug_16_1830In his essay “Six Cautionary Tales for Scientists,” Freeman Dyson warns against “the game of status seeking, organized around committees. It is not that committees are the root of evil, he writes, but that when presented with a choice between incremental, practical solutions and grand schemes that attract attention, committees have every incentive to choose the latter—even if the choice has a high probability of failure. Often the committees present the grand scheme as the only choice, an all-or-nothing proposition.

It is tempting to look back on the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58 as an audacious plan launched by a small committee of prominent scientists—an organized campaign that would involve planes, ships, and rockets. Walter Sullivan’s thorough account of the IGY is called, appropriately, Assault on the Unknown (McGraw-Hill, 1961). Visible legacies of the IGY include the launch of the first artificial Earth-orbiting satellites, the Antarctic Treaty, the World Data Center system, the discovery of the Van Allen belts, and the monitoring of atmospheric carbon dioxide and glacial dynamics. The IGY also led to the establishment of Earth sciences programs in many developing countries. Surely this was a grand scheme in a world that was still recovering from a devastating world war.

Yes and no. The IGY represents the largest set of coordinated experiments and field expeditions to be undertaken during the cold war. East met West, North met South, and all the physical sciences concerned with the atmosphere, continents, and oceans were represented.

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