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Friday, October 5, 2007

Spootnyk Or Sputnik

It's been fifty years since The Soviet Union launched the first earth orbiting artificial satellite, Sputnik. I was right in the space race sweet spot of eleven, going on twelve year old male. Sputnik had it all. It was hardware. It was in outer space. It made strange, incomprehensible noise. It was a surprise. It came from a strange exotic alien culture. It involved rockets. You could actually see it, if you knew where and when to look. I think I can speak for twelve year olds of 1957 everywhere when I say "COOL".

Looking back, of course the little basketball-ish sized polished aluminum sphere with curiously swept back antennas was a publicity stunt. It was an engineering feat to be sure, but science? Meh. Not so much.

The truth is that "rocket science" (as in engineering) isn't really "rocket science" (in the vernacular form). To be sure, scientists do use rockets and space hardware for their own ends, and the designers of rockets do use scientific theory in their design. Science and engineering walk hand in hand, but it can be a rocky marriage. Engineers like facts, scientists like questions. They both need data, and that's where they meet.

Seed Magazine has "Science Is Culture" for their tag-line. I couldn't say it better. Even with mistakes and false starts, science is the vehicle that drives human progress, and defines Western culture. Abuse of science can be a truly horrible thing, but science is materially neutral. The knowledge that made the fusion bomb also makes all modern electronics feasible. Science always runs the risk of telling you things you don't want to hear. Science can be used in the short term to validate conclusions that people want validated. Witnesseth "tobacco company science". Science has the imperative to correct itself. Once again we can look at the ultimate science of tobacco use.

America is challenged on all fronts today for scientific primacy. Our science and engineering grad schools are financed by off shore student bodies, while native Americans gravitate to the more lucrative educations in business degrees. Luckily many of those foreign born doctoral candidates have come to like the American lifestyle and freedom to explore science, and become citizens.

Fifty years on, Sputnik still means a lot to me. The Soviets didn't know what they were starting, but they made the modern West possible.

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