The 1960s Science and Technology: Topics in the News

views updated

The 1960s Science and Technology: Topics in the News



Archeologists and anthropologists have always had difficulty determining the age of rocks, pottery, tools, weapons, and other artifacts of earlier time periods. Two new techniques for accomplishing this emerged during the 1960s. Thermo-luminescence, used to date rocks and pottery as far back as 1,000 years, measures the radioactive elements found in the artifact. This may be achieved when the rock or pot is heated to about 350 degrees Celsius. The other technique employs obsidian: a hard, volcanic rock formed when lava cools. Gray, black, or semitransparent in color, obsidian was scraped and shaped into tools and weapons. Water that touches the surface of obsidian gradually seeps down through the material. As a result, old obsidian has an outer rind that contains water, while its inner parts remain dry. The thickness of this rind can be measured accurately under a microscope. The thicker the rind, the longer it has been since it was made into a tool.

In 1959, British archeologist and anthropologist Louis S. B. Leaky (1903–1972) and his wife Mary (1913–1996) found what Louis claimed was the five-million-year-old "missing link" (an early human ancestor from which evolved one line of apes and another set of descendents which evolved into present-day humans). Their discovery was made in the Olduvai Gorge, an archeological site located in north Tanganyika (now Tanzania). The "link" was a skeleton called the Zinjanthropus, which the Leakeys nicknamed "Zinj."

While this discovery propelled the Leakeys to international fame, many in the archeology and anthropology community doubted Leakeys' claim because "Zinj" seemed so unhuman. Furthermore, during the decade, an even earlier ancestor was found during an expedition sponsored by Yale University's Peabody Museum. Those on the expedition explored the Fayum desert in Egypt, an area that includes ancient lava flows. As wind and rain eroded the lava, various remains were exposed. One of them was the era's most dramatic find: a small, almost-intact skull that belonged to an early ape ancestor named Aegyptopithecus. The skull was found to be between 26 million and 28 million years old.

Then in 1968, the oldest-known amino acids (organic compounds that are the units of structure in proteins) were found in a rock formation located near Barberton, South Africa. The rocks were dated as being 3.1 billon years old, and were the oldest discovered to date. They contained what appeared to be fossils (remains of plants or animals that have been preserved in Earth's crust) of algae and bacteria, some of the earliest forms of life.


In 1964, a radio dish located at Arecibo in Puerto Rico first was used to bounce radio waves off planets in the solar system and detect their return to Earth. This process allowed astronomers to more accurately measure the space between planets and the number of Earth's orbits around the Sun. Meanwhile, three groups of astronomers separately mapped the planet Venus, whose surface cannot be seen by ordinary telescopes because it is covered by clouds. Mountains were discovered on Venus, and the planet's rotation was calculated.

Detectors of infrared rays (which are invisible, and located just beyond the red of the visible spectrum) were used in astronomy during the decade. Infrared astronomy is best accomplished by using high-altitude balloons rather than rockets. The first major infrared astronomical expedition was a manned balloon mission launched by the U.S. Navy in 1959. The infrared telescope was pointed at Venus, but the balloon's design and movement caused by the crewmembers inside it made the mission's results unreliable. In 1961, the U.S. Air Force took over the experiments and switched to unmanned balloons. Two years later, Martin Schwarzchild (1912–1997) of Princeton University launched an unmanned balloon which detected water vapor around Mars. In 1964, an air force-launched balloon uncovered water vapor around Venus.

One of the major astronomy-related discoveries was the quasar (or quasi-stellar object). Quasars are among the most distant objects visible from Earth, and have the energy level of more than one hundred large galaxies. The first identified quasar was 3C-48. (The "3C" stands for Third Cambridge Catalog of Radio Sources, a catalog used by radio astronomers.) Its existence initially was reported in 1960, and astronomers spent the ensuing years identifying its properties. One of those who extensively studied quasars was Margaret Burbridge (1919–) of the University of California, San Diego. She concluded that quasars are galaxies that have passed through each other. Material falls to the center of the quasar where a black hole (a perfect vacuum in space) is located. The black hole sucks everything around it into itself, even light.

Perhaps the most important astronomy-related advancement during the decade was the development of "very long baseline interferometry" (or VLBI), a technique that allowed for the expanded observation of outer space. VLBI was developed in Australia, and came to be used by astronomers around the world. The Australians worked out a mathematical formula that, when applied, allowed astronomers to document signals detected by many radio telescopes, separated from each other by a distance as large as Earth's diameter. These telescopes were linked together to form an enormous antenna. The first practical VLBI system was used at Cambridge University in England in 1960.

Other important events in the world of astronomy included the discovery in outer space of cosmic events called masers (which stands for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation"), in which narrow but powerful beams of light are emitted; the discovery of pulsars (radio-wave sources with on-off cycles that originate in outer space); and the 1962 launching of the first X-ray detector (a highly sensitive telescope) used in astronomy, from an air force Aerobee rocket. Finally, the early 1960s saw the beginning of an ambitious and potentially far-reaching astronomy-related undertaking: Project Ozma, the first modern-day search for other worlds with intelligent life. Project Ozma was named after a princess in the land of Oz, a fantasy world created by children's book author L. Frank Baum (1856–1919). It was carried out by Frank Drake (1930–), working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Employing an 85-foot radio, one of the largest of its time, Drake sent and listened for radio wave messages, hoping to make contact with extraterrestrials. The radio was directed to outer space six hours a day, seven days a week. No life from other worlds was found in Project Ozma.


During the 1960s, great strides were made in the fields of biochemistry and genetics. By the end of the decade, the first gene was isolated. Genes are the basis of heredity and are carried by DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). The genetic code had been broken earlier in the decade, so scientists understood how DNA worked. However, the process for isolating genes proved elusive. Jonathan Beckwith (1935–), a biochemist at Harvard University, solved the problem by using two simple viruses, from which he removed the protein shells and heated their DNA. Then he mixed the two together and slowly cooled them. During this process, the DNA from one virus attached itself to the complementary DNA from the other in the only place they fit: the lac gene. Beckwith chemically removed the excess, leaving copies of the complete lac gene intact.

"Primordial soup" was the chemical mixture thought to represent the atmosphere of the early Earth. It was a chemically rich blend, composed of ammonia, hydrogen, methane gas, and water vapor, that was not conducive to living things. Before the 1960s, scientists had begun to illustrate how primordial soup could produce the types of chemicals from which life is made. They continued experimenting with the mixture during the decade. Among their results: a dimer (a combination of two similar chemicals) was formed under primitive Earth conditions; ribonucleic acid, or RNA (a chemical found in cells that plays a role in the flow of genetic information), was formed in a test tube; and amino acids (organic compounds that serve as building blocks in proteins and are crucial to human metabolism) were formed in primordial soup.

During the decade, scientists also began studying how dolphins communicate with one another. Dolphins are mammals that breathe with lungs, nurse their young, and have extremely complex brains. Neurophysicist John C. Lilly (1915–2001) implanted electrodes in the brains of thirty dolphins. By stimulating the electrodes, he discovered a "pleasure center" that caused the dolphins to have wide eyes and look as if they are smiling.

The Big Bang, and the Origin of the Universe

The "big bang" theory is the foremost science-based speculation explaining the origin of the universe. According to the theory, all the elements of the universe came into being between 10 billion and 20 billion years ago as the result of a gigantic cosmic explosion (or "big bang") that flung matter in all directions. The theory was put forward to explain why faraway galaxies are traveling away from Earth at enormous speeds. In addition, after the "bang," leftover energy remained present in outer space.

In 1961, the world's most sensitive radio telescope was employed to send and receive signals from the Echo satellite. During this process, astronomers noted a strange electronic noise emanating from the satellite. They eventually concluded that the noise originated in outer space, and was caused by energy that remained from the "big bang." While this was the first solid evidence in support of the "big bang" theory, and the premise is widely accepted, it generally is acknowledged that the theory never can be proved conclusively.

In another experiment, Lilly placed a partially paralyzed dolphin in a pool with other dolphins. In order to live, the injured mammal had to swim to the surface to breathe; however, he was incapable of doing so on his own. Lilly observed that the other dolphins learned of his distress by communicating with each other in frequencies above the range of human hearing. Having done so, they helped the injured dolphin reach and stay at the surface. Lilly taped their "talking." When he played it back, at one-quarter speed, he could hear the "mayday" call given by the stricken dolphin. When Lilly played the tape back to the other dolphins, they reacted to the call.


At the beginning of the 1960s, computers were expensive and difficult to operate. For this reason, most were situated in a central location of a company or institution to provide information or processing services to multiple clients on a rotating basis. Only highly trained programmers could operate them.

Early in the decade, John Kemeny (1926–1992) and Thomas Kurtz (1928–) of Dartmouth College decided to create a student-friendly computer system that would allow all scholars—not just engineering, mathematics, and physics graduate students—access to computers. First, they devised what became known as the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS), which permitted a single computer to simultaneously serve many users. Then they wrote the Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (more commonly known as BASIC), a revolutionary, easy-to-understand computer programming language that would become the most commonly used in the world. BASIC had only fourteen command structures to learn. Within two hours, students being trained in BASIC were programming computers. By 1968, 80 percent of Dartmouth students, most of whom were not math or science majors, were programming computers. Kemeny and Kurtz continued to improve BASIC, always keeping it simple to use.

The integrated computer circuit was another innovation that created an electronics revolution. Previously, circuit boards that ran electronic devices had to be large enough to hold such components as resistors, capacitors, and vacuum tubes. The size of circuit boards was first reduced in the 1950s when vacuum tubes were replaced by transistors (small, durable electronic devices used for sound amplification and switching). Then came the development of the semiconductor (an electronics device made from such semiconductor materials as silicon and germanium, whose electrical properties lie between those of conductors and insulators). The small size of the semiconductor allowed for the incorporation of literally hundreds of thousands of individual components onto a single one-inch-square silicon wafer. Computers that once were the size of small bedrooms were reduced to the dimensions of a television set.

Integrated computer circuits first were used by the military. Before the decade ended, they were being employed in the production of such consumer products as television sets and radios.


Inside Earth is a giant source of heat called geothermal power, which can be employed to operate electrical generators. One of the first geothermal power units was constructed in Larderello, Italy, in the early 1900s. Because of the expense involved in reaching the heat source and carrying it to the surface in usable form, no such plants were built in the United States until the early 1960s. At that time, a pipeline system began shipping 265,000 pounds of steam per hour from the valley of Big Sulphur Creek, located 70 miles north of San Francisco, to an electricity-producing generator constructed by Pacific Gas and Electric. The pipelines carried steam at pressures of one hundred pounds per square inch and temperatures of 348 degrees Fahrenheit. It has been estimated that the geysers located in the valley can continue to supply power at this rate for 11,000 years.

Not all the earth-science-related news during the decade was as positive as the developments in Big Sulphur Creek. In 1964, climatologists Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, developed a computer model of the atmosphere. Their goal was to predict how water vapor and carbon dioxide (which is produced by burning carbon fuel) would affect the climate. Their results, which they published in 1967, came to be known as the greenhouse effect, more commonly known today as global warming. Manabe and Wetherald calculated that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gradually would warm Earth's surface, resulting in massive global climate changes. This increase is directly linked to the burning of man-made fuels.


While the exploration of outer space earned the bulk of publicity during the 1960s, great strides were made in the area of oceanography, the subdivision of geography that deals with the depths of the ocean.

Earth is composed of three layers: the outer crust, the mantle, and the core. In 1960, oceanographer Harry H. Hess (1906–1969) published his theory that the ocean's floor gradually was widening. Hess's premise was tested when a hole was drilled in the seafloor in order to pierce the Mohorovicic Discontinuity (or "Moho"), the border between the crust and mantle. The resulting hole, drilled six miles into the ocean floor, was called a "Mohole." Samples of rock taken from the "Mohole" gave indirect proof of seafloor spreading, as well as evidence of locations for oil beneath the sea. This work continued through the decade and was aided immeasurably by the introduction of a technical wonder: the Glomar Challenger, a $12.6 million doughnut-shaped ship that could drill in water 20,000 feet deep and drill up to 2,500 feet beneath the ocean floor.

The beginning of the decade saw the Trieste, a bathyscaphe (manned vehicle designed to be submerged into deep seas), dive 37,000 feet deep into the Mariana Trench of the Pacific Ocean. The dive took four hours and forty-eight minutes, during which one-half hour was spent at the ocean's bottom. At this location, the bathyscaphe's hull withstood pressures of over 17,000 pounds per square inch. It was here that the crew was surprised to find forms of life where none had been thought possible, including a flat fish and several small shrimp.

Oceanic exploration in the 1960s also included several Sealab projects. Sealabs were underwater experimental chambers that were equipped for scientific study. Some scientists believed that people could live and work underwater for extended periods of time, and the Sealab project was an attempt to find out what problems such conditions would pose.

Sealab I submerged off Bermuda, a warm ocean area, in 1964. Four people stayed down for nine days at 192 feet. The next step was to experiment in a colder underwater region. For this purpose, Sealab II was employed. Sealab II was a 12-by-57 foot cylinder, and was made of steel. It contained life support and scientific research equipment, and was attached to its support barge on the surface by an "umbilical" cable, which also allowed closed-circuit telephone and television communications with the support barge. Supplies were lowered to Sealab II in pressurized containers. Three teams each spent fifteen days in the lab during the summer of 1965, living and working on the ocean floor off the coast of La Jolla, California. Former astronaut Scott Carpenter (1925–), leader of two of the missions, remained in Sealab II for a record thirty days. Because the craft rested at an angle during one of the missions, it won the nickname "The Tiltin' Hilton."

The Sealab II craft was lowered to a depth of 204 feet. Testing continued in Sealab III, which in 1969 plunged to depths of up to 600 feet off San Clemente Island, California. The mission of Sealab III was to test a system that would let divers exit a submarine, walk on the ocean floor, and retrieve objects. One diver died during a test, which effectively ended the Sealab project.


The development and marketing of the birth control pill during the 1960s allowed women unprecedented control over their sexual behavior. Taken daily, birth control pills prevent the release of a fertilized egg from a

woman's ovaries, thus making it unlikely for her to become pregnant. Twelve different varieties of birth control pills were available, and women took them with increasing frequency. The first, Enovid, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960. It was marketed by the Searle Pharmaceutical Company. By the end of 1961, 400,000 women were using Enovid; nearly 1.2 million were doing so a year later, and the number rose to 2.3 million by the end of 1963. In 1967, Time magazine reported that almost 20 percent of all American women who could conceive were using one form or another of oral contraception.

The availability of the pill raised a number of moral and health-related issues. In terms of health concerns, for example, the long-term effects of using birth control pills were unknown. Additionally, some critics argued that easy access to birth control was the same as condoning liberal sexual behavior. The nation's clergy were among the more vocal opponents of oral contraception. Catholic and Protestant leaders agreed that "there must be limitations and restrictions on the use of sex if we are to remain a civilized people." The concerns of clergy leaders did not necessarily affect the choices of women in their congregations, however. Reports during the decade showed that 20 percent of practicing Catholic women and nearly 30 percent of Protestant women had used the pill.


Probably the most well-known science story of the decade was the exploration of a "new frontier": space. As the decade began, a series of manned spacecraft orbited around Earth after being launched into space. Some of these forays were made by the United States, while others were achieved by the Soviet Union. Competition between the two superpowers to blast men into space and explore, and perhaps control the heavens was motivated by the cold war (the political, social, and economic battle between democracy and communism) then being waged between the two nations.

The United States named its first manned space flight program Project Mercury. Its space travelers were called astronauts. The initial Soviet program was named Project Vostok. Russian space travelers were called cosmonauts. The journeys into space by astronauts and cosmonauts alike were the decade's most highly publicized science and technology-related achievements.

In a January 1961 Project Mercury test flight, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched into space a capsule containing a chimpanzee. The capsule traveled 5,000 miles per hour (mph), topping out at a height of 155 miles. Afterwards, the chimp was successfully recovered. However, the Russians one-upped the Americans by sending the first man into space. He was Yuri A. Gagarin (1934–1968), a cosmonaut who won the nickname "Columbus of the Cosmos." In April 1961, Gagarin was launched in the Vostok 1 space vehicle. He reached a maximum altitude of 203 miles above Earth, and orbited the planet once during his 108-minute flight. "I see earth. It's so beautiful," were Gagarin's first words spoken from space. The success of his flight proved that a human being could withstand the rigors of liftoff from Earth, weightlessness while in space, and reentry back to Earth while still performing the manual operations necessary to spaceflight. Despite the competitive nature of space exploration, Gagarin later observed, "Circling the earth in the orbital spaceship, I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world! Let us safeguard and enhance this beauty—not destroy it." Gagarin died in an air mishap in March 1968 while test-piloting a Russian MIG-15 jet.

A month after Gagarin's flight, U.S. Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard Jr. (1923–1998) became the first American in space. He was launched into space in his Project Mercury capsule Freedom 7. Shepard's journey lasted all of 15 minutes and 28 seconds, during which he partially orbited Earth. He reached a maximum of 116 miles above Earth, and his top speed was 5,180 miles per hour.

The next human to soar into space was an American, Virgil "Gus" Grissom (1926–1967), whose journey came two month after Shepard's. Grissom's flight demonstrated the dangers of early space travel. Unlike the Soviets, who set down their craft on solid ground, Americans landed theirs in the ocean and recovered the astronaut and space capsule by ship. After his 15 minute and 37 second suborbital flight, the escape hatch of Grissom's spaceship, the Liberty Bell 7, prematurely blew open. The ship filled with water and sank, and Grissom had to swim to his rescuers.

Kennedy's Message

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), then in office for four months, delivered a "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs." In Kennedy's view, those "needs" involved the ability of the United States to keep pace with the Soviet Union in the then-escalating space race.

In this message, Kennedy declared, "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.…"

In August 1961, cosmonaut Gherman S. Titov (1935–2000) became the first person to spend an entire day in space. His ship, Vostok 2, remained in space for 25 hours and 18 minutes, and orbited Earth seventeen times. The Soviets claimed that Titov felt fine after his flight. Later it became known that he was the first person to suffer from space sickness caused by the effects of weightlessness on the delicate balancing mechanisms of the inner ear. In February 1962, John H. Glenn Jr. (1921–) became the first American to orbit Earth. During its 4-hour, 55-minute flight, Glenn's spaceship, Friendship 7, made three orbits of Earth.

All told, between 1961 and 1963, six Americans were blasted into space as part of Project Mercury. In 1961 and 1962, an equal number of Russians participated in the Project Vostok launches. The cosmonaut who flew the sixth and final flight, in June 1962, was also the first woman in space: Valentina V. Tereshkova (1937–). Despite suffering from severe space sickness, she was kept in orbit for almost three days.

In March 1965, the United States' space program began Project Gemini, the Project Mercury follow-up. Named after the "twins" sign in astrology, Project Gemini involved putting two astronauts in space at the same time. It was during the various Project Gemini missions that the Americans started to pull ahead of the Soviets in the space race. Edward H. White (1930–1967), one of the astronauts on board Gemini 4, launched in June 1965, became the first American to walk in space. The mission of Gemini 7, launched in December 1965, was space endurance. It remained in the skies for 13 days, 18 hours, and 35 minutes.

In 1967, the Soviets and the Americans both started new projects with the same goal: to land human beings on the moon. The Americans initiated Project Apollo, while the Russians began Project Soyuz. In October 1968, Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo flight, began a 10-day, 20-hour mission. The highlight of the Apollo program and the culmination of America's space exploration during the decade was the first lunar landing, accomplished by Apollo 11. Takeoff was on July 16, 1969. On board were astronauts Neil A. Armstrong (1930–), Michael Collins (1930–), and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (1930–). The command module was named Columbia, and the lunar module was called Eagle. The two separated during lunar orbit, with Collins aboard the Columbia and Armstrong and Aldrin aboard the Eagle. At 9:18 P.M. on July 20, Americans reached the moon. Armstrong announced the arrival by declaring, "The Eagle has landed." Four hours later, he and Aldrin donned space suits. Armstrong was the first to come out of the module. On touching the moon's surface, he declared, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It was estimated that one-third of the world's population watched the event live on television.

The Apollo program also led to the first astronaut deaths of the U.S. space program. On January 27, 1967, Virgil "Gus" Grissom (1926–1967), Edward H. White (1930–1967) and Roger Chaffee (1935–1967) were conducting

a test in anticipation of the first three-person space flight. An electrical fire trapped the three astronauts inside the first Apollo/Saturn capsule while it was still on the launch pad. In the aftermath, the capsule's safety features were overhauled and significant changes were made in its construction and escape mechanisms. As the Apollo project progressed, the ill-fated mission was designated Apollo 1, in recognition of the crew members who lost their lives.

About this article

The 1960s Science and Technology: Topics in the News

Updated About content Print Article


The 1960s Science and Technology: Topics in the News