Elder looking back – the Armstrong years


News of the recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, was a release mechanism for a lot of pent-up memories. Like me, Neil was born in the decade leading up to the Second World War. The “Silent Generation” was one label applied to people born in that era, and was apparently coined by Time magazine, who described us as ”grave and fatalistic, conventional, possessing confused morals, and expecting disappointment but desiring faith”. Hardly an accurate description of Neil Armstrong. I too would certainly not want to lay claim to any of it, except maybe for the “fatalistic” and “expecting disappointment” bits.

I can recall exactly where I was at 17 minutes and 39 seconds past 1 p.m. PST on Sunday 20 July 1969 when the Eagle touched down on the moon – 25 kilometres south of Hebo, Oregon. I was an impoverished grad student in a clapped-out Ford making my first-ever visit to the Pacific Northwest. National Public Radio was broadcasting the landing live, and I decided on safety first for my long-suffering wife and two small kids, rather than trying to listen to the radio and simultaneously negotiate the tight curves on the forest highway. The kids lost interest and wandered off to watch the chipmunks, and I was left sitting and marvelling at the historic moment and somewhat in awe of American prowess in science and space technology.

Curiosity-Rover-Safely-Lands-on-MarsI still am. Looking at the latest imagery coming from Curiosity on Mars, one has to marvel at the intellectual power that can design and send an unmanned craft 560 million kilometers from earth to Mars and land it safely while retaining full operational capability. And then I wonder why the same intellectual power gets shelved when my American friends turn their attention to other things, like building automobiles, managing their vast wealth, managing their own environment, or winning wars.

During my grad days in the U.S. of A., that country was in the process of losing a war in Vietnam. They subsequently went on to lose one in Iraq, and are now pretty busy losing yet another in Afghanistan. It was a naturalized American – Albert Einstein – who famously said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I don’t think Einstein was thinking of war in that context, but it’s obvious the Americans aren’t very good at it.

v17_10210227Not that there wasn’t great protest to the Vietnam War in the decade when Neil Armstrong made his historic flight to the moon. University campuses were humming with marches, speeches and placard carriers. Except in Utah where I was – trust me to wind up in the most conservative state of the union. But we did get the benefit of the musical spin-offs from the protest movement. There will never be another Pete Seeger or another Joan Baez.

effluentIn my tiny cubicle in the grad student room I had a poster pinned to the wall “The Effluent Society”. It showed a huge factory spewing out huge quantities of luridly coloured smoke and murky fluids. The title was a take-off on the famous 1958 book by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. All the grad students had similar posters on their walls, except for Smith who had a Playboy bunny.

Which reminds me (the effluents that is, not the bunny) that the sixties were when environmental impact assessment first became policy in the U.S. The man who signed the National Environmental Policy Act was, of all people, President Richard Nixon, one of the most conservative of latter day presidents. At the signing ceremony he said “A major goal for the next 10 years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air and the water, and that means moving also on the broader problems of population congestion, transport and the like. Congress has acted very commendably in setting up the Environmental Council by this bill, and we already have an environmental courichard-nixon4ncil within the administration. A great deal more needs to be done There are many areas where you can work, maybe this year or 5 years or 10 years from now. But this is an area where we have to do it now. We may never have a chance later. That is the way I feel.” I can only conclude that the definition of conservative has changed radically since then!

HAL-9000We thought we were living in exciting times back in the Armstrong  years. We had no idea. We had never contemplated the possibility of climate change, we had no inkling of the coming internet, laptop computers were at least two decades down the road. When Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was released we were awed by the concepts and the story, but credibility? I was carrying my thesis data around in boxes containing hundreds and hundreds of Hollerith cards, and here was Kubrick depicting a master computer which spoke, reasoned and listened (although not too well). Phooey.

And there is precisely the problem we elders have today. Most of what Kubrick showed us back then was to become factual down the road, but we would never have believed it. The best I can do in the prognostication business is to state that technologically, the sky is indeed the limit. We will explore the universe, one way or another. We will employ technology to achieve amazing things in medicine, science, energy and computing. But we will continue to founder within our own societies, our own communities, and with one another. As far as social science is concerned, we’ll just have to take it one day at a time, and deal with it the best we can.

[Originally posted September 12, 2012 by Stan Hirst]

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