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Fifty-year-old science booklet waxes eloquent
By Ned Rozell


February 23, 2008

In 1958, Paul Newman married Joanne Woodward, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Ted Williams signed with the Red Sox for $135,000, Alaska became the 49th state, and Frank Zappa graduated from a California high school.

jpg polar year

One of the six posters produced by a New York company for the National Academy of Sciences in 1958 to mark the last International Polar Year, also known as the International Geophysical Year. Courtesy The National Academies.

Fifty years ago also marked the last time scientists got together all over the world for what they called an International Polar Year. As part of that effort, a renaissance man named Hugh Odishaw, who studied English literature, math, and electrical engineering, helped put together a booklet that accompanied six National Academy of Sciences posters designed to excite people about science. He did this task with enthusiasm for the International Polar Year, an event he thought was "the single most significant peaceful activity of mankind since the Renaissance and the Copernican Revolution."

I saw the booklet at a science conference and started browsing it. As someone on the lookout for science stuff that's simplified but not too dumbed-down, I appreciated Odishaw and his partners' effort 50 years ago. Here are a few excerpts from the hard-to-find "Planet Earth; the Mystery with 100,000 Clues."

  • "As early as 1673, man developed the theory that as the earth spins, centrifugal force causes the equator to bulge and the poles to flatten. . . Because the flattened poles are about 13 miles closer to the center of the earth, the pull of gravity is stronger there. In fact, a 200-pound man (at the equator) would weigh about 201 pounds at the poles."
  • Earth has daily tides, something like those in the oceans but much less noticeable. Still, the island of Hawaii, for example, rises and falls several inches a day."
  • "The freezing waters of the Antarctic are by far the richest in sea life, while many of our tropical waters are relatively sparse."
  • "The South Pole receives more sunlight than any place on Earth during December, its midsummer. But almost all of it is reflected back into the atmosphere. This is why there is very little melting."
  • "The word 'moving' is the key to an understanding of weather. No property of the atmosphere is more important than its motion. Winds distribute heat from the tropics to other areas, carry moisture from the oceans over the continents where it falls as rain, push polluted air out of the cities and bring in clean air to replace it. If our atmosphere stopped moving, the tropics would become intolerably hot and the rest of the planet unbearably cold. The rainless continents would become dust; the cities would suffocate in their own fumes."
  • "All the world's winds would stop were their energy not continually renewed by a most powerful generator-the sun. By heating the air and evaporating the water, it keeps our atmosphere moving."
  • "As this furious (hydrogen reaction) process goes on, the sun's loss of weight is estimated at over four million tons a second. Yet it may maintain its temperature for another 35 billion years without noticeable loss."
  • "The earth is a small target for the sun's radiations. Only a half a billionth part of the total solar radiation strikes the earth. Yet this is enough to keep our planet comfortably above the absolute zero temperatures in space, to power the circulation of our atmosphere and oceans, and to sustain life."
  • "Our industrial civilization has been pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a great rate. By the year 2000 we will have added about 70 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If it remained, it would have a very marked warming effect on the earth's climate, but most of it will probably be absorbed by the oceans. Conceivably, however, it could cause significant melting of the great icecaps and raise sea levels in time."


This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.


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