AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIX , No. 1, Spring 2007


50th Anniversary of International Geophysical Year Commemorated with Meetings and New Research

This year geophysicists are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the premier historical landmark of their field, the International Geophysical Year. The IGY, actually 18 months in 1957-1958, built on a tradition of International Polar Years that were held in 1882-1883 and 1932-1933, but was far more comprehensive. An armada of ships, airplanes and land expeditions took an unprecedented “snapshot” of the planet’s condition. This unique global project is not being repeated today, for global monitoring has become routine. That is due partly to greatly expanded funding of traditional means of observation, and still more to the advent of satellite observations—starting with the Soviet Sputnik, launched under the IGY banner in 1957. For some geophysical topics it is still useful to mount a specially intensive effort over a limited period, and this year a new International Polar Year (IPY) has gotten underway in the arctic regions, while an International Heliospheric Year (IHY) has begun to probe the solar-terrestrial relationship.

In recent years several historians have described how the initial IGY funding was motivated in good part by Cold War “national security” considerations. Governments not only wanted scientific data, but competed for prestige and for information on remote regions where they might someday do battle. The current IPY and IHY are motivated by concerns for “security” in a much larger sense, with special attention to the threat of climate change and in particular global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases. This focus is peculiarly appropriate for 50th Anniversary projects, for it was IGY funding that launched C.D. Keeling’s classic research on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. With two years of measurements in the pristine air of Antarctica, where the US Navy had established a base for IGY research, Keeling demonstrated in 1960 that the level was ominously rising. (The full story may be found on the AIP History Center’s Website at

Historians and geophysicists have been laying plans to commemorate the IGY with meeting sessions and other activities. An “IGY Gold” History initiative aims to identify and recognize participants in the first IGY and preserve memoirs, articles, photographs, and other items of historical significance for the IGY. Some oral history interviews will be conducted, for example, when people gather for meetings.

The American Geophysical Union’s History of Geophysics Committee organized an “all union” session at the AGU’s
December 2006 meeting, “IGY +50: History, Significance, Context.” The history committee plans to organize further sessions for the December 2007 meeting, and hopes to screen several of the original television films on the IGY that WGBH produced in the early 1960s. A main “IGY+50” celebration will be held July 2-4, 2007 in conjunction with the “General Assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics” (IUGG) in Perugia, Italy. Some two dozen historians and IGY veterans will present talks and posters. The 50th Anniversary of the Space Age, commemorating the launching of Sputnik, will be the subject of a conference sponsored by the NASA history
division and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. on October 22-23, 2007 in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary meeting of the
Society for the History of Technology. Also in Washington, on October 31-November 1, 2007 an international meeting of scholars, “Making Science Global: Reconsidering the Social and Intellectual Implications of the International Polar and Geophysical Years” to be held at the Smithsonian Institution.

Anyone aware of other IGY commemorative activities is invited to let us know, and we will post the information on the Web version of this article.

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