Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sputnik Plus 50

Archbishop Ussher might have placed the creation of the world, with academic precision, at the evening preceding October 23, 4004 BC, but future generations might have a less speculative date upon which to base their calendars.

Most calendric systems today are built on religious foundations. The most common calendar is Christian in origin, devised at the direction of Pope Gregory XIII; year one is more or less the year of the birth of Christ. (This event is now calculated to about 4 BC, owing much to Archbishop Ussher's research.) The Muslim calendar begins with the hejira in AD 622. The Jewish calendar dates its year one to the creation of the world, and so forth.

If humanity someday decides to replace its religiously- and mythologically-based calendars with something else, it would come as no surprise if "year one" is what we now know as 1957, with year one beginning on October 4.

October 4, 1957, was the date that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth, and thus the beginning of the Space Age -- and the opening of the wider universe to human exploration.

Setting aside the Cold War context of Sputnik's launch -- Khrushchev wanted to demonstrate Moscow's military and technological superiority over the United States, which had its own satellite launch planned for only weeks later -- one can take pride in it as a human achievement.

In George Furth and Stephen Sondheim's musical play, Merrily We Roll Along, a key scene is set in October 1957, with three young people on a New York rooftop, scanning the skies for Sputnik overhead. One of them says to the others, "Too bad it's not ours," and gets the reply, "It belongs to all of us." The scene ("Our Time") is meant to portray the unlimited optimism of a generation, and of those three individuals in particular. (Never mind that they are destroyed by cynicism, infidelity, and substance abuse in the next two decades ....) Despite its militaristic origins, Sputnik represented the sort of horizonlessness that characterized the 1950s and early 1960s.

Within a dozen years, humans walked on the moon. Before the end of the century, manmade objects had traversed the solar system (and are still moving farther away). Satellites have transformed daily life in communications, agriculture, transportation, telemetry, cartography, meteorology, and -- of course -- astronomy.

The Cold War is over. We can simultaneously acknowledge that Sputnik was a propaganda ploy with little intrinsic scientific value and that it was the first step on a millennial journey whose final destination is still unknown.


Steve D. said...

Rick — The Anno Domini system of year counting from Chrit's birth didn't originate with the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century. It was developed by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century, and was in widespread use in Western Europe by the 9th century.

More here:

Rick Sincere said...

I never suggested that the Gregorian calendar originated the A.D. system; I just said it is the most common Western calendar now in use.