The 1950s—A Burgeoning Era of Geophysics
Of all the decades during the past half-century, the 1950s may have been the closest to providing a steady-state condition for the pursuit of geophysics. Economic conditions stabilized throughout the world. The European Economic Community was formed in 1957. Japan aggressively rebuilt its domestic economy. The Soviet Union underwent a period of de-Stalinization. The United States, under the benign leadership of General Dwight Eisenhower as president, had an average inflation rate of about one percent per year between 1953 and 1960. Crude oil, whose price had jumped from $1.81 a barrel in 1947 to $2.76 a barrel later that year once price controls came off, was priced at $3.11 a barrel in 1954, a charge that stayed roughly the same for the remainder of the decade. At this price level, the United States had enough surplus oil-producing capacity to fill Europe’s basic needs during a boycott by Middle East producers in 1956–1957, following attacks by Great Britain, France, and Israel on Egypt in October 1956. As for the geophysical industry, it opened the decade doing about $200 million a year in business and built up to an all-time global peak (non-Communist block) of 1040 seismograph crews working throughout the world during 1952.
But the geophysical highlight of the decade was the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), mankind’s most comprehensive international scientific undertaking, which featured the Soviet Union launching the first two space satellites, Sputniks I and II, in the latter part of 1957. Despite the good feelings rampant within the international
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Scientists have long been trained to build on the successes or failures of their predecessors, their teachers, and their fellows largely through scientific associations and their publications. Such societies range from small, local ones to huge organizations with membership drawn from over 100 countries. The oldest and most prestigious for geophysicists is the Royal Society, given both its name and charter by Britain’s King Charles II back in 1660. The Royal Astronomical Society, chartered in 1820, has also had a marked interest in geophysical matters, even to the extent of publishing a Geophysical Journal, because the earth is very much a part of the planetary system. Within the United States, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was started as an ally of government at the initiative of President Abraham Lincoln who asked the scientific community in 1863 for technical assistance with the war effort. Geophysical societies per se did not appear until the early 1900s. As a result of the great San Francisco earthquake, the Seismological Society of America (SSA) was formed in 1906. The International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) came into being in 1911, while its U.S. interface, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), was finally organized in 1919. The field of exploration geophysics lagged even further, with the Society of Exploration Geophysicists not being incorporated until 1930.
Long before the advent of scientific societies, perceptive men had been contending with the physical forces of nature. Aristotle (384–322 BC) compiled the first known geophysical treatise, the Meteorologica, less than half of which pertained to weather matters—the remainder dealt with oceanography, astronomy, and meteors (also called shooting stars). Formal seismic instrumentation appeared as early as A.D. 132 when Chang Heng set up a seismoscope in China that not only indicated that an earthquake had occurred but also the direction of the first motion. However, man’s formal knowledge of the physics of the earth did not change much from the time of Aristotle until late in the European Renaissance, when the fertile mind of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) initiated new thinking on this subject, as he did in so many others. Early in the 16th century, he studied, for example, the tides of the Euxine (Black) and Caspian Seas, as well as the mechanics and inherent dangers of rock slippage along a geological fault near Florence, Italy. He also deduced that Alpine rocks were at one time submerged for he found embedded sea shell fossils.