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More Science News from 1962

1962 in Science

This week, Roadtrip-'62 ™ takes a break from the road and looks at scientific news from our favorite year of 1962. At a high level, science is often divided into three fields: Formal sciences, Natural sciences, and Social sciences. The Formal sciences include Mathematics, while the Social sciences focus on human behavior. I’m focusing on the Natural sciences, which are the study of natural phenomena throughout the universe. For convenience, I will try to find a couple of important 1962 events in each of the following disciplines of Natural science:

  • Astronomy
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Geology
  • Meteorology
  • Physics
Radio telescope, Green Bank Observatory, West Virginia, 1962
Radio telescope at Green Bank Observatory, West Virginia, in 1962. (Photo from Green Bank Observatory on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.)

The year 1962 saw the first successes in exploration of our solar system using spacecraft. The first solar observatory, OSO, orbited the sun from 350 miles above it and revealed that solar flares contain both low-energy and high-energy X-rays. NASA also sent a Venus probe, Mariner II. This spacecraft confirmed that the Earthy is surrounded by a cloud of micrometeorites or dust. It also studied the atmosphere of Venus. Using a carefully designed flight path, Mariner II passed both the Earthward and Sunward sides of Venus.

In addition to the space probes, two new radio antennae went into service on Earth in 1962. One was at Green Bank, West Virginia and one in Australia. The radio telescope at Green Bank was the largest dish in the world at the time, over 300 feet in diameter. One 1962 discovery was of radio waves emitted by ever more distant galaxies that were not visible by optical telescopes due to their distance and low levels of light versus high levels of radio waves. Sadly, the original telescope collapsed in 1988 due to a damaged gusset plate. A new telescope was constructed on the site and began regular science operations in 2001. The Green Bank location has been the site of radio astronomy telescopes since 1957 and currently houses seven additional telescopes.

Doctor giving measles vaccination to boy, Fernbank School, Atlanta, Georgia, 1962
Doctor giving a measles vaccination to a young boy at Fernbank School in Atlanta, Georgia, 1962 (Public domain photo from Centers for Disease Control / Smith Collection.)

Along with the successful deployment of the Sabin oral polio vaccine in 1962, other discoveries related to viruses were made. Very small viruses called bacteriophages were discovered that contained only RNA, but no DNA. Also, a virus that attacks tobacco plants was synthesized in a laboratory, by assembling the proteins needed to create it. Both of these discoveries were hoped to lead to better virus control in the future. Some viruses that can cause or contribute to cancer were also identified. Their connection to cancer was not yet well defined however, as they can remain dormant for many years before a cancer may emerge.

Technetium sample
Technetium sample (Photo by Albert Fenn, from “Matter”, Life Science Library, 1963.)

Researchers working with the so-called “noble” gasses created two compounds of the element xenon. The “noble” gasses were long thought to be unable to form compounds. However, Dr. Neil Bartlett at the University of British Columbia discovered that the gas platinum hexafluoride oxidized xenon to form xenon hexafluoroplatinate. Soon after, other researchers at Wheaton College and Argonne National Laboratory created the simpler compound of xenon tertrafloride. By 1971, more than 80 xenon compounds were known along with many compounds of the other “noble” gasses.

In other elemental research, the element technetium was discovered in trace amounts in a uranium ore sample from South Africa. It had long been thought to be only manmade and not found in nature. The General Electric Company invented a "direct" process for making diamonds. They were able to create diamonds directly from carbon using a combination of high pressures and temperatures. Other chemical research was more focused on useful products, such as developing new detergents that would be more biodegradable than existing detergents. Real soap was highly biodegradable, but modern detergents in 1962 were not and authorities and the public were becoming concerned about their buildup in the environment and in drinking water sources.


Project Sedan underground nuclear explosion, Nevada 1962


In retrospect, one of the most disturbing ideas in geology was under study in 1962. Nuclear tests were moving from the atmosphere to underground during this year because it was recognized that radioactive fallout in the atmosphere was dangerous worldwide. But the move to underground tests had scientists and engineers considering purposefully using nuclear blasts to excavate on a large scale. They also considered using the blasts to frack rocks to release oil and natural gas, and even consolidate loose soils to provide more stable building sites! Tests and studies for such construction projects were carried out under the name Project Plowshare in the United States and Peaceful Nuclear Explosions in Russia. Project Plowshare began with the Project Gnome test near Carlsbad, New Mexico in December of 1961. The largest test, Project Sedan, was performed at the Atomic Energy Commission's Yucca Flats Nevada Test Site on July 6, 1962. Another 26 tests were carried out between 1962 and 1973 and resulted in design of one project that almost went to the construction stage. Project Chariot would have used several hydrogen bombs to excavate an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska. It was never carried out due to concerns for native populations and little potential use for the harbor to justify the risk and expense.

TIROS VI weather satellite
TIROS VI weather satellite (Public domain photo by NASA / Glenn Research Center.)

The big news in 1962 was the beginning of the use of satellites for meteorological study and observation. Three TIROS satellites were launched that year, supplementing the three launched in 1960-1961. Unfortunately, these early satellites were short lived, with all but one failing within a year of launch. However, they proved the concept of using images from Earth orbit to view the weather and began to make predictions more accurate. They created still pictures stored on tape as they orbited, that were stored and transmitted back to Earth as the satellite approached a ground command point. After transmission, the tape was erased or cleaned and readied for more recording. The photos proved particularly useful for analysis of weather in remote areas, including hurricane analysis, and for decision-making in manned space flights.

TIROS VI weather satellite
Laser retroreflector deployed by Astronaut Buzz Aldrin near the lunar module, 1969. (Public domain photo by NASA.)

Nearly all new discoveries in physics in 1962 were on the subatomic level. For example, two kinds of neutrinos were confirmed, which only raised more theoretical questions about them and their relations to muons and electrons. All are involved in a certain type of radioactive decay known as beta decay, and thus are important to the ability to properly calculate what happens during that decay. Many of the experiments on subatomic particles had been carried out at the University of California at Berkely and the Europen Center for Nuclear Research, but in 1962 a new particle accelerator came online. The Cambridge Electron accelerator, operated by Harvard University and M.I.T. was the first to push electrons up to the multibillion electron volt energy range. One of the projects this machine will work on is as an electron microscope to study the internal structure of atoms.

Laser technology continued to improve in 1962 also, with experiments discovering that harmonics could be produced in laser light, just as they occur with sound. On May 9, in 1962, a red light laser beam was sent through the University of Michigan's 37-inch telescope by a team of scientists from M.I.T. The beam successfully bounced off the Aristarchus crater on the moon, chosen because of the crater’s high reflectivity, similar to white sand. It was the first lunar laser ranging experiment. A permanent laser reflector was later set up on the moon during the Apollo 11 landing at Tranquility Base in 1969.

Labs Septic hypersurface
The Labs Septic, a hypersurface discovered by Oliver Labs (Licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.)

I’ll close with a piece of news on mathematics, which is not usually considered one of the Natural Sciences. John Milnor of Princeton University was awarded the Fields Medal in 1962 for his work in differential topology. The Fields Medal is awarded every four years for outstanding or seminal research in mathematics. We won’t be considering anything as complex as the complex hypersurface above, but join me anyway next time on Roadtrip-'62 ™.


All photos by the author and Copyright © 2022 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2022 - Donald Dale Milne.

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