The Sputnik launch 20 years ago today shook the free world. It set millions of awed citizens gawking into the night sky, millions of American schoolchildren scurrying off to the miseries of intensified science and math courses. But Sputnik's clever little beeps brought me, secret sci-fi addict, out of the closet to bask in the unalloyed admiration of those around me to whom I magnaniously explained . . .
Ever since I couldn't find the spinal column of a crayfish in junior high school (Alice Deal) the very idea of a lab science paralyzed me beyond measure. When I went to college (a very, very long time ago), I discovered that with a little finagling on the part of a sympathetic adviser (a political scientist) I could fix my schedule so that virtually all the science credits I needed to graduate could be gotten in the psychology department.
No labs. Things like "psychology of music." "psychology of art." There was one close call - something called "social and political aspects of economic geology" - no lab, but the final required a diagram of a Bessemer Converter, Whew.
There was a time once - I was about 7, and my father was pointing out constellations - when I was going to be an astronomer which I grew up. Then I found out about mathematics. Listen, I had trouble adding and subtracting.You talk about calculus, trig and all the other ometries . . . ye gods, we didn't have Texas Instruments in those days, much less R2D2.
So I gave up your real, everyday, down to earth (as it were) guts-ball astronomy and buried my dashed aspirations in Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, van Vogt, Campbell . . . and studied political science and journalism. Got married and by 1957 my first born was 2 years old.
There were some other mothers in the neighborhood with 2-year-olds, a particularly loathsome age for the young human, and we took to getting together a few days a week at one house or another to let the 2-year-olds wreak havoc on each other. It seemed to save wear and tear on households. And it gave us a chance to engage in more or less intelligent conversation, considering the low state of our consciousnesses in those pre-movement days.
One of us, I remember, was a "fiddler" from the Midwest who shortly afterward (movement or no) was to leave hearth, home and, for all I recall, her 2-year-old twins to go be the concert master for a major symphony orchestra. But that was later. Another grew up to be a Wisconsin legislator.
That one morning was the day Sputnik's successful launch had been announced, and the violinist and the state senator-to-be were amazed out of their minds. Too intelligent to be in that "we're-got-to-beat-the-Russians" fever that prevented future generations from getting science credits from psychology courses at the University of Michigan, but nevertheless amazed. I wasn't. I knew all about "g's" and "thrust" and things like that.
I wasn't any more surprised by Sputnik than I had been when the Abomb went off. I was reading all about it in Astounding. I learned only years later into what deep trouble Astounding had fallen because some imaginative physicist-writer had stumbled innocently onto the real way to smash the atom. I read Astounding, but happily the German high command evidently didn't. The FBI, apparently, went bananas anyway, but that was another story.
So there I was with my 2-year-old punching out his friend Polly in his usual friendly fashion and before I knew it I was explaining all about Sputnik to those other smart and talented mothers. What did they know of "thurst" or "g's"? Nothing.
And so I expanded, dazzling them with my grasp of theoretical (how the-oretical it really was!) astrophysics, but nevertheless satisfying their need to know what was going on.
So what if U.S.S.R. Prof. A.A. Biagonravor and his colleagues were toasting Sputnik in vodka and U.S. space officials were gyrating in jealous frustration?
It may have been my most glorious moment.