Looking back: 1978

In 1978 I started senior high school (year 11 and 12). That was a year of terrorism – a bomb was exploded outside the Sydney Hilton Hotel by the Ananda Marga group (apparently in an attempt to kill Indian prime minister Morarji Desai), and former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro (below) was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades. On a more positive note, John Paul II became the first Polish pope, and helped to chip away at the power of the Soviet Union.

That year also marked the debut of the soap opera Dallas and the comic strip Garfield. In science, James Christy at the United States Naval Observatory discovered Pluto’s moon Charon. We finally got a good look at it in 2015:

In computing, the Turing Award went to Robert Floyd, for his work in programming languages and algorithms. Intel introduced the 8086, the first of the x86 microprocessors which are still the most common CPUs in personal computers and laptops today. The game Space Invaders also had its debut:

The year 1978 also saw the release of the unsatisfactory animated version of The Lord of the Rings, and a number of interesting albums, including The Kick Inside by Kate Bush, Pyramid by The Alan Parsons Project, Dire Straits by the band of the same name, the electronic Équinoxe by Jean Michel Jarre, and Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds:

Of the books published that year, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, the exceedingly dark The House of God by Samuel Shem, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (below) stand out.


Looking back: 1989

In 1989, I started my first lecturing job, at Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland. My PhD was all but finished and – more importantly – my scholarship money had run out. That was the year that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced that they had discovered cold fusion. They had not. I’m glad that I was being more careful in my own work.


Griffith University’s bushland setting (photo: Tate Johnson)

Konrad Lorenz, William Shockley, and Andrei Sakharov all died in 1989, while Isamu Akasaki developed the now-ubiquitous GaN-based blue LED. Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web, the Tiananmen Square protests took place, the Berlin Wall came down, George Bush became President of the USA, and the Soviet–Afghan War ended (Bush’s son was to start his own Afghan war in 2001).


William Shockley in 1975 (photo: Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service)

The spaceprobe Voyager 2 (launched in 1977) visited Neptune in 1989, and took some lovely photographs.


Neptune, as seen by Voyager 2 in 1989

In the world of cinema, Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Fabulous Baker Boys were released. Books of 1989 included The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould. An interesting year, on the whole.


Poster for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade


Looking back: 2000

As the year 2000 opened, I was in Sydney, watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks. After all the hype about the Y2K problem, I was half-expecting the lights to go out. They did not, of course. Later in the year, the 2000 Summer Olympics were held in Sydney, and the city put on another spectacular show for that:

Also in 2000, genome-sequencing of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana (below) was completed, and described in Nature. The genome is available at arabidopsis.org.

The Cassini probe flew past Jupiter at the end of the year (en route to Saturn), and took some spectacular pictures, including this one of Io in front of the planet:

Films of 2000 included Chicken Run, Chocolat, Gladiator, Pitch Black, Proof of Life, The 6th Day, Thirteen Days, X-Men, and the excellent O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

In books, Ross King published a wonderful little book about Brunelleschi, Dan Brown published the wildly inaccurate Angels & Demons, Umberto Eco published Baudolino (in Italian), J.K. Rowling published the 4th Harry Potter book, and Patricia McKillip published the beautifully oneiric The Tower at Stony Wood.

In music, Britney Spears was still wildly popular. In architecture, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow was rebuilt, and the Tate Modern in London opened. The London Millennium Bridge was closed two days after opening because of resonance problems, which required the retrofitting of fluid-viscous and tuned-mass dampers. Software is not the only thing with bugs.


Looking back: 1991


Singapore

In 1991, I started my second lecturing job, at the National University of Singapore. I was to spend three years in Singapore, and a great experience it was – culturally, intellectually, and (of course) gastronomically. That year saw the launch of the World Wide Web on the Internet (although it was to be almost three years before I realised that the WWW existed). The arXiv launched in 1991 as well (I was unaware of that too). Linux was released later in the year (but I was already using other flavours of Unix, so it wasn’t really relevant). That year saw the release of several bad films, but also the long-awaited Terminator 2:

Also in 1991, Eugenio Moggi developed a confusing functional programming construct, which shared the name of an confusing concept in the philosophy of Leibniz. Robin Milner, who indirectly influenced my career in several ways, won a well-deserved Turing Award.


Replica of Ötzi in the Smithsonian Museum (my photo)

In what was to prove a very significant discovery, Sumio Iijima observed carbon nanotubes for the first time. In the Ötztal Alps, a mummified man from around 3300 BC was discovered. Examination of “Ötzi” taught us a great deal about life in Chalcolithic Europe.


Mount Pinatubo erupts

World events of 1991 included Operation Desert Storm (responding to the invasion of Kuwait), the eruption of Mount Pinatubo (the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century), and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (which recreated forgotten nations like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia).

Books published in 1991 included the unusual Empire of the Ants, the interesting The Infinite Plan, the underrated Jurassic Park, and the delightful Sophie’s World. I enjoyed all of those (although I did not read them all that year).


Looking back: 1980

In 1980 I began my undergraduate university studies (in Chemistry, Botany, Mathematics, and Computer Programming). That year, Iran seemed to be constantly in the news. In April, the US tried and failed to rescue the embassy staff taken hostage in Tehran. Some days later, the British SAS rescued Iranian embassy staff held hostage in London. In September, Iraq began a war with Iran that lasted until 1988 (and which essentially continues today as the Sunni–Shiite conflict in Iraq and Syria). In Australia, the death of Azaria Chamberlain caused great controversy. Natural disasters that year included the eruption of Mount St. Helens (which was to inspire the 1997 film Dante’s Peak):

On a more positive note, the World Health Assembly declared on 8 May 1980 “that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America” (Resolution WHA 33.3). The Olympics were held in Moscow (though with only 80 nations) and in Lake Placid. The space probe Voyager 1 made its closest approach to Saturn, taking spectacular photographs of the ringed planet and its moons (such as Rhea, below):

Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, and Tony Hoare won a well-deserved Turing Award. Usenet (a precursor to Internet discussion forums) was launched. The Rubik’s Cube was licensed to a US toy company and became a craze. The arcade game Pac-Man was released, and it became a craze as well:

Two much-loved films, The Empire Strikes Back and The Blues Brothers, also appeared. An obscure Italian book called Il nome della rosa had yet to make an impact, although The Clan of the Cave Bear was undeservedly trendy. Music of the time was on vinyl or the now-forgotten cassette tapes. During the year, Stevie Wonder released his album Hotter than July, Supertramp released their live album Paris, Flowers released Icehouse, the Alan Parsons Project released their superb The Turn of a Friendly Card, and Kate Bush released this very strange single:


Looking back: 1984

In 1984 I started my first full-time job, with the ink still wet on my BSc (Hons) degree certificate. That was the year of the Sarajevo and Los Angeles Olympics. Pat Benatar topped the Australian music charts, Stevie Wonder called, Lionel Richie said hello, and people struggled to make sense of this German song:

Several classic movies were released, including Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Australia introduced a dollar coin and Apple introduced the Macintosh (which ran a window-based operating system plus word processing in 128K of memory):


photo by All About Apple museum

Niklaus Wirth won the Turing Award for his work on programming languages like Algol and Pascal. In the field of books, Neuromancer and The Unbearable Lightness of Being were published.

On a more sombre note, thousands of people in Bhopal, India were killed by a toxic gas release (I still remember the shock of reading about this), the Soviets (remember them?) were still fighting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and nobody knew that the Cold War would be over in a few more years. Still, I had my hands full with customers and coding, and wasn’t worrying too much about all that. It seemed like a good year, on the whole.


Book nostalgia: The How and Why Wonder Books

In the years after the USSR launched Sputnik (on 4 October 1957), there was a panic in the USA about what we now call STEM education. Part of the subsequent attempt to “catch up with the Russians” involved some good new educational books. Among these were the 1960s How and Why Wonder Books, which I was brought up on. I still feel nostalgic when I see the covers.

Surprisingly advanced concepts (e.g. nuclear binding energy) were covered, and the books were written extremely well. In hindsight, some of the topics are rather frightening. For example, one of the rockets described was the “Honest John,” a tactical battlefield missile intended to hit targets 50 km away… with a nuclear warhead. Other topics, on the other hand, are almost laughable, like the descriptions of cutting-edge 1960s computers. But most of the content was up-to-date (for its time), and guaranteed to get children interested in science and engineering.

Hats off to the people who planned the series (at the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, apparently), to writers like Donald Barr, and to illustrators like Walter Ferguson. Some of the wonderful illustrations from the books are shown below (from Chemistry and Oceanography). For more about the series, see collectorville.net.