Looking back: 1994

In 1994, I finished up a three-year lecturing contract at the National University of Singapore, and returned to Australia. That year saw the launch of the Netscape Navigator web browser (I wrote my first web page) and the opening of the Channel Tunnel between France and the UK (I was to take a train through that tunnel some years later). A plethora of movies was released – Stargate was one of the better ones:

In science, the Wollemi pine was discovered in Australia, stirring up a media frenzy. Martin Chalfie transferred the jellyfish gene for green fluorescent protein to the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, eventually sharing in the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. And Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, leaving visible marks in the Jovian atmosphere:

In France, the Chauvet Cave was discovered. It contains cave art dated to around 30,000 years ago. And superb art it is – those ancient cavemen knew a thing or two:


Looking back: 1982

In 1982 (35 years ago!) I finished my basic undergraduate degree, majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science (after sniffing around the job market, I continued my studies for an honours year). This was the year that the compact disc and the Commodore 64 computer came out:

Also that year, Stephen Cook won the Turing award for his work on computational complexity theory. The then Soviet Union landed two spacecraft in the hellish inferno that is Venus, and took photographs:

It was also a year of conflict – Argentina started a war with the UK over the Falklands Islands, and Israel invaded Lebanon. On a more positive note, there were several movies which became cult classics, such as Tron, E.T., and Conan the Barbarian. The superb science fiction movie Blade Runner stood out from the crowd (even with the flaws in the original cinema release):

In literature, Isabel Allende published her debut novel, as did Kazuo Ishiguro. In music, The Alan Parsons Project released their album Eye in the Sky and Australian band Icehouse (originally Flowers) released their classic single “Great Southern Land”:

Overall, it was a great year (apart from the wars).

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


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: