A giant step for physics fans;Opinion

19th February 1999 at 00:00
I AM still thinking about Sarah Nelson's new year appraisal in The TES Scotland of seventies music when she claimed that some of the best, most complex and dangerous pop (the music of the sixties) turned into the shallow safety of glam rock.

Since I had just written of my youthful lust for a cassette machine to record some of the musicians she derided, I would say she's a bit harsh, wouldn't I? Come on, Sarah. When was "Doo-Wah Diddy" any more complex and dangerous than "Cum On Feel the Noize"?

I do think we lost something in the seventies. We lost fins on cars, for a start. This is not such a trivial observation as it might seem. Fins were a homage to the aerospace industry and while progress in that industry was largely driven by Cold War paranoia and one-upmanship, there was a knock-on effect on science and technology in schools.

I have heard it said that the first bleep of the Soviet Sputnik satellite led, via a Government push for more engineers and physicists, to Jim Jardine's ground-breaking Physics is Fun series of textbooks. You may well have been one of the many who wrote "Oh no it bloody well isn't" on the inside cover, but give the author his due. The books were far more appealing than anything that went before.

Perhaps they didn't need to be. The children of the sixties had the likes of Concorde, the QE2 and, most significantly, the moon shots to inspire them. Eagle, Yankee Doodle, Intrepid - I knew all the names of all the lunar and command modules. I could look at the moon and know there were people there. I could watch an episode of Star Trek and believe it would all happen one day. I was hooked.

It all seemed to disappear in the next decade. Manned space exploration - the only kind with popular appeal - ceased. Can we get the excitement back? There are projects out there that might do it: Mars missions and Hotol, the British-designed space plane whose oxygen-scavenging engines would have let it take off from a conventional runway. Hopefully it won't take a crisis (don't mention the giant asteroids!) to get things up and running.

Those who claim the sixties space race was an expensive publicity stunt get the counter-argument that it led to a lot of useful everyday inventions "like the non-stick pan and the digital watch". Surely it did more than that? Measure its worth by the scientists who were inspired by the programme, not just the technology that came out of it. It was a lot more than shallow, glam science.

Gregor Steele experiences a certain frisson when he polishes the fins on his Triumph Herald.

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