The International Geophysical Year
Following a suggestion by NAS member Lloyd Berkner, the International Council of Scientific Unions in 1952 proposed a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities to span the period July 1957–December 1958. The International Geophysical Year (IGY), as it was called, was modeled on the International Polar Years of 1882–1883 and 1932–1933 and was intended to allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena. Although representatives of 46 countries originally agreed to participate in the IGY, by the close of the activity, 67 countries had become involved.
International organization and funding of the IGY were overseen by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), an independent federation of international scientific unions. A Special Committee for the IGY (CSAGI, an acronym derived from the French) was formed to act as the governing body for all IGY activities. Care had been taken to ensure that CSAGI would remain non-nationalistic, apolitical, and geared toward a scientific agenda.
American participation in the IGY was charged to a US National Committee (USNC) appointed in March 1953 by the NAS. Joseph Kaplan, Professor of Physics at UCLA, was appointed Chairman of the USNC. Physicist Alan H. Shapley of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) was appointed Vice-Chairman, and Hugh Odishaw, also of the NBS, was appointed Executive Secretary (later, Executive Director). The core USNC was made up of sixteen members, but the five Working Groups and thirteen Technical Panels that operated under it eventually drew in nearly 200 additional scientists. The technical panels were formed to pursue work in the following areas: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, rocketry, seismology, and solar activity. In addition, a technical panel was set up to attempt to launch an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth.
IGY activities literally spanned the globe from the North to the South Poles. Although much work was carried out in the arctic and equatorial regions, special attention was given to the Antarctic, where research on ice depths yielded radically new estimates of the earth’s total ice content. IGY Antarctic research also contributed to improved meteorological prediction, advances in the theoretical analysis of glaciers, and better understanding of seismological phenomena in the Southern Hemisphere.
Given the state of science in the late 1950s, the timing of the IGY was highly opportune. Research technologies and tools had advanced greatly since the 1930s, allowing scientists a scope of investigation without precedent. Cosmic ray recorders, spectroscopes, and radiosonde balloons had opened the upper atmosphere to detailed exploration, while newly developed electronic computers facilitated the analysis of large data sets. But the most dramatic of the new technologies available to the IGY was the rocket. Post–World War II developments in rocketry for the first time made the
exploration of space a real possibility; working with the new technologies, Soviet and American participants sent artificial satellites into earth orbit. In successfully launching science into space, the IGY may have scored its greatest breakthrough. Overall, the IGY was highly successful in achieving its goals, which were summed up in an NAS IGY Program Report:
...to observe geophysical phenomena and to secure data from all parts of the world; to conduct this effort on a coordinated basis by fields, and in space and time, so that results could be collated in a meaningful manner.
The IGY’s achievements included the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts encircling the Earth; the charting of ocean depth and currents; the detailed study of the Earth’s magnetic field that led to the revolutionary plate tectonic theory; measurements of upper atmospheric winds; the unprecedented setting aside of an entire continent (Antarctica) for scientific research, later embodied in the Antarctica Treaty—and most dramatically, the launching by rocket of the first artificial Earth-orbiting satellites, so inaugurating the space age