34: just a quick thought cos I’m sleepy tonight

I was driving home from work, listening to a podcast yesterday evening when I heard the following story.

It was 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, humankind’s first-ever artificial satellite.

A couple of physicists were eating lunch in John Hopkins’s Applied Physics Laboratory when they heard the news.

The instantly started geeking out. This was truly an amazing accomplishment, and it had staggering implications for their field.

So they decided to go back to one of their offices’ and mess around with radio equipment to see if they would be able to pick up any of Sputnik’s transmissions.

Turns out, the USSR had made it tremendously easy to tune in to the satellite’s radio, since they feared that the rest of the world might think the whole thing was a hoax if it wasn’t detectable in space.

So these physicists did, in fact, pick up some transmissions.

Additionally, because they could hear the pinging of the satellite’s radio, they were able to do all sorts of mathematical calculations to determine things like Sputnik’s speed as it orbited the globe.

Eventually, they were able to pinpoint the exact location of the satellite in space. The public could now know exactly when Sputnik was flying over their particular country or region on the globe.

Naturally, it wasn’t long until the lab’s director approached these physicists and asked them to help him solve a new problem.

“If you guys can pinpoint an unknown location in space from a known location on the ground, are you able to do the same thing in reverse?” he asked. This is not an exact quote, mind you, but a simplified version of what went down. “Meaning, can you, from a known location in space, pinpoint an object at an unknown location on the globe?”

“Hmmmmm…” said the physicists. “Probably, yeah.”

The reason the director asked these physicists to solve the problem in reverse?

The U.S. were trying to create a system of satellites that could help them track the location of their submarines in the ocean. These submarines were going to be used to launch missiles at our enemies.

Years later, during the Cold War era, the military finally had justification to spend billions of dollars developing the technology needed for a full-blown global positioning system, or GPS.

And now, every time I pull up Google Maps, I can’t help but remember that the reason this technology became so widespread is because of research spawned by a military arms race.

Were we not creatures inclined to international conflict and war, I might not be able to quickly pinpoint the exact location of the nearest Puerto Rican restaurant to my place of employment.

I’m thankful for GPS and the years of research and development that led to its existence. But does that mean I have to be thankful for conflict? For war?

Would this technology exist if we didn’t want to blow up the Soviet Union?

Tough to say.

Anyway, hope that was educational for you.


4 Replies to “34: just a quick thought cos I’m sleepy tonight”

  1. Nicholas, I remember going out in our backyard in 1957 with my dad to watch Sputnik go over Santa Barbara, CA. It was thrilling watching that tiny star-like speck arc over the sky knowing it was launched by humans–even though they were enemies. (trust me, as a Lithuanian immigrant, I had ample reasons to HATE the Russian government. Lithuania and its people were brutalized for more than 50 years!!!) But in those moments when Sputnik glowed overhead they were magically connected to all humanity. Thanks for bringing back that memory. I miss my dad, but the memories keep him close.

    1. Happy to bring it back for you. And I think it’s a really beautiful thought to know that despite the conflict, people were able to really appreciate the beauty of human achievement.

  2. Hmm. Deep thoughts. I guess I feel technological advances are not always the result of one need or drive. If we were not in conflict, would GPS exist anyway? Maybe it would have taken longer to develop or maybe it would be a paid service instead of “free.” But as we make these advances, greater advances naturally follow.

    1. That’s what I’ve been wondering, too. It’s impossible to say what alternate events might have unfolded that could have achieved the same results. It might have looked very different from the technology we have now.

      But you’re right – things can only continue to progress as we move forward in time.

I'd love your feedback. Srsly.