1968: A Social Revolution, but Also Scientific and Technological

The date of May 1968 is associated with barricades in the streets of Paris, protests, police raids, and slogans such as “Be realistic, demand the impossible” or “Under the cobblestones, the beach!” A French revolution framed within a broader context of political and social turmoil: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the USA, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and racial unrest; or the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, which aimed to open the country to socialism and was crushed by the invasion by the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies. But if 1968 was revolutionary in the streets, so was it in science and technology.

Although the memory of the crucial political events of that time may obscure the impact of other areas, the truth is that there are enough reasons to describe that year as being especially notable in science and technology.

Probably the biggest scientific discovery of the year was that of the first pulsar, published in February in the journal Nature by Jocelyn Bell, Antony Hewish and their collaborators. In May, Thomas Gold proposed in the same journal that it was a rotating neutron star. The discovery of pulsars was valued as “of paramount importance to physics and astrophysics” by the jury of the Nobel prizes, who in 1974 would reward Hewish and ignore his student Bell, the main author of the work. Today that discrimination and its subsequent influence are considered as a germinal moment in the vindication of the role of women in science.

The first to contemplate the hidden face of the Moon

Space was also the protagonist of the most outstanding technological milestone of 1968. Both the US and the USSR had already sent astronauts into Earth orbit, and in October the Apollo 7 was the first crewed mission of that program to also transmit a live television signal. The Soviet Union suffered a tragic loss in the air crash of its hero Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, but also triumphed with its unmanned Zond probes, one of which managed to circle the Moon and return safely to Earth for the first time. Fearing that Russia would win the lunar race, the United States stepped up the pace to launch the Apollo 8 mission on December 21. Its three crewmembers, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, were the first to contemplate the whole Earth from space and the hidden face of the Moon. Anders took the famous Earthrise photograph, one of the most iconic images in the history of space exploration.

Neil Armstrong survives a LLRV trainer crash during a rehearsal for the lunar landing. Credit: Michael Lennick

Jerry Woodfill, program engineer of the NASA Apollo missions, recalls the importance of those tense historical moments. “I was well aware of the importance of my role with regard to achieving a lunar landing prior to the Soviets,” he tells OpenMind. But in the heat of the race it was essential not to leave safety aside, especially after the fire that had cost the lives of the three crewmembers of Apollo 1 during a launch rehearsal test the previous year. “President Kennedy had said: I believe that this nation should achieve the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth before the decade is out,” recalls Woodfill. “My direct role was returning the astronauts safely to Earth,” says the engineer in charge of the warning systems. “I was wholly consumed with dealing with the alarm systems, especially the command module’s and the lunar lander’s.”

Today Woodfill proudly cites his participation in the immense group of engineers who delivered great technological advances to successfully complete the dream of taking human beings into space. Had it not been for these numerous contributions, Neil Armstrong would never have been the first human to step on the Moon. On 6 May 1968, during a test flight of the lunar module, the astronaut was able to eject his seat just one second before the ship crashed to the ground, becoming a fireball.

The most symbolic commercial aircraft

En septiembre de 1968, Boeing presentaba su modelo 747. Crédito: SAS Scandinavian Airlines

In September 1968, Boeing presented its model 747. Credit: SAS Scandinavian Airlines

Meanwhile, innovations in flight technologies were also being unveiled on Earth. In September 1968, Boeing presented its model 747, the famous Jumbo Jet, probably the most symbolic of all commercial aircraft ever built.

And technological innovations were also revolutionizing another area, that of computing. In 1968, IBM engineer Robert Dennard patented Dynamic Random-Access Memory (DRAM), which has been key in consumer electronics to this day. “Computing was already the epicentre of a new technological and therefore social revolution,” Dennard tells OpenMind. “I was very excited by my DRAM invention and realized that it would become the dominant memory technology and make a big impact on computing.”

At the same time, in California Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore founded Intel, today a world leader in the microprocessor market. Douglas Engelbart presented his invention, the computer mouse, and in what has been dubbed “the mother of all demos” also introduced many of the current fundamentals of personal computers, such as hypertext links, navigation, graphics and screen windowing, videoconferencing and word processors, among other advances of the moment.

El primer prototipo de ratón de ordenador. Crédito: Michael Hicks

The first prototype computer mouse. Credit: Michael Hicks

A masterpiece of science fiction

The visionary technological nature of 1968 was reflected in two works. The organization Foreign Policy Association brought together a list of experts for a book of essays entitled Toward the Year 2018, a collection of predictions about the future that foresaw the development of personal computers, mobile telephones, internet and Big Data, the conflict of these technologies with privacy, and even climate change.

And 1968 was also the year of the premiere of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the lengthy feature-film by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke that endures today not only as a masterpiece of science fiction, but also as one of the most visionary, thanks to its accurate predictions on manned space stations with zero-gravity toilets, flat screens, video chats, tablets and, of course, artificial intelligence, along with its risks.

However, not all the expert predictions from 1968 were so well on track. In April, molecular biologist Gunther Stent wrote in the journal Science: “That was the molecular biology that was.” With the previous discovery of the genetic code, which would deliver the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Marshall Nirenberg, Har Gobind Khorana and Robert Holley that year, Stent predicted the “approaching decline of molecular biology” as a research discipline, and that it would become “a workaday field.” Nothing could be further from what would happen next. Interestingly, also in 1968, Matthew Meselson and Robert Yuan isolated the first of the restriction enzymes, the tools that would propel molecular biology to become one of the most powerful sciences of the last half-century.

Javier Yanes