A Brief History of the International Geophysical Year

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

On July 1, 1957, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) began. It lasted 18 months.

The idea was hatched in the early 1950s when physicist Lloyd Berkner proposed a worldwide effort to track geophysical data. The idea was to collect and share scientific data about the Earth—notably its atmosphere, its oceans, its glaciers, and its sun—regardless of political boundaries. A total of 67 countries got onboard.

Berkner studied the Earth's atmosphere, and he proposed mid-1957 through the end of 1958 for the IGY. This timing would allow scientists to observe a period of tumultuous sunspots at the height of their 11-year cycle. As a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Berkner's proposal went over well.

As part of the IGY, the U.S. began to ramp up its orbital satellite-building efforts. They hoped to launch satellites to collect geophysical data, and that effort fed directly into the creation of NASA in July, 1958. Of course, Americans' dreams of satellite supremacy were interrupted when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1 using a military intercontinental ballistic missile on October 4, 1957, going against its promise to keep the military out of the scientific activities of the IGY. (The launch was pre-announced; the ICBM was not.) The IGY marks the beginning of the space race, but it was also a remarkable collaboration on Earth, particularly in the areas of Antarctic research and glaciology.

During the IGY, satellite launch attempts happened nearly every month. After Sputnik 1, the USSR sent up Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika aboard. A month later, the U.S. responded with Vanguard TV-3 (Test Vehicle-3), which blew up on the launch pad. (Subsequent Vanguard and Sputnik launches were littered with failures, but successes poked through as well.) The first American satellite to reach orbit, Explorer 1, went up on January 31, 1958 as part of the IGY. It discovered the Van Allen radiation belts. (In the image above, Dr. James Van Allen stands in the middle of three scientists, holding aloft a model of the Explorer 1 launch rocket.)

The effects of the IGY are still felt today, in the satellites we use to observe our planet and in the open research processes organizations like NOAA use to study oceans and weather.

Just before the IGY began, President Eisenhower gave a one-minute statement on the project:

Far more impressive was an BBC TV program called The Restless Sphere. Hosted by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, this 70-minute show dug into all manner of science, including the various satellite projects in progress around the world. This was broadcast on June 30, 1957, and is a brilliant time capsule. Enjoy:

Not-So-Fancy Feast: Your Cat Probably Would Eat Your Rotting Corpse

Tycson1/iStock via Getty Images
Tycson1/iStock via Getty Images

Cat enthusiasts often cite the warmth and companionship offered by their pet as reasons why they’re so enamored with them. Despite these and other positive attributes, cat lovers are often confronted with the spurious claim that, while their beloved furry pal might adore them when they’re alive, it won’t hesitate to devour their corpse if they should drop dead.

Though that’s often dismissed as negative cat propaganda spread by dog people, it turns out that it’s probably true. Fluffy might indeed feast on your flesh if you happened to expire.

A horrifying new case study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences offers the fresh evidence. The paper, first reported by The Washington Post, documents how two cats reacted in the presence of a corpse at Colorado Mesa University’s Forensic Investigation Research Station, or body farm, where the deceased are used to further forensic science for criminal investigations.

The study’s authors did not orchestrate a meeting between cat and corpse. The finding happened by accident: Student and lead author Sara Garcia was scanning surveillance footage of the grounds when she noticed a pair of cats trespassing. The cats, she found, were interested in the flesh of two corpses; they gnawed on human tissue while it was still in the early stages of decomposition, stopping only when the bodies began leaching fluids.

The cats, which were putting away one corpse each, didn’t appear to have a taste for variety, as they both returned to the same corpse virtually every night. The two seemed to prefer the shoulder and arm over other body parts.

This visual evidence joins a litany of reports over the years from medical examiners, who have observed the damage left by both cats and dogs who were trapped in homes with deceased owners and proceeded to eat them. It’s believed pets do this when no other food source is available, though in some cases, eating their human has occurred even with a full food bowl. It’s something to consider the next time your cat gives you an affectionate lick on the arm. Maybe it loves you. Or maybe it has something else in mind.

[h/t The Washington Post]

Wolf Puppies Play Fetch, Too, Study Finds

Christina Hansen Wheat
Christina Hansen Wheat

It took thousands of years of selective breeding for wolves to become the Golden Retrievers you see at dog parks today. Domesticated dogs are very different from their wild counterparts, but according to a new study, they may have a surprising trait in common. Researchers found that some wolf puppies are willing to play fetch with total strangers, suggesting that following human commands is intrinsic to canines.

For their study in the journal iScience, researchers from Stockholm University in Sweden set out to find how domestication affects behaviors in young wolves. They raised litters of wolf and dog pups separately from 10 days old and placed them in various scenarios.

When the scientists tested how the wolf puppies would respond to a game of fetch, they expected to be ignored. Chasing a ball and bringing it back requires understanding human commands and obeying them—abilities that were thought to only have emerged in dogs post-domestication.

The first two wolf groups met expectations by showing little interest in the toy, but something different happened with the third set. Three eight-week old pups went after the ball and brought it back when they were encouraged to do so. This was the case even when the person giving the commands was someone they had never met before.

Even though most of the puppies didn't play fetch, the fact that those who did belonged to the same litter indicates a "standing variation" for a retrieving trait in wolves. "When you talk about a specific trait in the context of standing variation, it means that there is variation for the expression of this trait within a given population," co-author Christina Hansen Wheat tells Mental Floss. "For our study it suggests that, while probably rare, standing variation in the expression of human-directed behavior in ancestral populations could have been an important target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication." In other words, ancient people seeking to domesticate wolves might have focused on some wolves' innate ability to follow human commands.

The first dogs were domesticated as far back as 33,000 years ago. Over millennia, humans have selected for traits like loyalty, friendliness, and playfulness to create the modern dog, but these new findings could mean that the dog's earliest canine ancestors were genetically predisposed toward some of these behaviors.

"All three litters were brought up under identical and standardized conditions across years," Hansen says of the pups in the study. "With this significant effort to control the environmental conditions, it is likely that the differences in behavior across litters to some extent have a genetic basis."

After raising the dog and wolf litters for three years and completing that part of their study, the researchers will continue to analyze their data to see if there are any other adorable (or weird) traits the two groups share.

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