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Posts Tagged ‘Cold War’

It’s fifty years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin escaped the clutches of gravity and completed a single orbit of the earth. The Telegraph reports:

Fifty years ago [yesterday], an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space – taking the Soviet Union’s own giant leap for mankind and spurring a humiliated America to race for the moon. The flight was limited to a single orbit due to concerns over how a human would cope with space travel, but despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list.

Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission.

In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.

Gagarin’s rocket lifted off as scheduled on 12 April 1961, at 9:07am Moscow time (6:07 GMT).

The flight was fraught with drama. At one point the control room lost data transmission and problems involving the antennae put the shuttle into a much higher and riskier orbit than planned.

On re-entry, a glitch caused the ship to rotate swiftly and the landing capsule was slow to detach from the service module.

But Gagarin bailed out as planned, and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 450 miles southeast of Moscow

The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes in total and made him a national hero.

On 14 April Gagarin was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.

It was not until John Glenn’s flight on 20 February 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin’s earth-obiting feat.

It surprises me that space travel and extra-terrestrial colonisation don’t figure very much in the collective imagination. Why are they the preserve of science fiction enthusiasts instead of being on the horizon of our everyday dreams and adventures? If there is nowhere else to go but up and away, and if we are only at the very beginning of this scientific and historical journey, why are so few people interested in it? Even raising the question makes me feel slightly geeky.

The Economist has a slideshow entitled ‘The space-age future that never happened‘.

[Yesterday marked] 50 years since Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. The dizzying pace of developments in aerospace technology—just 58 years separated the Wright Brothers’ first demonstration of powered flight from Gagarin’s trip into orbit—inspired plenty of optimistic speculation about what humanity’s future as a space-faring species might look like. This slideshow takes a look back at a future that was thought, in some quarters at least, to be just around the corner, and compares it with the reality of space exploration half a century after Gagarin’s flight.

Take a look here.

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If you are in a Cold War, worried that your enemy is going to destroy your military headquarters, including your main information hub, what do you do? Design an alternative information technology in which knowledge is diffused around the whole system and accessed through many different portals.

Paul Baran, who died a fortnight ago, was one of the two inventors of packet switching, without which we wouldn’t have the internet. Martin Campbell-Kelly explains:

In 1959 he joined Rand, which had been established in 1946 to do military research for the US Air Force. By the late 1950s, it was at the centre of nuclear politics and strategy. An issue of great concern at this time was the vulnerability of US military communications to a nuclear strike from Russia. If the command-and-control network was destroyed, the ability of the US to retaliate would be threatened.

Baran invented a futuristic solution to this problem in the form of a network held together by scores of small computers. Messages would be passed (“like a hot potato”) from one computer to the next towards its destination. Even if the network was massively damaged, the message would still get through. Another innovation was to chop all messages into small blocks so that they would not be delayed by long messages clogging the network. The blocks would arrive at their destination in a random order via different routes, and the computer at the destination end would reconstitute the original messages from the individual blocks.

Baran’s digital network proposal was at the cutting edge of computer technology and would have been hugely expensive to build. Numerous technical objections were raised by senior engineers steeped in the old analogue technology. In order to answer his critics, over the next few years Baran compiled a series of 11 reports. These were never secret, because it was believed that resilient networks were needed by friend and foe alike to resolve an escalating nuclear standoff. In the end, Baran failed to gain support for his proposal and, in 1968, with two other Rand alumni, he established the non-profit Institute for the Future, where he became an authority on the emerging digital networks.

Around this time Arpa was designing the Arpanet, the prototype of the internet, and their attention was drawn to the work of both Baran and the British computer scientist Donald Davies, who had developed similar ideas at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex. Davies (who was unaware of Baran’s work) called his system “packet switching”, and that name stuck, although the underlying concepts were the same in both proposals. Most importantly, both Baran and Davies had conducted and published detailed studies which established packet switching as a viable technology rather than just a bright idea. This enabled Arpa to commit to the system, and it remains the underlying technology of the internet.

It makes one reflect on how knowledge is stored and shared in other systems – in academia, in politics, in family life, in religions, etc.

Baran seems to have been very humble about his achievements, and keen to acknowledge the work of many others in building the internet. Katie Hafner writes:

In recent years, the origins of the Internet have been subject to claims and counterclaims of precedence, and Mr. Baran was an outspoken proponent of distributing credit widely.

“The Internet is really the work of a thousand people,” he said in an interview in 2001.

“The process of technological developments is like building a cathedral,” he said in an interview in 1990. “Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations, each saying, ‘I built a cathedral.’

“Next month another block is placed atop the previous one. Then comes along an historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.”

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Photo from Milwaukee Journal

Dorothy Day is one of the greatest and most significant Catholics of the twentieth century. Today is the 30th anniversary of her death.

When I left school I worked for six months in a small religious book publishers, and I was asked to do some research in order to revise a pamphlet they wanted to print about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. I spent a couple of days in one of the London libraries reading some of the early biographies, and I was completely bowled over.

It was the simplicity of her love – for Christ, for the poor, for whoever was sitting next to her. It was the fact that she took the gospel seriously, and literally; and believed it was something to be lived and not just explained away. It was her intelligence, which made her think about the causes of poverty and injustice, so that talking, writing, publishing and debating (all for ‘the clarification of thought’) were as much a part of her mission as opening soup kitchens and houses of hospitality. And it was her beauty – the beauty of her writing, the beauty of her life. Much of it, I’m sure, was romanticised – I was 19 and looking for heroes and heroines. But she remains one of the most important people in my life, and her life has shaped my own thinking and the way I look at the world as much as anyone else’s has.

I went on holiday/pilgrimage to New York in the summer of 1998 just after my ordination. I had supper and celebrated Mass in the main Catholic Worker house where she lived and worked, and had some great conversations – she was still remembered and revered. I hunted down the building where the first house of hospitality was set up. By then it was a Chinese takeaway, so I went in and pretended to look at the menu while I took in the atmosphere and the history. I took the boat to Staten Island and found the spot where she is buried. It’s one of these cemeteries without upright headstones, so the lawnmower can sweep right over the graves. You ask a man in the office and he tells you where the small plaque is hidden. I spent a long time there praying.

I still pray to her often. And one of my prayers is that I will live to see her canonised.

If you don’t know much about her, here are some paragraphs from a short life by Robert Ellsberg. If you want to follow this up, the best book to buy is Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, edited by Robert Ellsberg, which is a fantastic collection of short pieces and excerpts from her longer articles and books. The introduction is itself one of the best short biographies you will find.

The Catholic Worker, a lay movement she founded in 1933 and oversaw for nearly fifty years, was an effort to show that the radical gospel commandment of love could be lived. She understood this challenge not just in the personal form of charity (the works of mercy) but in a political form as well, confronting and resisting the social forces which gave rise to such a need for charity. She represented a new type of political holiness – a way of serving Christ not only through prayer and sacrifice but through solidarity with the poor and in struggle along the path of justice and peace.

Day was born in Brooklyn in 1897. Though she was baptized as an Episcopalian she had little exposure to religion. By the time she was in college she had rejected Christianity in favor of the radical cause. She dropped out of school and worked as a journalist in New York with a variety of radical papers and took part in the popular protests of her day. Her friends were communists, anarchists, and an assortment of New York artists and intellectuals, most of the opinion that religion was the “opium of the people.”

A turning point in her life came in 1926 when she was living on Staten Island with a man she deeply loved. She became pregnant, an event that sparked a mysterious conversion. The experience of what she called natural happiness, combined with a sense of the aimlessness of her Bohemian existence, turned her heart to God. She decided she would have her child baptized as a Roman Catholic, a step she herself followed in 1927. The immediate impact of this was the painful end of her common law marriage. The man she loved had no use for marriage. But she also suffered from the sense that her conversion represented a betrayal of the cause of the poor. The church, though in many ways the home of the poor, seemed otherwise to identify with the status quo. So she spent some lonely years in the wilderness, raising her child alone, while praying for some way of reconciling her faith and her commitment to social justice.

The answer came in 1932 with a providential meeting. Peter Maurin, an itinerant philosopher and agitator, encouraged her to begin a newspaper that would offer solidarity with the workers and a critique of the social system from the radical perspective of the Gospels. The Catholic Worker was launched on May 1, 1933. Like a true prophet, Maurin was concerned not simply to denounce injustice but to announce a new social order, based on the recognition of Christ in one’s neighbors. In an effort to practice what they preached, Day converted the office of the Catholic Worker into a “house of hospitality” – the first of many – offering food for the hungry and shelter for the tired masses uprooted by the Depression.

But Day’s message did not end with the works of mercy. For her the logic of the Sermon on the Mount also led to an uncompromising commitment to nonviolence. Despite widespread criticism she maintained a pacifist position throughout World War 11 and later took part in numerous civil disobedience campaigns against the spirit of the Cold War and the peril of nuclear war. Later, in the 1960s, when social protest became almost commonplace, Day’s peacemaking witness – rooted in her daily life among the poor and sustained by the discipline of liturgy and prayer – retained a particular credibility and challenge.

The enigma of Dorothy Day was her ability to reconcile her radical social positions (she called herself an anarchist as well as a pacifist) with a traditional and even conservative piety. Her commitment to poverty, obedience, and chastity was as firm as any nun’s. But she remained thoroughly immersed in the secular world with all the “precarity” and disorder that came with life among the poor.

You can find a link to the London Catholic Worker here.

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