Topics in the News
Activism for the Environment
A Decade of Growing Activism.
The 1970s were a time of rapidly growing consciousness about the importance of protecting the environment. Not since the decade after 1910 had ecology seemed so significant to such a broad group of people, including students, scientists, politicians, people in business, and the most ordinary of citizens. Of course, these groups did not always find themselves on the same side. When housewife and mother Lois Gibbs formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association to investigate and publicize the fact that a toxic-waste dump in her community was causing residents to have a high rate of illness, businessmen were hardly thrilled. Yet the words of President Nixon, a supporter of business interests, suggest how widespread the consensus on environmental issues was in 1970. He said, "A major goal for the next ten years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air, the water, the broader problem of population congestion, transport and the like."
One measure of the unanimity about environmental problems was the national celebration of Earth Day on 22 April 1970. Millions of Americans participated in demonstrations, teach-ins, and community cleanup projects for the environment. The observance, coordinated by a group in Washington that included congressional designees in honorary positions, was...
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Another chemical at the center of controversy was Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a defoliant used extensively in the U.S. war in Vietnam to deny ground cover and food to North Vietnamese guerrillas by destroying forests and crops. Named for the orange stripe painted on fifty-five-gallon barrels for identification, it was developed by the army in the 1950s as an alternative to biological weapons. It was a combination of two herbicides—2,4-D (n-butyl-2,4, dichlorophenoxyacetate) and 2, 4, 5-T (n-butyl~2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetate)—and was tremendously effective. By 1970, 1.1.2 million gallons had been dropped by airborne C-123 cargo planes, destroying the plant life of 4.5 million acres. In addition to the areas officially targeted, fruit trees, man-grove swamps, and crops were also destroyed by leaky spray nozzles, wind drift, and vaporization from the heat. The cumulative effect crippled the Vietnamese economy and did substantial damage to the environment. In 1971, following criticism from the National Academy of Sciences, international organizations, and the American public, the military agreed to halt the herbicide campaign.
In the spring of 1978 Paul Reutershan shocked the audience of the Today show, saying, "I died in Vietnam, but I didn't even know it." Reutershan had flown almost daily missions...
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Apollo and Skylab Programs
Moon Walks and Moon Rocks.
After millions watched the first Moon walks in 1969 with amazement and the near-fatal Apollo 13 accident with anxiety, lunar landings began occurring with such regularity and precision they became almost commonplace. In 1971 and 1972 there were two landings a year, each nearly a carbon copy of the other. With the Command Module orbiting overhead, the crew landed a Lunar Excursion Module (or LEM, but constantly being renamed: Eagle, Falcon, Challenger) on the Moon's surface. Each landing was a memorable moment for the public-relations specialists. The Apollo 14 mission included Alan Shepard lightheartedly hitting a golf ball on the Moon. On the Apollo 15 landing David Scott demonstrated the effects of zero atmosphere by dropping a hammer and a feather at the same time. Astronaut James Irwin kept the camera rolling as both struck the Moon's surface at the same time. Each mission brought back bigger bags of Moon rocks, generating tremendous public excitement and enabling scientists to learn more about the composition of the Moon. The metallic composition of the lunar surface turned out to be significantly different from Earth's, encouraging fresh speculation about the origins of the two bodies.
Cars in Space.
A nation obsessed with cars could hardly expect its proud representatives to arrive...
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Disasters in Space
Unlucky number 13 was the Apollo mission that never landed on the Moon and barely made it back to Earth. NASA had had one previous disaster: in 1967 three astronauts died in a fire on the launchpad. But the Apollo 13 accident in 1970 was unprecedented for the American space program. Three men in space, with the eyes of the world upon them, suddenly heard a loud bang and watched as their oxygen tanks suddenly emptied. "OK, Houston, we'Ve had a problem," they reported to the command center in a masterpiece of understatement. They still had the Lunar Module, though, and used it as a lifeboat on the long, cold trip home. The temperature was lowered to 38° F to conserve oxygen and electricity. Even so, the astronauts barely made it back to Earth ahead of the failure of their oxygen.
The Soyuz Mission.
The following year tragedy did strike Soviet cosmonauts. Following a record-setting twenty-four-day stay in a space station, the cosmonauts separated their ship, Soyuz 11, and began landing procedures. Braking rockets fired as the ship reentered Earth's atmosphere. After that, ground controllers lost contact with the ship. The parachute system functioned normally, and soft-landing engines were fired. But when the ground crew went to pick them up, they opened the hatch and found all three cosmonauts dead. An...
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Exploration Beyond the Moon
Space research carried out in the second half of the decade while the shuttle was delayed and budgets were cut was done mainly by space probes. Probes, with no need for life support, could go further and endure harsher conditions than spaceflight involving humans. The various probe programs of the 1970s (all with romantic names: Mariner, Voyager, Viking, Pioneer) sent back information about the five nearest planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Uranus and Neptune would be reached in the next decade.
Image Pop-UpIn 1975 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Viking I probe, which produced this panoramic shot of the surface Mars and relayed it back to Earth.
Some of the earliest and most eagerly awaited photos came from Mars. In the 1960s three of the Mariner probes had successfully flown by Mars and returned with pictures. But NASA hit the jackpot with Mariner 9 in January 1972: unlike previous space probes, this one orbited the planet. After a week of blinding dust storms, Mariner suddenly began sending back stunningly clear photos—7,329 of them. They were discouraging to those who...
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Beginning in the mid 1960s researchers began to explore the possibilities of fiber-optic technology. By the beginning of the 1970s it was apparent that fiber optics had tremendous potential to improve the clarity and speed of telephone signals. A single hair-thin optical fiber could carry as many messages as a thick copper-wire cable containing 512 wires. Unlike copper wires, the glass fiber is unaffected by motors, electrical generators, power lines, or lightning storms—common causes of static on the line.
How It Works.
The thin, extremely pure glass of an optical fiber, surrounded by a reflective casing, can bend light. This makes it possible to use light, specifically light generated by lasers, in place of electricity. Light can be carried faster, more cheaply, and more efficiently than electrical signals. Sounds are converted into a pattern of light, transmitted, received at the other end, then converted back into sound.
Putting It to Use.
One of the first uses of fiber optics was in 1977 in Chicago. There two offices of Bell Telephone and a third for customers were successfully connected by light-carrying glass fibers. In 1978 the phones at Disney World were linked through fiber optics, and Disney also used them for video transmission, lighting, and alarm...
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Frankenstein and the Miracle.
Perhaps more than any other issue, genetic engineering or recombinant DNA captures both the hopefulness and the unease that characterized feelings about science in the 1970s. It held out the hope of fantastic health benefits, promising to make drugs easy to synthesize and diseases treatable. Yet it also threatened the specter of Frankenstein: artificial life escaping from the lab and unleashing new diseases on the world. In 1974 scientists concerned about such a scenario called a halt to genetic engineering work. By the end of the decade environmental activists and much of the general public were deeply worried by these experiments, but most biologists were convinced they could control it. Entrepreneurial companies like Genentech, formed in 1976, were looking for ways to exploit the commercial potential of genetic engineering. The U.S. government, after first imposing strict guidelines on recombinant DNA research, ultimately relaxed restrictions.
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is one of the most basic building blocks of life, found in every organism. DNA molecules are composed of chains of meaningful information, commonly referred to as genes, encoded by combinations of four amino acids. Each gene produces a different effect in a cell: telling it to grow bone, for example. In 1972 microbiologists...
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Inventing the Personal Computer
Despite the pin-striped reputation personal computers acquired from their rapid expansion into the business market in the 1980s, they began their existence with solidly countercultural credentials. An important early manifesto was Theodore Nelson's 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines. Nelson believed personal computers would free individuals from the big corporate computers, giving them access to their own computing power. Small, easy to use, and affordable, microcomputers would be available to all, with free software, community access, and "liberated information."
The computers of the early 1960s were mammoth affairs, requiring entire rooms to house them, and so expensive that only large organizations and the government could afford them. Later, minicomputers were produced, more attractive to businesses and researchers in size and cost. The breakthrough that made the personal microcomputer possible came in 1971, when Theodore Hoff of Intel created the microprocessing chip. Much of the power of the bulky mainframe had been converted into a chip that could be held in the palm of the hand.
In keeping with its underground beginnings, the first microcomputers sold were kits. Featured on the cover of Popular Electronics, the kit was marketed...
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For those bound closer to the earth, the introduction of the Boeing 747 was treated as a revolution in air travel. The Christian Science Monitor greeted its first commercial flight on 21 January 1970 with the kind of words usually reserved for things spiritual. "As the world's physical and mental problems mount," the paper intoned, "so does the need for men to recognize the universality of their brotherhood and the oneness of their basic interests." The New York Times was not far behind: "The 747 will make it possible for more and more people to discover what their neighbors are like on the other side of the world."
What was the big deal? The 747 was huge by the standards of the day. It could carry as many as 490 people, while the next largest commercial plane, the Boeing 707, could accommodate only 132. The press called it an "air bus." Despite its size, the innovative use of a titanium body made it light enough to go great distances. It had a tremendous range, capable of going forty-six hundred nautical miles without refueling. These two features made it an ideal plane for transcontinental flights.
The sheer number of passengers on board such a plane raised the specter of air disasters on a scale un-heard of before. Boeing had made safety...
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Looking for Human Origins
Lucy and the Search for Earliest Man.
In the early 1970s, if you had asked most Americans who the reigning king of "early man" studies was, they almost certainly would have said Richard Leakey, or perhaps his father, Louis Leakey. Both were made famous by National Geographic television specials celebrating their discoveries of fossil remains of large-brained tool users in East Africa. But much of that changed in 1974, when a team led by American Don Johanson and Frenchman Maurice Taieb reported that they had found a three-million-year-old hominid (humanlike) skeleton in Afar, Ethiopia. The fossil was older and more complete than any hominid ever found before. The shape of the pelvis showed it to be female, while the knee joint and thigh revealed that she walked upright. She was surprisingly short, less than four feet tall. Whimsically, the English members of the team named her Lucy, for the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Her Swahili name was more respectful: Denkanesh, meaning "you are wonderful."
Initially Johanson argued that her upright stature and humanlike features made Lucy a member of the genus Homo, placing her in the same classification as modern humans and Leakey's more modern fossils. After considerable debate, anthropologists assigned her to the genus Australopithecus. The...
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Looking to the Bible
In the 1970s mainstream science was once again challenged by creationists. Advocates of creationism, almost exclusively evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, as were the earlier critics of evolution, believed that the biblical version of the beginning of time in the Book of Genesis ruled out the possibility of evolution. In the strict creationist account, popularized in John Whitcomb and Henry Morris's The Genesis Flood in 1961, the earth had been formed about ten thousand years ago, and God created all plants, animals, and humans in the following six days. Humans and dinosaurs had coexisted. Fossils were the result of the mass deaths in the biblical flood. Carbon-14 dating, by which scientists had established the antiquity of many fossils, could be explained away by a vapor cloud that had covered the earth during the flood and prevented radioactivity from reaching the earth.
Skirmish in California.
Initially The Genesis Flood had no impact outside extremely conservative Christian circles, and even there it was controversial. But creationism burst into public consciousness in 1972, when the California Board of Education accepted the arguments of a handful of fundamentalist Christian parents that creationism should be taught alongside theories of evolution. The parents believed that to do less was to...
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Utilities Go Nuclear.
In 1954 the government authorized private ownership of nuclear reactors as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace initiative, paving the way for utility companies to build nuclear power plants. By the mid 1960s many had "gone nuclear," though the cost of building reactors had proved far more than the early hopes that they could provide power for pennies a day. There was some public opposition to the plants—after all, most Americans' sole experience with the power of the atom was the devastating bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In California residents demanded the cancellation of the planned Bodega Bay reactor, sited on a geological fault, after an earthquake disrupted construction. Inhabitants of New York City resisted the siting of a plant in that densely populated area.
Image Pop-UpProblems with nuclear reactors, such as Three Mile Island's near meltdown, resulted in a growing skepticism among the general population.
Nevertheless, most people liked the idea of building atomic energy plants. The country was using increasing amounts of electric energy, and nuclear power promised to...
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High-Energy Particle Physics.
Following World War II tremendous amounts of federal funding became available for atom-smashing physics because of its association with weapons research. This largesse was extended to high-energy particle research thoughout the 1970s, despite the fact that this work had no discernible military applications and almost all high-energy physicists had refused to do secret research or work on weapons. Particle physicists were the doves of physics, preferring to search for the smallest (or "fundamental") particles of matter rather than develop weapons. Generous funding had allowed them to build the million-dollar equipment required to find such particles.
In 1972 the large accelerator at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, near Chicago, began operation. Named for the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, who laid the ground-work for both nuclear energy and weapons research before switching to research in particle physics, the place quickly acquired the nickname of Fermilab. The purpose of the accelerator is to push electrons extremely rapidly, breaking them into smaller parts, such as quarks. Physicists share time on accelerators, and during the period in which they use it, they try to design experiments that will tell them about the small particles produced....
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Toxic Waste at Love Canal
Storing Industrial Wastes.
In the 1930s and 1940s corporations and citizens did not worry too much about what happened to the chemicals left over from industrial processes. While regulations existed, enforcement was haphazard or nonexistent. Corporations such as Hooker Company in Niagara Falls, New York, which made pesticides, plastics, and other chemicals, mostly just sealed them in fifty-five-gallon metal drums and left them someplace nearby. For Hooker one convenient place was Love Canal, a never-finished part of a Great Lakes canal system begun in the late nineteenth century. While children played and swam nearby, Hooker dumped more than twenty-one thousand tons of chemicals into Love Canal, then filled it in with dirt. In 1953 they gave the covered-over lot to the town for an elementary school and a playground.
Image Pop-UpHomeowners of Love Canal battled the government over the 21,000 tons toxic waste that was dumped and concealed from residents.
As young families built homes near the elementary school, many noticed that their basements leaked. Some thought they noticed chemical smells and strange colors in water that leaked in....
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Ballard, Robert 1942-
GEOLOGIST, OCEAN EXPLORER, ENGINEER
Galápagos Hydrothermal Expedition.
In 1977 Robert Ballard and the team of geologists and chemists of the Galápagos Hydrothermal Expedition were taking pictures of the ocean bottom off the coast of South America when they found something completely unexpected. Well below the reach of sunlight at the mouth of a volcanolike structure, an area certain to be too hot and too remote to support life—they found a thriving community of crabs, eels, and tube worms. The excursion had set out to learn more about geological activity in the deep sea, evidence that might prove that the earth's crust is composed of massive plates. Yet when they developed their pictures, scientists learned that they had made an even greater discovery: somehow life can be sustained at pressures of 3,650 pounds per square inch and in the complete absence of photosynthesizing plants.
Naturally biologists were eager to examine the area where geologists had mapped five separate colonies blooming with life. Ballard returned with them, accompanied by a National Geographic camera crew. Taking...
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Johnson, Virginia E. 1925-
In the 1970s Virginia Johnson and her partner William Masters were a focal point for debate about what contemporaries called the sexual revolution. They published a study of sexual dysfunction, Human Sexual Inadequacy, in 1970 and ran seminars and therapy groups to treat or prevent sexual problems. They also contributed regularly to Redbook magazine. They discussed such issues as women's liberation, "swinging" (married couples exchanging sexual partners), impotence, premature ejaculation, and situational orgasmic dysfunction. Reviews were uneven. They were accused of fostering infidelity by some critics. Germaine Greer, in her book The Female Eunuch (1970), criticized them for promoting "standard, low agitation, cool-out monogamy." If that were not confusing enough, another critic accused them of "creating the end of sex." Johnson herself insisted that the couple (who married in 1971 after more than a decade of scientific collaboration) was conservative. "It's a...
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Penzias, Arno 1933-
In 1978 Arno Penzias and his colleague Robert W. Wilson shared the Nobel Prize for physics for their detection in 1965 of microwave background radiation, a discovery that proved that the universe had been created in a big bang of exploding matter. This discovery settled an argument among scientists. Opponents of the big bang theory argued for a steady-state theory that said the universe had always existed in its present form, with new matter created spontaneously as it expands. If all the matter in the universe had been generated in a single big bang, scientists argued, energy traces from that explosion should still be detectable in the universe, Penzias and Wilson claimed to have found it.
Penzias was not always confident about his abilities as a researcher and scholar. He has referred to his graduate thesis at Columbia as "dreadful" and described his memories of being an undergraduate attending the tuition-free City College of New York in these terms: "I had a feeling at...
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Wilson, E(dward) O(sborne) 1929-
Genetics as Destiny.
E. O. Wilson's 1975 book Sociobiology vigorously contested the firm boundary between biology, on the one hand, and culture on the other. He proposed that traits like altruism and aggression, believed since the 1930s to be exclusively learned behaviors, were in fact the result of genetic predisposition. He extended the field of population biology and evolutionary theory to argue that many social behaviors, including human ones, are the result of a biological impulse lodged in one's genes. For example, even the altruistic sacrifice of one life for another increases the chances that genes from one's species will survive. Wilson writes that "In a Darwinist sense, the organism does not live for itself. Its primary function is not even to reproduce other organisms; it reproduces genes and serves as their temporary carrier." He popularized these views in his 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, On Human Nature.
Educated at the University of Alabama and Harvard, Wilson's training was in entomology, the study of insects. He received his Ph.D. for exhaustive study of the ant genus Lasius. Most of his books have focused on entomology, including The Insect Societies (1971) and The Insects (1977). However, he also has done research on population ecology. In...
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People in the News
J. M. Adovasio and his students began the excavation of Meadowcroft, west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in June 1970. It was subsequently shown to have been inhabited by humans as early as nineteen thousand years ago—eight thousand years earlier than other known North American sites.
Independently David Baltimore and Howard Martin Temin found an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which makes possible the transcription of RNA onto DNA. Previously it was thought that genetic information only moved one way, from DNA to RNA. They shared the Nobel Prize in 1975 for this discovery.
In 1973 Charles H. Bennett showed how to build a computer without the components known to cause energy loss.
In April 1978 David Botstein, Ronald Davis, and Mak Skolnick proposed that DNA sequencing can be used to identify genetic diseases in utero, paving the way for fetal genetic screening.
In 1974 Samuel Chao Chung Ting and Burton Richter, working independently, each produced a subatomic particle that contained a new fundamental particle. Called the J/psi particle, the discovery, which had been predicted by the theory of charm, was made possible by the massive new particle accelerators. They shared the Nobel Prize for this work in 1976.
James W. Christy and...
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Earl W. Sutherland, Jr., wins the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for work on the action of hormones.
Christian Boehmer Anfinsen, Stanford Moore, and William H. Stein, all of the United States, share the Nobel Prize for chemistry for "fundamental contributions to enzyme chemistry."
John Bardeen, Leon N. Cooper, and John R. Schrieffer win the Nobel Prize for physics for the development of the theory of superconductivity.
Norwegian-American physicist Ivar Glaever, Leo Esaki of Japan, and Brian Josephson of England win the Nobel Prize for physics for their work in tunneling in superconductors and semiconductors.
Paul J. Flory wins the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his studies of long-chain molecules.
L. James Rainwater of the United States and Ben Mottelson and Aage Bohr of Denmark win the Nobel Prize for physics for work toward understanding of the atomic nucleus that paved the way for nuclear fusion.
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Georg von Békésy, 83, Hungarian-born American physicist who won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for discoveries on stimulation within the cochlea of the ear, 13 June 1972.
Vannevar Bush, 84, electrical engineer who invented the differential analyzer, 28 June 1974.
William David Coolidge, 101, physical chemist who invented ductile tungsten, which was essential in the development of the modern incandescent lamp bulb and the X-ray tube, 3 February 1975.
Theodosius Dobzhansky, 75, Russian-American geneticist who contributed to the synthetic theory of evolution, 18 December 1975.
Vincent Du Vigneaud, 77, biochemist who won the Nobel Prize for research on pituitary hormones, 11 December 1978.
John Ray Dunning, 67, physicist whose experiments in nuclear fission helped lay the groundwork for development of the atomic bomb, 25 August 1975.
William Maurice Ewing, 67, geophysicist who established bases of plate tectonics and made early photographs and seismic studies of the ocean floor, 4 May 1974.
Kurt Godei, 71, Austrian-American mathematician who showed that the logic of any sufficiently complex logical mathematic system contains propositions that cannot be proved or disproved from within that...
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Enzo Angelucci, Airplanes from the Dawn of Flight to the Present Day (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973);
Daniel Behrman, Solar Energy: The Awakening Science (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976);
Joseph Ben-David, The Scientist's Role in Society (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971);
Donald J. Bennet, The Elements of Nuclear Power (New York: Wiley, 1973);
J. Boyne and Donald Lopez, eds., The Jet Age: Forty Years of Jet Aviation (Washington, D.C.: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institute Press, 1979);
Michael Brown, Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals (New York: Washington Square Press, 1979);
Federal Interagency Committee on Recombinant DNA Research, Report of the Federal Interagency Committee on Recombinant DNA Research (Washington, D.C.: Federal Interagency Committee on Recombinant DNA Research, 1977);
Joseph Fletcher, The Ethics of Genetic Control: Ending Reproductive Roulette (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1974);
Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature (New York: Harper Sc Row, 1978);
Laurence Karp, Genetic Engineering: Threat or Promise? (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976);
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Important Events in Science and Technology, 1970–1979
- In January, molecular biologist Hamilton O. Smith isolates the first enzyme that cuts a sequence of nucleotide bases from a strand of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
- On January 21, the Boeing 747, the first jumbo jet, is put into commercial service.
- In March, International Business Machines (IBM) introduces the floppy disk for storing computer data.
- On April 3, President Richard M. Nixon signs the Water Quality Improvement Act to reduce water pollution.
- On April 11, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launches Apollo 13. Two days later an oxygen leak and fire disable the spacecraft, and the astronauts barely make it home.
- On April 22, people in countries throughout the world celebrate the first Earth Day.
- In August, large reflecting telescopes are completed at Kitt Peak, Arizona, and Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
- On December 11, U.S. agronomist Norman Borlaug becomes the first scientist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
- On December 31, President Richard Nixon signs the National Air Quality Control Act, with the goal of reducing automobile pollution 90 percent by 1975.
- People can for the first time dial directly by telephone...
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