Topics in the News
Innovation and Consolidation.
Aeronautics in the 1980s experienced many technological improvements built on achievements from the previous two decades. Such progress was hampered in some fields by economic realities and enhanced in others by political imperatives. Issues such as safety, pollution, the arms race, and government spending became fully intertwined with aero-space technology. As a result, aviation developed into a field with enormous socio-economic implications ranging from leisure travel to high-technology industrial development. Some observers nevertheless argue that the fluctuations the field underwent in the 1980s point to its having yet to reach maturity.
The 1980s were a period of upheavals for the commercial aviation industry. Following the deregulation trend begun in the United States in 1978, economic control of the industry was lifted in favor of letting market forces act. The rationale that high levels of competition would winnow out inefficient airlines and lower the costs of flying led to the appearance of low-cost "no-frills" airlines, operating a limited number of routes and offering little or no on-board service. The practice had been initiated by Sir Freddie Laker, a British businessman, with his low cost "Skytrain," a DC-10 that flew daily between New York and London. In the case of U.S....
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Cleaning Up Toxic Waste
A Problem of Plenty.
During the 1980s the people of the United States lived a life of comfort unheralded in human history for so large and diverse a people. Astonishing advances in technology were largely responsible for the nation's material success. The country's comparative affluence had, however, a major side effect: pollution. From the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution the country's factories, chemical plants, and even (beginning with the use of manmade chemical fertilizers and insecticides) the nation's farms were culpable. While producing an expansive profusion of goods for market, the nation's economy had also been pouring vast quantities of pollutants into the soil, water, and air.
In 1980 Congress established the Super-fund to clean up toxic waste dumps across the country. The Superfund was only one part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), but CERCLA was judged an awkward acronym, and the law was commonly referred to as the Superfund Act of 1980.The Superfund provided three essential things in the fight against toxic waste sites: it put the federal government in charge of identifying public sites; it provided for fines to be levied on chemical manufacturers to assist in funding the cleanup; and it held companies that had contributed to a toxic site, how-ever...
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The personal computer revolution was a phenomenon of immense importance in the 1980s. What the average American commonly refers to as a PC, or personal computer, did not even exist before the 1970s. Mainframe computers had been the norm, and they were primarily relegated to business and scientific use. With the dawn of the personal computer all Americans were allowed potential access to computers. As competition and modernization increased, issues of cost became less and less of an inhibitor, and it appeared that a new technological "populism" had developed. Companies such as Apple Computer became household names, and words such as software and downloading became commonplace. It was predicted that by 1990, 60 percent of all the jobs in the United States would require familiarity with computers. Already by 1985, some 2 million Americans were using personal computers to perform various tasks in the office. The impact of the personal computer to the average American has been enormous—in addition to its usefulness at the office, it has become a source of entertainment, culture, and education.
Founded in 1976 by Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, Apple Computer was to be the spearhead of the personal computer revolution. Apple had achieved moderate success in the late 1970s, but in the 1980s the...
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Fusion, once touted as the energy source of the future because of its cleanliness and low demand for raw materials, became immensely difficult to produce. To extract all this energy required the ability to fuse two atomic nuclei, an act that is extremely difficult to achieve since like charges repel one other. To over-come this basic problem, scientists spent millions of dollars on machines and research. Rarely were these machines able to replicate, even for a minute, what the sun accomplishes constantly—fusion reactions. With limited sustainable results and waning interest, the fusion program in the United States appeared destined for hard times. By 1989 funding for fusion research had been cut to slightly more than $500 million, about half of its peak in the 1970s. Decreased funding led to internal fighting within the field as each potential program promised more than it could ever possibly deliver in such a short period.
Magnetic confinement remained the most widely used approach in the attempt to harness fusion reactions. Two-thirds of U.S. efforts and a larger percentage worldwide pursued this method, which called for the heating up and the compressing of plasma confined in a magnetic field. The process was accomplished using a gigantic machine called a tokamak. Modern tokamaks, such as...
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Human Genome Project
Mapping the Human Genetic Blueprint.
Humans are made up of billions of cells, each of which performs a specific function. The coding for these functions is located in the "blueprint" held in each cell's chromosomes, and the collection of genes on the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes constitutes the human genome. Mapping the precise sequence of the 3 billion nucleotides that make up the genetic sequence in the human genome became the focus of many geneticists' work during the 1980s. "The total human sequence," as Walter Gilbert noted, "is the grail of human genetics;"
Judged technically feasible at conferences of biologists in 1985 and 1986, the U.S. government committed itself to funding the effort to map the blue-print of human life in 1989, In January 1989, partly spurred on by an awareness that scientists in Japan and the European nations were beginning to catch up with America's lead in the field, the U.S. National Institutes of Health launched a multiyear project to map the human genome. Initial cost estimates were projected to be around $3 billion, putting the Human Genome Project, as it came to be called, into the category of "Big Science" projects funded by U.S. taxpayers. By comparison the supercollider project of the mid 1980s was to have cost $3 billion; NASA's several projects, including a future space station,...
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A Deceiving Calm.
During the 1980s proponents of nuclear power had much to celebrate. The technology worked, and it did so without burning up the earth's coal and oil reserves and without spewing noxious fossil-fuel pollutants from conventional power plants into the atmosphere. By 1989 there were 426 nuclear power plants worldwide, and the 110 plants located in the United States that year supplied nearly one-fifth of the nation's electricity. All, however, was not well in the nation's nuclear power industry.
Image Pop-UpOn April 26, 1986 part of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded, sending radioactive matter into the air. Fallout from the blast was recorded as far away as Scotland.
A Torrent of Problems.
The nuclear power industry in the United States was beset with problems. During the 1980s not one new order was placed for a nuclear power plant anywhere in the country. Cost overruns in construction and maintenance of reactors was much higher than had been anticipated. It was not uncommon for the final price tag of a nuclear plant to exceed tenfold the initial estimates. Safety, too, was a major concern. The events of 28 March 1979 at Three...
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Problems with Ozone.
When three atoms of oxygen bond they form a molecule of ozone (O3). Ozone is both much rarer and much more chemically active than O2 molecules—the common form of oxygen found on earth. Nevertheless, ozone posed two significant health risks during the 1980s. The first problem was that there was too much of it in urban areas near the planet's surface. The second problem was that there was not enough of it at high altitudes. Both problems were "man-made."
Ozone as an Urban Problem.
At low altitudes, in the earth's troposphere, automobiles and factories poured tons of organic gases into the atmosphere. When these chemicals mix with nitrogen oxides they form smog—one ingredient of which is the highly poisonous ozone. During the 1980s the government issued "ozone alerts"—cautioning citizens to stay indoors or curtail vigorous out-door activities that might cause them to inhale large quantities of ozone and thereby injure their lung tissue. In many urban areas, where automotive exhaust and industries are highly concentrated, the problem was often very serious. In 1987 Los Angeles's ozone levels exceeded federal health standards on 141 days. But California was not the only affected state. In 1987 ozone levels exceeded federal standards on 19 days in New York City, on 21 days in Houston, and on 23 days in Philadelphia....
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In 1980 a team of scientists at the University of California, headed by Professor Martin Cline, successfully transferred a gene from one mouse to another. Cline's team of researchers took genetic material from the bone marrow of a drug-resistant strain of mice and placed it into mice not possessing the gene. Such gene-replacement techniques, researchers hoped, might eventually lead to applications in healing sick people. They had potential use in increasing the drug tolerance of human cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or in helping sickle-cell anemia patients overcome this malady.
In yet another genetic experiment researchers at four U.S. laboratories collaborated during the early 1980s in engineering genetically altered mice. Their endeavors resulted in offspring twice the size of the parents. They achieved this outcome by placing a growth hormone from rats into the reproductive eggs of laboratory mice. The growth hormone became active in the livers of the genetically manipulated mice—causing them to grow into comparative giants. Following their successes with the rat growth hormone, researchers successfully repeated the experiment using human growth hormones—the first instance in history in which human genes had been transplanted into another living mammal—and found that a similar doubling...
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Triumph to Chaos.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) witnessed both great triumph as well as immense downfall in the 1980s. With the formulation of the Space Transportation System (STS), more commonly referred to as the space shuttle, NASA fundamentally shifted its approach to space travel. The space shuttle was to supersede traditional expendable launch vehicles (ELVs), as it was to be the first in the line of reusable spaceships. Competition in the race for space had increased in recent years, as both Europe and the Soviet Union had found more-economical methods of exploration. With the shuttle in operation all appeared in order for NASA, an organization that had long been underfunded by the federal government and was searching for a new symbol to retain its prestige as the premier space exploration organization in the world. The 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion derailed this progress, and the entire space program was placed in great jeopardy. The explosion and its subsequent scrutiny by the goverment, scientists, and the media left NASA reeling and searching for stability, respect, and direction. NASA was scolded for its emphasis on style and gimmickry over science and safety, and the organization was ill prepared to fend off such attacks. In 1988 NASA attempted to revive its tarnished image with a remodeled and internally redesigned Discovery...
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Growth of the Arms Race.
Scientists in the United States created the world's first atomic bombs in 1945. In 1949 the Soviet Union built its own atomic bomb, and the arms race was on. In the 1950s and 1960s airplanes were the method of choice for delivering nuclear war-heads to their destinations, and President Eisenhower developed an anti-aircraft defense system to guard against Soviet bombers. In the 1960s, with the introduction of the technology of rocketry, the preferred delivery system became the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The development of ICBMs led the United States, during President Nixon's administration, to develop and deploy antiballistic missiles (ABMs) that could shoot down incoming enemy missiles. The development of ABMs led both sides to search for further means of delivering their bombs to their targets, and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) were developed in the 1970s. MIRVs, consisting of one launch rocket with several nuclear bombs aboard, were able to overwhelm ABM defenses. During the 1970s increasing accuracy, speed, and miniaturization of nuclear warheads lent increased credibility to the notion that a first strike by the Soviet Union on the United States (or the reverse) was increasingly possible.
In March 1983 President Ronald Reagan called for a space-based...
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Alvarez, Luis W. 1911-1988
Luis Alvarez, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize for physics, was born in San Francisco on 13 June 1911. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Alvarez's intellectual interests spanned a variety of scientific fields. During World War II Alvarez was a group leader among scientists who developed the atomic bomb, and he was one of a select few observers who flew in a companion aircraft with the Enola Gay to witness the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. During the early years of the war Alvarez, then working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a radar system that assisted aircraft in landing during heavy fog and other low-visibility circumstances. In 1946 Alvarez developed the proton linear accelerator known as LINEAC using tubular wave guides and other components. Using his invention, scientists were able to accelerate protons to a speed of 32 MeV. After World War II he returned to the University of California, Berkeley and began the work with...
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Baltimore, David 1938-
Education and Awards.
David Baltimore was born in New York City, graduated from Swarthmore College with a B.S. in chemistry in 1960, and received a Ph.D. from Rockefeller University in 1964. In 1968 he became an associate professor of microbiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 1970 he won the Gustav Stern Award in Virology. Three years later he was awarded a prestigious American Cancer Society professorship. "My life," he told a Time correspondent in 1979, "is dedicated to increasing knowledge."
In 1975 he shared the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology (along with Renato Dulbecco and Howard Termin) for the discovery of reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that carries out one of the basic processes in a cell. He discovered that viral RNA (ribonucleic acid) can pass information to DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and replicate. This ground breaking discovery explained the perplexing problem of the replication of a group of retroviruses, whose genetic center consists of RNA rather than DNA. Scientists had been puzzled by the ability of some RNA viruses in tumors to transform healthy cells that they had infected. Since a better understanding of this cellular process potentially held answers to questions about the etiology of cancer, microbiologists toiled over the...
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Berg, Paul 1926-
Education and Early Career.
Born on 30 June 1926, Paul Berg earned a B.S. in biochemistry at Pennsylvania State University in 1948. After serving three years in the Navy, Berg returned to school, earning a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1952. He continued his postgraduate research in Denmark and subsequently in Saint Louis, Missouri, at Washington University. In 1956 he was appointed to an assistant professorship in microbiology at Washington University's School of Medicine and in 1959 accepted a professorship in biochemistry at Stanford University. It was at: Stanford that Berg made the discoveries that won him the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1980.
Recombining Bits of DNA.
Berg has made a variety of important contributions to the study of biochemistry. He developed a technique for splicing deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from different organisms together. This splicing technique has proved to be of inestimable importance in studying viral chromosomes. It has also served as the cornerstone for much subsequent biochemical research into human genetic diseases and has allowed scientists to use rudimentary organisms as chemical mills, turning out useful medical drugs. The commercial production of many medicines has at its root the methodologies developed by Berg. The...
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Bluford, Guion S., Jr. 1942-
Guion Stewar t Bluford Jr. was the first U.S. astronaut of African American descent. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 22 November 1942, Bluford earned his B.S. in aerospace engineering in 1964 from Penn State University and his Ph.D. from the Air Force Institute of Technology, in the same field, in 1978. While working toward his doctorate he engaged a broad spectrum of aerospace engineering problems and did research in laser physics. His dissertation was titled "A Numerical Solution of Supersonic and Hypersonic Viscous Flow Fields Around Thin Planar Delta Wings."
Air Force Pilot in Vietnam.
Beginning in 1967 Bluford served as an Air Force pilot with the 557 Tactical Fighter Squadron in Vietnam. During his service in Vietnam he flew 144 combat missions and served with distinction. Bluford received the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm, the Vietnam Service Medal, ten Air Force Air Medals, and three Air Force outstanding unit awards.
Becoming an Astronaut.
Chosen from a field of ten thousand candidates, Bluford became one of thirty-five astronauts chosen in 1978 to join the space program. Bluford's intellectual and military training served him well in the astronaut corps. Becoming an astronaut, as he noted...
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Gould, Stephen Jay 1941-
PALEONTOLOGIST AND AUTHOR
Born in New York City on 10 September 1941, Gould was from an early age intrigued by dinosaurs and fossils. He received his B.A. from Antioch College in 1963 and earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1967. That same year he began his illustrious career as a teacher at Harvard University.
In 1972 Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge produced a paper, "Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism," in which they challenged the theory of phyletic gradualism, which contends that species evolve gradually over long periods of time. Gould and Eldredge argued that new species arise over a relatively short period of geologic time through rapid change in small groups of species. They promoted their view after noting the paucity of transitional varieties of animals found in the fossil record.
Creationism versus Evolution.
In 1981 Gould was called as an expert witness in a trial in Arkansas. The state legislature had required the teaching of the biblical account of creation in school classrooms. By labeling the Judeo-Christian account of creation given in Genesis—which states that God created the world and all its creatures in six days, sometime around six thousand years ago—as...
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Mccuntock, Barbara 1902-1992
Barbara McClintock was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. McClintock later described herself in youth as someone who enjoyed social occasions well enough but who valued most of all the time she spent "thinking about things." Her mother initially opposed her daughter's pursuit of a college degree as "unfeminine"—and worried that she might become "a strange person, a person that didn't belong to society." As a result, after completing high school, the highly talented young scientist spent a year working for an employment agency. In 1919, however, she enrolled at Cornell University, where in 1923 she earned her B.S. in biology, and in 1927 she completed her Ph.D. in the same field.
While in graduate school McClintock began her research on the chromosome structure of the maize plant. It was this research that eventually led to her Nobel Prize-winning discoveries. From 1929 to 1931 she published nine papers, and in the early 1930s she was awarded a National Research Council fellowship. In 1933 she traveled to Germany expecting to take up a position as a Guggenheim Fellow, but witnessing the horrors of Nazism upon her arrival, she quickly returned to the United States. Thereafter, she landed a position at the University of Missouri and taught there...
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Ride, Sally Kirsten 1951-
Born on 26 May 1951 in the suburbs of Encino, California, Sally Kirsten Ride's intellect and athleticism—both necessities for an astronaut—earned her a place in history as America's first woman to fly in space. She earned both a B.A. in literature and a B.S. in physics in 1973 at Stanford University, and in 1977 she received her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford. Her research in graduate school focused on X-ray astronomy and lasers, and her dissertation research engaged the theory of the influence of magnetic fields on free electrons.
Answering an Ad.
While in graduate school Ride happened, almost by accident, to read an advertisement in the campus newspaper soliciting resumes for work as "mission specialists" on future space flights. NASA had placed the ads hoping that young, talented scientists would identify themselves. They received more than tewn thousand responses. Sally Ride was one of the select few chosen. In her youth she had trained for, and for a time seriously considered, a career as a...
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Wilson, Kenneth G. 1936-
Wilson was born on 8 June 1936 in Waltham, Massachusetts, the oldest of six children. His father, Edgar B. Wilson Jr., was a Harvard physicist. From an early age Kenneth Wilson displayed an interest in science. He earned his B.A. from Harvard and a Ph.D. in 1961 from the California Institute of Technology. At Cal Tech, Wilson worked on quantum theory under Murray Gell-Mann, whose own work had garnered him the Nobel Prize in physics for his theoretical work on quarks. From 1959 to 1962 Wilson was a junior fellow at Harvard University's Society of Fellows, and in 1962-1963 he worked at the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. Wilson became a member of Cornell University's faculty in 1963. In 1975 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Wilson won the Heinemann Prize in 1973, the Botzmann Medal in 1975, and the Wolf Prize in 1980. In 1981 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
Kenneth Wilson won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1982 for his brilliant theoretical insights into the problem of how to account for what physicists refer to as "critical phenomena" in matter. Under certain temperatures and pressures a variety of chemicals display curious qualities. Iron and nickel, for example, when heated to 1,044 K—the "Curie...
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People in the News
With a tight budget on research dollars in the late 1980s, large and small science projects had to compete for government funds in a zero-sum game. "Science in the United States is dying of giantism" argued Noble Prize-winning physicist Phillip Anderson in 1988. "Big projects are the worst way to arrive at basic discoveries."
In December 1980, after a five-year study of the mathematical ability of some ten thousand students, psychologists Camilla Persons Benbow and Julian C. Stanley conclude that "Sex differences in achievement in and attitude toward mathematics result from superior male mathematical ability." Critics charge the finding is flawed since environmental factors were not properly screened.
In an experiment in deep-sea diving conducted by physiologist Peter Bennett at Duke University in April 1980, three volunteers, Delmar Shelton, William Bell, and Stephen Porter, worked under pressures equivalent to 2,132 feet underwater—more than 100 feet beyond the deepest simulated dive ever before made—with no symptoms of high-pressure nervous syndrome (HPNS).
In 1987 Paul Chu and colleagues published the recipe for an yttrium-based ceramic that can superconduct at temperatures as high as 92 K (-294°F). Previously even the best superconductors had to be cooled to nearly -400°F.
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James W. Cronin and Val L. Fitch, Physics; Paul Berg, Walter Gilbert, and Frederick Sanger, Chemistry.
Nieolass Bloembergen and Arthur Schaalow, Physics; Roald Hoffmann, Chemistry.
Kenneth G. Wilson, Physics.
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and William A. Fowler, Physics.
Bruce Merrifield, Chemistry.
Herbert A. Hauptman and Jerome Karle, Chemistry.
Dudley Herschbach and Yuan T. Lee, Chemistry.
Donald J. Cram and Charles J. Pederson, Chemistry.
Leon M. Lederman, Melvin Schwartz, and Jack Steinberger, Physics.
Norman F. Ramsey, Physics; Thomas R. Cech and Sidney Altman, Chemistry.
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George Abell, 57, astronomer whose discovery, the Abell Galaxy, was for many years the largest known object in the universe, 7 October 1983.
Luis W. Alvarez, 77, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and proponent of the theory that the dinosaur extinctions were caused by a comet striking the earth, 1 September 1988.
Frederik Barry Bang, 64, biologist and expert on parasitic disease, 3 October 1981.
Gregory Bateson, 76, British-born anthropologist and former husband and collaborator of Margaret Mead, 4 July 1980.
William Behrens, 63, naval admiral and oceanographer, 21 January 1986.
George Packer Berry, 87, virologist and dean of the Harvard Medical School (1949-1966), 5 October 1986.
Junius Bouton Bird, 74, prominent archaeologist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, 2 April 1982.
Walter Houser Brattain, 85, physicist and coinventor of the transistor, 13 October 1987.
Harrison Brown, 69, atomic scientist who played a key role in developing the atomic bomb, 8 December 1986.
Kurt Heinrich Debus, 74, electrical and rocket engineer, director of the Kennedy Space Center at the time of the first moon landing, 10 October 1983....
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Isaac Asimov, Frontiers: New Discoveries about Man and His Planet, Outer Space, and the Universe (New Y ton, 1989);
Asimov, The Universe: From Flat Earth to Black Holes—And Beyond (New York: Walker, 1980);
David Attenborough, Life on Earth: A Natural History (London: Reader's Digest, 1980);
Anthony Aveni, Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures (New York: Basic, 1989);
John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988);
John Boslough, Stephen Hawkings Universe (New York: Morrow, 1985);
Richard A. Carrigan Jr. and W. Peter Trowers, eds., Particle Physics in the Cosmos (New York: Freeman, 1989);
Nathan Cohen, Gravity's Lens (New York: Wiley, 1988);
Paul Davies, Superforce (New York: Simon & Schuster,
Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions (New York: Harper & Row, 1985);
Richard P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983);
Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (New York: Norton, 1985);
Julius T. Fraser,...
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Important Events in Science and Technology, 1980–1989
- On January 16, the Boston office of Biogen, a Swiss bio-engineering firm, announces it has produced a disease-fighting protein, interferon.
- On February 2, Science News reports that 170 Adirondack lakes have lost their fish due to acid rain.
- On February 26, the nuclear containment building at Crystal River, Florida, spills thousands of gallons of radioactive water.
- On March 20, New Scientist publishes the discovery of a binary star system—two stars that rotate around each other every six hours.
- On April 2, William J. Schopf at the University of California at Los Angeles discovers evidence that life on earth is 3.5 billion years old—a finding that corroborates earlier estimates.
- On May 18, in Washington State, Mount St. Helens erupts, spewing forth 51 million cubic yards of volcanic ash, dirt, and rocks, leveling nearby forests and killing sixty-one people.
- On June 6, physicists Luis Alvarez and Walter Alvarez (father and son) propose that the collision of an asteroid with the earth caused the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
- On June 16, in Diamond v. Chakrabarty the Supreme Court grants biotechnology firms and scientists the right to patent genetically-engineered organisms.
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