When you are an engineer and the author of a weekly science column, it influences the gifts that you receive. This year for Father’s Day, my family gave me a copy of Scientific American® from May of 1987. What caught their eye was the cover story, Predicting the Earth’s Climate. They knew I had often written about climate change and figured, correctly, that a comparison between what I had been writing recently and what Scientific American® had to say in 1987 would intrigue me. In addition to the climate story, there were a number of other topics covered in the magazine that seem worthy of a “then” versus “now” analysis.
Before addressing the scientific issues, let’s have a walk down the 1987 memory lane to get oriented. In 1987, a gallon of gasoline cost 89 cents a gallon and a postage stamp was 24 cents. The Food and Drug Administration approved AZT as a treatment for HIV and Prozac to lessen our collective anxiety. The world watched the dramatic 58 hour rescue of baby Jessica McClure who fell down a well in Midland, TX and the stock market reminded us of the cycle of boom and bust with a 22% drop in value on October the 19th. Global population hit the five billion mark in 1987. Today there are more than seven billion of us!
Scientific American® has always occupied a space between highly-technical, peer-reviewed journals and mass-media science reporting. This is a zone I try to occupy with Common Science® as well. I am a current subscriber to Scientific American® and used to buy an occasional edition back in the 1980s. It has been my impression for some time that their magazines used to be far more technical than they are today. Reading the May 1987 edition absolutely confirmed this impression. It presupposes a significantly higher level of technical knowledge from the reader than the current editions.
The climate article had one aspect that would fit right into an article from 2015 and another that reminds you that 1987 was a very different time. It began by reviewing the essence of the Greenhouse Effect, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means that more of the energy from the sun is captured. Then it noted “What is not certain is the precise amount of warming and the regional pattern of climate change that can be expected.” This exact sentence could be dropped into most any current article about climate change. The authors did conclude, however, that despite the uncertainly on specific impacts, the earth was already 0.5 °C warmer than it had been a century earlier. Since the 1987, humanity has added another 102,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the air.
The next part of the climate article was rather bracing. It was a discussion of climate models for a nuclear winter which would result from a United States-U.S.S.R war. I had forgotten how common this concern was back in the 1980s. The models predicted that a nuclear war would eject a significant amount of dust and other particles into the upper atmosphere which would block some of the sun’s energy resulting in a 10-15 °C temperature decreases across the globe for several months. The authors suggested that while the impacts of this would be catastrophic, that “the earth would not be consigned to the insects, and the human species would almost certainly not become extinct.” How’s that for a rosy conclusion?
The magazine also includes an article about the curious life that exists near deep sea vents on the ocean floor. These oases of life in the deeps had only been discovered in 1977. The authors described how the food chain for this community was based on the ability of specially-adapted bacteria to use hydrogen sulfide as an energy source rather than sunlight which is the basis for the rest of the food chain on earth. I wrote about deep sea vents in October of 2012. My article and the Scientific American article cover much of the same ground. What is bringing renewed focus to deep sea vents is the tantalizing suggestion that if life can exist in these inhospitable environments, perhaps there are other “unlikely” places which harbor life such as Mars or the moons of Jupiter.
Reading the advertisements from 1987 was amusing. In the center of the magazine, IBM purchased a six page glossy insert to advertise their Personal System/2 desktop computer with the proud claim that it had 640 kilobytes of memory. For comparison, a current low-cost laptop from Dell Computers comes with four gigabytes of memory, an amount which is 6250 times greater than the IBM model from 1987. Adding to the nostalgia, at least for me, was that the IBM insert featured a glossy photograph from the cast of M*A*S*H. Given that the Korean War-based series had its finale four years earlier in 1983, it’s interesting that IBM would choose these spokespeople for their newest PC.
I was surprised and intrigued to find an article about income inequality, not a subject one might expect in Scientific American. The article describes an ongoing “surge in inequality” stating that “Since the late 1970s . . . the shares of total income going to different segments of the population have changed in such a way that the rich are getting richer, the poor are increasing in number, and the middle class has trouble holding its own.” When Scientific American sounded the alarm on this issue in 1987, the top 10% of households in the U.S. brought in 33% of the income and held 57% of the wealth. In the 28 years since that article was written, these percentages for have grown to 48% of the income and 77% of the wealth. One has to wonder how much longer this trend can continue.
After reviewing the math on inequality, the authors provided their thoughts on the basis for the surge in inequality. They focused on two issues. The first was how the growing trade deficit had resulted in a significant reduction in high-paying manufacturing jobs. They went to great pains to describe this trend as some sort of naturally-occurring phenomenon rather than being the outcome of the trade policies of the Reagan administration. The second factor they noted was the entry of more women into the workforce. Since women’s wages in 1987 were, on average, only 65% of what men were paid; simple math tells you that the addition of women to the workforce would drive down average wages. Naively I expected the next sentence in the article to say something to the effect of, “increasing the wages of women to be equal to those of men would go a long way towards redressing the growth of income inequality.” Boy, was I wrong! Instead, the next sentence in the article was, “Families headed by women raise a variety of sociological, religious, and ethical issues; they certainly create an economic problem.” I about fell out of my chair. But then I remembered that this anti-women point of view is sadly still not too uncommon in current day America.
I am happy to say that as write this a few months short of my 50th birthday, that I rarely feel old, but reading the Scientific American® made 1987 fell rather distance and caused me to contemplate my upcoming birthday. So as much as I enjoyed it as a present, I think I’ll ask my family for something different next Father’s Day.
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