Following a suggestion by NAS member Lloyd Berkner, the International Council of Scientific
Unions in 1952 proposed a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities to
span the period July 1957-December 1958. The International Geophysical Year (IGY), as it
was called, was modeled on the International Polar Years of 1882-1883 and 1932-1933 and was
intended to allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated
observations of various geophysical phenomena. Although representatives of 46 countries
originally agreed to participate in the IGY, by the close of the activity, 67 countries had
International organization and funding of the IGY were overseen by the International Council
of Scientific Unions (ICSU), an independent federation of international scientific unions.
A Special Committee for the IGY (CSAGI, an acronym derived from the French) was formed to
act as the governing body for all IGY activities. Care had been taken to ensure that CSAGI
would remain nonnationalistic, apolitical, and geared toward a scientific agenda.
American participation in the IGY was charged to a US National Committee (USNC) appointed in
March 1953 by the NAS. Joseph Kaplan, Professor of Physics at UCLA, was appointed Chairman
of the USNC. Physicist Alan H. Shapley of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) was appointed
Vice-Chairman, and Hugh Odishaw, also of the NBS, was appointed Executive Secretary (later,
Executive Director). The core USNC was made up of sixteen members, but the five Working Groups
and thirteen Technical Panels that operated under it eventually drew in nearly 200 additional
scientists. The technical panels were formed to pursue work in the following areas: aurora and
airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and
latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, rocketry, seismology, and solar activity.
In addition, a technical panel was set up to attempt to launch an artificial satellite into
orbit around the earth.
IGY activities literally spanned the globe from the North to the South Poles. Although much
work was carried out in the arctic and equatorial regions, special attention was given to the
Antarctic, where research on ice depths yielded radically new estimates of the earth's total
ice content. IGY Antarctic research also contributed to improved meteorological prediction,
advances in the theoretical analysis of glaciers, and better understanding of seismological
phenomena in the Southern Hemisphere.
Given the state of science in the late 1950s, the timing of the IGY was highly opportune.
Research technologies and tools had advanced greatly since the 1930s, allowing scientists a
scope of investigation without precedent. Cosmic ray recorders, spectroscopes, and radiosonde
balloons had opened the upper atmosphere to detailed exploration, while newly developed
electronic computers facilitated the analysis of large data sets. But the most dramatic of
the new technologies available to the IGY was the rocket. Post-World War II developments in
rocketry for the first time made the exploration of space a real possibility; working with the
new technologies, Soviet and American participants sent artificial satellites into earth orbit.
In successfully launching science into space, the IGY may have scored its greatest breakthrough.
Overall, the IGY was highly successful in achieving its goals, which were summed up in an NAS
IGY Program Report:
...to observe geophysical phenomena and to secure data from
all parts of the world; to conduct this effort on a coordinated
basis by fields, and in space and time, so that results could be
collated in a meaningful manner.
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