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Tag archive: 1979

Nobel Hotspot

Derek Walcott, photographed by Bert Nienhuis in 2008

1992: If braininess were measured in terms of number of Nobel Prize winners relative to size of population, Saint Lucia would have a strong claim to be the world’s brainiest country. The Caribbean island, with a population of less than 150,000, celebrated its first Nobel Prize winner, Arthur Lewis, for economics, in 1979, and its second, Derek Walcott, for literature, in 1992.

Source: Guy Ellis, St Lucia: Helen of the West Indies (2006), pp. 1, 2, 8

Infinitely Slowly

John Mainstone, of the University of Queensland, photographed in 1990 with the pitch drop experiment

1988: For half a century, John Mainstone oversaw the University of Queensland’s pitch drop experiment, in which pitch – the tarry substance used to make boat seams watertight – dripped infinitely slowly from a funnel into a flask. Set up in 1927, the experiment demonstrated that pitch is not a solid, but an extremely viscous liquid.

Although a drop fell from the funnel only once every decade or so, paradoxically, when this happened, it happened in an instant. One weekend in April 1979, aware that a drop was about to fall, Mainstone kept a close watch on the experiment, but nothing happened, so he went home. When he returned on Monday, the drop had fallen. Nine years later, he was determined to witness the next drop, but briefly abandoned his vigil to go for a cup of tea. When he came back, the drop had fallen.

Source: www.wnycstudios.org/story/
267176-never-quite-now

Bearing The Brunt

1979: The introduction, in 1979, of a one-child family policy in China was followed by more intrusive birth control measures that reached a peak in 1983. The number of abortions increased from 5.4 million in 1978 to 14.4 million in 1983, while sterilisations jumped from 3.3 million to 20.8 million. Women bore the brunt: female sterilisations outnumbered male sterilisations by three to two in 1973; by 1985, four times as many women as men were operated on; in 2000, the ratio was more than five to one.

Source: Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A. Winckler, Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics (2005), pp. 255–61

Killer Robot

1979: “A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics notwithstanding, this year saw the first known killing of a human by a robot. On 25 January, workers at a Ford Motor Company plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, noticed that a robot appeared to be giving incorrect information about the number of parts stored on shelves. When Robert Williams climbed on to a shelf to investigate, he was fatally struck on the head by the robot’s arm.

Source: The New York Times, 11 August 1983

Change Of Diet

1979: Idi Amin’s increasingly rickety rule of Uganda came to an end. In exile in Saudi Arabia, the deposed dictator put his bloodthirsty, allegedly cannibalistic, ways behind him and became a fruitarian. His appetite for oranges earned him the nickname “Dr. Jaffa”.

Source: Adam Leith Gollner, The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession (2009), p. 98

Smallpox Stamped Out

1979: After an intense global effort a special commission was able to certify, on 9 December, that smallpox had been eradicated from the world. The last person known to have been infected with naturally occurring smallpox, in October 1977, was Ali Maow Maalin, at the port of Merca, in Somalia. The disease was estimated to have killed 300 million people during the 20th century. The last fatality, in September 1978, was Janet Parker, who was exposed to the virus at the University of Birmingham Medical School.

Source: Ian and Jenifer Glynn, The Life and Death of Smallpox (2004), pp. 225–8

Donkeys And Melons

Ruhollah Khomeini, photographed by Mohammad Sayyad in 1981

1979: The overthrow of the Shah of Iran ushered in an Islamic state. Religion became paramount. The mundane details of governance were of little concern to Ayatollah Khomeini. “Economics is for donkeys,” he once declared, and when Iranians complained of falling living standards, he admonished them, “We did not make a revolution to slash the price of watermelon.”

Source: Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (2007), p. 134