The Year of the Earth (1957-1958): Cold War Science and the Making of Planetary Consciousness

Sixty years ago, 50,000 scientists in 67 countries collaborated to study planet earth. Commentators from Prince Philip to Life magazine hailed this "International Geophysical Year," or "IGY," as the most ambitious scientific undertaking in the history of humanity. Between July 1957 and December 1958, the women and men involved launched Sputnik, trekked across Antarctica, confirmed the theory of plate tectonics, and discovered global warming. Broadly reported and discussed—including through widespread citizen participation—the International Geophysical Year helped shape notions of global environmental unity while also revealing the limitations of humans' ability to predict and control their planetary home.

This worldwide event is the subject of Ben Goossen's current project, entitled "The Year of the Earth (1957-1958): Cold War Science and the Making of Planetary Consciousness." Using a broad base of archival sources, scholarly papers, material culture, and personal interviews collected on six continents, “The Year of the Earth” tracks the emergence of contemporary understandings of globality to show how scientific research on our planet and its rhythms have shaped processes of globalization as well as humanity’s ability—and inability—to respond to worldwide challenges. Scientists have recently dubbed our species' capacity to alter the geophysical structure of planet earth a new geological epoch, the "Anthropocene." Goossen's project traces the intertwined, often surprising relationship between these momentous changes and humanity's complex, ongoing efforts to adapt.

"The Year of the Earth" offers a global perspective, considering the shifting dynamics of Cold War competition, cross-border humanitarianism, and anti-colonial nationalism. Interrogating the unequal power relations that have structured the production and uses of planetary knowledge, it illuminates the material contexts and diverse forms of labor contributing to the evolution of global consciousness during the second half of the twentieth century. Goossen—in the first comprehensive treatment of the International Geophysical Year since its completion—reveals how scientists, states, and institutions around the globe contributed to and were, in turn, transformed by this remarkable story of cooperation and discovery at the dawn of the space age.