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The Olympics, The Nightfly and the beautiful world
February 6, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
The stuff that runs through my mind when the Olympics begin, the whole aura of world peace thing that happens, is incredible.
I found myself humming Donald Fagen music while watching some video thing about the Olympics the other day. The International Geophysical Year was from July 1957 to the end of December 1958. It gave the world a chance to pause and consider all the brilliant scientific advances waiting to serve at that time and well into the future.
Pushbutton this and electronic servo-motored that. It was a heady time when even nuclear power was thought to be a great idea for households, when radiation actually was considered as a potential preserative for meats. A look back through the relatively big Herald-Star editions of the day saw nearly every day featuring a story or two about some amazing scientific advance.
The year itself saw international cooperation among scientists, sharing of data across borders, the launching of satellites (Sputnik, humanity’s first manmade orbiting object, for example), and more.
It was popularized in a kind of rearview mirror reflecting the loss of innocence and the growth of cynicism in song by Fagen on “The Nightfly” album (one of my all-time favs) in a song that enjoyed popularity in the early 1980s, commonly called “What a Beautiful World,” but whose title actually was “IGY.”
The album was filled with the oddly optimistic imagery of the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the lyrics to IGY are a little poignant as we witness all the technology we have and what was missed. And there’s that weird twist of an early 1980s song reflecting about the futurists dreams of the 1950s now viewed from 30-plus years later. (Ouch. “Marty, my head hurts! One-point-twenty-one gigawatts!)
“On that train all graphite and glitter, undersea by rail. Ninety minutes from New York to Paris, well, by ’76 we;ll be a-ok.”
Imagine the environmentalists and what they’d do by a transcontinental undersea tunnel, let alone the potential for injury if this supersonic plastic train actually cracked up in the tunnel, say somewhere just east of the Azores, right out there in the mid-Atlantic. A-OK? Nope.
“Get your ticket to that wheel in space while there’s time. The fix is in. You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky. You know we’ve got to win.”
Not sure there what Fagen was thinking exactly, but we did beat the Soviets to the Moon, then doddered around in near-earth orbit with the shuttle for a couple of decades and now have a permanent international space station. Maybe it’s not wheel-shaped like the hotel space station envisioned by the 1950s futurists (and Arthur C. Clarke).
“Here at home, we’ll play in the city powered by the sun. Perfect weather for a streamlined world. There’ll be spandex jackets, one for everyone.”
Cities aren’t powered by the sun in the U.S. In fact, thanks to the awful investing of the federal government, solar power is now frowned upon as some kind of money-sucking joke. A few folks with enlightment have solar power at their houses, and even AEP had plans for a big solar development in Ohio, but we’re hardly “powered by the sun.” And as for spandex jackets for all, look around at your favorite discount department store or fast-food restaurant. Or at me. Spandex jackets for all? Yech-o.
“Just machines to make big decisions, programmed by fellows with compassion and vision. We’ll be clean when their work is done. We’ll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young.”
Sounds like a dystopia where Siri rules, the NSA snoops and everybody has a Botox job. Probably not what the futurists of 1957 had in mind. Heck, not what I thought about when I heard this song in 1982.
Certainly the whole widows of the Chechen war will try to blow up stuff with tubes of toothpaste vibe was unheard of 32 years ago. “What a beautiful world this will be. What a glorious time to be free.” It’s always that. It’s always that.
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