Kiruna Geophysical Observatory was launched 50 years ago on July 2nd. Sverker Sörlin visits the history of the station and draws comparisons with this IPY.
The ongoing IPY is a globalized two year event, opening simultaneously in many countries on March 1 last, with web casted ceremonies. Fifty years ago, IGY started its 18 months of activities without much fuss, with no official opening and few headlines. In retrospect, what did in fact come close to a first IGY event was the launch of the Kiruna Geophysical Observatory in northern Sweden, on 2 July. In this remote mining town, in the midst of Sami reindeer herding territory, today hosting the Sami Parliament, were among a range of high ranking guests a figure no less than Lloyd V. Berkner, one of the IGY initiators, then vice president of the NSF. Also present was J. Wallace Joyce, who headed the American IGY office at the National Science Foundation. Both Berkner and Joyce had been present at that famous meeting at James A. van Allen’s home in a suburb of Washington 5 April 1950 when the idea of a third IPY was first voiced by Berkner.
The Americans travelled far for a particular reason: they were firmly involved. The NSF funded and provided basic instrumentation at the new Institute and the US Air Research and Development Command funded much of the research during the first decade of the institute. Indeed, for several years US funding exceeded 50 percent of the funds. The Americans wished the geographically well placed Swedes to monitor activities of the Sputnik, as soon as it was launched in October 1957, and they received assistance in monitoring Soviet nuclear tests in a comprehensive research program. There was nothing wrong with the quality of the science, headed by Director Bengt Hultqvist and published in top level journals. On the first board of the Kiruna Observatory were the elite of Swedish geophysics, including Hannes Alfvén, to become recipient of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Physics.
There were good scientific reasons for the Swedes to establish the Observatory, but no less real were the geopolitical circumstances prompting the Americans to be of assistance, adding yet another centre to their cooperating network of Cold War observation sites in Europe and beyond. The Arctic was a hot zone in the Cold War, potentially a Theatre of War, should tensions between the superpowers grow beyond control.
Ironically, these were the crass geopolitical circumstances, when science, politics, and local elite met in idyllic, non-alligned Folkhem Sweden on 2 July 1957 – to host the event which can be seen, in retrospect, as the never recognized opening of the IGY. To further emphasize the role of Kiruna as a temporary hothouse of IGY creativity, we may note that Lloyd Berkner in his Kiruna hotel room drafted a six page handwritten letter inviting Stockholm glaciologist Hans W. Ahlmann, then President of the International Geographical Union, to take the lead in organizing post-IGY organization of Antarctic science. It was in essence an early blueprint of what would become the Antarctic Treaty regime of a continent “by and for science” that took shape in Berkner’s mind under the Kiruna midnight sun. Ahlmann was, however, too busy to take on the challenge.
Northern nodes already had global connections back then. IPY 2007-2009 works under quite different political circumstances but still in a tradition which combines sensitive, transnational politics of science with genuine progress in building institutions for fostering a sustainable humanity on earth. One more difference is apparent: in IGY Kiruna documents, the Sami and other local communities are conspicuously absent. Big Science and Big Politics of the past at that time considered the homes of these peoples asTheir Own Geophysical Laboratory, preferably reserved for the Defence of the Free World. The current IPY seeks to change that.
Preprints from Nature and Science1957 (PDF)
Highlight photo of Dr Hultqvist and four US guests, Dr Berkner, Dr Joyce, and Dr Hollingsworth. Taken from this Norrlandsfolket article (PDF).
Ahlmann, H. W.. letter to Berkner, L. V., 13 July 1957, Ahlmann Collection, vol. 20, Royal Swedish Academy of Science Archives, Stockholm.
Berkner, L. V., letter to H. W. Ahlmann, 4 July 1957, Ahlmann Collection, vol. 22, Royal Swedish Academy of Science Archives, Stockholm.
Hultqvist, B., “The Kiruna Geophysical Observatory, Sweden,” Nature vol. 180, 26 October 1957, pp. 828-830.
Hultqvist, B., “Swedish Geophysical Observatory,“ Science, vol. 126, issue 3276, 11 October 1957, p. 691.
Korsmo, F., “NSF/Tokyo Report: Science in the Cold War: the Legacy of the International Geophysical Year,” 23 April 1998, National Science Foundation, Washington DC, http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/1998/int9814/int9814.txt (accessed 11 March 2007).
Krige, J., American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe (Boston, MA: The MIT Press, 2006).
Sörlin, S. & N. Wormbs, “Rockets and Reindeer: The history of the Swedish innovation system for space and its important spatial dimensions,” draft chapter to be published in Warfare & Welfare: Swedish Innovations Systems Since 1945 [working title], eds. J. Gribbe, P. Lundin & N. Stenlås (in preparation).
Documents pertaining to the 2 July event and subsequent research cooperation between US agencies and the Kiruna Institute are in the Swedish Institute of Space Physics archives, Kiruna, Sweden. Thanks to Christina Jurén, Kiruna, for archival assistance.
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Monday, 02 July 2007 07:01
IGY 50 Years Down the Road: Kiruna Observatory and the Politics of Arctic GeophysicsWritten by IPY Sweden
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