For baby boomers, there might be too many to count: too many highs in our lives, too many lows. From Nutley, New Jersey, physicist Richard Hammond takes stock of both, and the effect they’ve had on us all.
When I was seven I looked up from the steps of my home and, late in the afternoon, saw a bright starlike object placidly crossing the deep blue sky. As I struggled to understand what I was seeing, my father told me it was Sputnik, a Soviet satellite. This didn’t mean much to me, but the sincere tones told me it was important.
“Why doesn’t it fall down?” I asked.
I don’t remember the answer, but whatever is was, it didn’t help. Maybe that’s why I became a physicist. Sputnik did come down, burning up in the atmosphere three months later.
And so, like that first satellite, boomers have had a lifetime of ups and downs.
I lived on the top of Nutley, New Jersey, which enjoyed a nice view of the Manhattan skyline. In the 1970s, while I wrestled as a young boomer with Einstein’s field equations, I watched the Twin Towers go up. They were finished at about the same time the “comet washout of a lifetime” passed by. Comet Kohoutek would have been a great sight to see if it had not been hyped, but headlines screaming it would be so bright you’d need sunglasses made Kohoutek synonymous with disappointment.
The next decade brought us Halley’s Comet. By now I was a Professor of Physics and marveled at the perfection of physics, as all of us had the delight of seeing the same thing the Babylonians saw over 2,000 years ago. But then another comet, tagged Shoemaker-Levy 9, crashed into Jupiter, giving us a grisly reminder of a much earlier comet that destroyed much of life on Earth 67 million years ago, giving us a grisly reminder of our corporeal fragility.
Meanwhile in 1969, using more fuel in a single second than Lindbergh needed to cross the Atlantic, we boomers watched with unbounded joy as the mighty Saturn V rocket lifted off a launch pad in Florida and humans crossed the void of space and walked on the moon. Then we saw space shuttle Challenger explode 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
There are many, many things physics allows us to predict, but many more things it does not.
And then the Twin Towers came down. We all saw it, we were all appalled and, at some point, we all wept.
Then, this summer, George Floyd was murdered. We all saw it, we were all appalled and, at some point, we all wept.
On balance, baby boomers have seen more positives than negatives. But the pain of these disasters, and others, leaves scars unhealed by all the success. Yet still there’s a contrast: my first love, an artist, saw the world so differently than I. Where I sought equations and balance, she saw beauty and imagery. Where I was bounded by mathematics and logic, she soared through a world bounded only by imagination.
Between these extremes, boomers have seen a world with remarkable growth and terrible sadness. I hope future generations share the greatness we had while avoiding the tragedies from which we suffered.