It is customary to think about change at the new year so I’m departing once again from my usual discussion of collection items to remark about historic changes, particularly those I have observed in my lifetime. The observations and opinions are my own, not those of the Fenton History Center or anyone else.
On Christmas morning, I turned on my computer and watched the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. It is designed to gather information from the farthest distances in the observable universe which are also the most remote moments of the past. When I was a child, from my home, I could see a maximum distance of five miles to the horizon. This was, however, a much larger world than that of a child living on a village or city lot. I remember learning that the world is round like a ball. I asked if we were on the inside or the outside of the ball. After I learned to read in a one room school, the main information available to me about the larger universe was material my step-grandmother hand copied from her encyclopedia, then 20 years out of date. At that time the question was just being resolved about the “nebulae” outside the Milky Way. They were found to be far distant galaxies. Just like that, human understanding of the universe went from 100,000 light years to 46 billion. In my school days the Big Bang theory was just achieving dominance. We first realized that time and space, themselves, had beginnings. The questions of the far future and shape and finite or infinite nature of the universe were unknown but considered resolvable within what would be my lifetime. Many of those questions have been answered which I find wonderfully satisfying. But in my mature years “dark matter” and “dark energy,” unrecognized in my youth, have been discovered. They constitute over 95% of the universe and we have essentially no idea what they are. Some of the answers to other great questions of my childhood are not as simple as I expected and only imperfectly understood by me as an adult.
I first learned the basics of subatomic physics from George Gamow’s wonderful books. They were then ten years out of date. We had protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and positrons. The rest of the Standard Model right down to the Higgs Boson has developed under my observation – neutrinos, muons, tau, bosons, gluons. I especially remember the discovery of quarks in 1968.
Plate tectonics that has shaped the geologic history of earth was accepted in my lifetime.
I think the moon landing was the most important event in my lifetime for long term historical significance; the invention of computers and the internet second, even though the victories in World War II and the Cold War, both of immense historical consequence, also took place in my lifetime. Such rankings may well be meaningless.
Between my father’s lifetime and mine, we saw the United States change from a heavily rural civilization to an exclusively urban culture. This might rival the ancient shift from hunter/gatherer to settled agriculture in ultimate significance.
Plastics have come into general use in my lifetime, comparable to the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. I remember the last pathetic remnants of chestnuts and I’ve seen the effective extinction of elms and ash. I’ve seen the face fly become an inescapable tormenter of all animals domestic and wild (1958). The corn rootworm (ca. 1982), Japanese beetle (1990’s), wild roses (ca. 1950), and countless other pests have come to local prominence in my lifetime incurring enormous cost. People, themselves, have become conspicuously larger in both size and weight.
I’ve seen popular music transform completely from jazz based to rock based. I’ve seen an enormous diminution of inhibitions, manners, and formality in all fields of endeavor. The first time I saw grown men wearing shorts was 1956. The first old woman wearing pants was 1967. Girls were allowed to wear Bermuda shorts to school just one day in 1960. I’ve seen hardball tactics, previously used mostly by labor unions and criminal organizations, mastered by more and more interest groups giving zealots tremendous leverage to change society. We never heard of “activists’’ before the late 1960’s.
I remember when the polio vaccines were invented. I had mumps, measles, and chickenpox before there were vaccines. Now I’ve seen COVID come and the vaccines, to my dismay, rejected by many.
Some scholars have questioned how far reaching were the effects on Western Society of moving, in the 17th through the 19th centuries, from alcohol to caffeine as the most common drug, i. e. from a depressant to a stimulant. Now we are adopting marijuana, a strong motivation depressant. I wonder if this will have effects that compound over generations.
The Industrial Revolution and the urbanization it enabled dramatically reduced the participation of fathers in child rearing. Now we are marginalizing mothers as well, substituting institutions, chiefly government connected. It would be surprising if this did not result in generations with radically different attitudes, aspirations, and achievements.
The rise of Christianity in late antiquity institutionalized an ideology that preached standards of personal and public rectitude and actually organized people to help the poor and sick. Ever so gradually Christianity diminished the immense brutality and injustice of the ancient world. Christianity as a default belief has been displaced in my lifetime by a combination of inchoate New Age religion/superstition and Marxist derived political/ideological passions. Christian authorities desecrated and destroyed tangible manifestations of classical paganism. The new utopians are now systematically destroying the symbols (statues, art, myths, heroes, books) and the practices of the old system, often violently. People are being subjected to public shaming, vituperation, and mob violence for ex post facto speech offenses committed decades ago in private or in childhood. The consequences of the change will be as sweeping as the transformation from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages, or so its self appointed vanguard vows.
I’ve seen sex roles and rules for interaction between the sexes change more in my life time that they had in 6,000 years. Now the very concept of sex, itself, is redefined politically rather than biologically. Crazy plans for genocide and total destruction of civilization I first heard working under cover in the 1960’s are now seen in the New York Times.
The framework of a society rests in the rules of what you mustn’t think and what you must think, what you have to say and what you can’t say, what you are required to notice and what you are forbidden to notice. These have turned upside down in my life: good and bad, legal and illegal, mandatory and prohibited, normal and deviant have been in many instances completely inverted.