Where Did Sputnik Get its Name?

Postage stamp shows Earth in orbit around Sun with a man-made object in Earth orbit.

On October 5, 1957, the Soviet newspaper Pravda announced that the
Soviet Union had launched a 184 pound object into Earth orbit. That first
satellite has since come to be known in the English-speaking world as
Sputnik. In the West it is now widely assumed that the Soviets chose that
name for their satellite because “sputnik” means “fellow traveler.” This
belief is mistaken.

The world first heard about the launch from a brief report in a side
column on the front page of Pravda. Under the bland headline “Tass
Report” there was a dry description of the long standing speculation in the
scientific community about the possibility of creating “an artificial
Earth satellite.” Only in paragraph three did they come to the point,
stating that the Soviet Union has brought this dream to fruition. The
article went on to give a few facts and figures about the new satellite.
No name for the satellite was mentioned.

Despite the fact that Pravda buried the lede, the announcement created
an international sensation. Foreign papers announced the event the same
day in blaring front page headlines. The next day, as Soviet leaders
realized what a propaganda coupe this was, Pravda dedicated
the entire front page to coverage under the full-width headline
“The World First Artificial Satellite of Earth Was Made in the Soviet
Union!”. Articles above the fold included “A Triumph of Soviet Science
and Technology” and “The Most Impudent Dreams of Mankind Become Reality”.

In 1957 the word “satellite” needed to be qualified with the adjective
“artificial.” Up to then this word referred primarily to natural satellites
such the Earth’s moon. Thus the Pravda’s clunky phrase “artificial
satellite of Earth”.

Because they were dealing with a new concept the Western press struggled
with what to call this “artificial satellite”. In the first few days it
was call “an artificial satellite of Earth” as Pravda had, but
it was also called “the device” and even “the Red moon”.
In Washington, journalist [?] was asked for suggestions for
a less awkward description. He took the phrase искустественый
спутник Земли
(artificial satellite of Earth) from Pravda,
kept only the key word, and left it untranslated: sputnik. The
suggestion was soon widely adopted and Sputnik became the Western name
of the Soviet satellite.

However, awareness continued for some time that Sputnik was not a formal
name. For example, after the Soviet Union launched a second artificial
satellite, an article in Scientific American discussed
tracking them and included a graph with lines labeled Sputnik I and
Sputnik II, but in the body of the article they were referred to as The First
Satellite and The Second Satellite.

“Sputnik” never attained the status of a proper name in Russian and
probably never will since the idea of a sputnik called
Sputnik would be silly. The Russian-language press continues to refer
to Sputnik I simply as “the first artificial sputnik of Earth”
(note the lower case) and to report on the launch of American sputniki.

But whence the idea that “Sputnik” is an imaginative name chosen because
it means “fellow traveler”? This is a misunderstanding. While sputnik
does mean “fellow traveler”, it was already the standard Russian word
for astronomical objects which orbit a parent body. The Moon is Earth’s
sputnik. The idea that the term was invented for the Soviet space
program may be traceable to an article in the New York Times
of October 6, 1957 entitled Soviet ‘Sputnik’ Means A
Traveler’s Traveler

The English word “satellite” has a similar origin. It once meant an
attendant of a person of importance. Imagine the confusion which could
have occurred if the US had launched the first artificial satellite and
neglected to name it. It is only a slight stretch to imagine the Soviet
press writing, “the Americans named their sputnik Satellite which
means ‘an entourage member’.”

In conclusion, the belief that the Soviets named their satellite Sputnik
after the Russian word for “fellow traveler” is false even though that
is the literal meaning of the word sputnik. They called it
“sputnik” because that is the normal Russian word for satellite. Naming
it “Sputnik” would have been silly. When they failed to name it at all
the Western press stepped in and named in Sputnik from the Russian word
for satellite.



Updating Webmin’s self-signed certificate

When SSL is enable in Webmin it creates a self-signed certificate which is stored in the file /etc/webmin/miniserv.pem. I recently upgraded a server from Debian 7 to Debian 9 and discovered that Webmin would no longer start:

Starting Webmin server in /usr/share/webmin
Failed to open SSL cert at /usr/share/webmin/miniserv.pl line 4201.

It turned out the certificate had expired long ago but previous versions of Webmin or the underlying libraries had not been detecting this fact.

The question was how to fix this. A number of answers posted on the Internet suggested disabling SSL, logging in, and reinabling it to generate a new certificate. The problem is that when you log in with SSL disable, you expose your password.

I tried finding the script in the Webmin code which generaetes the certificate, but gave up after a while and found a command for generating a self-signed certificate. Once I did that, I had to concatenate the private encryption key and the self-signed certificate into the single file which Webmin expects. Here are the commands:

# cd /etc/webmin
# openssl req -new -newkey rsa:4096 -x509 -sha256 -days 3650 -nodes -out miniserv.crt -keyout miniserv.key
# cat miniserv.key miniserv.crt >miniserv.pem
# rm miniserv.key miniserv.crt

You can then start Webmin:

# /etc/webmin/start

system administration

Darwin and Pasteur

Charles Darwin seated

Charles Darwin

On November 24th, 1859, the naturalist Charles Darwin published a book entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In it he offered his views on how God had created the living world. He summarized his overall view thus:

Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

To his thinking, those who supposed that God would create species deliberately were imagining him in the image of man:

It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man? If we must compare the eye to an optical instrument, we ought in imagination to take a thick layer of transparent tissue, with a nerve sensitive to light beneath, and then suppose every part of this layer to be continually changing slowly in density, so as to separate into layers of different densities and thicknesses, placed at different distances from each other, and with the surfaces of each layer slowly changing in form. Further we must suppose that there is a power always intently watching each slight accidental alteration in the transparent layers; and carefully selecting each alteration which, under varied circumstances, may in any way, or in any degree, tend to produce a distincter image. We must suppose each new state of the instrument to be multiplied by the million; and each to be preserved till a better be produced, and then the old ones to be destroyed. In living bodies, variation will cause the slight alterations, generation will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions on millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?

The idea that the world had evolved under the influence of natural laws and processes was not new. It can be traced back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. But it was an idea whose time had come. It was welcomed by Western Christians who viewed belief in miracles as unsophisticated as well as by agnostics like Thomas Huxley and atheists like Ernst Haeckel. Darwin had taken an ancient idea and made a credible attempt at reformulating it in the terms of 19th century science.

With the support of prominent clergymen and the advocacy of Huxley in Britain and Haeckel in Germany the theory of evolution gained converts rapidly. True, some of the most prominent scientists of the day were skeptical or outright dismissive of the idea that blind natural forces wielded such creative power, but by 1896 Joseph LeConte of the University of California could write:

Man with beard seated

Joseph LeConte

We are confident that evolution is absolutely certain. Not, indeed, evolution as a special theory–Lamarckian, Darwinian, Spencerian–for these are all more or less successful modes of explaining evolution; nor evolution as a school of thought, with its following of disciples–for in this sense it is still in the field of discussion–but evolution as a law of derivation of forms from previous forms; evolution as a law of continuity, as a universal law of becoming. In this sense it is not only certain, it is axiomatic. (Evolution. Its Nature, Its Evidences, and Relation to Religious Thought, 1896, p.65)

And that is the way things stand even today. Our conceptions of the mechanisms may change, but God as genetic engineer is forever banished from his creation. We are not to suppose that “the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man”.

The importance of Darwin as an influential thinker is unquestioned. Whether such thinking led scientific investigation by the True Road is far less certain. The question of its contribution to human health and happiness is best avoided lest we meet the gaze of the victims of the Arian Master Race, Eugenics, and Scientific Racism.

Portrait of man with glasses and mustache

William T. Sedgwick

Today is February 12, Darwin’s birthday which there is effort to promote as International Darwin Day. It is appropriate on this day to compare Darwin’s legacy to that of another great man his contemporary, Louis Pasture. For this I defer to William Thompson Sedgwick of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose remarks were published posthumously in Science in 1923:

Both Darwin and Pasteur were fortunate in bringing out their great ideas at the right time. (Agnosticism in medicine, agnosticism in cosmology). The world was tired of supernaturalism and ready for naturalism. It was tired of confusion and ignorance concerning disease, and eagerly embraced the germ theory.

Louis Pasteur seated

Louis Pasteur

The fame of Darwin has grown greater with the passing years. Darwinism has already become merged and may one day become submerged in the broader doctrine of evolution, of which it was the forerunner. Pasteur’s name, curiously enough, is popularly best known in pasteurization, a process of applied science employed long before his day under other names and no name, but first made rational and scientific by him. But Pasteur’s original ideas and discoveries have spread like an infection until today they cover the earth.

Darwin, the master of the organic world, sleeps near Newton, the master of the inorganic, in the great Abbey, among the most famous of his race. Pasteur rests alone in the chapel of his laboratory. The world claimed Darwin’s body to place among its great ones. Science kept Pasteur’s for its own. Both dwell forever among the immortals. The last half of the nineteenth century may well be called their age–the Age of Darwin and Pasteur.


Newton’s views on science and theology

For the second edition of his Principia in 1713 Newton wrote an essay known as the General Scolium (introduction) in which he defends his views on several scientific and theological questions. There is an English translation of the expanded version from the third edition.

In this essay he hints at his theological views which during his lifetime were only shared in private. A few were published after his death, but the vast majority of Newton’s papers on all subjects except physics became available for scholarly study only in the middle of the 20th century, more than 200 years after his death.

His discussion of the meaning of the word “god” is considered a subtle dig at Trinitarianism. He argues that “god” is a title, not an intrinsic attribute of any person. A God exists when a superhuman being has a dominion. What he does not make explicit is his subordinationist christology: that Jesus, though “God”, is God only in the relative sense that he is a superhuman being and rules over a domain. But in Newton’s view this does not make him the Supreme Being or True God of monotheism because his domain is delegated to him. (He did make this understanding explicit in his unpublished writings.)

He goes on to argue that there is a supreme God who exists by necessity and has always existed. He sees the supreme God as a non corporal being, without a body or physical location. If this concept is impossible to understand, it is only because it is totally alien to human experience.

He then takes a swipe at Materialism: “Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and ever where, could produce no variety of things. All the diversity of natural things which we find, suited to different times and places, could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing.” He concludes his discussion of God by saying that science can tell us of the nature of God.

Judeao-Christian thinking had long held that the natural world was law-based. Newton saw his discoveries as vindication of that view. In a famous letter he wrote:

When I wrote my treatise about our system, I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men, for the belief of a Deity, and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.

Newton saw natural law as sufficient to explain how the world works now, but believed that the world is ultimately artificial, the producted of mental processes. But later thinkers saw this as a lack of imagination and in the second half of the 19th century came to see science as exclusively a search for material causes.


Institutional Memory

Knowledge is a slippery thing. If we don’t take care we can lose it. Organizations loose it when members leave or retire without passing it on to their replacements. Suddenly the organization does not know how to do part of its job and has to spend time and money finding out again. Sure, sometimes new blood brings fresh ideas which work better, but more often the organization just makes painful mistakes until the lost experience can be regained.

Human societies experience the loss of Institutional Memory when one generation fails to pass enough of what it has learned on to the next.

As a child in the 1970’s I watched family dramas on TV. By “family” I mean that they showed children growing up, having adventures, and dealing with situations in life which were new for them. I particularly remember The Swiss Family Robinson. The children often approached difficult situations by doing what they had seen their parents do. When things did not work out they often discussed the problem with their parents and then tried again.

These shows were entertainment, not instructional films. The writers were not primarily conveying lessons to children. They were creating dramatic tension and having their characters resolve it in the tradition of the Western story arch. Getting advice from persons with more experience (often parents) was a natural part of the story.

Back then TV sets still broke down frequently. Sometime around 1980 our TV broke down again and this time my parents either couldn’t or didn’t repair it. This was for the best since we children were addicted to it. There was no program so boring that we would not watch it. But that is another story.

Several years went by during which we would see TV only at other people’s houses or occasionally when we stayed in a hotel.

joker card with boyish character on it

On one such occasion we saw a situation comedy called Mr. Belvedere. The episode we watched centered around a pre-teen boy. This child held everyone else in contempt and made non-stop wisecracks at the expense of the adults in his life. His parents were either unable to deal with him or too self absorbed to fulfill their parental roles and so left him in the care of of the title character who was the family butler. This butler is a decent character who lets the abuse roll off him and tries to mentor the boy as best he can.

At the time I was in my teens and simply saw the show as amusing in a silly way. My parents found it shocking. They were shocked by the contempt which the boy showed for adults. Today I find it shocking too.

What changed it for me was my own transition into adulthood. I found at that being an adult is hard. There is a lot to learn and it is much easier if you can receive timely knowledge transfers. I saw peers get into serious difficulties by repeating age-old mistakes.

It is not wrong to question the views of one’s parents if there is sound reason for doing so. But children like the boy in Mr. Belvedere question (or rather mock) everything just because they can. They hold institutional memory in contempt and pay a high price.

liturature, society

Fire Dogs

This following story is from Lev Tolstoy’s First Russian Reader of 1875. This is my translation. As far as I know it has never before appeared in English. (You can read the original at ReadyRussian.org.)

Fire Dogs
A True Story

It often happens that when there is a fire in a city that children remain in the house and it is impossible to pull them out because they hide in fright and do not make a sound while the smoke makes it impossible to see them. In London they train dogs for this purpose. These dogs live with the firemen and when a house catches fire the firemen send the dogs to pull the children out. One such dog in London has saved twelve children. He is called Bob.

Once a house caught fire and when the firemen arrived at the house a woman ran out to meet them. She was weaping and saying that a two-year-old little maiden remained in the house. The firemen sent Bob. Bob ran up the stair/ladder and disappeared in the smoke. Five minutes later he ran out of the house and in his teeth he bore the little maid by her shirt. The mother threw herself upon her daughter and wept with joy that her daughter was alive. The firemen petted the dog and examined him to make sure he was not singed, but Bob strove vigorously to reenter the house. The firemen thought that there must still be something alive in the house and let him go. The dog ran into the house and soon came out with something in his teeth. When the people were able to see what it was the he carried all laughed heartily for he carried a large doll.

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liturature, russian

Electrical Power and Power Loss

Basic Electrical Units

A volt is a unit of electrical potential. Electrical potential in turn is the force
which a power source (such as a battery) applies to a connected device in order to push
electrons through it. Electrical potential (voltage) is comperable to the presure which
a pump applies to a plumbing system in order to push water through the pipes.

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Communicating Clearly About Computing

Those of use who work in IT are frequently called upon to explain our work to people who are less familiar with computers than we are. It should be our goal to speak and write as clearly as possible. To do that we must avoid jargon, slang and expressions which are easily misunderstood. We should not write to be understood. We should write so as not to be misunderstood.
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english, writing style

Waiting to Bite: BIND and Invalid Zone Files

It looks like Webmin lets you create DNS entries which BIND 9 does not like. When it sees one it refuses to load the whole zone and keeps what it has in RAM. This may go unnoticed for months until the server is rebooted. BIND then restarts with that zone completely empty!
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dns, system administration

Draco’s Policies were Draconian

Have you every wondered why we call a harsh policy “draconian”? This is one of those words which comes from the name of a famous person.
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