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I am looking at sense 4. in the Wiktionary, which reads:

  1. (transitive) To call back (a situation, event etc.) to one's mind; to remember, recollect. [from 16th c.]

And I am reading this quote by Mr John Logsdon:

Our movies and television programs in the fifties were full of the idea of going into space. What came as a surprise was that it was the Soviet Union that launched the first satellite. It is hard to recall the atmosphere of the time.

Does that mean, he cannot easily remember what the atmosphere was like? That seems easy enough to do, maybe he meant he can't easily put it into words or something. What seems like a natural interpretation?

  • By the way, that quote may be found on the Wikipedia article for Sputnik 1. – Wilson Jul 5 '18 at 12:13
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    I think he meant atmosphere as in "general attitudes and emotions" not "air." Does that change things? – Jason Bassford Jul 5 '18 at 12:31
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The problem with quotes is that they are often presented without the full context. You were quoting a quote, which makes it worse.

I've said in a few answers now that context is very, very important.

I did a bit of Googling and I found the source of Logsdon's quote, and there is a very interesting, and I believe important part missing from the quotation you found on Wikipedia:

"Our movies and television programs in the fifties were full of the idea of going into space. What came as a surprise was that it was the Soviet Union that launched the first satellite. It is hard to recall the atmosphere of the time. Fallout shelters, rabid anti-Communism, a sense of imminent danger from without and within," Logsdon said.

(italics added)

I agree with you, that actually recalling such an important time that you lived through should not be difficult. And if it were difficult for a particular person, perhaps due to fading memory in old age, then they wouldn't really be a good choice of person to interview and quote from in a history article!

When you consider what Logsdon said next (the words I italicised) I believe he may have meant that it was difficult, or painful to think about it because it was so awful. The fact that he actually lists some of the horrors and paranoia of that era really proves he could recall it.

Alternatively, it also occurs to me that this may be a quote from a spoken interview, and it may be that he just made a poor choice of word with "recall". If you substitute the word with "imagine" it makes a whole lot more sense. This is just a possibility. What we can say for certainty is that he didn't mean he couldn't recall those things.

  • I agree the full context really helps. It's not remembering Sputnik itself that's difficult in a post-Cold War era. It's remembering the paranoia about imminent nuclear catastrophe, because things have changed so much since then. – Andrew Jul 5 '18 at 15:19
  • @Andrew Sure, but he does recall those things - he lists several. Either he used the wrong word "recall" (perhaps he meant "imagine") otherwise he meant it was painful, as I suggested. – Astralbee Jul 5 '18 at 15:21
  • I think "hard to recall" in this context means (roughly) "easy to forget". Many of us could say the same thing about the era before the internet and cell phones – it's not that I can't remember pay phones, Kodak film, and doing all my banking inside the bank, but, without some sort of reminder to jog my memory, I'm so caught up in today's world that I seldom give that bygone world a passing thought. I still find it interesting how the last line of Jim Croce's song Operator has become so quaintly outdated: Thank you for your time / You've been so much more than kind / You can keep the dime. – J.R. Jul 5 '18 at 17:34
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You have the correct meaning of "recall" from Wiktionary. Yes, it does mean that he couldn't easily remember or recollect the atmosphere at that time. Perhaps the difficulty is because so much has happened with regard to space technology since that time, that it's difficult to remember exactly what it felt like before the Space Race really got started.

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