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This is the latest post in our series “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular.” To peruse all our posts on SCIENCE WRITING, click HERE or the tag in the right sidebar.
A Field Guide for Science Writers (2006)
In our last post, we discussed The Science Writers’ Handbook, which was published just this year. Today, we talk about A Field Guide for Science Writers, which is The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers and which is in its second edition.
The collection is divided into six sections. The first three are about the craft and practice of writing, including different markets for science writing (and other kinds of nonfiction). There are two topic-driven sections, one covering the life sciences and the other covering the physical and environmental sciences. The last section is about writing from with institutions, whether that be a university, a museum, or a corporation—about being a public affairs or public information officer.
There’s something for almost any reader among the chapters, even though some chapters won’t apply to a given writer or project. Here, we focus on chapters contributed by people who were instructors at this year’s Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop.
Chapter 8: Large Newspapers by Robert Lee Hotz
Given the state of traditional publishing, if you don’t already have a regular newspaper job, chances are that you’re not going to publish your writing at a large newspaper, though special sections do include freelance articles. Still, Lee Hotz’s chapter is a good read and reveals how news cycles work and how a breaking story bumps a deeply researched feature. This piece also discusses how technology—digital recording, Dragon, and askSam—can support research and writing. For updated, more in-depth wisdom from Hotz, see our recent post on his Santa Fe lecture HERE.
Chapter 20: Explanatory Writing by George Johnson
George Johnson’s latest book is The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, and his book about cancer is due out in August. “I remember with some precision when I began believing that there is nothing so complex that a reasonably intelligent person cannot comprehend it,” Jihnson writes in his field guide chapter. We may quibble with Johnson’s belief, but he uses a guitar amplifier, string theory, and quantum computing as convincing examples. Even if thorough or deep comprehension requires expertise, it makes great sense for the writer to believe that nothing is beyond the writer’s—and, therefore, the reader’s—grasp. While Lee Hotz, in his workshop, warned against analogies that obscure meaning or oversimplify complexity, Johnson points out, “A science writer is an illusionist. The conjuring is in the service of a noble cause: getting as close as linguistically possible to scientific truth.”
Chapter 21: Narrative Writing by Jamie Shreeve
Jamie Shreeve, an editor at National Geographic, opens his chapter with a quote from Muriel Rukeyser, so Anna figured this chapter was among the best. Then, in another move that convinced us of Shreeve’s good sense, he turned to cognitive science, saying, “There is some evidence that the brain is hard-wired to remember information better if it is transmitted in narrative form.” He explains narrative as basically something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Using this simple definition, he argues, “narrative is endemic to science itself,” whether it be the life cycle of an insect or a paper in a science journal. Then, Shreeve, who holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, complicates what narrative means—and that’s what makes this chapter most worthwhile.
Chapter 26: Mental Health by Paul Raeburn
Raeburn is the author of Acquainted With the Night: A Parent’s Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children, and he read the opening at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe during the workshop. He had written books about Mars and agriculture, but he started writing about mental health after his children suffered mental illness. As he points out in this guide, “Researchers know far more about the heart, the kidneys, and tumor cells than they do about the brain.” So his personal experience guided his investigation in ways that filled out the science story. He admits that stories of mental illness can be heart-wrenching to write and to read, but he suggests, “If you want your story to be fair and accurate, save a paragraph or two to report that there’s hope.”
Chapter 31: Space Science by Michael D. Lemonick
Lemonick wasn’t at this year’s Santa Fe workshop, but we write a lot about space exploration at Lofty Ambitions, we’re going to participate in a weeklong astronomy crash-course this summer, and this chapter has sound advice no matter the topic. “When I became an astronomy writer,” Lemonick says, “the challenge was to make everyone else—those who aren’t passionate about the inflationary universe—share that fascination. I had to understand the science deeply enough to be able to restate it in my own words, clearly and accurately.”
That’s the responsibility of any nonfiction writer. And our curiosity and desire to learn new things keeps us at this task.
Tags: Books, Science Writing
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The Science Writers’ Handbook (2013)
That’s right, this handbook is just out, and it’s worth getting your hands on. The contributions are written by members of SciLance, an invitation-only group of accomplished science writers who got together several years ago to share information.
The premise is that science writing is “about the world around us—what’s in our bones, how stars are born, and why drought scars the landscape—and how new knowledge fits into our society. When done right, science writing can inform, inspire, and even change the course of history. When done wrong…well, let’s not go there.” The Science Writers’ Handbook is about how to do it right.
“While not all science writers are journalists,” Alison Fromme asserts in the first chapter, “the writers of this book believe that all science writers can and should approach their subjects journalistically, with curiosity, an open mind, a healthy sense of skepticism about the material, and transparency about our methods, biases, and sources.”
This book is divided into three sections: The Skilled Science Writer, The Sane Science Writer, and The Solvent Science Writer. In other words, the book covers how to manage the writing itself, how to manage the writing life, and how to make some money. The whole thing is quite practical and readable
We found the following chapters particularly useful in thinking about key aspects of and options for being a science writer.
Chapter 3: Making the Pitch by Thomas Hayden, with boxes (extra info) by Hayden, Monica Baker, and Douglas Fox
The success of a pitch depends upon the story idea, its relevance, its timeliness, the type of piece, extras like photos, and who the author is. Importantly, “You want to build your queries around good story ideas. But you also want to send another message: that working with you will be a low-risk proposition.” This chapter is packed with advice on how to convey that message to an editor.
Chapter 9: Going Long: How to Sell a Book by Emma Marris
Marris points to Rebecca Skloot and The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as a great aspiration for which a writer should not hold her breath. “Instead, you should write a book for one or, ideally, both of the following reasons: you are so gripped by a story, person, or topic that you just have to write a book about it; or you have a good idea for a book, would like to try your hand at long-form writing, and would like to take advantage of the platform it will give you as a book author to further your career.” But it took Skloot more than a decade to write her best-seller, so do not go into a book project on a whim. This chapter has advice for writing a proposal and getting an agent, editing and publicity, and even co-authoring and doing compilations.
Chapter 15: An Experimental Guide to Achieving Balance by Virginia Gewin, wiith a box by Liza Gross
Gewin “trained—for five long years—to be a scientist” but, after some unexpected career turns, uncovered her real passion: “writing about the important topics I’d studied.” The switch in careers to freelance writing was really a switch in lifestyles. She discusses the advantages of having an office outside the home, the difficulty of establishing time boundaries, the role of the smart phone, how “turning down work can also send a positive message,” how to clear your head, and the benefits of having kids to impose balance on your life.
Chapter 24: Social Networks and the Reputation Economy by Emily Gertz, with a box by Sarah Webb
While not all the SciLance writers are tweeting, many find that social media is a great way to connect with the very people you’d want to connect with even without social media—sources, writers, editors. Gertz offers really thoughtful advice and encourages science writers to remain science writers on social media and create an appropriate, genuine persona in the digital world. She also suggests what not to share: bad mouthing others, money matters, family squabbles, and details about what you’re writing. Of course, if you’re live-tweeting an event, as she also suggests, you’re sharing details—the tweets are what you’re writing, at least in part. Getz also emphasizes the need to manage your social networking time, suggesting that you make appointments to check in, use the platform to present sorted information to you, look into apps that increase usability, and choose which social networks are best for you.
The Science Writers’ Handbook isn’t the only guide to science writing out there. Next time, we’ll discuss A Field Guide for Science Writers, to which several of last week’s instructors at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop have contributed.
Tags: Science Writing, Space Shuttle
“Read. Read other people,” Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Lee Hotz advised participants at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. “Go read Jane Austen. How did she pull it off? […] Look for techniques.”
Hotz is a long-time journalist whose work includes an amazing six-part series about the Columbia space shuttle accident investigation called “Butterfly on a Bullet.” He’s covered genetic engineering and earthquakes. He’s been to the Arctic and the Antarctic in search of a story. So when he shared his notions of the nuts and bolts of science writing, we were listening attentively.
Before a writer even gets started on a project, whether it be a news story, a magazine feature, or a book, Lee advises that he or she shed preconceptions because those assumptions can make a person deaf to what’s really being said. He insists, too, that writers can’t write what they haven’t reported. In other words, writing is the culmination of a lot of information gathering and sifting.
In Hotz’s view, “Facts are transformative.” He firmly believes that people need information, not assertions, so that they can make more informed decisions about their lives. He calls himself an obsessive researcher and, in the midst of research, knows that he will use just a tiny fraction of what he’s gathered. “But you don’t know in advance which 1%.” Readers may learn a great deal from reading a piece by Hotz, but his goal isn’t teaching science to his readers. He wants to gather, organize, and share facts about the world and universe in which we live so that we can make better decisions for ourselves.
The core of Hotz’s talk focused on the following rules of thumb for doing science writing (or perhaps any kind of research-based nonfiction):
- Look people in the eye. “Get out of your office,” Hotz said. “Talk to people directly.” There’s really not substitute for in-person interviews if you have that time and money.
- Character matters. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, agrees with this point, and once said at an AWP Conference, “People need stories in order to read the science.” And stories need characters.
- History matters. The past provides a context for understanding subjects, facts, events, and issues. Hidden connections may reside in this sort of research, and it’s story is part of the word history.
- Find a guide. In other words, Hotz said, “Look for a person who can blaze a path for you into the thicket.” Hotz had a guide crucial for his research into the Columbia investigation who never appeared in the published story.
- Organize as you go. At Lofty Ambitions, we’re familiar with being in the midst of events or research and not having time to stop to organize everything we’re accumulating. Drafting our book proposal forced us to organize our thoughts and writing, but it might have been easier if we’d had a system going into the project (which we might have developed if we’d realized from the get-go that it was a big project). Hotz recommends yellow legal pads and DevonThink (software that author Steven Johnson also recommend when we saw him read a couple of years ago).
- Piece it together. Outline. Build the outline with information. Use footnotes to indicate where you got the information so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize later and can provide the footnotes to a fact-checker later.
- Begin in the middle. Hotz recognizes that other writers get stuck perfecting the first sentence before going on. He advises, “Don’t begin, just start.” Writing chunks and scenes without worrying about order can help a writer build a draft more quickly. Or write in chronological order, even though you know the information will need to be reordered later. “I personally believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block,” Hotz asserted. “It’s a writing and thinking problem.”
- Structure matters. Referring to his Columbia story, Hotz said, “Structure mattered to the space shuttle itself, and it mattered to the piece I was writing.” He emphasized that how we know something—who said it, how we found it, how it fits into the story—can matter as much as what we know.
Ta-dah, you have a story—an article or a book.
And then it goes to an editor. Hotz has great respect for his editors and reminded us that, ultimately, the editors are right even if you disagree. The important thing to remember is that when an editor suggests a change, something stopped that reader. The editor may have a good fix, or the writer may need to figure out how to rework the story so that readers aren’t tripped up or distracted.
As a result of our individual conversation with Lee Hotz, we’re already in the midst of figuring out how to rework our story. The process is both daunting and exciting, and that’s why we do it.
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Tags: Biology, Science Writing
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We’re having a great time at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop this week. The days are jam-packed with talks about writing, lectures from academics about their research, meetings with our workshop groups, and socializing over meals.
David Corcoran, the editor of the Science Times section of The New York Times, has given two talks. We mentioned the importance of editing—of being edited—in our most recent post about Good Prose, a book by author Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. Corcoran showed us the story behind the story—the story of the editing process—for this week’s lead story in Tuesday’s Science Times.
A story idea can come from a staff writer, a regular contributor (who sometimes looks like a staff writer to readers), a freelancer who has a history with the newspaper, or a new freelancer. In the case of “In Pursuit of an Underwater Menagerie,” the writer is a scientist and curator at Cornell University who had contributed to NYT’s Scientist at Work blog.
The editors at the newspaper liked her writing. Corcoran and our peers at the Santa Fe workshop found her sentences full of intimacy, specificity, and sensory detail. In particular, Corcoran surmised that she’s comfortable with language like a person who reads a lot. “It’s a gift to be able to write that beautifully,” he said. The editors at NYT also liked her project: her quest with a filmmaker to find and film the real-life sea creatures represented in a nineteenth-century glass collection.
Corcoran initially discussed the possibility for this story with the author, C. Drew Harvell, three or four months ago. It’s timely because she’s doing the project right now, but it wasn’t a news story that had to be written quickly. He asked for 1400 words. For more timely stories, the writing happens as few as the day before the Monday deadline for Tuesday’s Science Times section.
Every writer in the Science Times section gets close editing. Corcoran is first-line editor for all the stories that appear in that section. He weaves streaks and chunks of red and blue text into the tracked-changes version of article drafts. In particular, he wants a strong nut graph—the in-a-nutshell paragraph early on that conveys the gist of the story, why the author is writing it, and why a reader needs to read it now. In the end, editor and writer are collaborators of sorts.
Though Harvell’s story was requested, Corcoran is the person a freelancer contacts with a pitch. If he’s interested, he’ll discuss with the writer the timeframe and length and possibilities for add-ons, like the 360-degree photographs that accompany Harvell’s story and were shot by a NYT photographer using a contraption involving a hamster wheel.
Freelancers shouldn’t get too excited, though, about their pitches to NYT. Over the past six months, staff writers and regular contributors wrote 86% of the articles that appear in the Science Times section. That makes sense; these folks are paid to fill those pages. Established freelancers contribute another 10% of the articles. That leaves only 4% of stories by new freelancers. Corcoran added that new freelancers usually have significant experience writing for other venues.
The New York Times is a tough market to crack. But it is open to new ideas and new writers. And other venues can help a freelancer build clips while forming the amazingly cool story idea for Science Times.
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Tags: Books, Science Writing
To read the first part of our “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular” series, click HERE. That post discusses Elie Wiesel’s wisdom about words and writing. This week, we are immersed in the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and continue our series with a discussion of a new book about writing.
Their advice? For one thing, don’t start a piece the way we just did. “The habit of compression,” they write, “along with the exigency of a deadline, can lead a reporter to insert information into a sentence randomly, as if tucking in loose shirttails.” We wanted our readers to be impressed by Tracy Kidder even if you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine or Mountains Beyond Mountains, so we changed the Pulitzer Prize into an adjective to describe Kidder. Likewise, editor, a noun, was used as an adjective so that you’d know Todd plays a different role.
Other advice? Well, don’t do what we just did in the last paragraph. Okay, what Kidder and Todd call “the new vernacular” can work in a blog post because it’s “fun and highly readable. Like its antecedents, the new vernacular represents a democratic impulse, an antidote to vanity and literary airs. It’s friendly, it’s familiar.” All well and good, but the danger is that this style “imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel, like the chain restaurant that tells its patrons ‘You’re family’.”
Good Prose isn’t all nitty-gritty advice, though. Kidder and Todd tell stories, offer different perspectives on the same writerly issue, and give a full sense of the writing life. Since we’ve been revising early chapters of our book manuscript, we were drawn to the section called “Being Edited and Editing,” to which each author contributes an essay. Here, we find out about the evolution of the relationship between Kidder and Todd, and we are reminded of the crucial role that revision and editing play for most writers, for most books.
“Editing isn’t just something that happens to you,” Kidder reminds us. “You have to learn how to be edited.” We consider ourselves pretty good at being edited, in part because we edit each other all the time. Kidder adds, “[W]hen someone takes the trouble to read and respond honestly, I ought to feel grateful, even if I don’t.” Suck it up, we tell ourselves, when our writing group questions the length of time we spend on the history of the development of the space shuttle. We really were grateful when our agent suggested our original two book chapters be jettisoned completely before she submitted the proposal to editors, which, of course, meant that we needed to polish up new chapters to include.
More recently, these past couple of months, we’ve been revamping again, not jettisoning whole chapters, but deleting the equivalent of a quarter or a third of a chapter, then rebuilding with greater focus. Kidder distinguishes between tinkering, which “is the kind of rewriting that the advent of word processing encouraged, by making it so easy,” and “figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for ways to tell your story.” And we make that distinction too. Both kinds of revision become crucial, but, as Elie Wiesel said a few weeks ago, we must resist falling in love with our own words.
In fact, Kidder echoes Wiesel in several ways. They both overwrite early drafts and consider revising—sculpting, in Wiesel’s word—a writer’s privilege. They look for what’s essential. They want to tell a good story.
Todd offers other ways of looking at editing. He asserts that the writer and editor need not be of a similar temperament or share confidences in order to create a strong, long-term working relationship that makes for good literature. What quality must the writer have in order to make the relationship work? “A ‘thick skin’ doesn’t begin to describe the necessary virtue. It is essentially an act of generosity [to be edited].” And what quality must the editor possess? “The editor needs only some tact and the willingness to read things repeatedly.” The relationship between writer and editor is, ideally, one steeped in reciprocal generosity.
Writers—we among them—might keep in mind the changing role of editors in the publishing realm, with increased emphasis on acquisition and marketing and less reward for working extensively with writers to shape the book. Todd points to two pleasures for editors: “One is acquisition, the collector’s pleasure. The other is working with writers. […] As a writer, of course, what you really want is someone strong on both accounts.” Ultimately, though, he sees the resistance to editing far more likely to reside in the writer than the editor.
That said, he also draws a line. “Editors, in any medium, should avoid rewriting, and if they do try to rewrite, then the writer is justified in resisting.” It’s not that the editor couldn’t rewrite—and a part of us wishes that our agent had produced a few new pages for us to claim—but revision will almost certainly work better if the writer does the work so that the style feels seamless.
Here’s a passage from Good Prose that captures our sentiments, that suggests why we remain grateful for our discussions with our writing group and with our agent:
All good writing ultimately is a contest with the inexpressible. Every good passage leaves some thing unsaid. So it ought to be hard. But you don’t want to make it harder than necessary. The best thing and editor can do is to help the writer to think, and this is the most satisfying part of an editor’s work, collaborating at the level of structure and idea.
Tags: Books, Science Writing
Next week, we’ll be participants in the weeklong Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. It’s a chance to step back from our material and think consciously about how we write. As we gear up for the intensive workshop, we’re using this opportunity to think about writing in general and to remind ourselves of the craft and methods we’re honing every time we revise a chapter in the book manuscript or draft a blog post here.
For this reason, we found the chance to hear Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel at Chapman University during his annual visit as a Presidential Fellow especially well timed. Many of the week’s events and conversations focused on writers, writing, and literature. We soaked up as much as we could and share some of Wiesel’s wisdom here.
In an on-stage conversation with our colleague Tom Zoellner, who has written about uranium for Lofty Ambitions, Wiesel talked about his days working as a reporter as well as the fiction and nonfiction writing he’s done. Wiesel asserted, “Had I not written Night, I would not have written any other book.” He might have remained a journalist, but that first novel opened a new way of life and writing for him.
“Silence is good for a novel,” Wiesel said, “but not for journalism.” Nonfiction reveals. Nonfiction gives voice. In another conversation with librarians, he put it a different way: “[Silence is] fraught with meaning. […] Silence is good for literature, but not life.”
Of his writing process for his books, he said that he overwrites, producing long, inclusive drafts for his novels. “Sculpture is what you take off,” he said, indicating that his novels are formed by deciding what is not essential. Perhaps, he was also suggesting that erasing or deleting creates the silences that he finds crucial for literary works. In the conversation with librarians, he talked more specifically about this sculpting, saying, “A 500-page manuscript can become two hundred pages very quickly. […] Only the bones remain. No flesh.” With Zoellner, he joked, “You sometimes have more books in the wastebasket.” Most importantly, he intimated, the writer must return to the desk. “You write,” he insisted, “even though you know maybe you will fail.”
And how does he manage to delete passages that are beautifully written but not essential? “I’ve never fallen in love with my words.” He asks himself what his words want to do and what they want to be. His words have goals and responsibilities; his books are something in addition to conveying something.
Morality is a responsibility Wiesel feels as a writer. About the role of morality in literature and the responsibility of the writer to compose a moral book, he said, “I cannot speak for all writers. I can barely speak for myself. It is a choice.” In another conversation, he added, “The main thing is the respect for the other.” He also pointed out, “We cannot intervene only with words. […] Only words can produce change.” This statement applies generally, of course, but the Holocaust survivor speaks from personal experiences as well. Ultimately, though, as he told Zoellner, “The role of the writer is to tell a good story.”
In the conversation with the university’s librarians, Wiesel expanded on his sense of his own writing process, saying, “I know when it’s finished. I almost know from the beginning.” While he may know when a book is finished, that process takes a long time. Wiesel doesn’t use a computer, yet he asserted, “I rewrite everything three times.” We grew up and started writing before computers were widely available, and we didn’t have a simple word processor until the end of our college years, yet the thought of rewriting a book-length manuscript by hand now sounds daunting.
As we take time to step back from our writing to think consciously about craft for a few weeks, we also remind ourselves that writers learn by reading. Wiesel pointed to different books he appreciated for different reasons, Albert Camus’ The Plague for its philosophy more than for its literary accomplishment and The Stranger for the absurdity. “The library is sacred,” he said. “The greatest moment is before I begin reading. […] I invite myself into the book.”
What better sentiment right now? Off to Santa Fe for a week and on the verge of summer, we look forward to inviting ourselves into the next book. We relish this long moment of anticipation.
Read our next post “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Good Prose HERE.
PurpleStride Chicago April 24, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science.
Today, we are participating in Chapman University’s Literary Pub(lishing) Crawl. If you’re in the area, we encourage you to join us for panels with writers, editors, and agents and a book signing featuring former head of Disneyland Jack Lindquist and journalist David Henley.
On Saturday, we’ll be walking for the second time in PurpleStride Chicago. Last spring, Anna’s Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the annual PurpleStride walk was scheduled on Mary Lee’s birthday so we walked while she was in the hospital. Mary Lee died in December, so we’re walking in her honor on her birthday weekend this year.
Our team is Mary Lee’s Merry Ladies, though, of course, we welcome men on the team as well. We have 14 people signed up to walk, an even bigger team than last year. We welcome donations toward the team or any individual team member. The money goes to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, or PanCan, to support patient advocacy and research.
When we wrote about last year’s PurpleStride, we gave an overview of pancreatic cancer, and mentioned several people who’ve died from this disease: Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, and Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture. Since then, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died from pancreatic cancer last July, having survived 17 months after diagnosis.
The statistics are terrible, with most of those diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic cancer—three out of every four, or four out of every five, depending on the source—dying before one year is up. The five-year survival rate is just 6%, perhaps as low as 4%. Even if it’s caught in its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate is only 14%. Though not as common as many other cancers and more common after the age of 55 and in men, pancreatic cancer is on the increase. (See more at SEER.) Currently the fourth leading cause of cancer death, it’s expected to eclipse all other cancers except lung cancer by 2030. But pancreatic cancer receives less funding from the National Cancer Institute than the other four leading causes of cancer death. (See more at PanCan.)
The most surprising research revealed in the last year was done by a high-school student in Maryland. According to PanCan, Jack Andraka’s “project involves a dipstick technology, whereby a small piece of paper is coated with antibodies that recognize proteins that circulate in the blood or urine of patients with pancreatic cancer, but not individuals without the disease. This technology is much quicker and less expensive than standard laboratory tests.” This preliminary research is especially promising because 80% of patients are diagnosed after the cancer has metastasized. If a simple test could detect the disease earlier, when a small tumor could be surgically removed, survival rates could creep up. Andraka is racking up the awards for his idea and working with companies to test it and make it available to the public.
Meanwhile, scientist Alec Kimmelman is investigating how pancreatic cancer cells work, as it’s important to know exactly how they function differently from normal cells in order to destroy them without harming healthy cells. By looking at cell metabolism, Kimmelman discovered, for instance, that pancreatic cancer cells process sugar differently. More recently, in an article in Nature, Kimmelman and his team revealed, “that pancreatic cancer cells break down glutamine in a manner that is unique from normal cells. Furthermore, the study shows that pancreatic cancer cells are quite dependent on glutamine as a source of energy.” Now, research is needed to figure out how to inhibit—in the body, not just in the lab—the ability of the cancer cells to break down glutamine, so that the cancer cells die or are left more vulnerable to existing treatments.
The weather in Chicago for last year’s PurpleStride was drizzly and cold, and it looks as if it will be much the same this year. Mostly, we hope it dries up after this past week of terrible flooding in Illinois. It’d be great if it were a bit warmer on Saturday, too.
Discovery: On the Anniversary of Retirement April 17, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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One year ago, on April 17, 2012, the space shuttle Discovery left Kennedy Space Center for the last time. The orbiter was mated to the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and installed at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Ait and Space Museum.
Our series following Discovery on its last mission is “Countdown to the Cape.”
At Udvar-Hazy on installation day, we spoke with Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, about the new acquisition:
Lofty Ambitions maintains a Flickr photostream, so we share here some photos of Discovery‘s retirement, which are among our most popular photos there.
Yuri & Young April 10, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Movies & TV, Space Shuttle
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On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, at the age of 27, became the first person to travel to space. His single orbit, from launch to landing, took roughly 108 minutes. Gagarin had been told that he was the choice only three days before the Vostok 1 mission. He returned a Soviet hero and worldwide celebrity. He died in the crash of a training flight on March 27, 1968, at the age of 34 and before the world saw human beings reach the Moon.
On April 12, 1981, only and exactly twenty years after Gagarin’s flight, the first space shuttle mission launched. That the United States had developed a reusable space plane within two decades of the first human spaceflight is a testament to our ingenuity and commitment to space exploration. That NASA chose the same date for the first shuttle launch as the Soviets had chosen for Gagarin’s first-ever spaceflight reminds us that the Cold War lingered and still fueled one-upsmanship.
Though networks covered the STS-1 launch live and gave it the same sort of Cold War fanfare that Apollo had received, we didn’t see the first shuttle launch in real time. The bigger news story that spring, the one for which teachers at Anna’s high school had stopped class to pray, had been the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan less than two weeks earlier. Reagan watched the launch on television as he recuperated at the White House. Vice President George H.W. Bush was the one to call the crew during their mission.
We caught replays of the launch, complete with the word videotape at the top of the screen. Doug remembers himself in front of a television that Sunday afternoon in the most American of venues, the shopping mall after church. Wide-eyed, mouth agape, he watched the liftoff over and over in the J.C. Penney electronics area as if it were that J.C. Penney parking lot across the water from Kennedy Space Center.
Just after launch, CBS newscaster Dan Rather explained the accomplishment in halting syntax: “We’ve been saying all week long and as the time for the launch built Friday morning and again this morning built, everybody a little bit nervous, the tension a little heavier than even usual […] because this spacecraft had not been tested at a launch in unmanned fashion as all others had, spacecraft designed to carry men. […] It’s done now, done successfully.” Leo Krupp, a Rockwell test pilot in the booth with Rather for the “Wings in Space” special report that day, gushed, “That launch was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.” Rather composed himself and went on to describe what had just happened: “The ground literally shook, as the spacecraft Columbia started its own sun below itself, caused that great thunder, and lifted off the pad, headed toward that orbit.” After the commercial break, Rather read a more detailed and technical description, noting that the shuttle had cleared the launch tower within five seconds and exceeded the speed of sound within thirty. (See that broadcast HERE.)
Astronauts John Young, a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and Bob Crippen, a veteran test pilot but a rookie astronaut, circled the Earth 37 times at an altitude of 191 miles, making a complete circuit roughly every ninety minutes and inaugurating the first of the shuttle program’s eventual 135 missions.
Space shuttle Columbia (OV-102), the heaviest orbiter built, landed at Edwards Air Force Base on April 14, 1981. The STS-1 CAPCOM, the person, usually an astronaut, who communicates from the ground directly to the shuttle, announced the orbiter’s safe return, saying, “Welcome home, Columbia. Beautiful, beautiful.” The reusable space plane had succeeded.
Commander Young quipped, “Do I have to take it up to the hangar, Joe?” The CAPCOM replied, “We’re going to dust it off first.” Young added, “This is the world’s greatest flying machine, I’ll tell you that.” The space shuttle era had begun.
Now, of course, the space shuttle era is over. Last week, film critic Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. At the conclusion of his review of Apollo 13, he wrote, “This is a powerful story, one of the year’s best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics. It’s about men trained to do a job, and doing a better one than anyone could have imagined. The buried message is: When we dialed down the space program, we lost something crucial to our vision.”
Gus Grissom April 3, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books
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Today marks the anniversary of Gus Grissom’s birth. Grissom, born Virgil but known as Gus, was a veteran of three spaceflight missions across three space programs. The shortest of the original seven astronauts would have been 87 years old today.
He flew the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft on the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission on July 21, 1961. Grissom was aloft for less than sixteen minutes and never reached orbit. He was the second American in space, Alan Shepard having been the first a couple of months earlier. Upon his return, as Liberty Bell 7 sloshed in the waves and Grissom finished some flip-switching while the recovery helicopter made its final moves, emergency explosives blew the hatch. Grissom scrambled out and nearly drowned, tangled in external lines and waving to helicopters to drop him a lifeline. Filling with water and the resulting weight, Liberty Bell 7 sank, unable to be lifted by the recovery helicopter and recovered decades later in 1999.
Grissom’s next big foray to space was on Gemini 3, the first manned flight of that space program. He had been Shepard’s backup, and Shepard was grounded with an inner ear disorder, so Grissom became the first person to fly to space twice.
In a nod to Grissom’s previous mission, he and fellow Gemini 3 astronaut John Young named their spacecraft Molly Brown, as in the unsinkable. When NASA disapproved of the name, the crew is said to have suggested Titanic as an alternative. While this story emanates a whiff of apocrypha, we have come to think of astronauts as a somewhat cheeky bunch and are willing to believe that Young and Grissom were of that ilk at the time. After that, NASA took a break from naming the capsules, until Apollo 9.
For its time, Gemini 3 was a lengthy mission, at more than four hours and three complete orbits. This flight also involved Young sneaking a corned beef sandwich on board and presenting it to a surprised and hungry Grissom. Fellow Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins, in his book Carrying the Fire, notes that, during the parachute deployment, which can wrench the spacecraft violently at the mission’s conclusion, Grissom “whack[ed] his head into the instrument panel, cracking his helmet visor.”
Grissom, seemingly beset by odd mishaps, was assigned to the first planned Apollo mission, designated AS-204 based on a complicated naming system. Sadly, he and his crewmates, Roger Chaffee and Ed White died in that spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967. A fire had started near Grissom’s seat and had flourished in the 100% oxygen at the ground pressure of 16 psi.
Of that fateful day, Collins writes of getting the initial news in Houston:
After what seemed like a long time, Don [Gregory] finally hung up and said very quietly, ‘Fire in the spacecraft.’ That’s all he had to say. There was no doubt about which spacecraft (102) or who was in it (Grissom-White-Chaffee) or where (Pad 34, Cape Kennedy) or why (a final systems test) or what (death, the quicker the better). All I could think of was, My God, such an obvious thing and yet we hadn’t considered it. We worried about engines that wouldn’t start or wouldn’t stop; we worried about leaks; we even worried about how a flame front might propagate in weightlessness and how cabin pressure might be reduced to stop a fire in space. But right here on the ground, when we should have been most alert, we put three guys inside an untried spacecraft, strapped them into couches, locked two cumbersome hatches behind them, and left them no way of escaping a fire.
One of the Apollo 1 crew reported the fire, then White said clearly, “Fire in the cockpit.” Communication continued for seventeen seconds. The crew struggled to escape. In ideal circumstances, escape took 90 seconds, but even in practice, the crew had never been able to egress that quickly. Someone uttered, “Get us out.” The fire burned so hot and the hatches were so complicated that it took the rescuers five minutes to reach the bodies of Grissom, Chaffee, and White. Though they suffered serious burns, which may have contributed to their deaths, their suits had been surprisingly effective protection against the flames. The three astronauts had died of asphyxiation.
Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington Cemetery, while White rests at West Point. Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space only days before his death. There, he had written. “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”