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JPL Open House 2014 October 15, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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This past weekend, October 11th and 12th, marked the return of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) annual Open House. The 2013 event was canceled due to the federal government’s budgetary issues. The Lofty Duo has attended JPL’s Open House in previous years, but this year only Doug was able to make the trek up and around Los Angeles to JPL’s home in Pasadena.

JPL Open House 2014

JPL STEM Carnival 2014

JPL’s Open House is an intoxicating mix of Southern California street fair, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) carnival, and full-on NerdFest. The Open House regularly draws upwards of 15,000 people on each of its two days. A casual glance around the JPL grounds made it seem as if this year’s event might actually top those numbers. Perhaps it was a bit of pent-up demand deriving from last year’s cancellation and people’s continuing enthusiasm for space exploration.

The Open House is also a large event from a geographical perspective. As the map of JPL’s event shows, there were 22 different sites at the JPL campus to visit, if a person had time. Several years ago, a museum exhibit curator told us that she planned for three kinds of patrons: streakers, strollers, and studiers. Here at Lofty Ambitions, we are definitely studiers. We read every bit of text that accompanies an exhibit, and we have been known to track down docents to get any lingering questions answered. In that context, Doug had to be very strategic in planning his JPL Open House experience.

JPL-OpenHouse-Site-listThe attendance figures that point to interest in science in general and space science in particular are heartening. However, large crowds also meant long lines for certain sites. Last time, this waiting led to a tiny bit of disappointment because we couldn’t see as much as we’d expected. Specifically, we were unable to make it into the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF). So, this time, the SFOF was his first stop.

Built in 1963, the SFOF is JPL’s mission control center for all of its interplanetary missions. The volunteer who introduced the SFOF pointed out that not only are the missions controlled via the SFOF, but all of the science data that is collected by the interplanetary probes and planetary rovers first passes through the computers of the SFOF.

Included among the missions currently controlled from the SFOF are the two still-active Mars rovers: the Mini Cooper-sized Curiosity and the more diminutive, but remarkably tenacious, Opportunity. As of this writing, Opportunity is on Sol 3813. A Sol is a Martian solar day, and it is roughly 3% longer than an Earth day. Opportunity and Spirit were originally designed for a 90-day mission length, and as the home page for the rovers proudly points out, it also means that Opportunity is 3723 Sols past its warranty. In other words, Opportunity has been operational 40 times longer that was planned.



In JPL’s mission control, the person in charge of a particular mission is known as the Ace. During this year’s Open House, the Aces for both Curiosity and Opportunity were present. The tour of the SFOF also included the room where Curiosity’s landing was controlled. A cardboard cut-out of the now famous “NASA Mohawk Guy,” Bobak Ferdowsi, stood keeping watch in the corner.

After the SFOF, Doug headed to site #17, Mobility and Robotic Technologies. On display in the parking lot of JPL Building 318 were a variety of rover-like vehicles. Two projects that caught Doug’s eye: TRESSA, or Teamed Robots for Exploration and Science on Steep Areas, and BRUIE, or Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration. Although the lengths that NASA scientists will go to for an acronym is often impressive in and of itself, the technology behind these two projects was more impressive.

TRESSA uses three collaborative robots—two so-called Anchorbots and a Cliffbot—to scale rocky slopes of up to 85 degrees. TRESSA was designed to perform experimental work similar to the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. In the summer of 2006, TRESSA was tested in Norway.



BRUIE is a kind of submersible. It’s controlled like a rover, but it’s designed to crawl along the underside of open water ice. The ultimate hope would be to use a BRUIE-inspired robot to investigate the ocean’s of Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

Doug also had a chance to see a film about the Low-Density Supersonic Demonstrator project, so it was a full day and seems to deserve more than one post.

Countdown to The Cold War: October 1944 October 8, 2014

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In the book, Hanford and the Bomb: An Oral History of World War II, author S. L. Sanger gives perhaps the most straightforward description of Hanford’s role in the Manhattan Project:

In simplest terms, Hanford’s job was to make plutonium inside the nuclear reactors by bombarding uranium fuel with neutrons, and to separate the plutonium from the irradiated uranium. The first step was nuclear; the second was chemical.

The first Hanford nuclear reactor (also known as atomic piles in the 1940s) in which the bombardment process took place was the B Reactor. After a fifteenth-month construction period, scientists and engineers began coaxing the B Reactor into operation in the fall of 1944. The B Reactor initially went critical on September 26, 1944. But getting the B Reactor into operational status was a lengthy, problematic exercise. Many of those problems were diagnosed and solved 70 years ago this month, in October 1944.

Hanford B Reactor

Hanford B Reactor

When you think of the Hanford reactors, imagine a roughly square box—36 ft. x 28 ft. x 36 ft.—of graphite with horizontal holes that function as tubes running through the box. In order to create a functioning reactor, the horizontal tubes are filled with cans—“slugs” in the nuclear business—of uranium. The nuclear reactor goes critical when enough uranium is placed inside the graphite box. If everything is properly controlled, the reaction is said to be self-sustaining.

The Hanford reactors were designed with 2,004 horizontal tubes. There were also a number of tubes for control rods, also mounted horizontally, that cut across the 2,004 tubes designed to contain uranium. The control rods, as the name implies, were used to control the level of neutron production within the pile and, therefore, the power production of the reactor. There were a few tubes drilled vertically through the reactor as well. These tubes could be used to shut down the reactor in an emergency. That way, in the event of the failure of the control rods, a last-ditch system consisting of a boron solution could be dumped over the pile from five 105-gallon tanks positioned on top of the reactor.

The amount of material and effort that went into the construction of the reactors is staggering. In his book The History and the Science of the Manhattan Project, physicist Bruce Cameron Reed has the following to say:

The piles themselves were welded to be gas-tight, and contained 2.5 million cubic feet of masonite; 4,415 t of steel plate; 1,093 t of cast iron; 2,200 t of graphite; 221,000 feet of copper tubing; 176,700 feet of plastic tubing; and some 86,000 feet of aluminum tubing.

As he had with the first atomic pile—CP-1—famously built under the stands of the University of Chicago’s former football field, Enrico Fermi loaded the first uranium slugs into the B Reactor at Hanford. This action, informally known as “the blessing of the pope,” took place on September 13, 1944. Loading of uranium continued until various measures of criticality took place on September 15-18.

Hanford 1960

Hanford 1960

In late September, power levels in the B reactor began to fluctuate because of the creation of the fission product xenon-135. The xenon-135 was capturing neutrons at a greater rate than had been predicted, and the resulting effect played havoc with the reactor’s ability to sustain a nuclear reaction. The solution turned out to be to add more uranium into more of the reactor’s tubes. The effect was discovered at many power levels. As a result, for much of October the engineers and scientists continued to add more uranium slugs to the reactor.

About the construction of Hanford as a whole, Reed says, “The total volume of land excavated at Hanford was equivalent to about 10% of that of the Panama Canal.” Though Hanford is almost entirely decommissioned now, the volume of radioactive waste that remains there makes it the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.

Writing Residencies: Dorland and Balancing Projects October 1, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
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ANNA’S UPDATE (See the previous update from Anna HERE.) First, an aside. Please take this post as a reminder to back up your hard drive! Because I was aware of writing new pieces every weekend, I became more cognizant of backing up my hard drive each week. According to one data storage company, more than one-quarter of people report never backing up their data, fewer than that report backing up at least weekly, those over 55 are more likely than the 18-44 crowd to back up data frequently, and men back up frequently at a higher rate than women. If you’ve added stuff you can’t afford to lose, make sure it’s saved in a second place—external hard drive, cloud, emailed to yourself, copied on a usb stick, something. DorlandView

I often have differently sized writing projects at different stages of development. Setting several things in motion, knowing that not all things will pan out, has risks and sometimes makes my progress look slow for a while. Still, I’ve heard other writers talk about the need to juggle projects in order to increase chances of success, and it’s the tack I tend to take.

Usually, I jot a writing project on my list of things to do and, if it has a deadline, jot it on my calendar in a couple of places as well (when it’s due but also a reminder of when to really get working on it seriously). I fit such a writing project into my job obligations and make steady progress. Or, sometimes, I don’t fit it in, maybe I can’t meet that soft but important starting date, or maybe I make tough decisions about how to spend my time, and I let it drop off my list.

Before this month going back and forth between Dorland Mountain Arts Colony and home, I’ve never as consciously thought about and planned ahead how to use my day-to-day-to-day schedule to make steady progress on specific writing projects. The compartmentalization of this month (which I wrote about in a previous post) has given me a way to schedule writing projects more consciously and steadily. When I’m not at Dorland, I don’t work on these writing projects at all, other than to print a draft or pack a book that might be a good reference point. Another long weekend of writing is ahead, and I plan for that time. Dorland Bench for Sitting Calm

What’s great about my current writing schedule is that I’m able to work on the big project—a book I’m writing with a colleague in another field—over the whole month, bits and pieces at a time. Because I rewrote that manuscript on the whole over the summer and most chapters also had edits on hard copy before this Dorland back-and-forth began, I can keep dropping in and out of the revising process without losing momentum. This steady, unpressured pace will get me to the soft deadline I have with my co-author in another week. (We’ll have more work to do, but we’ll be working with something complete.)

In addition to making progress on the big project, my goal for each long weekend at Dorland is to finish the small project I’d started the previous weekend and to start another small project. (I don’t finish even tiny projects in one weekend because I need time and perspective between drafting and revising.) Each small project is something very specific that I can draft one weekend and revise the next, maybe a short essay or a couple of poems. These do not emerge out of a general impulse that I must write. Each emerges from not only an idea but also an assignment of sorts, a particular journal’s submissions guidelines, for instance. Doritos

Writing residencies are great for large projects, and that’s how I’ve treated residencies before and how Doug is treating his residency now—with a book project as the priority, a big risk in some ways. (We always also keep up with this blog.) This time, by figuring out how to balance projects according to my compartmentalized schedule, I leave Dorland each weekend with something complete—an essay, a couple of poems. Once thus far, I submitted a two-weekend finished piece as soon as I made my way through traffic back home to wifi. Journalists work on tight deadlines, and maybe that’s more realistic than I’d led myself to believe all these years.

Also, while I’m at home, I have the in-progress essay or poem in the back of mind, as I teach, wander among meetings, catch up with laundry, and back up my hard drive. In a way, that’s the sort of approach Ernest Hemingway took, ending his day of writing before he’d exhausted the idea or scene at hand, knowing exactly what he’d be jumping back into in the morning. As I make the drive back to Dorland for each long weekend, I know what’s waiting for me there: a specific writing task and, of course, Doug. On those drives, I’m often smiling both coming and going and thinking, How amazing is that!

Countdown to the Cold War: September 1944 September 24, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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In the last couple of posts, we’ve begun our Countdown to the Cold War by talking about the reorganized at Los Alamos in the fall of 1944 to develop a method known as implosion. You can read the last post in the series by clicking HERE.

Handling Radiolanthanum

Handling Radiolanthanum

The next step on the Manhattan Project’s Countdown to the Cold War occurred on September 22, 1944, and was known as the RaLa experiment. Very early in the implosion research program, it became obvious that being able to systematically verify the success or failure of implosion would be a crucial measure for success. But very few experimental measures of implosion existed at the time.

In particular, for a successful atomic weapon, it was imperative that the scientists be able to engineer a symmetric implosion. Early attempts at creating implosion revealed a wide range of asymmetric behaviors that scattered material unevenly. In order to measure the symmetry of implosion, it became necessary to observe implosion events with instruments. One technique that was developed for observing implosion was known as RaLa.

Robert Server

Robert Server

RaLa is a shorthand for the active ingredient in a RaLa test: radiolanthanum. Radiolanthanum (La-140) is a manmade radioactive isotope of lanthanum. According to Critical Assembly (by Hoddesson, et al), Robert Serber first outlined what would become the RaLa method on November 1, 1943. Serber was arguably Robert Oppenheimer’s right-hand man at Los Alamos and someone familiar to folks there for the Los Alamos Primer, the introductory lectures that kicked off the Manhattan Project’s bomb design effort.

The RaLa method depended upon the use of gamma radiation given off by the radiolanthanum isotope. Gamma radiation—or just gamma rays—are a very energetic type of electromagnetic radiation. The EPA.gov website devoted to radiation protection has this to say about gamma rays:

Gamma photons have about 10,000 times as much energy as the photons in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma photons have no mass and no electrical charge. The are pure electromagnetic energy.

Highly energetic gamma rays travel at the speed of light and easily pass through most materials. It is this set of properties that made them useful in characterizing the implosion necessary for setting off an atomic bomb.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Serber hypothesized that by placing an amount of radiolanthanum in the center of the metal sphere to be compressed by implosion, the strength of the gamma rays emitted during that implosion would vary in such a way that the scientists could use instruments to understand how symmetrical the implosion was. Serber knew that, as an implosion event progressed in a metallic core (uranium or plutonium for the atom bomb), there would be significant changes in the density of the material being compressed. These changes in density would retard the gamma rays in predictable ways. In addition, because the gamma rays would radiate out from the center of the sphere, the scientists would be able to collect information about the implosion in three physical dimensions.

Ta-dah, RaLa!

Given that the radiolanthanum material would be at the center of an explosion, there would of course be radioactive debris and dispersal of that debris. Gamma radiation is ionizing—releases electrons—and therefore has biological implications, meaning that it affects human bodies. And because gamma rays penetrate materials, they can be very dangerous. In this way, the RaLa experiments constitute the world’s first production of radioactive fallout, a waft of the Cold War to come. In order to minimize human exposure to the radiation that would be released, the RaLa experiments were held offsite in Bayo Canyon, located about two miles east of Los Alamos—a sort of lab away from lab. Checking the wind direction or measuring fallout, however, weren’t much a priority for these early radioactive test explosions.

Writing Residencies: Dorland & Compartmentalization September 17, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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Two weeks ago, we wrote about going “Back to Dorland” and how we are doing things differently this time.



View from the Porch

As a writer, I’ve had a love–hate relationship with compartmentalization. It’s taken me years to successfully combat notions that I should get other tasks—seemingly quick or urgent tasks—out of the way before sitting down to write. I like crossing items of my list of things to do. It makes me feel efficient. It’s been tough to do writing first on a given day or in a given week. It doesn’t help that writing is more difficult to complete in a way that’s crossed of the official list. But when writing is not done first, it’s less likely to get done that day or that week.

Though I’m not a morning person, not writing first thing risks not writing when I have the most energy, am most clear headed, and am least distractible. The One Thing by Gary Keller makes some hard-to-swallow leaps in its argument for radical reprioritizing and rescheduling but makes a good point that, as we work through decisions and focus on multiple tasks during a given day, our willpower gets used up. “So, if you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work—your ONE thing—early, before your willpower is drawn down.”


Breakfast of Champion Writers (oatmeal with bananas and Greek yogurt)

An even more dangerous version of that get-other-stuff-done-first approach is the deceptive notion that, if only I could get all other tasks accomplished, I would have long stretches of time to write without any distraction. As melodious as that kind of thinking sounds and as much as my list of things whistles that tune of one more thing and one more thing, it’s impossible in real life to get everything else accomplished first.

If I am to write, other tasks—whether completed or pending, whether trivial or pressing—must be set aside. Writing residencies encourage a person to do that in a big way, for weeks at a time. But unlike Doug, I’m not at Dorland for a month straight. I’m on a writing residency for a few days at a time, then back in the semester for a few days, then back to Dorland, and so on.

When I’m at home, I’m completely focused on teaching, meetings, getting up to speed in my new role in the Office of Undergraduate Research, working on curriculum revision, socializing with colleagues, and such. If it’s a teaching day, that’s the priority—prepping and being fully engaged in class. I might go to a meeting before class, but only if I’m ready for class. On Wednesdays, I do one meeting, then the next, with other tasks (like lunch! and email or spontaneous conversation) in between as time allows. It’s intense but not frantic because it’s all scheduled. Because my schedule is tight, unimportant tasks fall away. I’m still being efficient (slashing through my list of things to do), but I’m being more effective as well (taking more control of what’s on the list in the first place).

Doug's Porch Buddy

Doug’s Porch Buddy

This jam-packed, time-blocked schedule has taught me something about email and requests from colleagues that The One Thing mentions: “Most often, these requests are more about an immediate need to hand a task off than about a need for it to be done immediately […].” In other words, I can, more often than I’d previously realized, acknowledge a task without immediately doing that task. And I can respond in ways that assure but also delay or delegate so that everyone feels less urgency. And perhaps for the first time, I see that more tasks than I’d expected aren’t important enough or relevant enough for me to do. When that happens, I feel surprisingly okay saying, No.

When I’m there immersed in the semester, I don’t think much about writing (except as something that I’m going back to in a few days). Work-work is switched on, and that overrides everything. It’s intense—the original Latin suggests, holding tightly in my grasp—in a way that fuels itself. Thus far, I’m incredibly productive at work-work. And then I drag my suitcase to the car and turn that mode off.

Dorland Bench for Sitting Calm

Dorland Bench for Sitting Calm

When I’m at Dorland, I’m completely focused on writing. Sure, we take a break to see a movie on Friday night, to sit on the porch each morning after breakfast, to walk the hill to clear our heads and tend to the exercise of our physical bodies (even when it’s 109 degrees, as it was this past weekend). I also make sure I know exactly what I must do to prepare for Tuesday’s class and allot time for that, even if it’s the end of my Dorland time—students can’t be set aside. Such breaks in activity, however, don’t undermine or compete with my focus on writing.

Writing—the creative work—is the priority for every day at Dorland. I’m relaxed and open to ideas. Time there feels large and flexible, curving to my wants. I sleep well and without an alarm. I write for hours at a stretch. I read a little, with writing in mind.

This past weekend, I reread Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (translated by husband-and-wife collaborators! Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). So, in those moments when I worry that I’m living a crazy month or shirking the expected routine, I recall Ivan Ilyich’s despair in the weeks before he dies:

“Maybe I did not live as I should have?” would suddenly come into his head. “But how not, if I did everything one ought to do?” he would say to himself and at once drive this sole solution to the whole riddle of life and death away from him as something completely impossible.

That first weekend after the semester started, I got nervous about work-work—about not doing what I ought—so I checked email while at Dorland. That was a mistake. I couldn’t not respond. Worse, I logged in again later, checking for responses to my responses. Email wasn’t merely a distraction. The One Thing states, “For time blocks to actually block time, they must be protected. […] So it’s your job to protect your time blocks from all those who don’t know what matters most to you, and from yourself when you forget.” Email and all the tasks it suggested inserted itself in my mindset and threatened my focus on writing. I need to keep the partitions up. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” At Dorland, writing matters most.

DorlandFeetMy life is compartmentalized this month, and I like it. This drastic partitioning of work-work and writing may be unsustainable for the long haul. (I may need, at the very least, a full day off from both modes soon.) The geographical switch—one mode at home, a different mode at Dorland—certainly helps reinforce the partitioning and keep me going. Compartmentalization as I’ve never known it before seems good for my writing right now.

Countdown to The Cold War: August 1944 (3) September 10, 2014

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In our post two weeks ago, we mentioned implosion as an assembly method for a critical mass. The critical mass is the amount of fissile material—in the form of uranium or plutonium—necessary to set-up the uncontrolled fission chain reaction that’s at the heart of a nuclear weapon. Implosion was one of three original assembly methods evaluated during the Manhattan Project: autocatalysis, the gun method, and implosion. The scientists at Los Alamos, however, had no experience using explosives to systematically create the symmetric, spherical blast wave necessary to compress solid materials for implosion. Indeed, in one of the official histories of the Manhattan Project, David Hawkins says the following:

[T]he behavior of solid matter under the thermodynamical conditions created by an implosion went far beyond current laboratory experience. As even its name implies, the implosion seemed “against nature.”

Physicist Seth Neddermeyer was an early advocate of the implosion method, and he began a serious investigation of the process in 1943. By mid-1944, because of plutonium’s propensity for spontaneous fission, it became clearer that, if there was to be an atomic bomb that used plutonium, then implosion was the only viable assembly method. The progress that Neddermeyer’s team had made on the implosion problem was deemed to be inadequate, though, and Neddermeyer was replaced. The realization that implosion was an extremely complicated problem set off a reorganization of Los Alamos that saw the creation of entirely new research groups, promotion or hiring of scientists to lead those groups, and realignment within existing research groups.

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

What’s remarkable about the Los Alamos reorganization is the breadth of the changes and the speed with which they were executed in the fall of 1944. A letter in mid-June, a series of meetings in July, and final approval on July 20th, 1944—1, 2, 3, go. The changes required by the reorganization were considered to be in effect on August 14th, 1944. The gun design was considered to be making acceptable progress under the leadership of Navy Captain William “Deak” Parsons. Parsons had been in charge of the Ordnance Division, and perhaps the biggest change that underwent was becoming the O Division. The two most important of the newly created divisions were X Division and G Division. X Division—X for Explosives—was headed by Harvard physical chemist George Kistiakowsky. Kisti’s group was responsible for every engineering and development aspect of creating the explosive system used to render the implosion. G Division—G for Gadget—was led by Robert Bacher and became responsible for all of the aspects of the bomb that had to do with its nuclear core, the so-called plutonium pit. In addition, because of G Division’s responsibility for the pit, they were also charged with developing various experimental methodologies for evaluating the effectiveness of the implosion—in particular, measure for validating the compression of solid materials. Trinity_explosion2Importantly, the series of organizational changes that enhanced the overall understanding of the implosion-based atomic bomb. So, existing divisions such as R Division (Research, the Experimental Physics Division prior to the reorganization) and T Division (Theory) adjusted as the focus on implosion took hold across the laboratory at Los Alamos.

The Manhattan Project’s leadership, spurred on by J. Robert Oppenheimer, saw a problem and worked effectively to address that problem. This speedy, drastic effort that reorganized the Manhattan Project reminds us of an engineering analogy that used to come up in computer systems development: replacing a car’s engine as you’re going down the highway at 70 mile per hour. Just over two months time elapsed from the proposed changes to their implementation, with research continuing all the while. The development of the implosion device, the Gadget, was the primary focus of the laboratory from this reorganization in August 1944 until the Trinity test of the first atomic weapon on July 16, 1945. The Countdown to the Cold War was well underway 70 years ago today.

Writing Residencies: Back to Dorland September 3, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.

DorlandDesk1While we understand the importance of a daily writing habit, we cannot deny the intense productivity that writing residencies have fostered for us in the last few years. We have written before about Dorland Mountain Arts Colony HERE (including links to other posts) and HERE and about Ragdale HERE. Earlier this summer, we wrote about our self-designed writing retreat in Santa Fe HERE and HERE.

We are, once again, back at Dorland, only we’re doing the same thing differently this time, together and separately. Doug has a professional development leave—a sabbatical—from his work as a librarian. Months ago, as soon as his leave was approved, Doug contacted Dorland to apply for a September writing residency so that he could work on his novel. The Chief and the Gadget. We fought traffic on Labor Day weekend to find ourselves back on that mountainside, the dry, peaceful air welcoming us.

We stocked up on groceries right away, made the bed, unpacked some of our clothes and books, and watched the sunset. The cabin is small but not tiny. One large room houses writing space, a piano, and the kitchen (as well as a fireplace that we won’t need this time), and the bedroom and bathroom are toward the back. Two tables serve as our desks, nothing fancy. The view through the window from one desk is spectacular.

DorlandFeetWe wrote most of Sunday, taking breaks to peer at the mountains from the porch and to brainstorm through ideas with each other. The temperature outside neared 100 degrees, but the window air conditioning unit kept the whole cabin comfortable. When the sun sets, the air cools quickly, and nighttime temperatures run in the 60s. The environment relaxes and focuses us every day. Our day-to-day lives, including the usual hum of sounds, and the rest of the world feel far removed. All that’s here, really, is time, space, and our ideas and words.

But Anna is not on sabbatical and had to turn around to head home on Monday to dive into a busy fall semester of teaching, coordinating the Tabula Poetica reading series, and learning the ropes in her new position as Co-Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. She can’t spend the entire month away from home completely focused on her writing projects, one of which is relatively new and big. This writing residency is Doug’s time.

Anna can, however, spend weekends at Dorland, timing her drive to miss the heaviest traffic. We are grateful that Dorland welcomed our plan for Doug to have the residency full time and Anna to stay for a few days each week. Anna has already started compartmentalizing her September schedule so that, when she’s on campus for several days, she can be all in there with those tasks, and when she’s at Dorland for a weekend, she can be all in there with her writing projects. DorlandPorch

In theory, this schedule sounds great, not only because it focuses on one thing at a time but also because it offers long stretches of writing time. Will it work in practice? Can such a schedule work for one individual when other people—students, colleagues, friends—are not living by the same schedule, in which each day of the week has been demarcated by location and task? And if it does work, is it possible to compartmentalize in similar ways—Tuesday is a teaching day, Wednesday is a meeting day, Friday is a writing day—without the structure of a writing residency? Or is it better—less stressful, more productive, more sustainable—to cultivate a daily writing habit of shorter stretches?

Of course, Doug’s plan—a month devoted almost exclusively to writing—sounds to us like the best way for a writer to spend a given month. But not all writers have that opportunity. And he, too, will return to his day-to-day job in a few weeks. These questions about how to schedule writing—how not to let writing get squeezed out of one’s schedule—matter a great deal to any writer.

Every writer must figure out how to manage the stuff of life—family, a job, bills, laundry, email, world news, all of it. There exists no set formula for the writing life that we can all adopt successfully. In fact, looking back on our posts about writing, we have no one answer even for ourselves. We’ve alternated our own approaches over the last several years. We’ve returned to Dorland because we had such a great experience here before, but it’s different this time as we embark on it separately and together.

Countdown to The Cold War: August 1944 (2) August 27, 2014

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Trinity_explosion2Our first “Countdown to The Cold War” post appeared LAST WEEK, so you may want to start there.

In the vernacular of the Manhattan Project scientists and engineers, assembly is the process of transforming a subcritical mass of either uranium or plutonium into a supercritical mass, an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction resulting in an explosion. In the earliest days of the project, most of the effort was spent on developing what was called the gun-type assembly method. This is essentially the act of slamming together two subcritical masses by firing one at the other. As a means of setting off an atomic explosion, this process has always struck the Lofty Duo as the equivalent of one of our very distant ancestors stumbling across two stones, banging them together, and wiping out the entire forest in which they lived.

The initial designs for a gun-type weapon were essentially navy cannons with one end containing a near-critical mass of fissionable to be shot at from the other end by a smaller mass of fissionable material. The first attempts were thought to require a ten-thousand pound, seventeen-foot long cannon. These designs were known as the Thin Man, after the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name.


U.S. Government photo of Thin Man-type bomb casings

Scientists and engineers hoped that this design would work for both uranium and plutonium. While enriched uranium–enrichment being the process used to increase the proportion of desirable U-235 vs. undesirable U-238 in a given amount of uranium (see last week’s post)–had suitable physical properties for a gun-type weapon, the enrichment process was complex and expensive. During the Manhattan Project, electromagnetic separation, thermal diffusion, and, to a lesser extent, gas centrifugation were all used as enrichment processes. In fact, these processes of enriching uranium were so difficult that there were serious questions about whether enough uranium could be produced to build a bomb.

Plutonium, on the other hand, could be produced by transmuting–transmuting being changing one element or isotope into another–uranium in nuclear reactors (atomic piles at the time). Once produced, its purification and separation could be handled chemically, as opposed to the complicated means necessary for uranium. Plutonium is a fiendish metal to manipulate, and its been called the most dangerous substance known to humankind. In the early days of the Manhattan Project, it was also in short supply. As more of it became available in April 1944 and subjected to experiment, scientists at Los Alamos, particularly physicist Emilio Segrè and his group, discovered that reactor-produced plutonium (as opposed to previous plutonium samples which had been created in cyclotrons) suffered from an alarming problem.

As Segrè and his group discovered in their Forrest Service cabin deep in Pajarito Canyon, the plutonium produced in atomic piles has two isotopes: Pu-239 and Pu-240. The presence of the second isotope, Pu-240, caused the plutonium that Los Alamos was receiving to undergo spontaneous fission. In nature, fissionable elements can also undergo nuclear reaction known as spontaneous fission. This process is a somewhat different process than when nuclear fission is artificially induced through the use of a neutron. Richard Rhodes in his Pulitzer Prize Winning tome, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, gives a footnote definition of spontaneous fission: “a relatively rare nuclear event, differs from fission caused by neutron bombardment; it occurs without outside stimulus as a natural consequence of the instability of heavy nuclei.” Spontaneous was not what the Manhattan Project wanted in its nuclear material.

Emilio Segrè's identification badge, Las Alamos National Laboratory

Emilio Segrè’s identification badge, Las Alamos National Laboratory

The unplanned for nuclear reaction was occurring to such an extent that, as two subcritical pieces of plutonium were brought in proximity to one another, the assembling mass of plutonium would be subject to pre-detonation. In short, the plutonium produced in Hanford’s reactors couldn’t be used in a gun-type assembly method. So the scientists and engineers needed to figure out what kind of bomb assembly would work if they wanted to use plutonium.

It was relatively quickly realized that, in order to make use of plutonium and to avoid pre-detonation, the subcritical mass would have to be assembled fast. Very fast. The only method that was available to Los Alamos was implosion. We’ll discuss that and its implications for the Manhattan Project next in our “Countdown to The Cold War.”

In the meantime, for more on uranium, plutonium, and fission, see our post called “Uranium & Plutonium & Fission.”

Countdown to The Cold War: August 1944 August 20, 2014

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Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Over the last few years, your Lofty Duo has had an inordinate amount of interest in the Manhattan Project. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of our many overlapping interests in this historical event, it’s likely that somewhere in the shaded region at the center of the diagram would be a man named Henry Cullen. Henry was Anna’s grandfather. In his professional life, he was a Pullman Conductor on the Santa Fe Chief. The stories that Henry told about his train dropping off men with foreign-sounding names and accents in-the-middle-of-nowhere New Mexico are a part of Anna’s family lore.

That middle-of-nowhere spot was Lamy, New Mexico, situated about ten miles south of Santa Fe. During the years 1943-1945, the Lamy railway station was the disembarkation point for thousands of American scientists, engineers, soldiers, and their families as they made their way to the heart of the Manhattan Project: Site Y, more popularly known as Los Alamos. Site Y was one of the thirty locations that made up the Manhattan Engineer District, an administrative organization for the atomic bomb project that was created within the Army Corps of Engineers.


Trinity: First Atomic Weapon

The military director of the Manhattan Engineer District was General Leslie M. Groves, who received the assignment to manage the Manhattan Engineer District as a result of his success with building the Pentagon. As Groves contemplated the necessity of moving so many valuable technical people around the country, he became concerned by the possibility of airplane crashes. As a result, trains like the Santa Fe Chief became the primary mode of cross-country transportation for the people working on the Manhattan Project. If it weren’t for the General’s fears, it’s unlikely that Henry Cullen would have crossed paths with so many individuals who were in the process of changing the course of history.

Henry Cullen’s outsider-looking-in stories about the then secret world of the Manhattan Project have given rise to a number of projects here at Lofty Ambitions. We’ve made trips to Santa Fe and Los Alamos numerous times. We’ve visited a number of atomic-themed museums. And we’re academics, so we’ve turned what we learned into conference papers and presentations. Doug is also using parts of Henry’s story in the novel he’s writing this summer.

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

As we mentioned earlier this month, over the next year, we’re going to be taking a look at the last year (August 1944-1945) of the Manhattan Project. Our starting point is a sequence of events that led to a massive reorganization of the laboratory at Site Y seventy years ago in August of 1944. That reorganization centered on a new design, a new model for the atomic bomb called implosion. This new design was necessary in order for the project to make use of the element plutonium, about which we’ve written. To understand this shift in August 1944, it’s helpful to keep in mind how the Manhattan Project scientists had initially thought they might go about designing an atomic bomb.

Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard is the scientist credited for first recognizing the possibility of using the energy released by the splitting of an atom—the process of nuclear fission—to create a weapon. In the late 1930s, much of the research in the area of nuclear fission was focused on the radioactive element uranium.

In uranium, the fission process begins with the absorption of a neutron (a subatomic particle with no electric charge, and one of the three constituents of atoms along with electrons and protons). This new neutron introduced to the uranium atom adds to the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, a process that excites the atom and makes it unstable. As a result of this instability, the uranium atom breaks apart into lighter elements (krypton and barium), three more neutrons, and energy.

Replica of The Gadget at NMNSH

Replica of the first atomic bomb at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

However, this set of byproducts is the result of the fission in a specific uranium isotope, U-235. Naturally occurring uranium has two isotopes: U-235 and U-238. The element uranium has 92 protons in its nucleus. Isotopes are alternative configurations of a chemical element that differ in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. U-235 has 143 neutrons in its nucleus, and U-238 has 146 neutrons. The number after the chemical symbol—235 or 238—indicates the total number of protons and neutrons for that isotope (e.g., U-235: 92 + 143 = 235).

The nuclear fission that described above for U-235 releases three new neutrons. Each of those neutrons can then go on to fission more uranium atoms. As this process repeats cycle after cycle, it produces what is known as a chain reaction. In nuclear engineering, a controlled chain reaction is a nuclear reactor, a machine that can be used to generate power. An uncontrolled chain reaction is a weapon, and that was the goal of the Manhattan Project. Get that fission started and let it run wild.

U-238, the other naturally occurring isotope of uranium, has a nuclear reaction that generates only a single new neutron. So, one neutron is needed to cause fission, and one neutron is produced by the fission. That’s just not enough to sustain a chain reaction. So the Manhattan Project needed U-235.

Train Station at Lamy, NM

Train Station at Lamy, NM

Naturally occurring uranium, however, is found in an isotope mix that is 99.3% U-238 (which the scientists and engineers didn’t want) and about 0.7% U-235 (which was what they did want). They worked as best they could with this situation of separating out the isotope they wanted. As their work proceeded, though, they wondered whether plutonium might be used instead of uranium. As they began to think about how plutonium might work, they realized that the bomb design under development for uranium wasn’t suitable for using plutonium.

So while the Manhattan Project continued to pursue a weapon that used uranium, they refocused efforts on plutonium and began developing another design.

For the next post in “Countdown to the Cold War,” click HERE.

On Traveling: NASM & Other Serendipity August 13, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
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Last week, we were back at the University of Maryland. We lived in College Park, Maryland, in the early 1990s while Anna was earning her MFA and working at the Entomological Society of America and Doug was working for NASA at the Center for AeroSpace Information as an abstractor and indexer. The University of Maryland and the surrounding communities have changed in twenty years, with lots more housing and restaurants (we went to Ledo first).

This time around, Doug was participating in a workshop hosted by HILT, or Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching. As part of that program, we had the opportunity to choose among several Wednesday field trips. Of course, you know which one we chose: National Air and Space Museum!

NASM Curator Margaret W

NASM Curator Margaret Weitekamp at “My Shuttle Memories” Slideshow

The special event focused on a behind-the-scenes look at the new NASM crowdsourcing project called “My Space Shuttle Memories.” Margaret Weitekamp, the Curator of the Social and Cultural Dimensions of Spaceflight Collection at NASM, wanted something engaging for the new “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibit, and she wanted to reflect the ways in which real people interacted with and reacted to the space shuttle program. She worked with Sarah Banks, NASM’s Social Media Manager, to develop a photo crowdsourcing project that culminates in a slideshow display now in the exhibit.

Model of International Space Station in Current Configuration

Model of International Space Station in Current Configuration

We were disappointed that we hadn’t known about the initial call for photographs, but the museum plans to update the slideshow periodically. So, of course, we uploaded five of our own space shuttle photographs to the “My Space Shuttle Memories” Flickr group as soon as we returned home. We encourage others to do the same!

Based on our discussions with Weitekamp and Banks, we encourage you to follow the guidelines so that your photograph is seriously considered. Even if your photograph doesn’t become part of the slideshow in the museum, it’ll remain part of the collection of “My Shuttle Memories” at Flickr. Here are some things to consider before you upload any Shuttle photos to the Flickr page:

  • The photograph MUST include people. Photographs of the space shuttle or of the plume won’t be considered for inclusion in the museum slideshow.
  • The photograph must NOT anyone under the age of 18, unless you can provide permission from a parent or legal guardian for all children in the photograph.
  • Photographs should focus on space shuttle launches and landings. Generally, very insider photographs won’t be seriously considered for inclusion in the slideshow.
  • Photographs of space shuttle launches in the 1980s and 1990s are especially welcome. Many of us went to the last three launches with digital cameras, so those photographs dominate submissions. If you take the time to scan and submit an older photograph, you may have better odds.
  • You MUST hold copyright on the photograph and be willing to give NASM permission to use the photograph. If they’re interested in including your photograph in the slideshow, they’ll contact you about that process. (In fact, after you submit photos, you should check the email account associated with your Flickr registration at least every ten days.) Copyright holders of selected photographs may also contribute those images to the NASM Archives, but that’s a different, follow-on process.

NASM is open until 7:30pm over the summer, so we also had plenty of time to traipse about one of our favorites spaces in the world. In addition to the new “Moving Beyond Earth” exhibit, we took a look at “Sprit and Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars,” which runs through September 15, and the new-to-us “Time and Navigation.” We couldn’t leave without breezing through “Apollo to the Moon.”

Doug & Anna on Mars!

Doug & Anna on Mars!

Sated with our visit to NASM, we headed home from our cross-country jaunt on Saturday. We returned our rental car, boarded the shuttle bus back to the airport, and heard the doors whoosh shut on our journey. But wait! As we peered out the bus’s window, we saw a spry, white-haired man exit the rental car facility and head behind to the next bus.

We had missed meeting Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon! Or did we?

We never use curbside check-in, but there was no one in line, and that vantage allowed us to watch for the next bus from the rental car facility. We didn’t see Gene Cernan get off the bus, but Doug headed one way and I headed the other to check the adjacent terminal stops.

There he was!

Apollo 17 Astronaut Gene Cernan, waiting in line to check in for his flight just like everybody else. 

We approached. Doug said, “Mr. Cernan.” His daughter nudged him in our direction. “Could we take your photograph?” Doug asked. We thought he might be bothered, feel interrupted

Anna & Gene Cernan!

Anna & Gene Cernan!

Instead, he came right over to the rope, grabbed Anna’s hand, and said, “How about two?” Cernan and Anna chatted briefly about their flying plans that day, and Anna thanked him for going to the Moon for all of us. When he showed up in the security area, Anna wished him a good flight just before he entered the body scanner.

We’ve written about serendipity before here at Lofty Ambitions. Meeting Gene Cernan was indeed a happy accident. But it happened because we recognized someone who matters to us and were willing to take a little risk to seek out his company for a couple of minutes. As we continue to focus on The Cold War, cancer, and space exploration over this next year, we know we have to look for the unanticipated. Gene Cernan reminded us of that need both for immersion in our interests and for openness to what we can’t possibly predict will happen.


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