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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

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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.

The Next Year: Countdown to The Cold War, Cancer, and Space Exploration August 6, 2014

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August 6, 1945: An atomic weapon named “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. An estimated 70,000 people—almost one-third of the city’s population—and more than 90% of the physicians and nurses were killed by the bombing that day. In the days, months, and years after that event and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, others died as a result of radiation exposure and related cancers.

August 6, 2012: The Mars rover named Curiosity landed on the Red Planet after more than eight months of travel. The final phase of Curiosity’s journey to Mars had been dubbed the “Seven Minutes of Terror” because of the complexity of using a sky crane to lower the rover safely to the planet’s surface. The rover has completed its original two-year mission to study the climate and geology of Mars and to establish that Mars once had a climate that could support microbial life—and Curiosity is still perusing Mars.

Hiroshima after the bombing

Hiroshima after the bombing

We made the connection between these events two years ago in a post called “Plutonium at Its Worst and Best.” That connection has kept niggling at our minds, so we plan to refocus on three intermingled topics between now and August 6, 2015.

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the first use of a nuclear weapon against an enemy. In our research and writing over the last several years at Lofty Ambitions, we’ve come to recognize this event as the beginning of The Cold War. For it was not only a strike against our enemy at the time in World War II, but also a powerful demonstration to our newly emerging adversary. As much as we used an atomic weapon to end the War in the Pacific, we used it to set up our future role in the world and our relationship with Russia.

We have decided that we will focus over this next year, at least in part, on this concept of early nuclear weapons development as the Countdown to The Cold War. We begin by pointing you to a particular series and related posts we’ve already published here:

In the Footsteps

We cannot ignore the relationship among nuclear weapons, radioactivity, and cancer. In fact, some of Anna’s other nonfiction deals very directly with cancer. And we’ve both been affected, especially over the last two years, by the deaths of family members and friends from cancer. So, over this next year, we’ll also pay special attention to cancer as a blog topic. Again, we point you to a few posts that underlie our interests and thinking about radioactivity, cancer, and risk:

“Cancer, Risk, and the Language of Loss”


“Purple Stride 2012: Research on Pancreatic Cancer”


“Radioactivity and Other Risks (Part 2)”

Curiosity's View of Mars (NASA/JPL)

Curiosity’s View of Mars (NASA/JPL)

Our interest in space exploration, both its history and what’s next, will continue to drive the content of this blog. In fact, we are on the verge of a slew of 50th anniversaries of space exploration, including the 50th anniversary of the first-ever spacewalk this coming June. The future may also be upon us, too, as NASA plans to launch its Orion capsule for a test flight this December. We continue to hone our Generation Space project and hope that it finds a great publisher.

For now, we’ll point you to a couple of our posts about Curiosity:

“Is Mars the Future for NASA?


“Guest Blog by Ken Kramer”

We’ll end this post as we began it, with the seemingly odd and perplexing juxtaposition of August 6 dates. On the one hand, a devastating moment that has reverberated for decades. On the other hand, an amazing moment that suggests an ambitious future.

Interview: Eileen Collins July 30, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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Anna with Eileen Collins, first-ever female commander of an American spacecraft

Anna with Eileen Collins, first-ever female commander of an American spacecraft

Fifteen years ago, on July 23, 1999, Eileen Collins became the first female commander of a U.S. spacecraft. STS-93 launched the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Collins and her crew returned to Earth on July 29. This week, we celebrate that accomplishment.

Also this week, Lofty Ambitions celebrates Collins’s command on STS-114, which launched on July 26, 2005, and landed that August 9. Collins was circling the globe on this date just nine years ago. That was a Return-To-Flight mission in which she flew the first-ever 360-degree maneuver so that the orbiter could be photographed by the crew aboard the International Space Station and be checked for possible damage to the tiles on its underside.

Collins had already become the first female Shuttle pilot aboard STS-63 in 1995 and repeated her pilot role on STS-84 two years later. That’s right—a four-time Shuttle astronaut.

 We talked to Eileen Collins in 2012, and we’re excited to share the video of our conversation for the first time this week. Collins is one of the most gracious, vibrant, and diplomatic astronauts we’ve met.

Santa Fe Retreat: Judy Chicago July 23, 2014

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We spent eleven days in Santa Fe on our self-designed writing retreat. Take a look at PART 1 and PART 2.

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Shortly after we arrived in Santa Fe, Anna leafed through a free tabloid and discovered that the visual artist Judy Chicago was giving a gallery talk at the opening of her new show at the David Richard Gallery. Anna had first come across Chicago’s work in a women’s studies class taught by Penny Gold at Knox College.

We don’t usually write about art at Lofty Ambitions, but we do when there’s a connection to science or to aviation and space exploration. The new work at the gallery demonstrates Chicago’s recent interests in the human body and especially the surface and underlying bones and muscles of the head and face. She became interested in the tradition of anatomical drawings, like those by Leonardo DaVinci. This focus rose earlier in Chicago’s work, when she made three-dimensional cast sculptures of a woman undergoing cancer treatment—that series is casually referred to as the Toby heads. The more recent work, including paintings on glass, explores the relationship of the anatomy and physiology of the face to the expression or emotion that is presented or feigned. As she put it, “I’m interested in what’s under the skin.”

Toby Head, 2010

Grand Toby Head with Copper Eye, 2010

The gallery talk between Chicago and art historian Kathy Battista can be viewed HERE–definitely worth the time!

This exhibit and event are part of the year-long celebration of Judy Chicago’s 75th birthday, which also includes exhibits around the country. So a few days after seeing Judy Chicago in the flesh, Anna visited the New Mexico Museum of Art to see the exhibit there and get an overview from docent Meriom Kastner. That exhibit included Grand Toby Head with Copper Eye, 2010 and also several pieces that addressed nuclear science and industry. One of the pieces in the Holocaust Project, which was part of a series that could be viewed from different angles to different effects, offered commentary on the Apollo Moon landings (see the end of this post for photographs of that piece).

So, if all you’ve seen of Judy Chicago’s work are photographs of The Dinner Party, we suggest you look again. Her range of subject matter and artistic media is amazing. When she needed to do watercolors for a project, she learned how to do watercolors. When she became interested in glass and translucency in painting–or when the watercolor medium and techniques couldn’t support her vision for a piece–she took a workshop in glasswork. She even worked with a foundry to figure out how to cast paper as a large three-dimensional sculpture.

Tasting the Mortal Coil (Watercolor, David Richard Gallery)

Tasting the Mortal Coil (Watercolor, David Richard Gallery)

Her new book, Institutional Time, is now on Anna’s reading list in hopes that Chicago’s critique of visual art education in universities might shed some light on creative writing education as well. In fact, Anna published a conversation essay with graphic designer Claudine Jaenichen and visual artist Lia Halloran in New Writing and is very interested in connections across different artistic fields.

Of course, we were in Santa Fe to write. And several of our recent posts have offered ways to turn our attention toward writing. Though Judy Chicago talked about visual art and her own artistic practices, much of what she said in her gallery talk applies to writing and to collaboration. Her attitude is one of adventure, of trying new things, of pushing yourself beyond what you can already do comfortably.

We share some of her words of wisdom here:

What isn’t imaged can’t become part of the cultural discourse.

New forms allow new content.

Every failure is an important success—a step in success.

I was interested in how a gesture could mean a variety of things.

I do like to play with details.

For me, art is about discovery. It’s about discovering what different techniques allow me to express.

Judy Chicago explained that Disappointed Head was inspired by a disappointed artist she knew who, in his fifties, thought getting into a particular gallery would change his life. He went into debt, got into that gallery, and nothing changed. 

Finally, Judy Chicago’s comment about tattoos (and her use of tattoo-like techniques on porcelain heads) because who doesn’t wonder: I’m not doing that on my ass, I can tell you that!

From Holocaust Project, with Donald Woodman, 1993

From Holocaust Project, with Donald Woodman, 1993


viewed from the right

viewed from the right


viewed from the left

Santa Fe Retreat (2) July 16, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
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Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Recently, we spent eleven days in Santa Fe on our very own self-made writing retreat. Writing was our goal, but we also recommend Santa Fe as a great getaway even if getting away from your routine is your only goal. You can read about lodging, food, and shopping in our first Santa Fe Retreat post. But wait, there’s more!


Santa Fe is a hub of galleries and has several good art and history museums. When we took a loop around the Plaza, many of the passers-by were chatting about their own art practices or exhibits they had seen. Santa Fe’s Society of Artists features 44 artists, and the city boasts several art schools.

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

When Anna discovered that the David Richard Gallery was hosting an opening for Judy Chicago’s newest work and that she and art historian Kathy Battista would be giving a gallery talk, she rushed over to the Railyard. During that talk, Anna learned that an exhibit of Judy Chicago’s work since The Dinner Party was on display at the New Mexico Museum of Art. A lovely docent named Miriom Kastner offered an overview of the exhibit, the progression of Chicago’s themes, and the various media Chicago has learned and used in her work over the last several decades.

Some of Judy Chicago’s work fits the subject matter we cover at Lofty Ambitions, and she had some great things to say about the creative process, so we’ll have a separate post focusing on her work and ideas.


BathtubRowDoug’s writing time in Santa Fe was devoted to his novel-in-progress, The Chief and the Gadget. The Chief is the passenger train between Chicago and Los Angeles, and The Gadget refers to the first atomic weapon, which was developed in Los Alamos. Of course, though we’d been there before, we had to spend a day on The Hill, at Los Alamos. Our two destinations were The Los Alamos Historical Museum and the Bradbury Science Museum, both of which are free.

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

We hung out at Fuller Lodge, where scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Neils Bohr, and Enrico Fermi socialized. We drove by Oppenheimer’s house on Bathtub Row, now a private residence. The property used for the Manhattan Project had been a boys’ boarding school when the government bought it in 1942, so Fuller Lodge is also where William S. Burroughs and Gore Vidal ate meals as teenagers.

The Bradbury Science Museum is run by the Los Alamos National Laboratory so it covers the history of the Manhattan Project and also the lab’s research projects since then. We watched a short version of the documentary The Town That Never Was and perused the exhibit about some of the individuals who had lived on The Hill as part of the Manhattan Project.

Please take a look at our Photo Essay based on our trip to Los Alamos three years ago and our whole “In the Footsteps” series!


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