Space Probes March 5, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Art & Science, JPL, Mars
While the word probe is used conversationally to mean to examine physically or refers to an instrument designed for that sort of physical examination, the word probe comes from a Latin word meaning to test or the result of such a test, proof. Today, we celebrate both senses of this word and the spacecraft that embody both meanings, that carry out our examination and testing of the universe that surrounds us.
On this date in 1978, NASA launched a satellite called Landsat 3, part of the ongoing Landsat program. Rather than studying the far reaches of space, Landsat is designed to study Earth, to give us a comprehensive view of our own planet. Technically, because Landsat orbits Earth, maybe it’s not a space probe, but the dates align, and the mission echoes the term’s underlying meaning. And NASA doesn’t make that distinction by location in the universe; it calls Sputnik 1 the first space probe and defines a space probe as an unmanned spacecraft designed for scientific research.
The Landsat 3 spacecraft gave a thorrough study of Earth—a variety of images covering the planet’s entire surface—in 18 days. It was designed to orbit and send back data for about a year; more than five years after launch, Landsat 3 was finally decommissioned.
Landsat 8 launched just over a year ago, and we wrote about the amazing program then. Landsat satellites continue to provide data about the Earth’s surface to scientists and many others. The information from Landsat helps aircraft avoid bird strikes and helps wine growers and farmers manage their crops for maximum yield and deliciousness. Landsat 7 allowed scientists to count and track penguins in the Antarctic. The images and data from Landsat are available to anyone who wants to use it.
On this date in 1979, Voyager 1 made its closest pass of Jupiter, sending back information about the planet’s climate, surface, and moons. The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft were launched in 1977 and continue to travel farther and farther from Earth. In fact, Voyager 1 left our Solar System and entered interstellar space in 2012, with Voyager 2 set to follow its twin in a few years.
Not only is Voyager 1 giving us information from the farther than any manmade object has ever travelled, but it is also carrying information from Earth. We wrote about this Golden Record in an article called “Voices Carry” for The Huffington Post, as part of their TED Weekends series. There, we explained:
In 1977, NASA, with a committee headed by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, designed two phonograph records, then put each aboard a Voyager spacecraft. The record contains greetings in 56 languages, natural sounds like thunder and crickets chirping, and music from around the world, all of which are in audio. The disc also includes, in analog form, 115 images, from planets to fetuses.
Perhaps the most interesting information to be included in our official, communal voice is an hour-long recording of the brainwaves and heartbeats of Ann Druyan. Hooked up to machines, she was given a list of things to ponder, starting with the history of the Earth. This woman went on to marry Sagan, with whom she would work on the television series Cosmos. When we saw Druyan at PlanetFest in 2012, she described her contribution to the Golden Record as the heartbeat of a young woman in love.
On this date in 1982, the Soviet spacecraft Venera 14 landed on Venus. The identical Venera 13 and Venera 14 spacecraft—each flying a combination mission that included flyby-and-landers—launched five days apart and landed within six-hundred miles of each other. The temperature was well about 800ºF. After travelling for three months to get to the planet between Earth and Mercury, each probe was designed to take photographs and perform soil tests for 32 minutes; Venera 14 held up for almost an hour, and its twin lasted more than two hours. Venera 13 sent back to Earth the first color images of Venus.
Landsat 8 continues to orbit Earth, and the two Voyagers continue to travel ever farther from Earth. Less than a month ago, NASA began an adjustment of the orbit of Odyssey around Mars, in hopes of getting a better look at that planet’s morning fog by the end of next year. In January, Rosetta, the European Space Agency’s comet-chasing spacecraft, started sending back signals to Earth, after a planned 31-month nap. A host of space probes are out there doing what space probes do. Today, we take a few minutes to ponder what that might mean about who we are and how we know our universe.
The Six Million Dollar Man and NASA in the 1970s February 26, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Uncategorized.
In early January, after a whirlwind holiday trip to see our families in Illinois, the Lofty duo found ourselves trapped in Chicago. An untimely illness put the kibosh on a planned trip to Paris, and the year’s first visit from the Polar Vortex blanketed the city in snow and sub-zero air. The snow snarled and stopped air travel, preventing an early return to California, and the temperatures—it was -16°F on one day—prevented us from leaving the apartment for more than a few minutes at a time. Our Midwestern roots and instincts were no match for our blood, thinned by five years in Southern California.
Absent books, a reliable internet connection, or the ability to get out and walk around in the Windy City that we love, we did the next best thing: we turned on the TV. We stumbled upon a cable channel that consists primarily of television shows from our childhood. One of the first shows that we watched was a two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. We each agreed that it had been decades since we indulged the cheesy-goodness that is TSMDM (Google it, we dare you).
The episode showing that evening was “Deadly Countdown,” and, as so often happens here at Lofty, we recognized that we were in for a bit of serendipity from the opening credits. Listed among the players were Jenny Agutter and Martin Caidin. Agutter has starred in dozens of movies and television series, but she is probably best known to science and science fiction nerds for her roles in Logan’s Run (1976) and An American Werewolf in London (1981). True fans of TSMDM know that Caidin is the science fiction author who created the character of Steve Austin in his novel Cyborg. Caidin’s vision for his own Col. Steve Austin was much darker and more casually violent, and it didn’t translate well to 1970s TV. The TSMDM version of Col. Steve Austin that we watched as children was a sanitized version of Caidin’s cyborg, but there was the author right there in the episode we watched.
To the Lofty Duo, Caidin is also known for his aviation enthusiasm. In addition to being a great popularizer of aviation through his writing, Caidin also owned, restored, and piloted the oldest known Junkers Ju-52. An ungainly tri-motor with corrugated aluminum skin, the Ju-52 served as both a German military and civilian transport in the years around World War II. Caidin sold his Ju-52 to Lufthansa in 1984, and the German national airline still regularly flies that aircraft. Caidin was also involved with the founding of Valiant Air Command (VAC), an aviation museum dedicated to warbirds located in Titusville, Florida, near Kennedy Space Center (KSC). In fact, we’ve written about VAC on a number of occasions.
The plot for “Deadly Countdown” loosely centered on a space rescue mission to restore a failing missile warning satellite. Jenny Agutter’s character, Dr. Leah Russell, was the designer of the satellite’s so-called brain. In order to repair the satellite, Dr. Russell would have to be taken to it. Naturally, given Col. Steve Austin’s pre-bionic career as an astronaut, he had to lead the rescue mission. Caidin’s character appears as one of the heavies—named G. H. Beck—intent on stopping Col. Austin’s repair mission.
We were fortunate that both episodes of the two-part “Deadly Countdown” ran that evening so that we weren’t left hanging. It wasn’t nostalgic childhood memories of the bionic sound playing over fights—slow-motion affairs in which the villains often do more harm to themselves than the bionic man does—that kept us watching TSMDM that night. It was nostalgia of a different kind that kept us entranced: as opposed to the TSMDM episodes that are very obviously filmed on sound stages, this one appeared to be filmed at KSC, where the rocket would have launched in real life. In fact, scene after scene of “Deadly Countdown” reminded us of our time spent at the Cape and made us think about a way to get back for another visit.
Although the episode contained stock footage of Saturn Vs moving slowly on the huge crawler, there were also scenes in the Vehicle Assembly Building from the top of the Launch Control Center and of Agutter and Majors in very realistic-looking Apollo-era spacesuits. It seemed very likely to us that this particular episode was, in fact, filmed at the Cape with a great deal of assistance from NASA. The internet suggestion that Agutter wore one of Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad’s spacesuits during the episode hasn’t been verified, but it makes for a great story.
One moment of “Deadly Countdown” that had a very inside-access feel to it involved an emergency during the rescue mission’s launch countdown. After stopping the countdown, Col. Austin and Dr. Russell have to make a hurried escape from the Saturn rocket’s command module. The fleeing astronauts go for a ride on a slide that leads them to a blast-proof room beneath the launch pad. In reality, just such a room, sometimes called the rubber room, exists beneath Launch Complex 39. Though we’ve never seen it in person, it’s turned up online in a number of blog posts and videos recently.
Eventually, our childhood memories of TSMDM did kick-in, and Anna ordered a single DVD containing four episodes via Netflix. This one includes another space-themed episode, “Athena 1.” We expect you’ll read more about The Six Million Dollar Man in a few weeks.
Happy Birthday Copernicus & Kerwin! And Belated to Galileo! February 19, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Art & Science
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On this date in 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland. Just before his death more than seventy years later, his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (also called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies) changed the trajectory of science. Copernicus asserted that Earth is not the center of our Solar System and, instead, that the planets orbit around the relatively stationary Sun.
As he began to think about how the Solar System worked, Copernicus also translated Greek poems into Latin and worked for his uncle, which gave him opportunities for travel and interactions with a variety of people. His initial version of his revolutionary model was a bit sketchy in terms of the mathematics and geometry, but he stuck with it and eventually made dozens of astronomical observations that helped him refine and support his ideas. One of his important discoveries based on these observations was that Earth moved in an eccentric, or elliptical, orbit, rather than in a perfect circle with the Sun in the dead center.
The heliocentric—helio means Sun—model was further delineated by Johannes Kepler, who established the laws of planetary motion based on elliptical orbits around the Sun, and by Galileo Galilei, who made confirming observations with his telescope. (This past Saturday marked Galileo’s 450th birthday!) Almost two-hundred years after Copernicus presented the theory we now take for granted, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church for his heretical and correct view of Earth and the Sun. In 1992, more than five-hundred years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model, Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged Galileo’s accomplishments and the Church’s errors and also admitted that the planets circle a “stationary” Sun and, thereby, agreed with Copernicus. The official apology to Galileo came in 2000.
Sixty years before the pope forgave Galileo and affirmed Copernicus’s heliocentric model, Joseph P. Kerwin was born on February 19, 1932, in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is one of the oldest suburbs of Chicago, a place where we lived for a few years and a place where Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright lived long before we were there.
Eventually, Kerwin earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, another of Chicago’s oldest suburbs and where Anna was born. The summer befor Anna’s birth, in the midst of the Gemini space program and as Apollo was ramping up to put men on the Moon, Kerwin became an astronaut. In fact, he served as a CAPCOM—capsule communicator—during the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission in 1970 and, later, was part of the broadcasting team for the first launch of the space shuttle.
Kerwin flew to space himself in 1973 as the science pilot on the Skylab 2 crew, which also included Charles Conrad, Jr., and Paul J. Weitz. The first Skylab mission was unmanned, so Kerwin’s mission was the first manned trip to Skylab and established, at the time, the new duration record for human spaceflight: 28 days. Their mission was crucial to the survival of Skylab, which had been damaged during launch. The repairs included deploying a sort of umbrella to shade the spacecraft from the Sun so that it didn’t overheat. The spacewalks were grueling, and repairs were not always accomplished on the first attempt. Their work gave Skylab a good six-year run, until its orbit decayed and it blazed through Earth’s atmosphere in a spectacle that attracted worldwide attention.
Today’s two birthdays—those of Copernicus and Kerwin—give us more than ample reason to ponder how we see our place and trajectory in the universe. We leave you with some words from the preface of his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies:
For I am not so enamoured of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. […T]he scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken. […] Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution.
Duck! It’s an Asteroid! February 12, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: JPL, Physics
If you’re celebrating today, you’re probably celebrating Lincoln’s birthday, a welcome mid-winter holiday for us as children growing up in Illinois. Or maybe you’re celebrating the natal day of Charles Darwin, the renowned naturalist and geologist who was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln in 1809. By mapping out his theory of natural selection, Darwin changed the way we think about ourselves, our history, and the natural world of which we are part.
Lofty Ambitions is also celebrating an asteroid landing. On this date in 2001, a robotic space probe named NEAR Shoemaker landed on 433 Eros, the second largest near-Earth asteroid. NEAR, in fact, stands for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous. It wasn’t exactly Armageddon—no Razzie Awards for this accomplishment. A spacecraft had never before orbited and landed on an asteroid.
How near an asteroid to Earth is 433 Eros? Less than a year after NEAR Shoemaker landed there, the asteroid passed within 17 million miles of Earth, which was still more than seventy times farther from Earth than the Moon. In fact, NEAR Shoemaker launched on February 17, 1997 (a year before Armageddon was released), and finally began orbiting 433 Eros almost three years later, on February 14, 2000. The probe spent a year orbiting and relaying back data about the asteroid’s physical characteristics and motion before landing on February 12, 2001.
How big an asteroid is 433 Eros? 433 Eros has an elongated shape, estimated to be more than 20 x 8 x 8 miles in size. 1036 Ganymed is larger, with a diameter of roughly 20 miles. Asteroids are small in relation to the size of Earth, but 433 Eros travels at 15 miles per second, so a collision with Earth would be devastating. Consider how small and light the piece of foam was when it hit Space Shuttle Columbia during launch—velocity matters in the damage a collision causes.
How many of these NEAs are there? According to NASA, as of this month, “10,693 Near-Earth objects have been discovered. Some 868 of these NEOs are asteroids with a diameter of approximately 1 kilometer or larger. Also, 1,454 of these NEOs have been classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.”
We’ve written about risk and scale before, and thinking about asteroids today brings up these same issues again. Almost a year ago, on February 15, 2013, a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, and reminded us that objects from space aren’t just statistics. In fact, Space.com reported that studies of that meteor and where it originated led some scientists to conclude that the risk of impact by an object from space is ten times higher than we’d previously thought.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory keeps track of NEOs and shares a chart of potential risks. Even so, NASA’s website on NEO risk points out, “Whenever a newly discovered NEA is posted on the Sentry Impact Risk Page, by far the most likely outcome is that the object will eventually be removed as new observations become available, the object’s orbit is improved, and its future motion is more tightly constrained.” The more we know about each object and its motion, the more accurately we can determine whether it’s likely to come close enough to Earth to pose a problem.
Using our Earth-bound sense of distance, those two large, near asteroids are not that close. But if we think about these objects in relation to the vast universe, proximity means something different. It’s mid-boggling to try to imagine millions and billions of miles of space and to think of 17 million miles as nearby.
We’ve been reading novelist and physicist Alan Lightman’s recent essay collection, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. There, he talks of scale in “The Gargantuan Universe”:
Of all these aspects of things, none seems more immediate and vital than size. Large versus small. Consciously and unconsciously, we routinely measure our physical size against dimensions of other people, animals, trees, oceans, mountains. As brainy as we think ourselves, our bodily size, our bigness, our simple volume and bulk are the first carrying cards we present to the world. I would hazard a guess that somewhere in our fathoming of the cosmos, we must keep a mental inventory of plan size and scale, going from atoms to micobes to us humans to oceans to planets to stars. And some of the most impressive additions to that inventory have occurred at the high end. Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. At each new level of scale, we have to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.
Writing Residency: On the Shelf (Beginnings) February 5, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Uncategorized.
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Last month, we thought a lot about writing and were doing a lot of writing. Two of Anna’s essays appeared: “The Making of a Suburbanite” in Literary Orphans and “Why I Write This, Now“ in Passages North. We’ve been rethinking our writing projects and examining our priorities and how they guide our decisions. And we’ve been planning the year ahead with all this in mind, recognizing that, as arbitrary as the start of a new calendar year is, January is symbolically a beginning.
Two weeks ago, we were still in the midst of , our writing residency at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. There, we pulled together excerpts from books that happened to be on the shelf at our cabin. We have returned home now, but we are still thinking about the writing we did there and the projects on which we continue to work. And we’re thinking about beginnings.
While we were working in our cabin, we considered how to begin—opening lines for a book, first sentences for a section, how a given paragraph might start. What follows are opening lines from a few novels and short story collections that we found on the shelf in the cabin and from which we gleaned some insight for our own writing, whether fiction or nonfiction.
From The Hours by Michael Cunningham
She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. Another war has begun She has left a note for Leonard, and another for Vanessa.
From The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired; she went right through the Danger sign.
From Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
The young Canadian, who could not have been more than fifteen, had hesitated too long. For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand.
From Short Cuts by Raymond Carver
Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple. But now and then they felt they alone among their circle had been passed by somehow, leaving Bill to attend to his bookkeeping duties and Arlene occupied with secretarial chores.
From Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
In her last picture, the camera had lingered at the hip, the naked hip, and even though it wasn’t her hip, she acquired a reputation for being willing.
What principles for beginnings might we glean from these opening lines? Perhaps a drowning is the ideal opener for a novel. Or maybe, don’t be afraid of the semicolon. But writing principles are tricky, difficult to pin down with any certainly across projects, impossible to adapt with just a glance at the surface.
That said, each of these openings introduces a character. In a book we mentioned last week, Writing Novels That Sell, Jack Bickham writes, “Good stories do not just happen. They begin with the establishment of someone confronted by a change threatening to that someone’s self-concept.” Stories begin with someone—with a character.
Each of these openings also establishes point of view. The Blind Assassin establishes a first-person narrator—my—even though the sentences focus on the narrator’s sister. All the other openings establish a third-person point of view, though not exactly the same kind. The reader is likely to feel close to the she in The Hours and in the moment with her. In the first story of Short Cuts, the reader likely feels more distance from the Millers and understands them generally but is not drawn into a scene with them.
The opening lines are especially important because these words become the first constraints under which the rest of the book must work. Also, of course, these lines form the first impression a work, whether fiction or nonfiction, on a reader, including your agent or an editor. We continue, in our own writing, to hone first lines, both because revising openings allows us to re-envision the larger work and because we want to draw the reader in as much as we’ve been drawn in.
NASA’s Toughest Week January 29, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books, Mars, Space Shuttle
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Every year, NASA has a Day of Remembrance during this—its toughest—week.
On January 27, 1967, during a ground test of Apollo 1, a fire broke out. All three astronauts inside the spacecraft died.
On January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds into its 25th flight, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart and fell in pieces to the ocean below. All seven astronauts inside the crew compartment died.
On February 1, 2003, during re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere toward the end of its 10th mission, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart and fell in pieces over the southern United States. All seven astronauts perished.
We say, in those posts, the most disheartening thing about these accidents is that they were waiting to happen, that, particularly in the cases of the shuttle accidents, specific concerns had been raised about the problems that ended up causing the accidents.
We say there that the most horrific information to emerge about these accidents is that the astronauts’ deaths were not instantaneous.
We also talk about some of the good projects that emerged in the wake of these events, that commemorate the dedication of these astronauts and their belief in science and space exploration as important in this world and beyond it.
In those posts, we posted photographs of the crews and video. And we hope readers will go back to look at those posts this week. Here, we’ll turn to some of the words of the astronauts themselves.
Only days before his death inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft, Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space. There, he wrote:
The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.
Christa McAuliffe, the teacher aboard Challenger that cold day at the beginning of 1986 said of herself:
This ordinary person is contributing to history.
Of students that she hoped to reach during the mission, she said in that same interview:
If they can make that connection [that ordinary people make history], then they’re going to get excited about history, they’re going to get excited about the future, they’re going to get excited about space.
Judy Resnick, who was also on the ill-fated Challenger flight, said the following:
I want to do everything there is to be done.
Thirty-seven pages of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon’s personal diary survived the fall to the ground when Columbia broke apart. On the sixth day of that mission, Ramon wrote:
I turned out to be a man who lives and works in space, just like in the movies.
Kalpana Chawla said in an interview before that doomed mission:
It’s easy for me to be motivated and inspired by seeing somebody who just goes all out to do something.
Last year, on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, President Obama said the following:
Each year, on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, we honor the crew of that Columbia flight, as well as those of Challenger and Apollo 1, and all the members of the NASA family who gave their lives in the pursuit of expanding our Nation’s horizons in space-a cause worthy of their sacrifice and one we must never forget.
And then he said that we’ll “eventually put Americans on Mars.”
A Writing Residency: On the Shelf January 22, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
Tags: Books, Science Writing
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Some evenings during our writing residency, we hit our stride, writing the best, swiftest paragraphs of the day. Other evenings, we spend reading our work aloud to correct and rethink what we’ve accomplished that day. Sometimes, though, we are spent from the day’s work and cannot sit upright at our desks for another couple of hours, let alone think clearly enough to form our own sentences well.
Even on these nights, it’s not easy to stop thinking about phrasing and transitions, about perspective and historical fact, about all those things with which we’ve grappled all afternoon and will still be pondering the next morning when we return to our desks. On these nights, we sometimes look at the two bookshelves in the cabin to see what they have to offer, books that must have been donated or left here by previous residents.
Some of the books on writing are sadly dated, and others deal with complicated writing issues so cursorily that they’d likely set even a beginning writer back. Others, though, as we flip through their pages and without knowing the authors’ other books, have reminded us of important things about fiction and narrative nonfiction.
Writing Novels That Sell by Jack Bickham
The first job of a writer, especially the novelist, is the production of pages. Almost any pages are better than no pages. Once you have some copy in the box, you can fix it later. If you’re sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike, you’re not producing anything but frustration for yourself.
The more you get into the groove of regular production, three or five or ten pages a day, at least five days a week, the easier you’ll find it is to produce. That’s not only because you’ll be developing the habit of writing. It’s also because nothing feeds work like previous work.
The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray
You need time that is just for writing. Let your family and friends know your schedule. […] As the novel grows and you need more time, post a new schedule. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t answer the door. Don’t use this time to pay bills or worry about your life. This is writing time. It is sacred. Here every minute counts.
Some writers make it to Chapter Two before they loop back for a big, intensive rewrite. […] If you heed the voice, if you loop back, if you invest your time and energy in the first of the novel, you use yourself up. […] by hanging about in the opening pages, you won’t generate the energy that starts to build, as if by magic, somewhere around the midpoint of your book.
The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall
Hemingway’s principle was to “leave water in the well,” stopping each day when he knew what he would be writing the next morning. Other devices are useful also. One is to set the problems to be faced in tomorrow’s writing in your head just before bed, so that the unconscious mind will work on them through the night—often to produce the solution by morning. Or studying tomorrow’s problems in a hot bath at the end of the day. The hot water, the soaking, and the relaxation seem to effect problem-solving. […]
Lower your standards and keep going is William Stafford’s advice for dealing with writer’s block.
Plot by Ansen Dibell
The common definition of plot is that it’s whatever happens in a story. That’s useful when talking about completed stories, but when we’re considering stories being written, it’s about as useful as saying that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles. It doesn’t tell you how to make one.
The first thing to realize is that generally you’re not going to begin at the beginning. Your story’s start, the actual words that begin the narrative, will be a good way along in the progress of the events you’re imagining.
Just as the rich get richer, pages beget pages. Do the math; if you write one page every day or seven pages every weekend, you’ll have a draft of a book in less than a year. To produce pages regularly, you need to stick to a regular schedule.
Don’t do major revision too early in the process. You don’t have to finish a complete draft or ignore small missteps, but build a critical mass of your book before you go back for an overhaul. You’ll make smarter changes if you understand your book more deeply when you start to make those changes.
Sleep on it. At the end of the day, set up the mindset for your next writing session. Read a few pages about the topic or about the writing issue that’s tripping you up. Outline in your mind the next section or chapter, or ponder possible opening sentences. Develop a bedtime ritual that encourages a writer’s mindset.
The what of your topic or your story may get you started, but once you decide to write a book about spaceflight or a novel based on your grandfather’s life, the major what problem is solved. Knowing what plot—or any other writing element or technique—is doesn’t mean you know how it works for this book. Concentrate less on what the chapter is about and more on how to write the chapter—how to begin, how to turn events into narrative, how to write about what you’ve chosen.
FINALLY, consider a writing residency. Being able to step out of your routine to focus on a book project and establish daily writing habits is an amazing opportunity. While it’s great to establish focus and habits in our day-to-day lives at home, a writing residency makes that the raison d’être.
A Writing Residency: Some Things Change January 15, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
Tags: Science Writing
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We have returned to the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony for some focused time on writing. In some ways, the experience is the same:
We are not setting the alarm clock. Last time, this un-scheduling created a natural regularity to our days, increased our energy levels and focus, and synced up our sleep patterns with each other and with long writing days.
We plan to take an exercise break everyday, either together for a walk down and up the long, steep hill just outside our cabin door or separately. These breaks allow for literal and figurative breathing time between writing tasks. An hour of physical exertion allows ideas to bounce around in our minds or gives us the chance to talk through a sticking point (though it’s a lot more difficult to talk on the uphill).
We allow occasional, motivating indulgences such as a bag of taco-flavored Doritos and, after some additional accomplishment this week, a visit to Bel Vino winery. Indulgences, to adapt the definition from the Catholic Church, help alleviate the severity and length of time one spends in purgatory, where one is serving punishment for sins that have been forgiven. There’s a lot of effort that goes into drafting and re-drafting a book manuscript. That effort is rewarding in the moment and in the long run, but it’s difficult too. The occasional extravagance reminds us that writing is not suffering and a residency is no purgatory.
WRITING, WRITING, WRITING
We are talking things through, then writing through things, then talking and writing some more. Being in this place designated for writing makes us feel like writing. Sure, there are fits and starts, hour to hour. Overall, though, our fingers plod right along, and the pages emerge. We may or may not be as productive as we were last time we were here, but by the end of the first full day, we had six or eight new pages.
Change, though, makes the experiences fresh and makes us newly aware. Some things are different this time, and that’s good.
We are in the upper of two cabins, one designated for composers because it houses a piano. We are closer to the colony’s other buildings—an office, a studio, the garbage bin. The porch faces a different view, one more breathtaking, with a greater presence of mountain and a lesser presence of humanity. No tarantula—not yet.
It is winter, whereas last time we visited in August. We recently spent an unexpected week in Chicago’s polar vortex, so we use the term winter with skepticism here. The temperature during the day may creep into the 80s. The nights, however, are cold, with a sharp drop as soon as the sun sets and lows in the 30s. Every night, we build a fire in the wood stove, the only source of heat inside our cabin, but a mighty source. This makes for cozier, dreamier evenings than we’d expected.
THE WRITING PLAN
Last time, we arrived at Dorland with a relatively specific plan, an idea for a daily schedule and specific chapters to draft. The intervening time has been somewhat hectic with our jobs and travel, and we didn’t have a specific plan for either the process or the product. While that see-what-comes approach may work for some writers, it’s especially difficult to collaborate without defining the tasks at hand. So we began this residency with a long heart-to-heart evening about where our book project stands and how to best use our writing time. By the next day, we had a sort of map in our minds and a sense of how much we could accomplish.
THE PROJECT ORGANIZATION
The next day, we transformed the map in our minds—or at least part of it—to the corkboard hanging on the cabin’s wall. We picked up index cards (which don’t have the heft they used to when we were kids) and a couple of Sharpies at the grocery store and jotted down chapter titles. We pinned a few of these up, then used other cards for individual ideas, quotes, events, and so on. We rethought some ideas and approaches as we made our plan tangible. We now have a visual, easily shifted chapter-by-chapter outline so that we can draft both individually and together.
There’s nothing quite like an artist’s residency. This residency is quite like our last residency here and, yet, not like it in very important ways. We are grateful all the same and all anew.
Palomar Observatory: Hale (Part 8) January 8, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize
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Our previous post in this series can be found HERE.
Our university’s library, where Doug is the Science Librarian, contains an excellent DVD about Hale and the Palomar Observatory: The Journey to Palomar: America’s First Journey Into Space. The italics are the filmmakers and are an emphatic reference to the ability of Hale’s telescopes to present humankind with a revelatory view into the cosmos. This film became mandatory viewing for us after our own journey to the observatory during our writing residency last summer.
We mentioned in last week’s post that George Ellery Hale was a man of many interests. He was also unusual in his ability to transform his interests into talents. In The Journey to Palomar, California historian (and former California State Librarian) Kevin Starr says of Hale, “I think that we have to consider George Ellery Hale, if not the founder of Pasadena, certainly the re-founder.” As an example of the kind of transformation that Hale sought for Pasadena, taking it from a sleepy little town to “a great center of scientific and humanistic research,” Starr goes on to talk about Hale’s role in convincing Henry Huntington to use his vast personal collection of art, books, and manuscripts as the foundation for The Huntington Library. Hale’s efforts to remake Pasadena didn’t stop there. He had a fundamental role in the creation and development of what is arguably the world’s finest university, the California Institute of Technology.
How does a man interested in building telescopes end up instigating the emergence of Cal Tech? In 1891, Amos G. Throop, yet another Chicagoan who ultimately made his way to Pasadena, founded Throop Polytechnic Institute. The school operated under a number of names, including Throop University, and it included primary and secondary schools in its educational program. In the early 1900s, Hale became close friends with a Throop trustee, Charles Frederick Holder. Hale became interested in the institution, and he advanced a plan for remaking the school via Holder.
Like all Hale plans, it was bold and expansive. Hale saw the possibility of creating a first-rate research institution for the Western United States, a place whose graduates would vie with the scientists and engineers produced by German research universities. But Hale wasn’t interested only in turning out engineering automatons. He had a deep affinity for the humanities as well. He wanted to develop creative, imaginative men. In her biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, author Helen Wright quotes Hale as saying:
Happy is the boy whose career is plainly foreshadowed. […] But this very interest, in direct proportion to its intensity, is almost certain to lead to a neglect of other opportunities. The absorbing beauties of machine construction and design so completely occupy the boy’s mind that they hinder a view of the greater world. […] He does not yet know that to become a great engineer, he should cultivate not merely his acquaintance with the details of construction, but in no less degree his breadth of view and the highest powers of his imagination.
Throop’s board embraced Hale’s plan and charged him with finding a president who could steer the institution towards the future and some great Nobel successes. Hale undertook the board’s charge with his typical gusto (see our earlier posts in this series for other examples of his gusto). Ironically, at the very same moment, Hale’s alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was trying to woo him into becoming their new president. Ultimately, after a chance meeting on a transatlantic voyage, Hale enticed James A. B. Scherer, a professor of literature and president of South Carolina’s Newberry College, to become Throop Institute’s president. Over the years, the capable duo of Scherer and Hale succeeded in luring notable academics such as Robert A. Millikan, Thomas Hunt Morgan and Arthur Noyes to Pasadena. In addition, the Hale and Scherer families become so close that Hale’s daughter and Scherer’s son married. Throop became the California Institute of Technology in 1921.
Hale’s life is marked by periods of boundless, almost manic, energies and accomplishments. All the while that Hale was working on a reimagined Pasadena and Throop Institutite, he was also writing popular books and carrying out his own research, primarily solar astronomy. Indeed, Hale’s solar research from this time period culminated in his 1908 discovery of the Sun’s magnetic field.
While this work was going on, Hale was also finishing Mt. Wilson’s 60-inch telescope. Hale being Hale, he also started work on an even larger telescope, the story of which will provide a culmination for this blog post series.
Recap of 2013: 5 Posts to Re-Read January 1, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science, Space Exploration, Writing, Video Interviews.
Tags: Space Shuttle, Books, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, SpaceX, Science Writing, Cancer
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As we begin 2014, we take a look back at Lofty Ambitions over the last year to see where we have been and where we might be going, to see how our interests emerge and shift, to share a few highlights in hopes that our readers take a few minutes to re-read one of our posts. We continue to focus on aviation and spaceflight, science of the 20th century and beyond, and writing as a couple, but we’ve explored these topics in new ways, and certain posts (or groups of posts) stand out for us.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS
Our first post of 2013 was “In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton.” Dayton arrived in Los Alamos when she was 19 years old to work on the Manhattan Project, and Doug met her when he was in graduate school at Oregon State University. This post is the most recent in our series about our travels to New Mexico and walking in the footsteps of the nation’s earliest nuclear scientists. Read the whole series HERE.
CANCER, RISK, & THE LANGUAGE OF LOSS
The most heart-wrenching post we wrote this year was “Cancer, Risk, & the Language of Loss.” We lost two college friends to cancer this past year, friends still in their 40s and with children and jobs they enjoyed. This post served as our tribute and an expression of our sorrow and gratefulness. We finally added “Cancer” as a tag and re-tagged other posts so that you can read more HERE.
VIDEO INTERVIEW: GWYNNE SHOTWELL
We started Lofty Ambitions in July 2010 and shortly thereafter decided that the end of the space shuttle program would be a major focus for us. Just over a year later, the last mission concluded, and now all the orbiters are tucked into their museum homes. SpaceX thinks they’re next, and its president Gwynne Shotwell told us why and how. We continued to post other interviews with astronauts, and all our videos thus far can be viewed on the Lofty Ambitions YouTube channel.
5 WOMEN WHO SHOULD HAVE WON THE NOBEL PRIZE
We usually keep our posts at Lofty Ambitions and at The Huffington Post distinct, but “5 Women Who Should Have Won the Nobel Prize” in October was an exception because we recognized its importance and wide appeal. That was a follow-up to an earlier piece we published at The Huffington Post titled “The Nobel Prize: Where Are All the Women?” in July. You can peruse all our HuffPost articles HERE, and we hope to make regular contributions there in the coming year.
THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2013
This past year, we explored with greater depth the area of science writing by attending the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and Launch Pad as well as spending two weeks in August at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony to work on our writing without the usual routine distractions. We are very happy to share that we have been awarded another two-week residency at Dorland soon and plan to think about how to shape our lives in 2014 around our writing goals. Our most recent post about science writing is an overview of the annual anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and we encourage our readers to use the information in that post to submit articles they read and enjoy in the coming year to the series editor.