July 9 (or 10 or 17): Mile-High Club Inaugurated July 9, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Wright Brothers
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One hundred years ago today—or perhaps tomorrow, maybe even next Saturday—Walter Brookins became the first human being to pilot an aircraft to an altitude of one mile. Brookins lived one of those lives that implausibly dovetailed with the explosion of aviation activity in the early 20th-century. He happened to have Orville and Wilbur Wright’s sister as his teacher and knew the bicycle shop owners. After his stint as a stunt and long-distance flyer with the Wrights, he eventually became co-owner of the Davis-Brookins Aircraft Corporation in Hollywood, California. His entry in the First Flight Shrine reads simply, “First Civilian Pilot, 1910.” He’s buried in the Portal of the Folded Wings, a reliquary near the Burbank Airport. The Portal looks like just the sort of place that lends itself to a future posting here.
On Books: A Nerd by Any Other Name July 7, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration.
Tags: Books, Einstein, Movies & TV, Serendipity
In future posts, we’ll offer recommendations for good books about aviation, science, writing, and collaborating. But as we were talking about those tomes, we realized that our most important book experience was as children in homes with a set of the World Book Encyclopedia. This encyclopedia offered our young selves answers we sought to specific questions—where is this country Uruguay, what are its capital, natural resources, and sports? Because topics are arranged alphabetically, the encyclopedia also instilled in us the habit of browsing. The order of entries isn’t influenced by popularity or supposed importance. The Aztecs can’t spend their advertising money to buy a spot at the beginning of Volume A. So, poking around in an encyclopedia led us to discoveries, and to a process that encouraged curiosity. We learned about things about which we didn’t know enough to ask questions, and we made connections through juxtaposition. We have come to believe that serendipity—strangely happenstance discovery—is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. At least in our universe, at least as we understand it.
In the early 70s, Doug’s grandmother Mariam, by then retired from teaching, sold World Book Encyclopedias. In a classic example of the chicken-and-egg problem, Doug has never been able to decide whether his curiosity about the world existed (unsatisfied) before he encountered the World Book, or whether the meeting between boy and book led to his inveterate inquisitiveness. Either way, when the 50,000+ gilt-edged pages, bound in beige and brown, found their way into his childhood bedroom, it was, as Rick Blaine eloquently stated in Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In grade school, the relationship between boy and book was intense enough that his nickname was The Walking Encyclopedia, or just Mr. Encyclopedia, to bookish fellow travelers.
Anna’s mother couldn’t imagine her five-year-old and toddler needing such a thing, but relented to the persistence of the woman they knew who sold the sets on the installment plan. In hindsight, Mary Lee would realize kids grow up faster than parents expect, and the encyclopedia set, built a volume at a time, was one of the best investments she and Andy ever made. Among Anna’s favorite entries were articles on the planets of the solar system and the section of plastic pages that separated the human body into its layers of muscles, bones, and organs. Anna’s sister used the encyclopedia for an eighth-grade paper about pigs (now living outside Springfield, she toured the neighbor’s hog operation too) and for a paper about a president; she chose the president with the shortest encyclopedia entry, Chester A. Arthur. Anna’s father once even used World Book as the authority in a follow-up legal argument.
Growing up in a small, Midwestern town or state capital prior to the Internet, the World Book Encyclopedia provided access to the world’s accumulated knowledge, available on a shelf at arm’s length from our desks or beds, there to relieve boredom during sick days, provide answers to questions that popped into our heads in the middle of the night, or just because we went looking for information about salamanders and wound up in Salamanca instead. We thought the volumes were there to be opened, spontaneously and at random, just to see what might be revealed. That’s a nerdy way to think. That’s the kind of thinking—self-styled through curiosity, rather than merely by rote—we want to encourage in our students. In a recent article in New Writing, Anna publicly admits that she wants her students to be nerds.
The World Book Encyclopedia is a hallmark of nerds. You may use another descriptor, perhaps Renaissance man or pubic intellectual. You may use the cognitive science term divergent thinking. Majorie Garber, in Academic Instincts, discusses “the amateur professional and the professional amateur.” John Hodgman, in his address at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner, uses the terms nerd and geek interchangeably, recognizing a common philosophy of inquiry. That’s how Einstein defined himself, too, claiming he had no particular talent, but was “passionately curious.” Hodgman goes on to define with examples, “Radio talk show hosts are jocks. Bloggers are nerds.” We are those bookish nerds of which he speaks. The World Book—the set of volumes that gives kids the world—made us the nerds we’ve become.
July 4: Guiding Examples July 4, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, Chemistry, Nobel Prize, Physics, Radioactivity
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As we celebrate Independence Day, we also commemorate the lives of Thomas Jefferson and Marie Curie, who died on July 4.
Jefferson, who died in 1826, collected fossils, liked gadgets, and used a scientific technique for farming, which included a seven-year plan for crop rotation. In other times, he might have become a scientist: “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.”
Marie Curie, who died in 1934, was awarded two Nobel Prizes for her work in radioactivity and the discoveries of radium and polonium. Her first prize, in Physics in 1903 and shared with her husband and Antoine Henri Becquerel, was the first Nobel awarded to a woman. The second was in Chemistry in 1911; she was the first person to be awarded prizes in different fields (Linus Pauling is the only other). As a woman, Marie Curie faced numerous professional obstacles and struggled to balance her career with motherhood (one daughter went on to share a Nobel Prize of her own). In an especially pragmatic move for a pure scientist, Marie Curie came up with the idea for a radiology car to provide mobile X-ray units to hospitals and then closer to the front during World War I, and she orchestrated a school to train women to take and interpret the X-ray images (her daughter became one of its teachers).
Last night, Anna finished reading Marie Curie: A Life. It’s a fascinating biography that draws heavily from Marie Curie’s journals, letters, and even poems, so you get to know the scientist in her own words. “A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.” Her remark about science captures part of our impetus for the Lofty Ambitions blog. That Marie and her husband, Pierre, negotiated ways to collaborate, as well as to distinguish their individual work, serves as a guiding example for us.
Amelia Earhart Disappears July 2, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Museums & Archives
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On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart was in the midst of an around-the-world trip with her navigator, Fred Noonan. They never made it to their planned stop at Howland Island, and speculation about their disappearance continues to this day. Did they ditch the Electra in the ocean, land on another island, or somehow return with new identities? Her last journal entries sent back from that flight were compiled by her husband and published as Last Fight. In 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle; she carried with her a scarf worn by Amelia Earhart. The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum is located in Atchison, Kansas. RIP, Amelia – the legacy lives on.
The Launch: Return to Air & Space July 1, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, Wright Brothers, WWII
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In the summer of 1991, we packed up our meager belongings, decamped our Midwestern home, and made our way to the nation’s capital. We’d been a couple less than two years at that point, so this move was a major shift in our relationship. Moves of such magnitude can make or break a relationship. By the time we arrived at our tiny apartment near the University of Maryland campus, we were uneasy and not yet employed, but wide eyed at the possibilities for us. Even before the kitchen was unpacked, we made our way on the Metro to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).
NASM was buzzing with school groups and tourists from around the globe. NASM is, after all, the most popular museum in the world, averaging nine million visitors every year. No wonder, as it houses the world’s largest collection of air- and spacecraft. The chronological place we began our outing was the Wright Flyer, which took the first-ever airplane flight in 1903 and has since undergone a series of repairs and reconstructions, most recently in 1985. Yes, the Flyer was blown over by a wind gust on its third and final flight, it was damaged by flood ten years later, and it was revamped for a London exhibition, but that’s not a replica at NASM—that’s the original aircraft that first flew!
That’s not the first thing we saw that day we walked into NASM, though. As soon as we walked through the doors, we touched the Moon rock and circled the Gemini IV capsule, from which Edward H. White II strolled on the first American spacewalk in 1965. And yes, there was the F-104 Starfighter and the X-15, real-life instances of the models Doug had built as a youngster. Over our heads, the X-15 was a blue-black, muscular plane with Mach 6 speed and the ability to reach an altitude of 67 miles. At that height, the plane is really a spacecraft.
In the weeks after our visit to NASM, Anna would begin class in the MFA program, and the rhythms of the schoolyear calendar would be one way we shaped our lives, even to this day. Doug would send out resumés and take a position at the NASA Center for Aerospace Information (CASI). That job, though we didn’t realize it at the time, linked the passions of our childhoods with the ambitions of our adulthood together. This past Sunday, we returned to NASM almost twenty years later and now launch Lofty Ambitions Blog.