On Today’s Date: August 29 & 30 August 29, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
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Sixty-one years ago, the Cold War began. On this date in 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. As in all great Russian narratives, the main character went by several names—Joe-1, RDS-1, First Lightning, Special Jet Engine, Stalin’s Jet Engine, and Russia Does It Herself—but the end result was the same: a completely surprised American government, military, and populace. The 22-kiloton device had been designed by a team headed by Professor Igor Kurchatov at Laboratory No. 2, sometimes referred to as Los Arzamas (a play on the name of the town where the first American atomic bombs were designed, Los Alamos). Kurchatov was known as the beard, because he began to grow a beard at the outbreak of World War II and refused to shave it off until the Russians had won. He wore that beard, in various styles, until he died. His ashes are buried in the Kremlin Wall.
British physicist, mathematician, and software developer Stephen Wolfram was born on this date ten years after the first Soviet atomic bomb test. Wolfram developed the system Mathematica and wrote A New Kind of Science, a tome of almost 1200 pages asserting that computational systems or simple programs, rather than traditional mathematics, should be used to understand nature. When we checked Amazon today, it was #8 in the Modeling and Simulation bestseller list and #40 in Science Research.
On August 30, 1984, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched on its maiden voyage, a six-day mission to deploy three telecommunications satellites. Later, Discovery launched the Hubble Telescope and carried astronaut John Glenn back into space when he was 77 years old. This shuttle also flew the missions immediately following the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Discovery has flown more missions than any other Shuttle. Its final mission is scheduled to launch November 1, 2010, the Shuttle program’s penultimate flight. The National Air and Space Museum has dibs on Discovery after that.
August 30 is also the birthday of astronaut Jack Swigert, who was assigned to the Apollo 13 mission three days before launch, when the crew had been exposed to German measles and Ken Mattingly had no immunity. Houston, we’ve had a problem here—those are Swigert’s words. He died of bone cancer, after being elected to Congress, but before being sworn in.
If you’re feeling negative on Monday, it could be because British physicist J. J. Thompson, Nobel laureate and discoverer of the electron, died on August 30, 1940. He is also credited with the demonstration of hydrogen’s single electron, the discovery of isotopes, and the invention of the mass spectrometer. So today, remember that things are not merely as they appear to the naked eye.
Back to School August 25, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Beer, Books
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Some people learn new ideas best by reading a book and taking careful notes. Others learn best by jumping in without a net and just doing. Some people understand triangulation abstractly, whereas others don’t really get it until their father takes them out to the backyard to measure a tree by taking heel-to-toe steps from its trunk. We know one computer scientist who, when he tackles a new programming language, always writes the same program, a language interpreter. Different undertakings or subjects can involve or encourage different ways of learning, too. For some tasks, no matter how old or smart you are (or think you are), there’s something to be said for going back to school. Teetering on the cusp that is forty and with books already under our belts, we decided to go back to school when we began our novel projects.
Doug is fond of the ritual and camaraderie of the classroom, with learning parsed out into manageable components that create momentum. Anna, a poet, has profound respect for the pedagogy of creative writing and wanted to reap the benefits of that approach as she moved seriously into fiction writing. If you’re a burgeoning novel writer in the Midwest, as we were four or so years ago, a likely sojourn is one of the many weekend (and weeklong, if there’s time) workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Among the instructors whose workshops we took over a couple of summers were Venise Berry, Susan Taylor Chehak, Kelly Dwyer, Jim Heynen, Bret Anthony Johnston, and Sandra Scofield. Each of these instructors focused on a particular topic—plot, developing scenes, middles—which helped us tailor our back-to-school experience to the stage of our individual novel projects. And the University of Iowa’s summer program has offerings in other genres too, so it’s not just for novelists.
One of the reasons we were able to take so many weekend workshops with different instructors was that we used a divide-and-conquer approach. We never took a workshop together. At the same time, we saw each of these weekends as a joint endeavor. Individual workshops meet for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon over two days, for a total of eight hours of intense interaction. Every evening over dinner and a beer, we shared highlights, reference points (such as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction), conversations, and prompts from our individual workshops. On some Saturday evenings, we were also producing writing for the next day. By doing this together, we were able to brainstorm and critique each other’s work. Later, we adapted this practice for writing nights together after we returned home. (That practice of our Iowa Saturday night also has come in unexpectedly handy as we’ve composed our blog posts together.)
Iowa City—with its beautiful university campus on the river—is a place that inspires writing. You can feel the buzz. In fact UNESCO named it as a City of Literature, one of just 16 cities worldwide in its Creative Cities Network. Prairie Lights is one of the best bookstores in the country, and the town has variety of restaurants and pubs. Meals at the festival are on your own, but workshop instructors tend to arrange a lunch together and participants often gather informally for food and conversation. Of course, summer is hot in Iowa City, with a daytime average temperature of 88 degrees in July, and very humid. But for us, that made the sultry evenings all the more delectable, a kind of respite from the intensity of heat and study and a release into our own writing.
A workshop—or three—at the beginning of the novel-writing process worked for us because we were daunted by the scope of our projects, not sure exactly how to begin in a way that would lead to what has become The Undone Years (Anna’s manuscript) and The Chief and the Gadget (Doug’s manuscript). In This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley writes, “There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no reason to wait for inspiration. Getting your words down on paper takes time.” Committing to a focused writing workshop is a decision not to wait.
On the three-plus-hour drive home to suburban Chicago on those Sundays, we talked through what we had learned and made plans. We used those weekends as benchmarks from which we could map out the next stage—the next six months or so—of our novel projects. We rethought what we’d done, set goals for the foreseeable future, and found our conversations extended the energy of the workshops. The best commitments generate momentum, too.
We’ll have more at Lofty Ambitions about other workshop and residency experiences. In the meantime, check out the Poets & Writers Conferences & Residencies Database and the Writers’ Conferences & Centers for some opportunities.
Write a Song! August 23, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Space Exploration.
Tags: Music, Space Shuttle
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Submit your original song to NASA by January 10, 2011, for a chance to have it selected as a wake-up song on the last Shuttle mission. A NASA panel will screen submissions, then post finalists for a public vote in February. Upload you song here.
If you’re not up to writing a song, you can VOTE NOW for the the two wake-up songs on the Shuttle mission scheduled for November 2010. Leonard Nimoy is voting for the Star Trek Theme Song, but Audrey Hepburn, the Clash, and Louis Armstrong are contenders too. To cast your vote for a song among 40 previously played wake-up songs, go here.
For more info on the two opportunities to shape the history of manned space flight, go here.
It’s National Aviation Day: Airfare Deals August 19, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Information.
Tags: Wright Brothers
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Doug had a good flying experience (more leg room!) with Jet Blue between Chicago and Provincetown, where he spent a week at a writing workshop (more on that soon!). Jet Blue is running fares between Long Beach and Las Vegas for as low as $49 each way (plus fees). On Jet Blue, the first checked bag is free!
Southwest Airlines is offering deals for travel from the Northeast to Florida. Purchase must be made by September 1, for travel between September 7 and November 15 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. The fare between Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale may be as low as $89 each way (plus fees). Up to two checked bags at no extra charge!
American Airlines is touting discounts for domestic flights purchased by August 24, for travel through December 10. The fare between Chicago and Atlanta, for example, may be as low as $44 each way (plus fees). AA is also advertising fares from Philadelphia or Phoenix to Germany for as low as $286 each way (plus fees) or from New York or DC to Paris for $291 each way (plus fees)—and lots more for travel to Europe October 24-March 31. American raised its checked baggage fee earlier this year to $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second.
United Airlines is offering similar deals to Europe. Tickets must be purchased by August 25, for travel October 24-March 31. The fare between Los Angeles or Chicago and London may be as low as $323. We had an easy flight home on United earlier this week and wish we could traipse off to Europe. Like American, United raised its checked baggage fee to $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second (save a couple of bucks by paying ahead online when you get your boarding pass).
Delta Airlines is advertising special fares for New York and for Atlanta. Continental Airlines is advertising special fares for Los Angeles, for Texas, and for Florida. U.S. Airways has a special offer for Glasgow, but we weren’t impressed with our flight to Europe last year.
ITA Software is a great place to search flights and COMPARE FARES! You can’t purchase tickets there, and it doesn’t pick up all airlines (Southwest is missing). But it’s a good place to gauge your options, especially because you can view a calendar showing lower fares if your dates are flexible.
Museum of Science and Industry (Part 2) August 18, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Mars, Museums & Archives
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Last week’s post was about our first forays—individually as a child for Anna and together as a couple for Doug—to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. We’re returning to the MSI for this week’s post because we squeezed in a three-hour visit on our recent trip to the Midwest to see family. As we often do when we have limited time while revisiting a favorite haunt, we set out to make sure to see old standbys, while also taking in at least one new experience.
We hadn’t been to the MSI in five years, and things have changed there. What we noticed especially in the 2010 version of the museum is best summed in the words of its President and CEO David R. Mosena in the current issue of Momentum, the MSI members’ magazine: “Everyone is a scientist.” The new interactive—experiential and experimental—stations throughout the museum, as well as lab-coated docents and guides, echo this mantra that science really is for everyone.
As soon as we oriented ourselves with the museum’s paper map, we wound our way into the Henry Crown Space Center, a relatively new exhibit—an array of space-age artifacts and narratives—that opened in 1986. The featured artifact is undoubtedly the Apollo 8 capsule, in which astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders (Time magazine’s Men of the Year) were flung toward the Moon and captured by its orbit, then returned to Earth. Apollo 8 was the first to use a Saturn V rocket, and its Christmas Eve broadcast was, at the time, the most widely viewed television program. It’s easy to become overly awed by the capsule and by the audacity of the space program of the 1960s.
But Jim Lovell’s watch—an Omega Speedmaster—is a reminder that these were real people. That the watch displayed is Lovell’s matters to us especially because he’s the one who wasted time. He fooled around on the computer to realign the module for a better view of several stars—experience over necessity, or perhaps beauty over function? He had to fix the alignment mistakes his dalliance created, presaging his crucial role on Apollo 13.
There’s a lot more in the Crown Center, of course. Beyond: Visions of Planetary Landscapes is an amazing collection of digitally enhanced photographs from interplanetary probes. It’s on display through August 29. And driving the replica of the Mars rover is a new favorite pastime!
We also made our way to the Baby Chick Hatchery, a favorite of Anna’s sister, our driver for the day. Standing stock-still in front of the hatchery, his face pressed against the glass and his eyes preternaturally wide in wonder, was a boy roughly seven years of age. His fingers were poised, unmoving, ready to tap the hatchery’s glass to attract the attention of the half-dozen chicks sleeping in a downy pile, the entire lump gently rising and falling with the animals’ breathing, just inches from his face. For whatever reason, the chicks woke and rose en masse, momentarily becoming a teetering yellow whirl of fluff, lurching unsteadily towards the boy’s face. He jumped backwards with a look of delight, and quickly scanned the room around him, looking perhaps for his parents or siblings, witnesses, or anyone who might join him in his rejoicing. We imagined him trying to convince an incredulous older sister that he had willed the chicks to rise and move as a single chirping unit. The boy didn’t find any familiar faces, so he returned his attention to the chicks, only to find that they had settled into a downy lump once again. His concentration and his expression of spontaneous joy undoubtedly have been recreated on that very spot, dozens of times a day, for the more than fifty years that the exhibit has been in place. The hatching chicks are part of the larger Genetics: Decoding Life exhibit, so that the images we remember from childhood—the memory that boy took with him—now have fuller contexts.
In the distance, somewhere above Doug’s head, he heard a buzzing, ripping sound. It conjured memories of the special effects sounds used for death rays and otherworldly paraphernalia in science fiction movies from the 1950s. After following the sound to its source, Doug found himself standing directly beneath an enormous Tesla coil, white-purple lightning bolts arcing between a stainless steel central hub and surrounding rings.
In the car ride home from the Museum of Science and Industry, Anna’s Aunt Maggie—who’d babysat for the Crown family as a teenager—commented that, during her own Catholic school education, the nuns seemed uncomfortable with science, so science instruction began twenty minutes before the school bell rang at the end of the school day. Now, as a retiree visiting the museum, she wished that she could be a 7th-grader again: “Science seems fun!” That’s the role of science and technology museums: to nurture the curious, creative, inquisitive 7th-grader inside each of us. That’s the experience worth the price of membership—and the promise of return visits!
Not MSI, but good Big Tesla Coil:
Tags: Apollo, Biology, Chemistry, Nobel Prize
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German chemist Richard Willstätter was born on August 13, 1872. He studied plant’s pigment structures, including the structure of chlorophyll. For that work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1915.
Italian microbiologist Salvador Luria was born on this date in 1912. He shared the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969 for work with bacteria and inheritance. That’s especially important in understanding antibiotic resistance today. Because we like to point out connections, we note that Enrico Fermi helped Luria secure a fellowship at Columbia University, and his first graduate student (at Indiana University) was James Watson, who went on to share a Nobel Prize with Francis Crick for their discovery of the structure of DNA. Perhaps, there exists more than one kind of inheritance in science.
English chemist Frederick Sanger was born on August 13, 1918, and went on to be awarded two Nobel Prizes. His 1958 prize was for work on amino acid sequences in insulin, and his 1980 prize was for developing a method for DNA sequencing. Only three others have been awarded two Nobel Prizes: Marie Curie (see earlier post), Linus Pauling, and John Bardeen.
But if you think birth date is good predictor of your chance at a Nobel Prize, think again. University affiliation—either as an alum or faculty member—at Columbia University, University of Cambridge, University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or Harvard University matters more. Each of those institutions “claims” more than 70 Nobel Laureates among its faculty and alums. Chapman University, our affiliation, has one Nobel Laureate on its faculty: economist Vernon L. Smith.
Today is also the date, in 1969, that Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins were released from quarantine for a ticker-tape parade in New York, then a state dinner in honor of their receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for taking that great step for humankind (especially for Americans, who were happy to have beat the Soviets to the Moon). Watch a rare Neil Armstrong public appearance below.
Finally, on August 13, 1910, Florence Nightingale died. In her memory, consider donating blood at your local Red Cross.
Museum of Science & Industry (Part 1) August 10, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science.
Tags: Biology, Museums & Archives, Railroads
Just as Doug had a childhood of airshows (while Anna married into the experience), Anna’s childhood was steeped with Friday afternoon visits to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (MSI). Doug’s first visit—our first visit together—was over the December holidays in 1992. We went to see the “Christmas Around the World” exhibit, a display of evergreens, each decorated with ornaments representing a different country. Though not related to science or industry, the exhibit had started in 1942 as a tribute to the Allies in World War II. Likewise, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle has little connection with the museum’s main focuses. It’s a gorgeous, intricate simulacrum, but it’s not science. It demonstrates detail-oriented craftsmanship and industriousness, but it’s not about Chicago—or American—industry. Once a tradition takes hold at the Museum of Science and Industry, though, it tends to stay a long time. We like tradition; we appreciate the power of ritual.
What we especially enjoy about the MSI, and other museums like it, is that it’s a buffet for the mind, inviting us to stop and sample (the two of us have been known to overindulge). As children, we were interested in one thing one week, and another thing the next. Our tastes change inexplicably (even as adults, it turns out). Sometimes, it’s trains, but then it’s planets. And a museum like this one introduces interests we might not have thought to otherwise have. As a five-year-old, Anna didn’t know that a thing called a submarine existed, until she saw it nestled up to the museum—of course, then she was intrigued.
When Anna and her sister were young, their parents would sneak out of work in downtown Chicago on a Friday afternoon, head home to South Shore Drive, and haul the girls to the nearby museum for an hour (it was free in those days). Each girl could choose one exhibit to see. Brigid usually chose either the baby chicks hatching—their beaks cracking the shells from the inside until they could emerge wet and unable to stand under the heat lamps—or the Coal Mine, there since the museum opened in 1933, as opposite as could be from the feather clumps that become adorable, hopping chicks.
On our first visit together, we waited in the line up the stairs (there’s always a line) and finally entered the Coal Mine’s cage, its rickety, enclosed elevator. The ride is loud and dark, bodies packed together in a box descending with a racket into the mine. Doug’s claustrophobia only added to his sense of adventure, and even after we exited the cage, the mine shaft didn’t offer much more wiggle room. The lights went out, the lamp flame exploded with a pop, everyone jumped (even when you’re expecting it, you start), and the guide told us about methane gas build-up. This exhibit sucks you into believing—you can’t help but pay attention and, therefore, learn something new.
Though longtime visitors insisted the original ride not be altered, some updates to the Coal Mine—mostly to add modern-day technology (and probably safety)—occurred in 1997. That’s nostalgia, but it’s also evidence of the way we think about the world and our lives in it. As children, we take for granted that what is in a museum is true and always has been. We don’t have the perspective yet to know how much the world changes. We don’t really understand that time elapses over longer periods than we have lived. Pluto is another example of this phenomenon: it’s not really a planet, and we know there are objective rules about these categories, but don’t we wish, at some level, that Pluto still was a planet?
The nine-foot walk-through heart was a favorite, too, often added to a childhood visit when there was a little extra time. The plaster-of-Paris heart was like a playground ride—only it was something inside your body too! When we went to the museum together, Doug didn’t find it as impressive as Anna had led him to expect. She admitted that it seemed a little smaller than she remembered, but found it pretty amazing to see an organ from the inside. That heart was installed in 1950 and replaced (oh no!) last year with a 14-foot throbbing heart that matches its beats to a visitor’s pulse. We all grow up.
On the other hand, walking into the hall that’s housed “The Great Train Story” since 1941, we were struck by its enormity. That’s an odd sensation for a 1/48-scale model to evoke. Its scale is small, but the model spans from Chicago to Seattle, with 30 trains on 1400 feet of track running through all manner of terrain and industrial regions. Looking at Chicago, we recognize Sears (now Willis) Tower, but there are also beachgoers and Gene Kelly singing in the rain, a waterfall and a gas station, the American flag and pink flamingos. The detail is so accurate that the tiny figures waiting at the Red Line subway station are based on a photograph of people waiting for a train at that actual station in 2002, when the exhibit was expanded. Trains—we’ll have to come back to this topic in future posts.
Anna’s childhood memories of MSI remain so powerful that they drive the title poem of her poetry collection Constituents of Matter. Just as our childhood toys (see earlier post) created ways for us to see parts of the world we couldn’t otherwise imagine, the Museum of Science and Industry gives us ways to see the world and how it works. And to see a lot in a day. And to want to go back for more. Really, it’s delicious and nourishing!
Nagasaki August 9, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons
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The United States remains the only nation to have used atomic bombs as weapons against an enemy. Little Boy, an untested uranium weapon, was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on an August Monday in 1945.
Three days later on August 9, Fat Man, an implosion device with a plutonium core like that in the Trinity test, was dropped from the B-29 Bockscar. The atomic bomb exploded, with a yield equivalent to 21 tons of TNT, 1800 feet above Nagasaki. Cloud cover had obscured the primary target that day sixty-five years ago; Nagasaki was the back-up plan.
Half the eventual deaths from each explosion occurred on the first day. Six days after the Nagasaki bombing, Japan announced surrender.
Hiroshima’s Secrets August 5, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff.
Tags: Art & Science, Nuclear Weapons
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The ball in the air, a real ball,
the hand having tossed it,
the child where he knows
he shouldn’t be.
His mother would reprimand him
if only she knew also.
The groceries, the arms carrying them,
the money in her pocket
held back from her husband
who is hungry for her.
The bell on the bicycle,
under the thumb.
Feet, pedals, two wheels,
all spinning together.
the tire’s track unfurling.
The President understands
infamy as two-way street: action,
equal and opposite reaction.
The Emperor counts too.
The woman in the kitchen,
the sink’s steam rising.
The baby caught
between the inhalation and exhalation
of unbridled crying.
The knife in the butcher’s hands,
the flesh unflinching.
Then, an elegant pause.
Not the bomb dropping
but the plane lifting—and light.
Reprinted from Constituents of Matter by Anna Leahy, with permission of the author and grateful acknowledgment to Kent State University Press.
What Toys Did You Have? August 4, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science.
Tags: Biology, Chemistry, Physics
Last week, a friend posted a story from Science Daily that reported that having books in the home has as great an influence on a child’s eventual level of education as does the parents’ levels of education. We’ve long felt that the books in our homes (see our earlier post on encyclopedias) helped shape who we’ve become and fueled our curiosity about the world. But of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Both our fathers grew up with Erector sets, those artifacts of an era before product safety lawyers were part of toy design teams. Even the heavy green metal case had corners and edges that could gash a careless child’s hand. Doug and his brother Richard inherited the Erector set that their father and uncle shared as children. The next generation whiled away hundreds of hours using the metal girders, bolts, electrical motor, and pulleys to construct small new worlds around them. Anna never played with an Erector set, in large part because her father, as the last of four boys, had the weakest claim to ownership of the family’s set. But even as an adult, his childhood memories were so fondly fixed that he bought an incomplete set at a yard sale on vacation in Wisconsin. The Erector set, first patented in 1913, is an open-ended toy, one that stimulates the imagination.
When we were in fourth grade, we each received such a gift for the mind’s eye: a microscope. Our optical microscopes were nothing fancy, just inexpensive stamped metal. They used a mirror as the light source so that we had to exert painstaking care to position the tool near a bright lamp or sunny window and then tilt the round mirror just so. We secured each slide—maybe a hair with a split end, maybe a stained paramecium—between pieces of glass and under the silver clips to hold it in place. Compared with grown-up microscopes, the magnification was unimpressive, and the coarse focus—moving the eyepiece down and then up slowly until the image sharpened—required patience. And yet, it opened our eyes to worlds we hadn’t imagined—to the structures of fabric, leaves, skin, blood. The microscope came with prepared slides, and we made more. Doug made dozens. The joy of peering through the eyepiece came from discovering something that’s there, but that can’t be seen otherwise. What’s next, we wondered. Look!
So too with the Visible Woman, one of Anna’s gifts from Santa. Her parents may have thought the investment in an anatomical model was a waste, for she never painted the plastic organs as the written instructions directed, nor did she fit the many pieces all together at once to make the body whole. Instead, Anna would put some organs into the clear plastic shell, then take them out again, turning them this way and that. Look around, and that’s what bodies are: singular entities. No, the Visible Woman was fascinating because it was a bunch of parts, each of which fit into the digestive system, the respiratory system, or somewhere else, somewhere specific. But looking at each unhinged from its context was as important as seeing the connections. Unlike the Visible Man, the Visible Woman had extra parts that could be swapped out for pregnancy—bulging breasts and abdomen, a fetus in utero. There was a “real” quality to this toy that other childhood toys (Barbie was the closest equivalent in size and shape) didn’t share. Anna didn’t become a surgeon based on her hours with the Visible Woman, though she’d thought about it. Our childhood experiences aren’t often that directly practical, or at least aren’t solely focused. Still, indirectly, the Visible Woman showed Anna a way to look at things, to appreciate details, to know that there’s more than meets the eye.
In Genius, his book about Richard Feynman, James Gleick writes, “it was said that physicists could be divided into two groups, those who had played with chemistry sets and those who had played with radios.” Since reading that book, Doug has wondered what influence receiving a young scientist kit had on his adult pursuits, particularly whether that kit instigated his tendency to change jobs, even careers, every few years. In that white box could be found the very same things as Feynman-era physicists—chemistry and electronics—but Doug grew up in the age of Apollo, so his kit also included rocks and minerals, a rubber-band-powered airplane, and a model rocket. The model rocket’s instructions frequently mentioned nichrome wire, a phrase as aesthetically pleasing as it was functionally necessary to ignite the engine. Perhaps the path of Doug’s career (career also means rushing forward while swaying here and there) might be explained by the fact that, after working his way through the first few experiments, he decided that he was happiest reading the instruction manual over again. He’s now very happy as a bookish librarian. The imaginative thinking that reading stimulated was even more satisfying than the physical outcomes of, say, the change of color in a pH strip.
For each of us, there existed different triggers for our childhood imaginations. Each of these tools—Erector set, microscope, Visible Woman, young scientist kit—invited, even demanded, we create new experiences. Each toy has a context and a process appropriate to that context. Yet each time we pulled out the microscope and raised the window shade to get the best light, we had to interpret anew. It’s not so different from story-telling, as when Jane Smiley reinterprets King Lear in A Thousand Acres or the Coen brothers recast Homer in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s all been done before, and it’s all new. Who knows what might unfold next?