Another First Flight December 30, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Wright Brothers, WWII
add a comment
On this date in 1939, the aircraft that would become the B-24 Liberator made its first flight. In its earliest incarnation, the airframe was known as the Model 32. It was manufactured by the Consolidated Aircraft Company, then located right down the road from us in San Diego, California.
The B-24 Liberator is a heavy bomber and a wartime contemporary of the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell, and B-29 Superfortress. Of these, the B-17 was the first on the scene in 1935, and the B-25 and B-29 followed closely on the Liberator’s heels with their first flights in 1940 and 1942, respectively. These years were a period of furious engineering and development in aviation around the world. Eventually, the B-24’s manufacturer—Consolidated—merged, was sold, and then shut down as a division of McDonnell Douglas in 1996.
Among this group of heavy bombers of World War II, the B-24 remains a sort of underdog. Not surprisingly, however, most flyers have fond memories of the B-24 mount that carried them through the war. Even with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, the B-24 generates a fair amount of criticism (its aircrews objected to the plane’s propensity for catching fire) and maintains a reputation for being a demanding aircraft to fly (and even more demanding to abandon if something went awry).
Undoubtedly, some of the unfavorable flying characteristics ascribed to the B-24 were due to familiarity. Because the United States built and flew more B-24’s during World War II than any other aircraft type, there existed more room to complain. Somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 B-24s were manufactured during the years 1941-1945, with one Liberator built every hour at the peak of production at the Ford facility in Willow Springs. This total number of B-24s represents slightly more than 6% of the 298,000 aircraft procured by the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.
Another significant focal point of the B-24’s flying characteristics was its short-chord Davis wing. Fragile and graceful in equal parts, the wing was designed by David R. Davis in the late 1930s and adopted for use by Consolidated. Rueben H. Fleet, the head of Consolidated, who bought numerous designs from the Dayton-Wright Company when it was closed down by General Motors, wasn’t convinced by the claims made about the Davis wing. But after he paid for two separate tests in the wind tunnel at Caltech, he knew that the design actually did reduce drag and also provided considerable lift at low angles of attack. The efficiency of the Davis wing gave the B-24 a significant speed advantage over its primary rival, the Boeing B-17.
David Davis is also connected to another aviation figure that we’ve written about previously at Lofty Ambitions. Davis partnered with Walter Brookins to form the Davis-Brookins Aircraft Corporation. We’ve written about Walter Brookins already, for he’s buried at the Portal of Folded Wings here in California. He was a student of the Wright brothers’ sister, a connection that led him to become, after a few hours of Orville Wright’s instruction, the first civilian pilot. He’s the first person ever to fly a mile high.
Although we’ve seen a few B-24s on display in museums, we’ve seen only one aircraft that was still in flying condition. In the summers of 2002 and 2003, while Doug was pursuing his PhD at Oregon State University, the Collings Foundation brought its restored B-24J—then flying as the “The Dragon and His Tail”—to the Corvallis Municipal Airport. The aircraft’s paint scheme was changed to that of the “Witchcraft” in 2004. This Collings Foundation B-24 still tours the summer airshow circuit with the B-17G “Nine O Nine.”
Although “Nine O Nine” never served in the war, the aircraft had a fascinating life that dovetails with other posts that we’ve recently written here at Lofty Ambitions. In 1952, “Nine O Nine”—then known as “Yucca Lady”—was used as test apparatus at the Nevada Test Site during three separate nuclear weapons tests. “Nine O Nine” was allowed to cool down in the Nevada desert for thirteen years before being sold to a company that used the plane as an airborne fire fighter.
In Corvallis, we plunked down our hard-earned money and set foot on both “The Dragon and His Tail” and “Nine O Nine” twice. In each case, we were struck by the thinness of the metal skin, stretched taut between the aircraft’s structural ribbing like the drumhead of a snare drum, mere millimeters of aluminum that offered the crew little to no protection from the war. In flight, the temperature inside the aircraft might drop to fifty degrees below zero. The noise of the engines would reach a hundred decibels. The plane wasn’t pressurized, so crew would wear oxygen masks during long bombing runs. The walkway over the bomb bay was like a gymnastics balance beam, and if an airman fell, the bay doors wouldn’t hold.
Maybe we were predisposed to appreciate the B-24 more than the much-lauded, movie-star B-17. After all, the B-24 was George McGovern’s wartime aircraft. Of McGovern’s first encounter with the B-24, Stephen Ambrose (who ducked attribution scandal) writes in The Wild Blue, “In the fall of 1941 McGovern, then a sophomore with his flying classes completed, saw B-24 bombers for the first time. He watched them going overhead—they were based in Omaha, Nebraska—on practice missions. [...] He saw no fighter airplanes, nor any B-17s. Ocassionally McGovern would see one or two B-24s land. They were big and cumbersome but impressive. He never got aboard one. He never thought, Someday I’m going to fly one of those birds. But he noticed and did think, Those pilots are really something.”
Happy Birthday, Colo! December 22, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Cognitive Science, Museums & Archives
add a comment
On this date in 1956, Colo was born. Her birth marked the first time a gorilla was born in captivity. And she’s thrived better than most. At 54 years of age today, Colo is the oldest captive gorilla living in the world. She shares today as her birthday with her grandson J.J.
Colo’s mother rejected her at birth. This rejection is a relatively common but not fully understood occurrence for captive-born gorillas. This lack of understanding isn’t particularly surprising, as researchers don’t know much about gorilla births in the wild. Her early human caretakers, who hand-reared the baby gorilla, briefly referred to her as Cuddles. Her name was chosen through a contest and is short for her birthplace: COLumbus, Ohio. Those caretakers bottle-fed Colo and dressed her in clothes. Colo would go on to bear three children of her own, with her mate Bongo. She did not raise those gorillas, though Colo did care for twin grandchildren.
On the one hand, anthropomorphizing this gorilla—dressing her in clothes, referring to second-generation offspring as grandchildren—is evidence of our own self-centeredness. It’s awfully presumptive to think that Colo shares our emotions and ways of thinking about the world. When we project our thoughts and feelings onto an animal—or another human, for the matter—to explain their behavior, we may miss the opportunity to understand that individual more deeply.
Empathy is a tricky thing; it depends on our ability to understand and project our own emotions, but ultimately requires the broader ability to understand another’s perspective in addition to our own. In the issue of American Scholar out this week, Richard Restak explains that the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain “is concerned with representing our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well as providing us with representations of the mental states of other people.” When we anthropomorphize gorillas without understanding their mental states, though, we may jump to conclusions and miss other interesting and relevant possibilities.
On the other hand, it’s no wonder we think of these great apes as very much like humans. Depending on how one parses it, since some genes vary more than others, gorillas share about their 95% of DNA with human beings. The chimpanzee and bonobo are our only closer genetic relatives, with 98% similarity. We remember first coming across this fact, at the Columbus Zoo, where Colo has lived all her life. We read the fact on a placard as we watched a woman bottle-feed a bonobo behind the glass.
Gorilla gestation is about 8½ months, nearly identical to that of humans. Baby gorillas stay with their mothers for three or four years, a timeframe reminiscent of human children, who generally, in the United States, go off to kindergarten at age five. Females mature at about age 11, often earlier in captivity. Human girls reach menarche at about age 12, often earlier if heavier. Gorillas have even been seen having sex face to face.
We’ve long known apes are social animals, living in troops with one or a few mature males, several females, and their young. Recent studies indicate that gorillas may be empathetic, too, which makes sense for social creatures. Richard Restak, in his discussion of empathy in humans, links our social nature with our ability to empathize: “The research finding that out thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others are processed in the same brain areas confirms what sages and religious thinkers have been saying throughout the ages: we’re not isolated components in an impersonal social network but, rather, deeply social creatures capable of imagining each other’s internal experiences.”
What if apes, being social creatures, are also empathizers? One researcher points out that both humans and apes console each other after, say, a defeat, whereas monkeys do not. In 2008, a gorilla in a German zoo clutched her dead baby, the second offspring she had rejected, and the zookeeper there said that mothers in the wild sometimes carry around their dead babies for weeks. Researchers in Scotland observed chimpanzees dealing with an impending death through increased grooming of the sick chimp. The chimps suffered fitful sleep in the immediate wake of the death and avoided the spot where the chimp had died. Another researcher found that orangutans share the phenomenon of contagious laughing with humans. Still other research shows that ape babies make pouting faces to get their mothers’ attention and, in one experiment, tried to make the experimenter smile.
We know, too, that gorillas use tools, turning sticks into digging implements or weapons. And there’s Koko, the gorilla who has been taught sign language to communicate with humans (see video below). Koko is the subject of a long-term research project. Because gorillas don’t have the physical capacity for human speech, the researchers use sign language with Koko to study interspecies communication and its possibilities. The thinking is that each species has its own communication system; gorillas use gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations to communicate with each other. And some species are sufficiently intelligent and aware to be taught ways, like American Sign Language, to communicate with humans; Koko scored in the 80s and 90s on IQ tests. One wonders whether her researchers would do as well on a test designed and administered by Koko.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the Western Gorilla—Colo’s species—as critically endangered. IUCN uses this classification based on projections, as of 2008, that the gorilla is likely to face an 80% population reduction over three generations (66 years, from 1980 to 2046). Hunting—poaching—and disease, particularly Ebola, have devastated the wild gorilla population in Africa over the last two decades. Mining, the timber industry, farming, and climate change threaten the gorillas’ habitat. The Eastern Gorilla—the Mountain and Eastern Lowland gorillas—is considered endangered, but not yet critically endangered. Twenty years ago, the Western Gorilla—the Western Lowlad and Cross River gorillas—was considered vulnerable; ten years ago, this gorilla was endangered. Now, this gorilla is critically endangered, and the next step on this trajectory is to become extinct in the wild.
This morning, Nancy Roe Pimm was on hand at the Columbus Zoo to sign her book Colo’s Story. The zoo celebrated Colo’s birthday with cake for the apes, and special cake for the zoo’s visitors too. More than a year ago, Colo was anesthetized for a series of medical tests, because her keepers worried about her bouts of fasting and lethargy. She seemed to be depressed, perhaps showing signs of aging. But the tests showed nothing wrong physically, and her heart was strong. Undoubtedly, Colo didn’t think of her lethargy, medical tests, or her birthday party today the same way the humans do. Yet this celebration offers Lofty Ambitions an opportunity to ponder how animals are studied and considered.
Guest Blog: Joe Kjellander December 20, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Guest Blogs.
1 comment so far
Joe Kjellander has traveled to the moon and back in a cardboard refrigerator box, battled Romulan spacecraft from the rusted seat of an abandoned hay rake, and helped his childhood friend, Doug, construct a backyard force field. Later in life, he attended the University of Iowa where he was editor of the Hawkeye Engineer magazine, a student publication. After graduating with a BS degree in Industrial Engineering, Joe took a manufacturing engineer position with Motorola’s Cellular Subscriber Division when the cellular phone industry was in its infancy, and he has remained with the company throughout his career. Joe and Gregg Hagen, his partner of 13 years, live in the Historic District of Elgin, Illinois in an 1872 Italianate home they have restored. He is currently taking flight lessons to obtain a Sport Pilot Certificate and shares his new pilot experiences here at Lofty Ambitions.
CLEAR PROP! LEARNING TO FLY AT AGE 43
“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” ~ Leonardo da Vinci
Early this spring, I got the itch to fly. I had considered flying lessons in years past, but there were always other priorities. This year, though, it was time to make it happen. After some internet research, I decided to pursue a Sport Pilot certificate and found a small operation at DuPage Airport that gave lessons in an Allegro 2000 Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). I placed a phone call and was scheduled for a Friday afternoon introductory flight.
My introductory flight in the Allegro was incredible. It began with a pre-flight inspection of the engine compartment and fluid levels, tires, fuselage, and control surfaces. Then my instructor and I climbed into the cockpit and buckled our seat belts. After yelling, “Clear prop!” he flipped the magneto switches to ON and turned the key. With a momentary whir from the starter and a hearty harrumph from the 80 horsepower Rotax engine, the propeller was spinning, and we were on the taxiway to Runway 33. When the tower gave us clearance for take-off, my instructor positioned the plane over the centerline of the runway and advanced the throttle to maximum. I was grinning ear to ear as we gained speed, rotated, and began climbing away from the ground.
From the Plexiglass cockpit, the view outside was spectacular. It was like sitting in a flying chair. As the plane banked to the left and right, I had the feeling I might slip off the seat and fall out of the plane! The fear of falling soon faded, and it was time to learn the basics of flight. The instructor gave me control of the stick and rudder pedals, and we practiced coordinated turns, ascents, descents, and straight and level flight. After an hour of instruction, I was mentally exhausted, and my hand ached from the death grip I had on the stick. My heart, however, was still racing from the exhilaration, and I was looking forward with excitement to a summer of flight lessons.
My CFI (certificated flight instructor) this summer was Matt Moser, a straight-A graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and former instructor there. I hadn’t put much thought into selecting a CFI, but very quickly realized how fortunate I was to have been paired with someone of such impressive qualifications. Matt has done a great job teaching me to fly, starting in April with slow flight and stall recovery, ground reference maneuvers, traffic patterns, take-offs and landings, and communications, leading up to my solo flight in late July.
When a student pilot flies solo for the first time, it’s a big deal. It means your instructor has confidence in your ability to fly the plane safely. The first solo flight consists of three sets of take-offs and landings in the pattern; you fly a rectangular course around the runway and do not leave the airport. After the solo, it is a tradition for the CFI to cut a big piece of cloth from the back of the student’s shirt and add some graffiti to mark the special occasion. I felt sort of bad for Matt, because the back of my shirt was soaked in perspiration. And I’m sure Matt felt equally bad that he was cutting up one of my favorite t-shirts.
Now I am approaching the end of my flight instruction. We have been working on short field and soft field landings, navigation, and cross-country flights. Soon I will do a solo cross-country flight and start preparing for the examiner check ride. If things go as planned, I will have my sport pilot certificate by the end of the year. Hey, does anyone want to go flying with me?
Wright Brothers Day December 15, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Beer, Museums & Archives, Wright Brothers
add a comment
Two days later, on December 17, 1903, the Orville and Wilbur Wright succeeded, becoming the first airplane pilots. Orville made the first controlled, powered aircraft flight, which lasted twelve lofty seconds. Then, Wilbur flew, and Orville took another turn. Their fourth go that day ended with smashing up the front rudder, but these guys were used to that sort of mishap.
We’ve seen the original Wright Flyer, which is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It found its way there after an inglorious and decades-long debate, when the museum finally agreed with Orville to always and forever exhibit it as the first aircraft capable of manned, controlled, powered flight.
We’ve also visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the National Museum of the Air Force, outside Dayton, Ohio. Its beginnings were with Wright Field, a facility dedicated in 1927. Never before had an Army installation been named for civilians, nor for a living individual. Though Wilbur had died in 1912, at the age of 45, Orville raised the flag at his own memorial ceremony. Years later, Howard Hughes, returning from a record-setting transcontinental flight, stopped at Wright Field to give Orville the last flight of his life, this time in the new Lockheed Constellation. TWA President Jack Frye, Lockheed designer and Upper Peninsula native Kelly Johnson, and actress Ava Gardner were also onboard.
Only recently, we realized that the nephew of Charles Clarke Chapman, our current university’s namesake, was a pilot. C. C. Chapman was born in Macomb, Illinois, near where we went to college. After moving to California, he became a prosperous citrus grower and helped found what is now Chapman University. The signature on his nephew Clarke Chapman’s pilot’s license is that of Orville Wright.
But our fondest connection with the Wright brothers’ accomplishments is our visits to the College Park Aviation Museum and its annual airshow, almost twenty years ago. College Park, Maryland, is home to the University of Maryland, where Anna earned her MFA, and to an airport we discovered before there was much of a museum there. This small airfield was founded in 1909, when Wilbur Wright arrived with the Military Flyer to teach Army pilots how to fly. That November two soldiers soloed in their Wright aircraft, after only about three hours of instruction. The country’s first U.S. Army aviation school opened there two years later. The College Park Airport is the oldest, continuously operating airport in the entire world.
The list of firsts for the College Park Airport is impressive: first woman passenger (1909), first test of a bomb-aiming device in an airplane (1911), first test of a machine gun in an aircraft (1912), first air mail service (1918), and first controlled helicopter flight (1924). Anna’s poem “A Fascination: The College Park Airshow, 1992” (Constituents of Matter) weaves some of these historical details together. But we’re interested in the people, too—the Wright brothers, the wing-walkers, those who spend hours and hours flying and tinkering with their aircraft. We especially remember a man restoring an old airplane that day, while others buzzed overhead:
The man I know has started talking with the man bent
over a Boyd in a wooden shack where he has pried
six hundred screws from the sheet of one wing
and pulled back its corrugated skin
to expose its kitchen-plumbing fuel lines.
This hunched man thinks he can repair sixty years
of damage to hand-rolled aluminum: it matches no other.
This wing, its edge, is a discovered secret:
discard struts and fun flaperons tip to belly
to create the power to move air with a hand and a stick.
This man leans over his table, drinks hot coffee
from a thermos and hands us pieces
of the airplane. We see why things don’t fit.
Friday is Wright Brothers Day, according to the U.S. Code. On December 17, listen for the president’s proclamation inviting us all to observe the day with appropriate activities. Might we suggest a “flight” of wine or beer?
Measuring the Unthinkable December 8, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Art & Science, Math, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
In the spring of 1989, a couple of Midwestern college students might have been forgiven for believing that the Cold War was still being waged with all of its chillingly vibrant madness. The newly minted 41st President seemed in no hurry to break precedent with the velvet-concealing-hammer rhetoric of his predecessor. The fall of Die Berliner Mauer and the election of Václav Havel—and the later emergence of the Czech Republic—was still months away. The political zeitgeist, the calculus of international relations, could easily lead the laity to wonder how and when it might all end.
Sometime during that springtime, Knox College conducted a hiring search for a new Physics professor. As a small-world aside, the eventual winner of that job search, Dr. Phillip Mansfield, would later become an acquaintance of a friend, Dethe Elza, whom we wouldn’t “friend” until years later at Ohio University. The events—Dr. Mansfield’s hiring and making friends with Dethe—occurred in the days before friended was a word, and long enough ago that there’s no obvious merit to revisiting the grade that Doug earned in Dr. Mansfield’s Physics 312: Mechanics. These days, it’s a remark by another of the candidates—a man whose name is lost to us now—that has reasserted itself in whatever part of the brain is responsible for commingling long-forgotten moments with recent experience.
As a part of the interview process, the young particle physicist, who was doing a post-doc at SLAC (the Stanford Linear Accelerator), joined a small group of physics undergrads for lunch. During the meal, the physicist talked little of his work, but spent much time on the other things that interested him in life. Perhaps, he was trying to convince the assembled students, all males, that he was a fully realized human being and not one of those physics automatons that most undergrads fear greatly. At some point during the luncheon conversation, the physicist made one of those remarks that stays with you long after the name of the speaker is forgotten. He said, “When I was at CERN, I measured my bike rides in kilotons and megatons.”
What was meant to be a joke still falls flat. Presumably because of the absence of laughter, he went on to explain that continental towns and cities were geographically close enough that expressing distances in kilometers had been replaced by measurements mapped onto the nuclear kilotonnage and megatonnage of blast radii. (For blast maps, click here.) This remark was presented as common European vernacular at that time, but despite working with a variety of Europeans from the High Energy Physics community during the middle of the last decade (2004-2008) and while doing his own PhD (1999-2005), Doug has never heard another similar phrasing. Maybe, like many aspects of the Cold War, once it was over, that bit of verbiage, clearly expressing a European anxiety at being caught in the middle of a Russian-American game of nuclear lawn darts, was swept into history’s dustbin.
Even though it wasn’t much of joke, the remark does serve as a reminder of the difficulty of capturing the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a way that is meaningful to humans. We recently watched Trinity and Beyond. This 1995 film, narrated by a post-T.J.-Hooker and pre-Denny-Crane William Shatner, contains a short section about the test of a Russian thermonuclear weapon known as Tsar Bomba. The explosive yield of Tsar Bomba—or Big Ivan—has been reported as 50 megatons or maybe 58 megatons, reduced from its originally planned 100 megatons. Whatever its actual yield—50, 58, or even 100 megatons—the number is effectively meaningless to most human brains.
One comparison that does resonate can be found in the Wikipedia entry for Tsar Bomba, which provides a calculation that equates the explosion to a split-second’s output (.39 nanoseconds to be exact) of our Sun. For that evanescent moment, the explosion of Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Again, the numbers may be relatively opaque, but the intent is clear: that weapon produced more than one percent of the energy of the Sun! The same powerful Sun responsible for all of our plants, heat, and weather—that Sun! And we actually exploded this on our own planet? Damn. If we’d exploded 100 (and yes, we’ve exploded way more than a hundred nuclear weapons) at once, blasts on the Earth’s surface would be 1.4 times more powerful than the Sun.
Comparisons like this are meant to express a measurement of the unthinkable. While we were at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, we noticed a similar comparison, which came up in several venues—tour guides mentioned it, plaques proclaimed it. The sound of launching a Saturn V rocket was the second-loudest event on earth, second only to the detonation of an atomic bomb. One of the interesting special features on the Trinity and Beyond DVD was a real-time nuclear weapons test, in which silence surrounds the visual explosion until the shock wave finally reaches the microphone. Usually, such a film is edited, and if there’s sound, it’s synced up with the image, or, even more common, the sound is musical soundtrack designed to stir an emotional response, which is what the comparisons convey in relation to scale.
The Cold War is over now. In 1966, when the Cold War was sizzling and with five nations in the world’s nuclear club, the United States supposedly had 32,000 nuclear weapons. In 1988, when we were in college and the Cold War was waning, the Soviet Union is said to have had 45,000 nuclear weapons. This year, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, there remain more than 22,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with almost 8000 of them ready to go.
Guest Blog: Claudine Jaenichen December 6, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Art & Science, Cognitive Science
1 comment so far
From my teenage ambition of becoming a forest firefighter, in 2002, I volunteered for the Santa Barbara Sherriff Department’s Search and Rescue team (SAR). My day job did not manifest into the firefighter I thought I would become, but SAR gave me the opportunity to explore that second life’s ambition. Eventually, this teenage heroic dream job would find its way into the mainstream of my college education, adult life, and my current scholarly work in information design.
In order to become an active SAR volunteer, a person was required to dedicate one year to SAR academy and complete various certifications—from rappelling to avalanche rescues. Swift Water Rescue consisted of an intensive weekend in classroom and textbook work and prototype exercises and ended with river rescue training at the Kern River in Class III rapids, just one mile upstream from Class IV rapids. Classes measure the intensity, predictability and strength of river current, so these were relatively intense, unpredictable, strong currents. This last exercise, which took place in a real-life simulation, proved to be an introduction to my personal unconscious personality, the discovery of temporary cognitive paralysis, and effects on information comprehension and retention under significant amounts of stress.
When the SAR team entered the water, we were assigned a very basic and introductory exercise: to swim the width of a soccer field to get to the other side of the riverbank. There was a strong, steady current, and as I entered the water, what I noticed most was seeing and hearing the white rapids about fifty yards downstream. I was in a kind of daydream, numb and unaware. I approached the current at a direct 90 degrees—instead of the 45 degrees that would have given me leverage against the current—and was swept away as quickly as the rapids took me. I lost both my fins and my right water shoe, and cold water rushed into my unzipped wetsuit. I had only attached two of the three buckles on my life vest. I did not tighten my helmet; it hung to the side of my head. Quickly, the simulation training transitioned into a full-blown “code blue” rescue—a rescue of me.
I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do, even though I’d already learned and memorized the lessons well. I panicked and tried to stand up, which is a deadly reaction because feet get caught in loose rock anchoring a person to the bottom of the riverbed. My worst attempt was trying to grab filters. One of the most memorable chapters in the textbook deals directly with this. Filters are branches on the sides of the riverbank that act as vacuums causing people to get dragged under. The rescue lasted eight minutes and 52 seconds. I was collected, assessed, and placed on the riverbank, barefoot, still numb and unaware.
Danger triggered my unconscious personality—a theory from Gestave Le Bon’s The Crowd about how people react irrationally, emotionally and in exaggeration to danger no matter what prior or current intellectual ability a person posses (2002). Entering the water unprepared and unaware, regardless of my previous training, demonstrated temporary cognitive paralysis—the common idea that people freeze in an emergency.
Five years following that awe-awakening experience, my current scholarly work applies issues in cognition and emergency psychology when assessing semiotics and visualization used in public evacuation information. People who are asked to evacuate an aircraft, a public building, or their personal residence will be under a various amount of cognitive demands, susceptible to temporary cognitive disorder or paralysis. Visual and written instructions, just as in verbal strategies, need to be clear, concise, and authoritative in order to be effective.
Graphic variables (i.e. type, texture, hierarchy, orientation, color, shape), external and internal components, and “rules of legibility” as defined by Jaques Bertin in Semiology of Graphics (1983) were assessed in city and aircraft evacuation material. As an example, the image below shows three sections from city evacuation maps demonstrating various usages of the color variable. The color variable performs differently in its relationship to direction, legibility, coding, and labeling. In the first map, the color variable is highly saturated and overcomes text in significant areas of the map. The second map uses color to communicate zoning areas for city official use, but is not usable to the evacuee. The texture and orientation of color constantly interferes with the intension and reading of this map. The third map uses the least amount of color and is most relevant and assessable to the person reading this map for evacuation.
I’ve reviewed two approaches of evacuation information, which provide juxtapositional perspectives and outcomes in visual representation and effectiveness of communication, planning, and training.
City evacuation maps were not consistent in content or visual execution. Level of detail, viewpoints, and way-showing were fundamentally diversified. It is also worth noting that resident evacuation material is usually not accessed until the moment of need—people don’t study the maps ahead of time.
Aircraft safety cards were more narrative in the delivery of information, and content was consistent. Repetition was an advantage to the frequent flyer due to FAA regulations of safety review before takeoff.
I always tell my design students “design with empathy.” People who are asked to evacuate are under distress and comprised levels of intellectual planning, orientation, and comprehension. These campaigns need to deliver the message and account for issues in time limitations, stress, and the psychology of well-being. I know what this means because of my own rescue experience, so I emphasize that necessary empathy when I work with students as well as in my own design projects.
Atomic Testing Museum December 1, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons
add a comment
What do nerds do in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving weekend? We threw caution to the wind and drove past the Flamingo and Bally’s to the Atomic Testing Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate in a nondescript building roughly a mile off the Strip.
Atomic testing began with the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, which was followed by the only use of atomic weapons in war when the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. By the end of the following June, the United States began testing nuclear weapons in earnest, first in the Pacific and, by 1951, at the Nevada Test Site to which the Atomic Testing Museum is dedicated. By the time the Limited Test Ban Treaty went into effect in 1963, the United States had done 331 atmospheric tests. In 1958, in three separate test programs over a single year, the United States detonated 56 weapons in Nevada and in the Pacific. Hundreds more were conducted underground until 1992, when the United States and Russia left the atomic practice field, leaving China, France, India, and Pakistan to test a few more over the last two decades.
Inside the museum, we wended through the exhibits, past display cases, placards, timelines, videos. Early on, a placard states: “A common assumption is that America’s nuclear testing program was solely or even primarily intensified to increase the number or destructiveness of weapons. This is wrong. Early bombs were big, heavy, and ‘dirty’ (created a lot of radioactive fallout). As the Cold War progressed, America began to modernize its nuclear stockpile with smaller, radiologically cleaner, and safer weapons.” The United States did increase the number of weapons in our stockpile, and we did make them more efficient—cleaner and lighter, yes, and more destructive, too. The museum is riddled with these sorts of complementary contradictions.
The story of nuclear weapons is rife with versions of events. In Reflections of a Nuclear Weaponeer, Frank H. Shelton recounts the reason Deke Parsons armed the first atomic bomb in flight on its way to Japan: four B-29s had crashed into the ocean yards past the runway just prior to the mission, the Enola Gay was particularly heavy with Little Boy, and Parsons didn’t want to risk detonation if the plane crashed on takeoff. But other accounts present the arming of Little Boy in flight as a well-planned maneuver that Parsons had practiced long before that day, in part because fears existed that, if the aircraft ditched into the ocean, seawater could cause detonation.
Of Deke Parsons, Time Magazine reported in 1958: “In the remaining years of his life, Navyman Parsons had little to say of his fateful five hours. The years were few. One December night in 1953 Rear Admiral Parsons waked with sharp chest pain. He slipped silently downstairs in his Washington home, picked out to read Volume XI of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, methodically turned to the section marked Heart, Diseases of the. It was too late for Deke Parsons (52); he collapsed and died next day.” There exists a methodical logic in the story of this man’s demise (and we’ve written about the importance of reaching for the encyclopedia), yet his research on the pain he felt at that very moment proved empty. The encyclopedia provided the basic information he sought, and he died anyway, perhaps understanding his condition thoroughly.
One video at the Atomic Testing Museum begins by explaining that soldiers “had many misconceptions of the bomb and its effects.” So, witnessing a detonation “is immensely valuable for any military man.” The bomb becomes the ultimate military weapon designed to obliterate the enemy, yet survivable and not to be feared by our own troops. The film’s narrator explains, “In the minds of men, there was doubt and fear. Now, there is comfort. […] Now we wouldn’t take anything for the experience. We have proved a lot to ourselves.”
The Atomic Testing Museum—and the Nuclear Testing Archive in the same building—explores what exactly we were proving through the testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs. One placard early on in the museum’s circuit announces, “The Nevada Test Site played an essential role in developing superior weapons and ultimately winning the Cold War.” But toward the end, a video suggests, “When we did underground shots, we shielded from ourselves and from the public what nuclear explosions are really like.” Witnessing a nuclear blast, then, served as a reminder why the weapons should not be used. Detonations prevent detonations?
As we drove back to California after a day at the Atomic Testing Museum and another day at the Nuclear Testing Archive, we realized that the college students we teach were born as the nuclear testing program in the United States ended in September 1992. When we were their age, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Helen Caldicott visited Knox College. We came of age in days of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. Southern California has two operating nuclear power plants, and Illinois has six, providing nearly half of our home state’s electricity and more kilowatt hours than England’s nuclear power program.
We wonder whether our students ever think about “what nuclear explosions are really like.” We wonder whether the Atomic Testing Museum’s last words are a prediction of some counterintuitive reminder future generations may want: “Just as during the Cold War, the Nevada Test Site stands ready to insure [sic] the safety and security of the American people.”