Radiation vs. Radioactivity March 30, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Physics, Radioactivity
As we’ve been reading the news stories since March 11, when the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began, we have paid attention to the language used to describe what is unfolding. The multiplicity of measuring systems is particularly off putting to the lay reader, even those of us who remember the news out of Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979 (see Monday’s post on the TMI anniversary). We want to start, though, with something more troublesome to us: the lack of distinction in the use of the terms radiation and radioactivity, for those two words really do mean different things.
While there exists no media conspiracy to confuse readers, there does seem to be a malaise about using correct terminology. A straightforward example of this can be found in an article on CNN that details the strenuous and dangerous working conditions that the employees at Fukushima Daiichi are facing. The first paragraph ends with the following sentence: “They have one blanket, no pillows and a leaded mat intended to keep radiation at bay.” The third paragraph, likewise, ends with a focus on the risk: “They’ve been hailed as heroes risking their lives by braving high levels of radiation as they work to avert a nuclear meltdown.” But the risk is from radioactivity, not just any old radiation. It’s not until the fifth paragraph that “radioactive water” is mentioned. Radiation is mentioned again and again as the article goes on (radioactivity is not), as if it is interchangeable with radioactivity, as if the two words mean the same thing.
Another recent example is that of Ann Coulter’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. The combative Coulter said, “Radiation is good for you.” She cites selective surveys of cancer rates and a theory about hormesis, or beneficial effects of radiation. Coulter and O’Reilly banter back and forth, making overarching statements without recognizing fine distinctions or defining what they mean by the term radiation. The studies by Bernard Cohen that Coulter finds compelling address only low-dose exposure, for instance. The conversation fails to recognize that the body’s response to exposure to radioactivity varies from person to person and that when we talk about risk, it’s statistical risk.
But the real problem is that Coulter means radioactivity when she says radiation. Pundits who pick up her sound bite can make fun of her both because radiation is indeed a good thing in many instances and also because radioactivity is indeed a bad thing in many instances. By muddling up the terminology, she gives folks lots to argue about without allowing anyone to argue about exactly the same thing.
For this post, we want to focus on the most basic slipping of the media’s tongues. Coulter wants to instigate argument, but news reporters want to convey information. So what exactly is radiation? Radiation covers an enormous range of physical processes. Most of us have heard of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, probably in seventh-grade science. When you turn on your radio, low frequencies on that EM spectrum carry the tune. Radio waves are energy that we can use to transmit information, including sound. Most of us are familiar with a wide range of radiation through the tools and devices that are part of our everyday life.
Turn on any of the 100-watt light bulbs in your household. By looking at the light bulb and placing a hand near it, you can physically sense that it is producing two types of radiation: visible light and heat. In fact, most of what is given off by incandescent household lighting is heat. Typically less than 10% is given off as visible light. That’s one reason why the United States is shifting from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs; too much energy is being used to produce heat, when all we really want from our light bulbs is that slice of visible light in the spectrum of radiation.
And within the EM spectrum of visible light, we have different colors. Didn’t we all learn ROYGBIV as a way to remember the visible light spectrum from red to violet? And why that order? Because each color has a different frequency in the spectrum, from the long wavelength (and lower frequency) of red to the shorter wavelengths (and higher frequencies) of blue, indigo, and violet.
Microwaves, cell phones, and lots of other devices we use every day also produce and manipulate radiation. Radiation means what it sounds like: energy that radiates out from a source through space or matter, no matter what kind of energy that might be. But this isn’t the radiation being discussed in the media covering Japan. What the media should be discussing when they talk about the exposure of nuclear power plant workers or about the levels in water leaking into the underground tunnels is radioactivity.
Radioactivitymeans something very particular, if you’ll excuse our pun. That’s the emission of particles or certain electromagnetic rays during nuclear decay. (Don’t worry if you don’t understand exactly what we mean by nuclear decay, because we have enough to say about that for a post next week.) Radiation, at the higher frequency end of the spectrum, can break chemical bonds, strip off electrons, and even break up the nuclei in atoms. When nuclear decay or nuclear fission processes occur, an ion—a positively charged particle—and an electron result. This is the process that is occurring when we speak of ionizing radiation. The highest energy radiation on the EM spectrum—shortest wavelengths, highest frequency—is x-ray and gamma radiation. This is also radioactivity.
The danger at Fukushima Daiichi is from radioactivity, a particular kind of radiation. When the news reports iodine-131 in the Tokyo tap water, cesium-137 is the sea water, and traces of plutonium outside the boundaries of the nuclear power plant, they are reporting measurements of radioactivity. Monitoring systems are measuring the level of radioactivity emitted by these elements and isotopes. But radiation and radioactivity refer to distinct things and are measured in distinct ways.
Three Mile Island Anniversary March 28, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Movies & TV, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
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This weekend, we were working on our regular post for Wednesday about radioactivity and how we measure it, because we’re trying to make sense, in small ways, of the nuclear accident currently unfolding in Japan. Suddenly, we remembered that, on March 28, 1979, a valve stuck at Three Mile Island. At that time, we were teenagers not yet very aware of the world’s dangers. This was before the twenty-hour news cycle (which would feel its birth pangs later that year with the Iran hostage crisis), when we spent afternoons listening to the Bee Gees, Rod Stewart, and The Knack.
The accident at Three Mile Island began with a minor problem in a secondary system, but the chain of events continued, as they so often do. A relief valve stuck open in the primary system, and some coolant from the nuclear reactor escaped. That wasn’t good, but it’s what happened next that really accelerated the problem. An engineer in the control room misunderstood what one of the indicators was telling him. An indicator light showed that electric power was not operating the valve, but they interpreted that to mean the valve was closed, not requiring power. If the valve was closed, the coolant level had risen, so they released some steam, further lowering the coolant level. The core was being exposed.
Years later, in 1985, a television camera finally physically accessed the core (read more at National Museum of American History), and we understood that it had partially melted down. The cladding (the first level of uranium containment) on most of the fuel rods had failed, allowing the products that result from fission in the core to be released into the cooling water surrounding the rods. Tons of melted uranium flowed to the bottom of the reactor vessel (the second layer of containment).
Less than two weeks before Three Mile Island, The China Syndrome hit the theaters. Anna, already a fan of Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco, became an even bigger fan of Jack Lemmon, who played Jack Godell, the shift supervisor at the fictional nuclear power plant. During what seems to be a relatively routine SCRAM, or shutdown, Godell discovers that a gauge has given the operators the wrong information. He taps the indicator with his pen, and it unsticks. They thought the water level in the reactor core was too high and released some, but the gauge was wrong and the release has left the water level too low. When the water level cooling the fuel rods gets too low, the rods can overheat. Moviegoers understood the Three Mile Island scenario because The China Syndrome had shown us something similar.
During the incident in the film, Godell feels an unusual vibration that tells him something bigger than a stuck indicator is amiss, and it turns out to be falsified x-rays of pipe welds. When he examines one of the suspicious water pumps himself, he discovers radioactive material has leaked. We won’t spoil the rest of the story, but suffice it to say that the power company wants to hush things up.
In the Three Mile Island accident, radioactive coolant escaped to an auxiliary building, outside the official containment area. And radioactive steam was vented directly into the atmosphere. Still, several studies found no contamination in the area’s water and soil and determined that the releases didn’t raise radioactivity levels enough outside the containment area to cause any additional cancer deaths. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island remains the worst in United States history, and the cleanup didn’t officially end until 1993.
The nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan seems worse than Three Mile Island, though each of the three damaged reactors (of six reactors at the plant) have been individually rated, like Three Mile Island’s single reactor accident, as a 5 on the International Nuclear Events Scale. Preventing explosions (and the widespread dispersal of radioactive contaminants) and preventing acute radiation sickness (and the near-term deaths that result) are crucial in limiting the severity of the accident.
In Japan, the fission products have contaminated water that is now in some of the plant’s basements and tunnels. Contaminated water has made its way the short distance from the nuclear plant’s buildings to the sea. Traces of radioactive iodine and cesium have been noted in tap water and vegetables even farther away. As we prepare to post this piece, the news reports that trace amounts of plutonium—the most toxic substance that might be released in a nuclear accident—have been found outside the nuclear plant itself. While some plutonium might be left from weapons testing in years gone by, at least two of the samples are believed to be from the one nuclear reactor at the plant that uses both plutonium and uranium as fuel.
On Wednesday, we’ll pick up this conversation again, as we’d planned, with a discussion of how we measure and talk about radiation.
Happy 80th Birthday Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner March 23, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Movies & TV
Eighty years ago this week, on March 22nd and 26th respectively, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy entered this world in near simultaneity. Almost forty years later, starting in 1966, their lives became intertwined with the cultural phenomenon that is Star Trek. In the forty-plus years since the first airing of Star Trek on September 8, 1966, Shatner and Nimoy have variously rejected, embraced, and come to terms with their iconic roles as Captain James Tiberius Kirk and Science Officer Spock.
Both men have had notable successes in recent years. Nimoy’s turn as William Bell on Fringe was well received and widely advertised as his swansong. Some have interpreted his exit speech and actions in the season two finale, “Over There,” as an homage to his Needs of the Many speech (see below) in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. This linkage is no surprise considering the producer of Fringe, J.J. Abrams, also directed the Star Trek franchise reboot. To our way of thinking, Spock’s speech was a more singular moment than Kirk’s equally famous (and more often invoked) “KHAAANNNN!” scream in the same film.
Nonetheless, that moment when Shatner’s Kirk turns the name of his enemy, Khan Noonien Singh, into an execration, well suits the bombastic end of William Shatner’s range as an actor. Shatner later channeled and morphed that same brand of bombast into his role as Boston Legal legend Denny Crane. Shatner’s tenure as the self-eponymous Denny Crane was a scheduled weekly ritual in our home, and Boston Legal was the inspiration for one of our first adventures here in California.
As Boston Legal came to a close, we spent one happy Saturday at David E. Kelly Studios rummaging through clothing worn on that and other DEK shows. Among our purchases was a Screaming Eagle American flag tie that must have been for uber-conservative Denny Crane. Whether or not it was worn by William Shatner is open to debate. But in our family’s lore, we know he wore it, Mary Lee!
As happy as we are for both men’s late career success, it’s the childhood memories of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as their alter-egos Kirk and Spock that we cherish. Those memories of the roguish Kirk, the ascetic Spock, Bones, Scotty, and all the rest are now part and parcel of our larger popular culture birthright.
For Doug, the obvious choice for a role model would have seemed to be the all-American, all-Id Kirk. Kirk was even born in Riverside, Iowa, just a stone’s throw (and almost two-hundred years in the future) from Doug’s own Illinois home. What red-blooded, land-locked Midwestern boy wouldn’t dream his way through junior high school science class, transfixed by the possibility of the future version of himself traveling at warp-speed through the cosmos? The fact that Kirk also got most of the ladies didn’t escape Doug’s notice as an adolescent watching the series in syndication.
In fact, the series’ adherence to a philosophy of cosmic pluralism gave Kirk the opportunity to canoodle with females born on different planets (Miramanee in “The Paradise Syndrome” and Shahna in “The Gamesters of Triskelion”), in different timestreams (Edith Keeler in “The City on the Edge of Forever”), and from different species (Marta in “Whom Gods Destroy”). Kirk’s amorous activities were wide and varied enough to also include non-carbon-based lifeforms such as androids (Andrea in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”). Who knows how to classify the body-invading entity Thalassa (“Return to Tomorrow”), but the final analysis suggests that the man’s tastes were profoundly catholic.
That said, the green that most captured Doug’s attention wasn’t the skin of the Orion women, but the color of Spock’s copper-tinged blood and all of the strength (mental and physical) and perfection of character that it connoted. Spock’s implacable appeals to rationality and logic may have had a more explicit moral undercurrent in the turbulent sixties, but they also spoke directly to the chaos that is a teenager’s worldview. Then as now, faith in science offered both a worldview and a hope for a better future.
The differences between the Kirk and Spock characters were never more clearly on display than in those episodes that called for the characters to become somehow alternate, opposite versions of themselves. This had an unanticipated effect in the case of Kirk, for when Kirk’s darker-side was trotted out in the alternate-universe episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” it took no real imagination or effort to measure the moral distance between the two Kirks. However, when Spock cut loose—such as “This Side of Paradise,” where Spock fell in love—it got your attention, peaking at the episode’s wrenching end when Spock reveals that, for the first time, he was happy.
In the end, though, what’s most memorable about Kirk and Spock isn’t their differences, but the sense of wholeness—of complementarity—in their long-lived friendship: Spock’s calm, cool yin harmonizing Kirk’s incandescent yang. As friends, the two are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s odd that this blending has never played out as well in the show’s fervent fan base.
We probably risk a huge chink in our nerd-core armor by admitting that we never got the Trekkies vs. Trekkers thing and would have to go to Wikipedia to get a sense of who is who. Debating the merits of Kirk vs. Picard never held much currency for us either; it was apples and oranges, Jean-Luc Picard being an avuncular teacher, not a warrior king. One even wonders if the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation consciously sought to distribute Spock’s defining characteristics over two characters: Riker playing the role of the Captain’s trusted confidant and Data absorbing the cold, calculating mental space of Spock’s enormous brain (add in Deanna Troi’s psychic bent as analogous to Spock’s Vulcan mind-melding).
What an odd sequence of circumstances in the universe must have conspired resulting with these two men—Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner—being born four days apart. Or perhaps not so odd after all, as original Apollo 11 moonman Michael Collins noted in the preface to the 2009 edition of his book Carrying the Fire: “On my tombstone should be inscribed LUCKY because that is the overriding feeling that I have today. Neil Armstrong was born in 1930, Buzz Aldrin in 1930, Mike Collins in 1930. We came around at exactly the right time.”
Collins’s statement could apply equally well in the in the case of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Not only did they luckily come into this world at the right time, to meet up later in what would become Star Trek, during the nation’s race to the Moon. Shatner also reprised his astronaut role by waking up the crew of Discovery. That they were born the same week allows us, too, to write a single post that wishes them both a happy 80th birthday, and many more.
Guest Blog: Patricia Sobczak March 21, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs.
Tags: Cognitive Science, Computers
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This week, we welcome Patricia Dillon Soczak to Lofty Ambitions for a new twist. Pattie is the Director of Development for the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University, where we work too. But we asked her to write for us because she’s currently a student at Fielding Graduate University in Southern California where she is earning her Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems. Her area of research is understanding how playing video games prepares players to become effective contributors in the workplace, and we’re interested in how the cognitive skills might translate. Patricia has a background in higher education (as a librarian, instructor, academic advisor, and administrator), manufacturing and industrial engineering, project and program management, and technical and educational sales. She holds an MBA from Pepperdine University and a Masters of Library Science from San Jose State University. Pattie and Doug are collaborating on a presentation about the notion of play for an interdisciplinary series hosted by Chancellor Daniele Struppa to which Anna contributed earlier this academic year.
CAN ADULTS PLAY?
As a baby boomer, I grew up playing all sorts of games: card games, sports, and board games. As a child, it was acceptable for me to pass the time away in the endless pursuit of having fun. Fast forward a few decades, and I still play games, only these games are on a computer and this pursuit isn’t something I talk about without some type of qualification. Why? So that the person I am talking to doesn’t think that I’m lazy, crazy, or both.
I like to play and I believe that most adults do as well, though many will not admit to it. I’ve taken my love of play to the next level. In less than a year, I will complete a doctoral program in human and organizational systems. My dissertation topic stems from my belief that video games, specifically the massively multiplayer online games (MMOG), are fertile training grounds for workers in the twenty-first century.
My entrance into the world of video games came at me from two distinctly different, though related, events. First was an assignment to create a program in video game design. As a complete newcomer (or newbie) to this subject matter, I nonetheless became part of a vital team of educators and professionals who, over the period of a year, developed a viable program. This experience sparked my interest to learn more about video gaming in general. Secondly, as part of the process of building this program, I had the opportunity to travel to some of the most notable video game design shows and conferences. On one of my trips, I had the chance to watch a colleague prepare and lead a twenty-five-player quest (or instance) in the video game World of Warcraft (WoW), the most popular MMOG, with over twelve million subscribers located all over the world.
I watched her and her fellow gamers play for hours and was absolutely amazed at what I witnessed. Twenty-five unique characters (avatars) with different yet complementary skills, assembled, set out some basic ground rules, shared strategies, and subsequently forged ahead as a cohesive team to beat the so-called boss and reap the rewards. It reminded me of going into organizations to run team-building sessions. The same dynamics are in place: a group of people with mixed yet complementary skills, focused on achieving a group goal. Yet this group of gamers seemed more cohesive and capable than most work groups. I wondered why.
From this simple observation, I started to play WoW and for the last three years, barring illness and work commitments, I have continued to play. I am currently a level 62 Blood Elf Hunter and I play for the Horde. I play with my son, my nephew in the army, and other players I meet in game. And I started my Ph.D. program with the idea to use the research for my dissertation to test my belief that high-level players of WoW are gaining competencies that are relevant for the twenty-first-century work place.
As I begin my pilot study, I am starting to interview players for my research. I’m continually impressed by the players with whom I talk. Contrary to the media hype, these players are responsible, capable, and accomplished people from all walks of life. They tell me they play because it is fun, exciting, empowering, and exhilarating. They play because they feel better about themselves when they accomplish a quest, mentor another player, or learn new skills. As I continue my research, there is much I still need to know about the game, about the players, and about what is happening to these players as they play. I still need to know, can adults play?
Measurement and Scale March 16, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff, Science.
Tags: Earthquakes, Math, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
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On March 11, 2011, just off the east coast of Japan, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred. When we talk about an earthquake having magnitude, we attempt to understand its seismic energy. That number is a notch on the Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS), which, in the 1970s, replaced the colloquial Richter scale that had held sway since the 1930s. Since 1990, just one other quake of greater size than last week’s Japan quake has been recorded. (For more info on earthquakes, see the U.S. Geological Survey.)
Because of the subsequent events unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, we made an unexpected connection between the Richter scale and the nuclear age. The Wikipedia entry table for Richter Magnitude examples includes a few atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests, most uncomfortably assigning the fifty-megaton Tsar Bomba—or Big Ivan—with a magnitude of 8.35 on the Richter scale. In our post entitled “Measuring the Unthinkable” (December 8, 2010), we claimed that the measurement of fifty megatons was relatively meaningless, that we couldn’t really comprehend the explosion that was Tsar Bomba. But now, in the wake of Japan’s seismic event, we are trying to do just that. We want to understand what 9.0 means.
Last week, before the earthquake hit Japan, we were already thinking about scale because we watched the documentary film Powers of Ten (see video below and more here). The opening scene is of a man and a woman indulging in a leisurely, early fall picnic close to the shore of Lake Michigan. The film is narrated by MIT physicist and Manhattan Project veteran Phillip Morrison. (As an aside, Morrison was also the dissertation director for Chapman University’s Dean of Schmid College, Menas Kafatos.) Morrison tells us what is important in this scene: we are viewing a one-meter square image from a distance of one meter. His next statement provides the plotline for the entire documentary: “Now, every ten seconds, we will look from ten times farther away and our field of view will be ten times wider.”
With every new vantage in Powers of Ten, Morrison offers a physically meaningful context. When the field of view is a hundred meters, he tells us that this is the distance a man can run in ten seconds. Ten thousand meters become the distance that a supersonic aircraft can travel in ten seconds, and so on. Every ten seconds, we are ten times further away. After reaching 1024, the journey stops and returns to where it began. Then, the camera travels inward. As we pan back to the starting point, every ten seconds, the perspective travels ninety percent of the remaining distance. The perspective continues moving beyond the starting point, ultimately reaching what Morrison terms the “limit of our understanding” at 10-16 meters, deep in the subatomic structure of matter.
What Powers of Ten so effectively communicates are the concepts of logarithms (in this case, logarithms of base 10) and orders of magnitude (each power of ten is equivalent to an order of magnitude). By providing rough visual cues tied to our understanding of our bodies (at one meter, about half of the man is in the frame), things that our bodies can do (a man running a hundred meters), and things our bodies can see happening (an airplane flying overhead), Powers of Ten makes an intuitive appeal to take us into realms not ordinarily comprehensible, like the distance between stars.
Noise, like a seismic event, is measured by a logarithmic scale, using the unit of the decibel. Your refrigerator hums at about 45 decibels, and heavy traffic can reach 85 decibels, a level at which lengthy or repeated exposure can cause hearing loss. The danger is one of scale: for every ten-decibel increase—from the highest volume on an mp3 player (100 dB) to a rock concert (110 dB)—the sound is actually ten times as powerful. Energy, intensity—these are not the areas in which ordinary addition will do.
(If you eat a cookie, let’s say that’s 200 calories. If you eat a second, 200 + 200 = 400 calories. Imagine if the caloric intake of cookies worked on a logarithmic scale instead. That second cookie would be 2000 calories, and a third would be another 20,000 calories. That third cookie would be the equivalent of more than five pounds of body fat.)
Tomorrow, we’ll attend a reception for the closing of Measure for Measure, an art exhibit built, according to the accompanying booklet, on the “idea that we can organize and understand objects by incorporating a sense of their size—both in relation to ourselves and in relation to other physical quantities.” The curators—artist Lia Halloran and physicist Lisa Randall—chose the exhibit’s name to echo both William Shakespeare’s play and Tom Levenson’s book (the subtitle of which is A Musical History of Science). Lia Halloran was the person who reminded us, last week before the earthquake, of the film Powers of Ten.
One installation, by artist Meeson Pae Yang, of mirrored sculptures suspended from the ceiling tells us that the ocean isn’t what it appears to be, that 90% of its creatures are microscopic algae. Susan Sironi’s self-portraits use the size of her body parts to carve out layered illustrations in the books Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland, two classics that toy with our sense of scale. The artwork by the seven artists in this exhibit reveals how our interpretation of scale “makes us question and perceive the world in new and various ways.”
As we write this, Japan’s death toll is currently relatively low, though there are more than 10,000 estimated dead in the province of Miyagi alone. The bodies—not yet those missing—are being counted. As the weeks go by, the bodies will accumulate, the missing will be tallied, and our way of measuring death will shift. Several of the largest earthquakes since 1990 caused no deaths, in large part because the epicenters were far from populated areas. Last year’s earthquake in Haiti, though, was just a 7.0—100 times less powerful than 9.0—but it caused 222,570 fatalities, in part because Haiti is, according to Newsweek, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Magnitude is one way to measure, fatalities another. Each way of measuring reveals different relationships to ourselves and the world around us.
As we finish this post, France’s nuclear safety authority says that the Fukuskima Daiichi catastrophe can now be categorized as a 6. The International Nuclear and Radioactive Event Scale (INES) is 1 through 7 and is another attempt at understanding the world around us. Three-mile island was a 5 (an accident with wider consequences), and Chernobyl was a 7 (a major accident). Tokyo, the metropolitan area where 13 million people reside, is less than 150 miles from the nuclear power plant in the town of Okuma, population of more than 10,000, presumably almost all of them evacuated. Clearly, we’ll be thinking about these ways of measuring for a very long time.
Pie with Einstein March 14, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Biology, Books, Einstein, Math, Nobel Prize, Physics, WWI
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We’re working on our regular post for Wednesday, thinking about scale in the wake of the earthquake in Japan, and wishing things were better than they are there.
For now, we’ve distracted ourselves because today is Pi Day. The shorthand for today’s date is 3/14, and that’s the start of the numerical representation of the mathematical constant pi: 3.14. A circle’s circumference is always its diameter multiplied by pi. Because homonyms matter, celebrate today with a piece of your favorite kind of pie! In fact, it’s Pie Week at the Olde Ship, one of the places where we meet for our weekly writing night.
March 14 is also Albert Einstein’s birthday; he was born in 1879. When we created tags and a tag cloud for Lofty Ambitions just more than a week ago, we discovered that beer was somehow weightier than Uncle Albert. Today, we try to rebalance our attention.
Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for discovery of the photoelectric effect and not for his special theory of relativity, though articles on both ideas were published in 1905. Sure, the photoelectric effect is important, but the slight of his work on relativity was a snubbing of his heritage, his pacifism, and his preference for thought experiments over the laboratory.
Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson and J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life by Abraham Pais and Robert Crease both point to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s description of Albert Einstein’s character: “There was always in him a powerful purity at once childlike and stubborn.” Pais and Crease also quote Oppenheimer’s eulogy of Albert Einstein: “His presence among us stayed us from the worst folly, and touched those who knew him with the light of magnanimity.”
For another take on Albert Einstein, click HERE to read what our Guest Blogger Brain Foster, a physicist and daily practitioner of the violin has to say. For the post in which we mention Einstein’s brain, click HERE.
Of course, Einstein—his life, his work—is enough fodder for a blog post—for many posts. But since this post is one of our on-this-date pieces in which we see how much we can reasonably cover, we turn to Gervais Raoul Lufbery, the French-American World War I pilot who was born on this date in 1885. Eddie Rickenbacker, another WWI ace, a native of Colmubus, Ohio, and CEO of Eastern Air Lines, credited Lufbery with the modern airport pattern—downwind-base-final—for visual flight rules. The Lufbery circle, however, which Lufbery may or may not have invented, is a defensive tactic in which planes, especially the slower bombers, fly in a horizontal circle when they come under attack. A circling of wagons, knowing that no one would take a wagon out without packing a rifle.
March 14 is also the birthday of two other men who took to the air—and beyond. Apollo 8 and Gemini 7 astronaut Frank Borman was born on this date in 1928. Lest you think this post is a little weak on connections, Borman, like Rickenbacker, served as CEO of Eastern Air Lines. Eugene Cernan is the other astronaut born on March 14, in this case in Chicago in 1934. Cernan went to space on Gemini 9A, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17, when he became the last man to walk on the Moon. According to Rocket Men author Craig Nelson, who was in the OC last week, NASA conned the astronaut crew of Apollo 10 into believing they didn’t have enough fuel for a Moon landing, when they actually did.
But everyone talks about Einstein, and we spend a lot of blog space on astronauts. So here’s something new: Lucy Hobbs Taylor was born on March 14, 1833. Taylor was the first American female dentist. She studied and practiced in Ohio, Iowa, and Chicago—all places we’ve lived. Celebrate her birthday with Anna by going to the dentist this week!
Patterns and Ritual March 9, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Nobel Prize, Physics, Space Shuttle
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We are leery of confusing correlation with causation, but we do appreciate finding connections among seemingly unrelated occurrences. These connections appear as temporary patterns, their existing paths becoming visible out of darkness, then twinkling out, just like the bright International Space Station traversing the California sky last night. (To find a viewing in your sky, click here.)
The space shuttle Discovery landed today at 11:57 a.m. at Kennedy Space Center. It was an event that the vehicle repeated 39 times over 27 years. Today’s landing was much like the other 38 landings, though some occurred at Edwards Air Force Base in California, instead of at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Even those West Coast touchdowns followed the same basic procedures. The process of landing the shuttle is a ritual.
On this date in 1758, Franz Joseph Gall was born. He was interested in the mental abilities of humans and began looking for patterns in the shapes of human skulls. He presumed that different parts of the head were associated with different functions. For instance, he asserted that people talented in the arts must have something neurologically in common. He analyzed the external structure—the skull—because he assumed it represented the internal capacities of the mind. Besides, there was no way to safely examine the brain of a living person two hundred years ago, so measuring the skull had to suffice. What became known as phrenology has had its share of criticism and interpretive folly, when his followers began applying the concepts in disturbing ways used to justify racial discrimination and profiling. Still, the current notion of brain specialization—that there exist patterns across all human brains—stems from the same concepts that underpinned Gall’s work.
Physicist Walter Kohn was also born on March 9, 1923. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his development of density functional theory, which revamped our notions about the electronic structure of matter. His basic idea was a few equations that allow for modeling systems with many bodies, like molecules, and thereby simplify an important task in physics, chemistry, and semiconductor science. Kohn escaped Austria in the Kindertransport to England, then was sent to Canada, while his parents remained behind and perished in the Holocaust. He earned his PhD at Harvard University and is now professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where we were less than two weeks ago.
On this date in 1934, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was born. His historic journey occurred on April 12, 1961. He was chosen because of his skill, intellect, perseverance, and fitness, but also because he was short and the capsule was small. That was Gargarin’s only spaceflight, in part because officials couldn’t risk losing their new hero. At the age of just 34, he died in a training flight on March 27, 1968. His ashes are buried at the Kremlin.
Each of these events has little to do with the other, except each is connected to the human need to find patterns and our tendency to develop rituals. Franz Joseph Gall wanted to figure out the basic, universal pattern of the human mind. Walter Kohn wanted to simplify and unify modeling of matter. Models are basic patterns that can be reused; modeling is a ritualized representation. Astronauts and cosmonauts have their own rituals too, certainly the procedures of spaceflight itself, but also repeated habits for luck.
In the NASA-TV coverage of Discovery’s launch almost two weeks ago, an astronaut recounted the ritual card game that shuttle crews play before they leave the suit-up room. The lounge chairs in which they sit are supposedly the same ones there since the Apollo missions, even though shuttle crews are larger than Apollo crews were. The crew has just breakfasted on steak and eggs, the same meal Alan Shepard ate before his flight. No one gets on the bus headed for the launch pad until the commander loses a hand. Since they are on a tight schedule, it sounds as if the game involves cards tossed around and the commander losing quickly.
Cosmonauts, too, have a host of pre-launch rituals, many based on repeating Yuri Gagarin’s run-up to his only flight. When they leave the training facility, they place flowers at the Memorial Wall that honors cosmonauts who’ve died in service, including Gagarin. They stay at hotel behind which is a line of trees, each planted by a previous cosmonaut. The crew, like the groom before a wedding, cannot attend the rollout of the rocket to the launch pad. They are blessed by a priest, they watch a film, they sip champagne, and they sign their hotel room doors. The adherence to the rituals is so firm that the bus stops on its way to the launch pad so that the cosmonauts can pee on the rear wheel.
We’ve written about ritual before (here and here). Our weekly writing night (or two) is a ritual. Our monthly writing group gatherings via Skype are a ritual. We are attached to these repeated tasks. We are invested in them. We depend upon them. In fact, whether an astronaut or a writer, ritual is a form of accountability, a tangible sign of holding ourselves to some standard of success we want to achieve.
Rituals are silly too, of course. Doug sets the radio volume on a prime number. Anna prefers to set it on an even number. We recognized this only last week. It’s meaningless. But we do it anyway. And we land safely.
Guest Blog: Dethe and Daniela Elza March 7, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs.
Tags: Art & Science
We met Dethe and Daniela Elza in Ohio, when Dethe and Doug were working on their M.S. degrees in Math. You’ll see in this guest post, as they talk about their intersecting individual interests and their collaborations as a couple, why we’ve kept in touch. We hope to see Dethe and Daniela in Vancouver soon.
We have been collaborating off and on for 17 years, and have been married almost as long. We met in syntax class. Daniela was majoring in Linguistics and Dethe was majoring in Computer Science (with a minor in Linguistics). Even before she really met him, Daniela gave Dethe a poem to look over before sending it to a contest. She knew there would be no harm done, since this guy (sitting casually in the hallway, with slits in the knees of his jeans and bandana on his head) was just one of her classmates. Dethe surprised her by removing extraneous words and tightening the poem up. A year or so later, we married.
At first glance, a poet and a computer programmer may not seem to have much in common, but Daniela is interested in metaphor, poetic and ecological consciousness, imagination, memory. Dethe is interested in generative art, programming for the fun of it. Daniela was excited about a novel Dethe wrote when he was 17. Over their first summer, together she typed it all up, giving feedback in the process. Both of us are interested in language, writing, and science.
Prior to actually producing a piece of work together, the collaborative spirit was well in place. We used to share a blog. Daniela would read over Dethe’s articles with a poetic eye; Dethe would scrutinize her poems and at times even read them upside down. When Daniela is stuck for a title, Dethe comes to the rescue. Feedback usually gets incorporated into the work.
While Dethe works in computer programming, Daniela, over the years, drifted more into the areas of and intersections between poetry and philosophy. For Dethe, art is an escape from his day job. He works on art projects to change the pace, chill out, and while it often involves programming, it is more play than work. His approach is more exploratory, more in the spirit of discovery. For Daniela writing is her day job.
In our collaborations, we meet in unique and unusual ways. Active collaboration, we have come to see as a kind of letting go, a kind of speaking together, where the we becomes one, and the I more explicitly dissolves. The concern is with the idea at hand and not who is developing it. Always being open to the possibilities the other person brings. If you think one mind at work is a mystery, try figuring out two.
Learning how to work through a marriage (and it is work) has helped us work through our other collaborations too. Working together as a couple introduces new challenges and constraints, while at the same time introducing fresh inspiration and a higher level of intimacy in the collaboration. We more easily dispense with the logistics around apologizing for messing with the other’s work.
Daniela has also been collaborating with other poets and artists for the last couple of years, and is quite intrigued with the process. She is hoping to put a book together of all her collaborations.
Each of our collaborations has been different. Sometimes—like with “In Earth Dreams”—we’d both been working on different parts of it independently, then collaborated by mixing the poem and animation together. Other times, we explicitly set out to collaborate, with one of us providing the kernel of the idea, like the poem (see the process notes too) blood_alley://interstital_syn.tax.
What comes to mind when we think of our collaborations? A process full of surprises, twists, and turns. Excitement and convenience in proximity. We both have so many things on the go that we can weave together. Our lives together provide lots of overlapping associations for context in these projects. Once we start something, we push each other to finish it. We send each other places to submit. Sometimes we even submit to the same place.
Currently we are working on an ebook of Daniela’s poems, The Book of It. And for Lofty Ambitions readers who are writers, too, Dethe is working on a web application for Daniela (and other writers) to track submissions. Still, the most labor intensive and the most rewarding collaboration remain our two children.
BONUS: If you have an iPhone, there’s more Elza collaboration! “Words for Crow” is a book of poetry by Daniela Elza, original art by Nevena Giljanovic, programming by Dethe Elza, photography by Dethe and Daniela Elza. Just click on the title or here to download for 99 cents.
Science Writing across Genres March 2, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Books, Physics
1 comment so far
Recently, we wrote about the Literary Science Writing panel at this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference (click here to read that post). Now, we’re recounting another AWP panel on science writing from last year’s conference in Denver: “Black Holes No More: The Importance of Science Storytelling Across All Genres.”
The panel was chockfull of well-published writers: M.G. Lord, Rebecca Skloot, Leslie Adrienne Miller, and Carol Muske-Dukes,. M.G. Lord, author of Astro Turf, moderated the discussion. Latecomers who poked their noses in to decide if they were in the right place were provocatively inveighed to come in and sit down: “You’re in the right place. Science publishing is the last part of publishing still making money.” She then encouraged attendees who were already seated to pat themselves on the back for choosing to witness this panel, citing again the correlation that science publishing was the healthy part of a publishing industry hit hard by the economy and struggling to figure out the future of the book. The presence of new rock star Rebecca Skloot was the emphatic punctuation on Lord’s statements.
Rebecca Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Sixty critics called it one of the best books of 2010, and Oprah wants to make it into an HBO movie. Henrietta Lacks, a descendant of slaves, was a Southern tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge and used in a variety of scientific research. Her grave didn’t have a headstone until 2010, and her family didn’t know of HeLa cells until twenty years after her death. The story of HeLa cells—and of the development of the polio vaccine, cancer research, atomic effects testing, and more—is the story of science, ethics, and this woman. As Rebecca Skloot put it during the panel, “People need stories in order to read the science.”
Leslie Adrienne Miller, who was also on the panel about writing and research across genres that Doug organized for AWP 2010, is the author of five poetry collections. The most recent is The Resurrection Trade. That term—the resurrection trade—refers to the commerce involving corpses used for, among other things, anatomical study and the artwork that documents this study. Miller’s interest was in the women whose bodies are depicted in these drawings and paintings as well as in the bodies themselves. The poems explore how the female body—and its related stories—has been understood and misunderstood. She adds to the story of the science of anatomy by imagining the lives these women led and what happened to their physical selves.
In her talk, Leslie Adrienne Miller invoked a scientist who wrote poetry. We met Miroslav Holub while Anna was working on her MFA at the University of Maryland. After Holub’s reading, Michael Collier invited the passel of hangers-on out to the local watering hole to spend a few hours leaning in to hear the avuncular poet speak. When Doug asked why he thought more Americans weren’t writing poetry as well as having a career in science or another field, Miroslav Holub lamented that Americans worked too much, that we were putting our souls at risk because we focused on one thing—our job—intensely and left little room for complementary pursuits.
Holub is known for using scientific metaphors in his poems, which is a topic Carol Muske-Dukes discussed during the panel. Muske-Dukes, the author of seven poetry collections and four novels and California’s Poet Laureate, teaches just up the road from us at the University of Southern California, where she has occasion to converse with scientists. As soon as a theoretical physicist discovered she wasn’t conversant in math, he quickly switched to employing metaphor to talk about science. When she spoke with a molecular biologist, that scientist took longer to figure out she didn’t have the scientific language, but the metaphors ended up being much richer: “think molecular scissors.”
M. G. Lord’s book is the most autobiographical story in this particular mix (click here for an article Lord wrote about her writing). Astro Turf recounts the pain of growing up with a distant scientist father. The gap between daughter and father widens when her mother dies and her father retreats into his Cold War-era job as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Other gaps that Lord plugs include the gender gap in the sciences and the possible prevalence of Asperger’s syndrome among scientists and engineers. The story of the individual people offers insight about the larger field and the larger culture, too. As Lord writes in her book’s introduction, “Never mind the differences in age, ethnicity, and background, every engineer I spoke to is, in a psychological sense a stand-in for him [my father].”
The panel abstract contained a focus around which all the authors’ points coalesced: “the importance of filling gaps in history of science by recovering lost figures and dramatizing their stories.” All four panelists use their writing to recover stories that had been misplaced or forgotten. Most good science writing fills in gaps and dramatizes stories. Of course, the story doesn’t need to be lost to make for an important piece of science writing. Scientists talk with each other about HeLa cells and Mars rovers. But science writing isn’t about scientists writing for other scientists. Much of the story and history of science is obscured—perhaps hidden from daily view, perhaps made murky with unfamiliar jargon. Science writing translates science so that those of us who aren’t scientists can understand it too.