The Original Renaissance Man April 15, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, botany, Earthquakes, Museums & Archives, Wright Brothers
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Last night, we wandered over to the Leatherby Libraries balcony to watch a rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base off to the west, on the coast of Southern California. The payload was super-secret, launched for the National Reconnaissance Office at 9:24p.m. At first, we weren’t sure that the red dot in the distance was the Atlas 5 rocket. But as it rose, the flame became more discernable. Within five minutes, the rocket arced overhead toward the southeast, into the mission’s news blackout, and into the ink-black sky, an apt metaphor for the people who will control the satellite’s function, whatever that may be.
Today, we woke to Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday. He’s a favorite of ours because he was exceptionally curious about many things. He invented a bobbin winder that was useful in his own lifetime and composed plans for a helicopter that couldn’t possibly have been built in the days of yore. He thought solar power was a good idea and developed a basic understanding of earthquakes and plate tectonics. He liked to collaborate, he made accurate maps, and he played the lyre pretty well. Of course, he’s best known as a painter and regarded especially for his ability to render the human figure and also the draping of clothes. He was born on April 15, 1492—more than 500 years ago!
Here are our five suggestions for celebrating da Vinci’s birthday through the weekend:
- Make an appointment for your annual physical. Da Vinci drew the human skeleton, the vascular system, and other internal organs.
- Book an airline flight. United Airlines has a deal for Chicagoans to fly to Tulsa this weekend for $140. Southwest Airlines has sale fares to Newark. Leonardo drew many concept flying machines, some of which have since been built, a few of which actually work.
- Paint that room you’ve been meaning to paint all winter. Leonardo’s painting accomplishments include Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
- If you can’t paint, smirk like Mona Lisa. Or pluck your eyebrows.
- Write left-handed, for that’s what da Vinci did. In fact, write left-handed and backwards, because that’s the way he seems to have written in his journals. One codex of scientific materials was purchased in 2007 for more than $30 million by Bill Gates. To see a page from another of his notebooks, visit the British Museum HERE.
Lest you think Leonardo da Vinci’s is the only birthday to celebrate, tomorrow is the anniversary of Wilbur Wright’s natal day. Whenever there’s a reason to celebrate the Wright brothers, we recommend a punny homage: going out to drink a flight of beer.
And here’s today’s bonus for National Poetry Month and to celebrate the science of botany (though unfortunately, without recoding for stanza breaks). On April 15, 1802, poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, who kept copious notes from which he drew material for his poems, came upon some gorgeous yellow daffodils.
I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Fission Products & Half-Lives April 13, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
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Two weeks ago, we wrote about the distinction between radiation and radioactivity (click HERE for post). Last week, we wrote about the two radioactive elements used in nuclear power plants (click HERE for post). As we pointed out, for the most part, it’s not uranium and plutonium that are getting into the environment as a result of the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi (click HERE for latest IAEA updates).
No, we’re hearing about radioactive iodine and radioactive cesium, which are the byproducts or leftovers of the nuclear reactions that produce energy. In other words, what starts out as uranium goes through the process of fission, and we end up with a bunch of isotopes—or variants of elements—including iodine-131, cesium-137, and strontium-90. Because the cladding that seals the nuclear fuel rods has melted, iodine-131 and cesium-137 are what engineers found in the tunnels underneath the reactors. That’s what’s been leaking into the sea and the air. Those are the substances that are being found in tap water and on spinach. The dissemination of these isotopes is one reason that the nuclear accident was redefined yesterday as a 7—the highest severity—on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
Radioactive iodine is especially dangerous because it accumulates in the thyroid. Japanese officials shamefully admitted that they delayed doling out iodine tablets in the first few days of the nuclear accident. Those pills of non-radioactive iodine-127 would have helped keep the thyroid busy with safer iodine in hopes that the radioactive isotope wouldn’t build up. People exposed to radioactive iodine are at greater risk for developing thyroid cancer in years to come.
Glenn Seaborg, whom we mentioned last week as the discoverer or creator of plutonium, also discovered cesium-137. Atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s dispersed this isotope liberally and richly around the world. Radioactive cesium is metabolized like potassium, so it gets distributed throughout the body, especially in muscle tissue. That’s the way it’s processed by the human body, but also by the body of a cow producing milk or the body of a pig that will someday become part of someone’s breakfast. Even plants—like the marine plants off the coast of Japan or the grass that the milk cows eat—absorb cesium-137 as they would potassium. In other words, radioactive cesium is especially problematic because it gets taken up into the food chain easily and because lingers longer.
Lingering—that’s a measurement called half-life. Iodine-131 has a half-life that roughly matches the shelf-life of spinach at the grocery store: just over eight days. But cesium-137 has a half-life of just over 30 years. That means radioactive cesium hangs around as generations grow up. Once it gets into the food chain, it remains for our children. But at least it’s not plutonium, which has a half-life of roughly 80 million years.
So, what does half-life really mean? If iodine-131 has a half-life of just eight days, does that mean we’re safe eight days after it gets into the environment? No.
Half-life refers to the rate of decay of a radioactive isotope. After eight days, a given amount of iodine-131 will give off half as much radioactivity. Another eight days, and it’s halved again, leaving only one-quarter, and so on. This isotope decays—releases beta particles and gamma rays—and becomes xenon. Radioactive elements are continually remaking themselves, and iodine-131 does it relatively quickly.
By comparison, cesium-137 is that unwanted dinner guest who just won’t leave after the meal is over. It’s an isotope that had disappeared from Earth for billions of years, until we started doing controlled fission reactions with uranium and brought it back into existence here. And once we produce it, it remains half as radioactive thirty years later.
Just yesterday, Reuters reported that strontium-90, another fission byproduct, was detected near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Like cesium-137, radioactive strontium has a long half-life, at almost 29 years. As much as 80% of the strontium-90 a person takes in is excreted, but almost all the rest that remains in the body is processed like calcium and gets into the bones. It’s the isotope linked to increases in leukemia in a population years later.
What’s especially interesting and disturbing about an isotope’s half-life, in relation to other concepts of scale and measurement about we wrote recently (click HERE for post), is that half-life doesn’t depend on the amount or quantity of material, nor does it depend on the environment surrounding it. Cesium-137 takes 30 years to halve its level of radioactivity, whether there’s a huge pile or a few atoms, whether it’s hot or cold. If we have a mixture of radioactive iodine and radioactive cesium, the half-life isn’t the average of the two isotopes’ half-lives; each decays at its own rate. We can’t do much of anything to change a radioactive isotope’s rate of decay.
This decay is not only seemingly independent, but is also an example of probability. After 30 years, we know that cesium-137 will be half as radioactive. But we don’t know which atoms will remake themselves. If we pick one cesium-137 atom, we would be flipping a coin; when we check back in 30 years, there’s a 50% chance it’ll be barium.
Probability points us in the direction of risk assessment, which is an aim of this series of recent regular posts (starting March 16 and continuing on March 28, March 30, April 6, and today). We thought we’d get to risk more quickly, but working through concepts related to the nuclear accident in Japan has been a larger undertaking than we expected. Keep reading Lofty Ambitions—we’ll get to risk, though it’s 50/50 whether it’ll be next week.
Uranium & Plutonium & Fission April 6, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
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Last week, we wrote about the distinction between radiation and radioactivity. We also want to make some distinctions among the radioactive substances that are involved in the ongoing disaster in Japan. (For the latest official updates, click HERE.) Uranium is the radioactive element used in all the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. One reactor uses fuel that is a combination of uranium and another radioactive element, plutonium—a combination sometimes referred to as MOX.
What makes uranium and plutonium so useful for generating energy is their ability to fission. This same physical process is also responsible for nuclear weapons. The discovery and characterization of fission is one of the great scientific detective stories of the first-half of the 20th century.
Told many times, the narrative begins with Henri Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity via observing photographic plates clouded by uranium-containing compounds (potassium uranyl sulfate). The story picked up speed as a group of future Nobel Prize winners blasted away at the fundamental materials of universe by, in lock-step fashion, discovering and then making use of what, at that time, were thought to be the most elementary particles (JJ Thomson and the electron, Ernest Rutherford and the nucleus, James Chadwick and the neutron, and the work of Pierre and Marie Curie, all Nobel Prize winners). There are near misses in the hunt for fission by Fermi in 1934 and the Curies in 1938. (Read our previous post on Marie Curie HERE.)
This foundational work, necessary for the follow-on discovery of fission, was centered, in no small part, on characterizing the aforementioned elementary particles, which at that time consisted of whizzing, negatively charged electrons, moon-like satellites forever orbiting a planetary core of positively charged protons and neutrons.
In the end, the discovery of fission came from a German team consisting of Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, Lise Meitner, and Otto Frisch (Meitner’s nephew). While there are numerous fission reactions, depending upon the elements that are being split, the fission process that their work characterized was one which involved uranium, U-238 specifically. The most common form of uranium, U-238, consists of a preternaturally energetic ensemble of 92 protons, 146 neutrons, and 92 electrons (in a one-to-one balance with the positively charged protons).
The fission process consists of flinging a neutron at the nucleus of a U-238 atom and then getting out of the way as newly created atoms of lighter elements and more neutrons are released. The output of the German team’s fission process is an atom of barium, an atom of krypton, and the release of three further neutrons.
For their work on fission, Hahn won the 1944 Nobel prize in Chemistry (ironically awarded in 1945, just months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Meitner was driven out of Germany for having Jewish parentage, and Frisch was able to give fission its name based on the process’s similarity to cellular fission.
Uranium is present in detectable and usable amounts in the earth’s crust. It can be mined, processed, and machined into power plant fuel rods and nuclear weapons. Plutonium, on the other hand, cannot be found in nature. It was manufactured in a particle accelerator, created in the machinery of men and the runnup to World War II. Although there were many scientists in the late 1930s and early 1940s working on the problem of transuranics (those elements lying beyond uranium in the periodic table), the nuclear chemist Glenn Seaborg, another Nobel laureate, is generally credited with “discovering” plutonium. In the scientific literature prior to plutonium’s discovery, its existence was conjectured, and the hypothetical beastie was referred to as eka-osmium, after the practice of naming as yet undiscovered elements eka + the element lying above it in the periodic table (in this case, osmium).
Plutonium’s discoverer (creator?) Glenn Seaborg is a character of special fascination to us here at Lofty Ambitions. Seaborg was born in 1912 in Ishpeming, Michigan. This is the hometown of Anna’s grandfather, Popsi, who was born in 1902. Surely their paths or their families’ paths crossed in the small Upper Peninsula town.
Last week, the news reported that traces of plutonium have been found outside the Fukushima Daiichi plant. That’s bad because tiny amounts of plutonium are very toxic to humans and because plutonium stays radioactive for thousands of years, its half-life being 24,000 years. Half-life is on our list of blog topics (and a favorite reference in a poem of Anna’s).
Despite its toxicity, early Manhattan Project scientists managed to take plutonium into their bodies in measurable quantities, and yet many of them lived relatively long and healthy lives. They even formed a club—the UPPU—standing for You Pee Plutonium. Plutonium’s symbol is Pu.
At this point, most of what is being released into the environment as a result of the nuclear accident in Japan isn’t uranium and plutonium, but, rather, the fission products that result from the melting and burning fuel rods. Next week, we will likely talk about these fission products, including the iodine and cesium that are suddenly making news. And just how long all this stays around.
Guest Blog: Leslie Adrienne Miller April 4, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Museums & Archives
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April is National Poetry Month, so Lofty Ambitions welcomes poet Leslie Adrienne Miller to the Guest Blog spot today.
We met Leslie when she was on a panel about research and writing across the genres that Doug organized for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Anna had read and appreciated The Resurrection Trade and, though she and Leslie had never met, encouraged Doug to contact her because there was clearly a lot of research behind the poems in that book. We were especially interested because the research blurred the distinction between science and art. The anatomical images were fascinating and the way Leslie talked about their role in her research and writing made for a good conference talk, which she’s adapted for our blog.
Leslie Adrienne Miller is the author of six poetry collections, including Y, which is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2012. She teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
SCIENCE MEETS ART MEETS POETRY
Many of the poems in my collection The Resurrection Trade are ekphrastic pieces on anatomical images of women gleaned from archival materials. Initially inspired by my reading of Natalie Angier’s Woman, An Intimate Geography, where I first encountered the history of medical constructions and images of the female body (for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical works and the Hippocratic corpus), I became interested in the way misunderstandings about female anatomy persist long after science has presumably corrected them. These misunderstandings offered paradoxes that poetry could reframe in interesting ways.
Angier’s book led me to other, more detailed histories of art, anatomy and midwifery in Europe from the medieval period through the 19th century, historical depictions of pregnancy and the female body in art and science of the periods, advancements (so to speak) in female anatomy, and fascinating works on “the Resurrection Trade,” the business of grave robbing and its impact on the lives of women and families in 18th century Europe. I also made use of online image collections at libraries of medical history: the Bibliothèque de L’Académie Nationale de Médecine in Paris (which allowed me to spend valuable time with an original edition of Gautier D’Agoty’s amazing Anatomie des parties de la generation, 1773, from which portions of my title poem are drawn); the Wellcome Library in London, the National Library of Medicine’s “Dream Anatomy” Exhibition (from which the cover image comes), the Clendening Library in Kansas City, the Anatomia Collection at Fisher Medical Library in Toronto, the Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière Museum at the Paris Institut d’Anatomie, and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, to name a few.
Ludmilla Jordanova in her book Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries writes that “medicine bears an especially ambivalent relationship to the public/private dichotomy, in being rooted in the latter yet making claims in the former, a situation that explains the predisposition in medical writings and representations to the breaching of taboos” (52). When I read this passage, I understood clearly why this subject is so potent for poetry: poetry too has to navigate that odd dichotomy of public and private: forged in the intimacy of an individual’s mind, a poem, like an anatomical illustration, is a private act destined for a public audience, at once shockingly intimate and deliberately public.
The Resurrection Trade evolved with a focus in the 18th century where I found the real crux of the issues to reside in medical constructions of sexuality. It is the period of the enlightenment in Europe that brings anatomical studies completely into the same frame, historically, with issues of gender that interested me. It is also during the 18th century that the medical care of women passed largely from midwives, women themselves, into the hands (literally) of male doctors. Gross misunderstandings of female anatomy (comical and tragic) persisted well into the 20th century, and the seeds of these misunderstandings still reside in contemporary cultural constructions of women, as I hope the poems demonstrate via my juxtaposition of 20th century notions and ideas with those of earlier periods. I chose very specific stories and details to get at larger interdisciplinary issues: namely the intercourse, and/or lack thereof, between art and science, medical practice and science, and the history of gender construction as we find it written on the collective body of women.
In addition to Angier’s and Jordanova’s books, others that led very directly to poems in this collection included Elmer Belt’s Leonardo the Anatomist; Bynum and Porter’s William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World; Robert Dickinson’s (delightfully odd) Human Sex Anatomy: A Topographical Hand Atlas; Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany; and Nina Rattner Gelbart’s The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. The poems borrow freely from these sources and, I hope, serve as invitations to the reader to seek out these authors.
Antique medical drawings offer interest at so many levels: as the productions of working fine artists, they say something about art; as the tools of medical professionals, they say something about how we came to understand the physicality of the female body; as images which necessarily were almost always accompanied by text, they also have much to say about language[s]: hence my deliberate (mis)translations of notes in French accompanying the drawings, notes which seemed to say much more than the authors intended and, in combination with the images, allow us to look again at how science, art, and language itself have been co-conspirators in the construction of gender in the West. I’m certain there is more to learn and say and see in this area of study, but I intend the poems to offer a way in, to invite readers to indulge their own curiosity and collect their own idiosyncratic bodies of knowledge.
To view Dream Anatomy at the National Library of Medicine, click HERE.