In the Footsteps (Part 9) August 31, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
On this date in 2005, nuclear physicist Józef Rotblat died. Born in Poland, Rotblat joined The Manhattan Project in 1944. When he was certain that Germany was no longer pursuing an atomic bomb, he put in a request to leave the bomb-building project in Los Alamos. Shortly thereafter, he was accused of being a spy and was prohibited from returning to the United States for two decades.
Having opposed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the political use of atomic weapons in the emerging struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Joseph Rotblat returned to England to work on nuclear science for other purposes. He turned his attention to medical uses for radioactivity and to studying nuclear fallout, including the dangers of Strontium-90. He played an instrumental role in questioning the real extent of contamination from the Castle Bravo nuclear test and claimed that the nuclear weapons used in these tests were especially dangerous because they unfolded in three stages, with the last fission stage drastically intensifying radioactive contamination.
In 1995, Joseph Rotblat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Pugwash Conferences, an organization he helped found in 1957. The 59th Pugwash Conference was held in Berlin this past July and focused on Europe’s contribution to nuclear disarmament.
Rotblat helped bring wider attention to the dangers to humans of exposure to radioactivity. By that time, though, radioactivity had made its way into some common uses that may today seem odd. At the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, which we visited earlier this year, we saw lots of examples of the popularizing of radioactive substances and the idea of radioactivity’s power.
A poster boasts the benefits of Tho-Radia, a line of beauty creams and cosmetics containing Thorium and Radium. French women bought the concoctions in hopes that it would keep their skin healthy and stimulate beauty. Notice how the lighting in the advertising poster makes the woman’s face glow. Sadly, one of its creators banked on the last name he shared with two Nobel-winning scientists, Pierre and Marie Curie.
A much more familiar pop-culture outgrowth of nuclear science was the shoe-fiting fluoroscope. Thousands of these contraptions dotted America’s shoe store landscape as early as the 1930s. Kids loved to step up, stick their feet into the bottom of the wooden box, and look through the top to see the bones of their feet inside the shoes. Parents could take a peek to see that the shoes fit well. By the late 1940s, concern arose about exposing kids to radioactivity so that the fluoroscopes disappeared from shoe stores only to reappear as museum artifacts decades later.
Another widely known use of Radium was in the luminescent paint used on watches and clocks from 1917 to 1926. Thousands of women, now known as Radium Girls, painted hundreds of dials a day. To keep the brushes sharply pointed, they would use their lips or tongue. Five of the women later sued and reached a settlement that influenced our understanding of radioactivity tolerance levels, workplace safety standards, and labor laws.
In a bit of irony, The Manhattan Project temporarily ended the use of radioactive uranium oxide in the orange-red pottery glaze used by Fiesta for their dinnerware. In 1936, Fiesta introduced the United States to solid-color, mix-and-match ceramic dinnerware. In 1944, though, the Army needed all the uranium that was available to build an atomic bomb. Fifteen years later, Fiesta reintroduced its red plates and bowls, but this time, they used depleted, instead of natural, uranium. On the positive side for Fiesta, their dinnerware is lead free, made in the United States, and no longer made with radioactive materials.
As we meandered through these artifacts, a song by Blind Boys of Alabama played in the background (see video below too):
In nineteen hundred and forty-five
The atom bomb, it came alive.
In nineteen hundred and forty-nine
The USA got very wide.
We found out a country across the line
Had an atom bomb of the very same kind.
Everybody’s worried ’bout the atomic bomb.
But nobody’s worried about the day my lord will come
When he hits (great god almighty) like an atom bomb
When he comes, when he comes.
As the displays at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History make clear, we can’t eliminate radioactivity from our daily lives or from the larger world. We saw artifacts of popular culture of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s—items for daily use and sensational gadgets—about which few had any concern at the time. We’ve written before about the difficulties that individuals and entities have assessing risk (HERE and HERE). But Joseph Rotblat left us lessons about becoming more aware of the actual exposure levels and risks associated with radioactivity. We end this post with his words, which are taken from his Nobel lecture. (And then we top that off with a video for the Blind Boys of Alabama song mentioned above.)
But science, the exercise of the supreme power of the human intellect, was always linked in my mind with benefit to people. I saw science as being in harmony with humanity. I did not imagine that the second half of my life would be spent on efforts to avert a mortal danger to humanity created by science.
In the Footsteps (Part 8) August 24, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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On this date in 1945, Japanese actress Midori Naka died from radiation sickness. She had been in a building not far from the Hiroshima bomb blast on August 6. After digging herself out from the collapsed structure, she thought she had suffered no serious injury. Soon, though, she became ill with a variety of symptoms, including vomiting and bleeding. By the time she was admitted to a hospital, she was in terrible shape. Her death was the first ever recorded as “A-bomb disease.”
Only three days earlier, a Los Alamos physicist named Harry Daghlian was working alone on a criticality test. As he piled tungsten carbide bricks, a neutron counter warned that, if he added the last brick, the stack would go supercritical. When he starting pulling the brick away, he dropped it on the stack. He stopped the reaction by disassembling the pile, all the while absorbing what would be a lethal dose of radioactivity. He died twenty-five days later.
In May of the following year, a similar accident at Los Alamos killed physicist and chemist Louis Slotin. He had already been working with uranium, then plutonium, and had assembled the core for the Trinity test on July 16, 1945. On May 21, 1946, with seven others in the room (after Daghlian’s accident criticality tests were not conducted alone), Louis Slotin was placing two halves of a beryllium sphere around the same core of plutonium that had irradiated Harry Daghlian. Though a screwdriver wasn’t recommended for the task, that’s the tool Slotin was using when his hand slipped and the gap maintained by the screwdriver closed. Slotin pulled his other hand, which he felt burning, and the half-sphere it held away from the core, stopping the reaction. But the room had already been doused with a blue-colored blast of radioactivity. Slotin died nine days later, having received four times the lethal dose of radioactivity. His was the last hands-on criticality test; the task was thereafter done by remotely controlled machines.
On Friday of last week, inspectors in Japan discovered that rice is among the foods contaminated by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, though officials assure the public the radiation levels are within safe limits. Radioactivity had already been found in beef, spinach, and green tea. In April, TEPCO warned that radioactivity levels from Fukushima Daiichi, which hasn’t stopped leaking, could eventually exceed those of Chernobyl. One study puts Chernobyl-related deaths at 985,000 worldwide, with 170,000 of those in North America. Earlier this month, TEPCO measured record-setting radiation levels, and decommissioning the nuclear power plant will take decades.
Accidents happen. We’ve written before about risk and our inability to calculate it well or to use our calculations wisely. Nuclear weaponry and nuclear power are not without risks, and we’ve known that for 66 years. Some of those accidents are called broken arrows, a term that refers to nuclear weapons accidents that don’t pose a risk of starting nuclear war.
On January 17, 1966, this type of nuclear accident occurred: a B-52 bomber carrying four Mk-28 hydrogen bombs collided with a KC-135 during mid-air refueling off the coast of Spain. The KC-135, which was full of fuel, incinerated with its four crewmen aboard. Three crew from the B-52 were killed; one of those men ejected but was unable to open his parachute. Four crew parachuted safely, one to the ground without separating from his seat and three to the ocean.
The four bombs fell, too, near a small village named Palomares. Within a day, three of the bombs were found. One was in pretty good shape, but the conventional explosives in the other two had detonated. No nuclear explosion had occurred, but radioactive material—plutonium—had caught fire and been spread by a good wind, contaminating a couple of square miles. Decades later, traces of radioactivity remain there.
After five days, the fourth bomb had not been found, so the Navy started looking for it in the Mediterranean Sea. Using a carefully mapped grid of probabilities and an eyewitness account by a local fisherman of the bomb entering the water, an 80-day underwater search turned up the fourth bomb. DSV-Alvin located the missing nuclear weapon at a depth of 2550 feet. Unfortunately, as the Navy tried to raise the bomb, it slipped away. Alvin found it again on April 2 at a depth of 2900 feet. When a torpedo recovery submersible, not Alvin, became entangled in the weapon’s parachute, the two had to be raised together by the USS Petrel.
Two of these bomb casings are now on display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (whose website link we haven’t included because the site has been hacked and is currently being used to advertise pharmaceuticals). When we looked at the two casings (the casings from the two bombs that didn’t explode) and thought about what had happened in 1966, we were amazed at what good shape they were in. Their rounded tips were dented, but both otherwise looked to be fully intact. We were also taken aback by how small a powerful nuclear weapon can be. The Mk-28 is just 22 inches in diameter and between eight and about fourteen feet long, depending on the model.
Two other accidents involving the same kind of nuclear weapon occurred. On March 14, 1961, a B-52 carrying two Mk-28s crashed in California. Neither bomb detonated. In 1968, a B-52 carrying four bombs caught fire, and the crew ejected before they could land back at Thule Air Base in Greenland. The plane crashed into the ocean, breaking apart and spreading radioactive contaminants. In the nine-month cleanup, the secondary section (which contained the fusion fuel, not plutonium) for one bomb was never found. Contaminated ice and debris were shipped to the United States for storage.
The Mk-28 thermonuclear bomb was part of our NATO arsenal for about a decade, from 1962 to 1972. Production started in 1958, and about 4500 individual Mk28s were made. Depending on the model, it packed a wallop of between 70 kilotons and 1.45 megatons. (The atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ranged only from 13 to 22 kilotons.) The detonation could be set for the air or the ground. The Mk-28 was retired in 1991, thereby becoming another artifact in our nuclear history. We saw two of those artifacts in Albuquerque earlier this year as we retraced footsteps in nuclear history.
Interview: Mike Good August 22, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Space Shuttle
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We interviewed Astronaut Mike Good when we were at Kennedy Space Center to see space shuttle Endeavvour launch for the last time. He’s from Ohio, and we earned graduate degrees from Ohio University, so that’s where our conversation begins.
Mike Good has flown 3,000 hours in more than 30 different aircraft. What was left? The space shuttle, on which he served twice. Good was part of the fifth Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, STS-125, a 12-day mission during which the telescope spent six days in the shuttle’s cargo bay. His second mission was STS-132, Atlantis‘s penultimate flight. On that trip, the shuttle docked with the International Space Station for seven days, and Good took two spacewalks. When we spoke with Mike Good, it had been exactly a year since he was in orbit.
Enjoy the video interview below. Check back every second and fourth Monday for video interviews, and click on the “video interviews” menu tab to browse the ones we’ve already posted. And Lofty Ambitions has a YouTube channel!
In the Footsteps (Part 7) August 17, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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It wouldn’t hold up to any scientific scrutiny, but the Sun seems different in New Mexico. In Albuquerque, over a mile high (but 2000 feet lower in elevation than Los Alamos) and with an airport dubbed sunport, it’s one of those rare places where you could be chilly, cold even, all day, but still earn yourself a grade-A sunburn.
Part of the collection of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH; we’re not linking because the website may have been compromised) is located outside, behind the museum building. After leaving the moral ambiguity of the Cold War exhibit, with all of its manifestly inventive forms of atomic bombs and thermonuclear weapons, we stepped out into the sunlight falling through a cloudless New Mexico sky into a shocking, disorienting experience.
In many ways, this part of the NMNSH, entitled Heritage Park, is relatively standard aviation museum fare. In the museum’s enormous fenced in area, we found aircraft and missiles and oddities that covered a span of history from a WWII-era B-29 to the contemporary MX missile, removed from service in 2005.
The dry desert air is the perfect milieu for a retired aircraft. The American Southwest is littered with aircraft boneyards (Mojave Air and Space Port, Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, to name a few). Boneyard has become the apparent term of art as so many of the aircraft residing in these areas are picked apart until their bones—stringers and ribs of aluminum and steel—are showing. Boneyards are part storage facility, part scrap metal resource, and part aircraft parts warehouse.
But that fate of being picked to the bones doesn’t await the artifacts sitting in the Heritage Park. Here, the aircraft are meant to be studied, remembered, revered. This fenced-in expanse is a not a mausoleum or a sepulcher, and yet the sun’s harsh, white light reveals that the aircraft and other Cold War weapons are no longer alive either.
The smaller pieces, the fighter jets, seem to get the worst of it. Their sun-faded paint is a stark reminder just how far they have fallen from supersonic glory. On the ground, they look lost, without purpose. The bombers and the missiles benefit from their imposing size, as if, perhaps actually being able to fly was always of a secondary purpose, their primary mission objective simply fulfilled by the implied threat of their size. A B-52 personifies destruction, a deep, reverberation echoes from its enormous slab sides: I can carry a lot of bombs.
One of the oddities of NMNSH’s Heritage Park is an 83-ton, 84-foot-long cannon. There’s no mistaking the malevolent intent of such a machine. At least with a supersonic fighter jet, its sleek look and rakish attitude convey a machinistic grace. A cannon possesses few such aesthetic attributes, the model sitting behind the NMNSH doubly so. Like all of the artifacts at NMNSH, the cannon has a connection to our nuclear heritage, and this one was designed to fire tactical atomic bombs.
Its field designation was the M65 atomic canon. Unofficially, it was nicknamed “Atomic Annie,” echoing the name of a large German field canon (“Anzio Annie”) used in WWII. The M65 was designed to heave a 280-mm artillery shell—in this case, a shell containing a W9 atomic warhead—twenty miles. Expressly designed to be towed by articulated semis, the cannon was deployed to Europe and Korea.
In May of 1953, this type of cannon fired a W9 atomic shell during a nuclear weapons test named Grable. The ensuing atomic blast was measured at 15 kilotons, equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT (it would take about 150 railroad cars to haul that much TNT). This test sequence is shown in great detail in the film Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie.
At the film’s 45-minute mark, the giant cannon is fired (see video below). Seconds pass, but inevitably the iconic mushroom cloud blooms from the desert floor. As the explosion progresses, trees are bent, vehicles blown over, and an Army tent bursts into flame. Near the end of the sequence is a shot taken from a very distant camera, showing the shockwave’s symmetric disc spreading over the desert floor, with the rising sun-like atomic fireball at the center.
In part because of the ubiquity of aviation museums, it’s easy to get the impression that, during the Cold War, the Air Force and atomic weapons were, if not synonymous, then symbiotic. Just as the 280-mm atomic cannon and the SADM that we mentioned in last week’s post bear witness to the Army’s role in the Cold War, the other oddity in the Heritage Park works to tell the Navy’s story.
Sitting just outside the museum doorway that leads from the indoor exhibits out to the Heritage Park is the sail (in WWII-era terms, the conning tower) of the SSBN-645 James K. Polk, a Benjamin Franklin class nuclear ballistic missile submarine. Nicknamed the Jimmy K, the submarine spent 33 years in the fleet.
If the missiles and jet fighters seem lifeless, the animating spirits in their engines long since safed and removed, at least they appear, in their current state of affairs, to be largely intact. Not so with this submarine. The sail of the Jimmy K was cut away from the rest of the submarine’s hull. Angry, jagged metal edges remain as evidence of the cutter’s torches. Blistered black paint and rusting scars mar what was once the submarine’s smooth hydrodynamic surface. The overall impression of the effort that was required to dissect the Jimmy K into pieces is that the submarine was defiant till the end: I was built well. I won’t go easy.
By the time we made our rounds outside, our foreheads were tense from squinting, and we felt pretty sticky. We wandered back inside, leaving the NMNSH’s largest artifacts behind us. Inside were more exhibits to peruse.
Guest Blog: Thea Ledendecker August 15, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Two weeks ago, our guest blogger was Eric Wasserman (click HERE for his post). But he’s merely one half of a writing couple. This week’s post is written by Thea Ledendecker. It’s a sort of he-said, she-said pair of guest posts this month, though each writer takes up an individual topic that deserves its own due. In fact, we’re especially interest in that balance of separate and together that Thea and Eric seem to manage well.
Thea earned her M.A. from Emerson College and now works in the English Department at the University of Akron. She writes fiction (sample HERE) and also writes the blog Celiac Shiksa, which features gluten-free recipes.
LOCKED IN THE BASEMENT
My husband, Eric, locked me in the basement again.
He said he wouldn’t let me out until I’d written something. Anything.
For those of you with your hand on the phone ready to call the spousal abuse hotline, fear not. The finished section of the basement is actually quite nice, with two comfy chairs, a faux-wood floor, and even a little window. The door isn’t actually locked. It’s not even closed, since the cat gets angry when he can’t escape.
The real reason I’m stuck down here is that I’ve been procrastinating. Eric hates that, mostly because the longer I go without writing, the worse my mood gets, until it spirals into a dark mix of self-loathing and despair. Luckily for me, he found a solution.
My husband writes almost every single day, but I write in spurts and starts, which sputter and die out quickly. Then it starts all over again. Eric has been trying to train me to have a writing routine for the last decade. He’s learned that just saying I should do something isn’t enough. There has to be some kind of punishment involved, even if it doesn’t hurt in the slightest. One time he got so frustrated with me that he told me to go to the bedroom (we had a one-bedroom apartment at the time, so it was the only place to go besides the bathroom) and not come out until I’d written at least one thousand words. This worked. I huffed and I puffed, but I didn’t open the door, and after a few embarrassed curses aimed in his general direction beyond the closed door, I sighed and sat down to write. Every time my mind started feeding me the usual excuses to stop, the thought of coming out empty-handed and facing his disappointment was what made me soldier on. After a while, I forgot that I was locked in the bedroom and that it had been so much trouble to write. A few hours later, I triumphantly handed him a whole chapter of the novel I was working on.
Granted, this method doesn’t always work. Sometimes I just tell him to go to hell. He knows I appreciate it, though, so he waits until he thinks it’s safe and then locks me in the basement again. Sometimes I ask him to.
That’s one of the great things about being married to a writer. He gives me the kind of kick-in-the-pants support that I need. No one but Eric would even have thought of locking me in the basement. He just doesn’t put up with bullshit.
Unlike me, Eric can’t seem to stop writing. He writes every day for hours at a time, sometimes more, drowning out the world with a sensory overload of cable news and YouTube videos of butt rock bands from the 1980s. Over it all, I can still hear the sound of his index fingers jabbing at the keyboard as if he was angry with each letter. This is another reason that I end up in the basement, where it’s quiet.
But if the music stops and he starts frantically cleaning the house while muttering that his novel is never going to be finished, I know it’s time for an intervention. There are times when he writes too much, and it’s my job to make him stop, take a break, and put his novel away for a little while so that it can sort itself out in his head. Of course, I let him finish cleaning first. Then I hide his novel. I always give it back.
We don’t necessarily like it when the other one gets temperamental, but we do recognize it as part of the creative process. If Eric barges into my office while I’m in the middle of a paragraph, sure, I’ll snap at him. By the time I’m done, we’ve both forgiven each other for our sins. Living together works because we understand that it’s writing that soothes the savage beast. If we don’t let our spouses lock themselves in their offices to write out all their demons, then we’d each have to deal with the worst parts of the other person. If we didn’t let (make) each other write or stop writing, we’d probably have killed each other by now. This would not be conducive to writing.
So my husband locks me in the basement. It’s good for me.
In the Footsteps (Part 6) August 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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In the fall of 2006, we wrote an article for Curator: The Museum Journal (“Not Just the Hangars of World War II: American Aviation Museums and the Role of Memorial”). One of the museum curators that we interviewed for the article, Katherine Huit, then of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, described museum-goers as “streakers, strollers, and studiers.” Now, after a few more years of doing this thing we do, we’d like to add one more category. We’re not sure what to call ourselves (and those like us, you know who you are), but we like to think of our efforts as extreme-museum-going.
We don’t just study the scripts on the exhibit plates; we take notes, sometimes lots of notes. The first time we visited the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Doug took down verbatim the text on each plate until his hand cramped, ending up with just over 100 paragraphs of text. We also do drawings, diagrams, and floor layouts and snap photos. The floor layout of the Udvar-Hazy Center’s display of the Enola Gay, the B-29 piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets and named for his mother, was actually quite helpful for the Curator article. It wasn’t until we reviewed our notes that we realized that the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, which was constructed at Los Alamos, was surrounded on all sides by aircraft flown by nations of the Axis Powers. The enemy aircraft were so numerous that, at floor level, it was actually impossible to photograph the gleaming, stainless-steel-skinned B-29 without also capturing an Arado Ar 234 B-2 Blitz, an Aichi M6A1 Seiran, or a Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Our overall feeling was that, even in its retirement, the Enola Gay could not be without context and the larger story.
We dive so deeply into each exhibit because we are unsure when we will get back or if we will ever get back to see those artifacts. But that kind of attention to detail can also have an obscuring effect. When we visited the Enola Gay the first time, we missed the forest for the trees. The trees are striking.
On our visit to National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH), we decided to pull back a bit from extreme-museum-going, to land closer to studiers on our scale from streakers to the extreme. Not that we don’t peer at the trees, but we’re more interested right now in the story—the forest—than in peeling away the layers of bark of an individual tree or two. Our notebooks are a bit thinner, perhaps because, with a digital camera, we take more photographs.
The natural traffic flow of NMNSH is akin to a timeline of the nuclear experience, beginning with Rutherford and Einstein The story proceeds through the Manhattan Project and the Cold War and ends with the ubiquity of nuclear power plants and the promise of green energy. A quick glance at Doug’s notebook reveals that, by the time he got to the Cold War section, he was just taking down the names of the primary items in each exhibit. Comparing our notebooks, we each have different tidbits with very little overlap.
The Cold War exhibit revealed the remarkable inventiveness that humanity has been willing to demonstrate in the pursuit of destruction. The weapon that really grabs your attention is the SADM (click for related FILM), or Special Atomic Demolition Munition. This is an atomic bomb that was intended to be carried by one or two soldiers. (If you watch the film in the link, that’s the warhead that the swimmer is strapping to his groin. The irony of the symbolism makes you wonder who really had a sense of humor.)
For Anna, this weapon has significant import. Leahy family lore has it that Anna’s father, Andy, scraped paint or rust off nuclear weapons at the Pirmasens Weapons Depot in West Germany, during his time as an enlisted man in the Army. As best as we can tell, it is likely that the SADM was this type of tactical atomic weapon that Andy Leahy would have been working on. Part of this story is the conclusion that Anna’s father reached about the Cold-War-era safety and monitoring measures that his group used: almost non-existent. Each man was issued a film badge dosimeter to affix to his person before descending into the below ground caverns where the weapons were stored. At the end of each week, the men would toss their dosimeters into a large bin. Andy and the other men assumed that no one actually examined the badges. There was certainly no hope of determining their own exposures.
The story of men being asked to scrape blistered, corroded paint off of stored atomic weapons begs belief and current common sense. And yet, in the context of the Cold War, where soldiers were denied access to basic information about atomic weapons and openly exposed to all manner of atomic tests (and the ensuing fallout), it becomes a more plausible story.
Anna’s father died after an extended fight with cancer that was everywhere in the abdomen, all at once, with no site of origin. When Anna’s lawyer mother (her father was also lawyer) attempted to obtain Andy’s service records, she found that his unit’s records had been destroyed in a fire. They had been held in a fire-protected, government document storage building in St. Louis.
The first time that Anna detailed her father’s cancer to Doug, he was reminded of James Gleick’s book Genius and the description of Richard Feynman’s cancer. Standing at NMNSH in front of a weapon that plausibly killed Anna’s father—ironically, by not fulfilling its expressed design—in this place that is, in part, a testament to the of the work of Feynman and thousands of other Los Alamos scientists reminded us of the threads that connect us to history. Threads that have us walking in the footsteps of those who’ve come before us. Whether we know it or not.
Interview: Fred Gregory August 8, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Math, Space Shuttle
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Frederick D. Gregory is a three-time space shuttle astronaut and a Washington, DC, native. His first shuttle flight (STS-51B) was the second Spacelab flight. On his second flight (STS-33), he became the first African-American to command a space flight. His last flight (STS-44) was in 1991, and he continued to work for NASA until 2005. All three missions ended at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
He talked with Lofty Ambitions in November 2010 at Kennedy Space Center. We were especially struck by his emphasis on the importance of a varied education, and he is an especially amiable guy.
In the Footsteps (Part 5) August 3, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Radioactivity, WWII
Earlier this summer, we traveled to New Mexico to walk in the footsteps of those men and women who developed the world’s first nuclear weapons. We return this week to that series about the landscape and museums of New Mexico.
To read Part 1 (Photos of New Mexico’s Nuclear Past), click HERE.
To read Part 2 (Lamy, New Mexico), click HERE.
To read Part 3 (Bandelier National Monument & Los Alamos Historical Society Museum), click HERE.
To read Part 4 (Los Alamos & the Bradbury Science Museum), click HERE.
After several days of making our way through America’s atomic past in the birthplace of the atom bomb, we decamped Los Alamos, La Fonda, and Santa Fe to head south for Albuquerque. Our destination was the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH). Located on the southeastern edge of the city, just a stone’s throw away from Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia Foothills, the museum, which was formerly known as the much-easier-to-say (and type) National Atomic Museum, states as its mission to serve “as America’s resource for nuclear history and science.”
The NMNSH is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, as is the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas (for our post on that, click HERE), and it exudes the granite cool competence that one expects from the Smithsonian. This incarnation of the museum opened its doors in the fall of 2009, and it averages about 70,000 visitors a year. The NMNSH has eleven exhibit areas, and though we walked through each of them, we were naturally drawn to some more than others.
The first exhibit we visited is entitled “The Decision to Drop.” It contains a wide array of artifacts from the era of the Manhattan Project. The first piece of history that grabbed our attention was a calutron, a device used in the uranium separation process. These devices function by taking advantage of the slight difference in the atomic mass of U-235 and U-238. Inside the calutron, electromagnets bend a passing ionized beam of uranium. Each uranium isotope is deflected to a different degree and can then be collected at different points.
The calutron at the NMNSH is an original one, used during WWII at Oak Ridge plant Y-12. Calutrons and Y-12 are notable for some of the more interesting stories of the entire project. During the war, shortages of copper were acute. Given that the calutrons were, at their cores, electromagnets—iron bars wrapped by copper wire—this was an enormous problem. The solution: silver. Electrically similar to copper, silver also had another advantage: if you knew where to shop, it was available in abundance. When you had the kind of clout that General Leslie Grove and the Manhattan Project enjoyed, you could shop at the U.S. Treasury. And they did. In August 1942, Groves’s aide-de-camp began negotiations with the U.S. Treasury to take delivery of 6000 tons of silver. Eventually the Manhattan Project and the Y-12 calutrons would consume 14,700 tons of silver. That’s 428,749,990 troy ounces, or $17,188,587,099 in today’s dollars.
Perhaps the most remarkable artifact in the Decision to Drop exhibit, the one that attracts visitors’ rapt attention and about which docents like to talk, is the 1941 Packard limousine used to convey V.I.P.s from the train station in Lamy to and around Los Alamos. After its manufacture, the limo was modified by a coachworks maker to enable it to carry upwards of fifteen passengers at a time. But just a few years ago, this automobile was a castoff hulk sitting in a nearby junkyard. Now, the dramatic curves of the limo’s hood and fenders and its preposterously long, stretched slab sides are showroom-floor-new and painted in an era-appropriate olive drab. This car, almost lost as trash, matches the photographs of yesteryear.
Nearby the limo sits another car, a 1942 Plymouth. Though this car wasn’t actually a part of the Manhattan Project, it is correct for the time period, and it is arranged in a dramatic scene meant to reenact another famous moment in the history of the Manhattan Project: the arrival of the plutonium core at the Trinity site. Sitting the car’s back seat is a facsimile of the box that carried the plutonium from Los Alamos to McDonald’s farmhouse and, ultimately, to the Gadget, the lab-bench experiment that became the world’s first atomic bomb.
Other pieces from Trinity, including a seismograph used at the test site, and a Fat Man-style bomb case that was manufactured at the lab in the summer of 1945, sit nearby the car. Each one adds its own sentence or punctuation mark to the story of the Manhattan Project.
We’ve spent a fair bit of time in the Los Alamos and Santa Fe area over the past few years, and we’ve read a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction and a couple that are probably somewhere in between. At this point, it was easy for the two of us to stare at the tiny warning plate on the limo’s dash—Do Not Exceed 20 MPH—and to imagine the restless, wrung-out Oppenheimer and handful of his trusted confidantes, perhaps Norris Bradbury, maybe George Kistiakowsky, making their way the 200 miles from Los Alamos to Trinity, anxious to see what would happen, hoping it would work, worrying it would be a dud, and perhaps even fearing it would work.
We’ll cover the rest of the NMNSH in a second post next week. Keep reading because there’s more to these artifacts.
Guest Blog: Eric Wasserman August 1, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Tags: Books, Museums & Archives
One of the topics to which we keep returning is writing as a couple. This topic isn’t easy for us to tackle, and we sometimes find other writing couples hesitant to write about it, too. Maybe it’s difficult to articulate the writing part of couple relationships in which much goes unspoken or taken for granted. It’s personal. We don’t want to jinx it. What works one month may change the next.
We are especially grateful, therefore, that Eric Wasserman and Thea Ledendecker are willing to share their take, or their give-and-take, as a writing couple. We’ll post Thea’s piece next time (click HERE for hers). This week, we feature Eric, who was raised in Portland, Oregon, but waxes nostalgic his time in Southern California. He teaches at the University of Akron and is on the faculty of the NEOMFA. His story collection, The Temporary Life, is already out, and his novel, Celluloid Strangers, will be published this year.
After you read Eric’s post, check out what his wife has to say about writing as a couple HERE.
THE SPONGE AND HIS SQUEEZE
I recently completed a new short story. My wife, also a writer, hates it.
I can live with this since we’re only talking about eighteen pages. However, I was not so live-and-let-live when it came to her critiquing the various drafts of my novel, Celluloid Strangers. Over the course of its six-year journey from drafting to publication, there were some pretty heated exchanges I had with my most important and trusted reader.
My wife and I own a house in Akron, Ohio, with separate offices where we can close our doors and each write in solitude. However, when I started working on my novel, we were living in a tiny apartment in Santa Monica, California, where my writing desk was literally part of the open kitchen (she typed on a laptop on the couch five-feet away). Cramped quarters would be an understatement; it was the only time in my life when my writing regimen resembled a contact sport. I’m not nostalgic for those bad old days. There’s zero romanticism in having no money as aspiring young writers. It sucks.
A lot has changed since then, but one thing about our writing life together has not. My wife forever remains the quintessential squeeze to my sponge.
Allow me to explain.
The strongest image I have from those days when I was deciding whether to have car insurance or health insurance, since I couldn’t afford both as an adjunct instructor who was freeway-flying between four different community colleges in the City of Angels, is that of my personal angel sitting cross-legged on the floor of that little apartment with the manuscript for my novel in her lap. I always had a working draft printed out and kept in a binder (if the apartment caught fire, I saved this after the cats were safe). My wife was opening and closing the binder to remove pages. And those not removed were covered in her purple-penned scribbles with uncountable demands for eliminating everything from phrasing to whole paragraphs.
When a fiction writer plucks observations from life or modifies slightly autobiographical information into an imagined narrative, readers ideally release themselves to the world of make believe. For instance, from the few things I have learned about Jonathan Franzen’s life, I can guess that certain aspects of his novels The Correction or Freedom are possibly autobiographical, but it’s a passing thought. The problem with deciding to share the rest of my life with another writer is that nothing gets by her.
This is a good thing.
My wife knows what serves and does not serve my stories in ways others never will. She is my first line of defense, the one who says, “Good God, I know you heard that on NPR when we were in the car the other day, but you didn’t need to put it in the novel,” or “Come on, just because you’re fascinated with every aspect of Charlie Chaplin’s life doesn’t mean readers care. A few details capture the character’s personality just fine. Get rid of the rest.”
I am the type of writer who is cursed with soaking up everything around me like a sponge, especially when I am conducting research for a story. What my wife does is give a strong squeeze to that sponge to make sure the very few items remaining, which I have plucked from the life we share, really are relevant to the imagined worlds and characters I am presenting. Sometimes I accept her squeezes immediately. Most of the time, it takes her several drafts of coaxing. In the end, she’s usually right.
We were recently in Washington, D.C., and had the chance to see the new exhibit on the 1940s at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. My forthcoming novel is set in 1940s Los Angeles and has a film-themed component. We saw two paintings I had never known existed. The first was Edward Biberman’s “Tear Gas and Water Hoses” (1945), which depicts the studio trade union riots on the Warner Brothers lot. My wife, excited, said, “Look, it’s that scene from your novel!” I had just approved the final text of the book shortly before this trip. Then, we turned a corner and saw another painting I had never discovered before, Paul Sample’s “Movies — Canton Island” (1943), which depicts World War II G.I.s watching a Hollywood film in the desert. My wife’s instant reaction upon seeing this was, “Thank God you’ve already approved the final manuscript.”
She knew that she, as the squeeze to my sponge, would have had to rinse out the image of Sample’s painting from my novel, had I had the chance to incorporate it prior to approving the final text. Fair enough.
But now that I think about it, that new short story she hates might be beyond squeezing to her acceptability all together.