Lofty Ambitions at AWP February 29, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Information, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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We’re really excited that both of us are presenting at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference this year and that our presentations are directly related to what we do at Lofty Ambitions.
CLICK TO READ LOFTY POSTS HIGHLIGHTING AWP PRESENTERS:
Doug will talk about archives and the use of letters in fiction and creative nonfiction on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Lake Ontario Room of the Chicago Hilton. Our recent visit to the CalTech archives is also related his talk; read that post HERE.
Anna is the organizer for a panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” which will be held on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m. in Continental B at the Chicago Hilton. It’s a great topic for this year in the Windy City because it’s the 70th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction, which Enrico Fermi set off at the University of Chicago.
AWP actually begins today with set-up for the bookfair. For the first time, Chapman University, Tabula Poetica, and the Fowles Center for Creative Writing have a table at the AWP Bookfair—D-21. So Anna will be setting up posters and book displays this afternoon. You can find the list of the booksignings at the table on the Tabula Poetica homepage—click HERE.
We also want to give a nod to Tiffany Monroe, an MFA student at Chapman University, who is presenting on a panel called “MFA Students Speak Up” on Friday, March 2, at 9:00a.m. Tiffany will also help us with the bookfair table.
If you’re in Chicago this coming weekend, you can meet Chapman University authors in person on Saturday, when the bookfair is open to the public. Stop by Table D-21 any time 9a.m.-3p.m. that day. Look for the Lofty duo around town!
John Glenn and Golden Anniversaries February 22, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Space Shuttle
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“Godspeed, John Glenn.” Fifty years ago this past Monday, and with just seconds remaining in the launch countdown, Scott Carpenter uttered those words, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts to another. When the countdown clock reached zero, John H. Glenn began a spaceflight that would ultimately see him orbit the earth three times. From the public’s point of view, American participation in the space race had begun in earnest less than ten months previously when Alan Shepard took his 15-minute ride into space. Although it had taken nearly a full year, with Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, America had finally equaled the Russia’s April 1961 launch of Yuri Gagarin into Earth orbit.
The lead-up to Glenn’s orbital mission had seen a variety of postponements, including a five-week delay in mid-December 1961 and three separate mission scrub on January 27th and 30th and February 14th. Glenn was the first American to ride to space on the Atlas launch vehicle, a repurposed intercontinental ballistic missile, itself no stranger to drama. On May 18, 1959, the Mercury Seven astronauts, who’d only been introduced to the public five weeks earlier on April 9th, were at Cape Canaveral to witness an Atlas launch, the only American rocket at that time that was powerful enough to place a Mercury capsule into orbit. Shortly after launching, the Atlas veered sideways, its paper-thin metal skin rippling and crumpling. The potent mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen that powered the missile exploded in an enormous fireball. Ever the cool test pilot, Alan Shepard leaned into John Glenn and said, “I sure hope they fix that.” Even after the combination of the Mercury space capsule and the Atlas missile began the official series of tests leading up to Glenn’s flight, two more Mercury-Atlas launches, both unmanned, ended when the Atlas missile exploded. In contrast with the risk-free space flight that the public has come to demand of NASA in more recent decades, the early days of Cape Canaveral-to-Earth-orbit were a more hazardous proposition.
Glenn’s February 1962 flight faced its share of difficulties. Towards the end of his first orbit, Glenn reported back to Earth that his spacecraft was surrounded by glowing, whirling flecks of light that he called “fireflies.” This moment was recreated in the film The Right Stuff, where it was mystically suggested that ceremonial fires started by Indigenous Australians—Glenn first reported the phenomenon while over Australia—had been blown up into the heavens and were encircling Friendship 7. NASA scientists and engineers ultimately explained the fireflies as bits of ice working their way out of the spacecraft’s systems. Perhaps less imaginative an explanation, but judging Glenn’s own words, no less beautiful.
Glenn faced much greater danger during the middle of his flight when telemetry reported a “Segment 51” warning, an indication that Glenn’s landing bag, an inflatable ring used to cushion the spacecraft’s water landing, may have deployed. Flying accidents generally result from the accrual of many smaller errors. In this case, a possibly deployed landing bag also indicated a possibly damaged heat shield. Without a functional heat shield, an engineered barrier against the 3000-degree heat of reentering the earth’s atmosphere, the Friendship 7 capsule would be consumed in fire and Glenn would perish inside.
As Glenn made his third and final orbit of the earth, mission controllers, scientists, engineers, and administrators struggled to come up with an appropriate plan for this dangerous scenario. The decision was made to leave the spacecraft’s retro rocket pack—a group of three tiny solid fuel rocket engines that slow the capsule enough for Earth’s gravity to bring the spacecraft down to the earth’s surface—in place during the reentry phase. The retro-rocket pack was held in place, attached to the heat shield, by a series of metals straps. The hope was that, if the heat shield was damaged, the retro-rocket pack would hold the heat shield in place long enough for the shield to do its job. Glenn was told about the situation on his final orbit. He accepted it with a test pilot’s aplomb. In the end, the heat shield worked as designed, and Glenn returned to earth four hours, fifty-five minutes, and twenty-two seconds after he’d started his mission.
The rest of John Glenn’s life is befitting of someone who returned to earth an American hero: a career as a Senator and a return to space at age 77 onboard space shuttle Discovery. And that makes us think about this coming Friday, the first anniversary of space shuttle Discovery’s last launch, a launch we are sad to not have seen in person, though we had seen the orbiter on the launch pad, almost ready to go, the previous November. You can read our account of Discovery’s last mission in our “Countdown to the Cape” series.
The first three Americans into space were Alan Shepard on May 5, 1961, Gus Grissom on July 21, 1961, and John Glenn, fifty years ago this past Monday on February 20, 1962. The fact that we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Glenn’s flight is a reminder that over the next several years, we will be regularly celebrating the 50th anniversaries of events that occurred during America’s golden age of space exploration. Next up will be the golden anniversary of Scott Carpenter’s Aurora 7 mission on May 24, 1962. Today, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter are the only living Project Mercury astronauts.
February 20 is also the anniversary of spacecraft Ranger 8’s crash into the Moon, a happy crash landing. On that date in 1965, it had already achieved its mission, namely to shoot photographs of possible landing sites for the Apollo program.
Lest we concentrate too much on the most modern forms of transportation, yesterday marked the seventh anniversary of Steve Fossett’s flight across the Pacific Ocean in a balloon. He was the first person to have done such a thing. Seven years later, he made the first airborne nonstop round-the-world trip, unless, of course, you count folks like Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn. Fossett disappeared in October 2007, and more than a year later, bones matching his DNA were discovered near his plane’s crash site.
Guest Blog: Tom Zoellner February 20, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Today, we feature our colleague Tom Zoellner. He’s part of Anna’s panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age. Check out the rest of the panelists in our other recent guest posts: KRISTEN IVERSEN, JEFF PORTER, and M. G. LORD. And if you’re at AWP, join us for the panel on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m.
Tom’s latest book is A Safeway in Arizona, part memoir, part history, part cultural commentary, all an exploration of Arizona as the context of the shooting rampage that injured Gabrielle Giffords, his friend. But we asked him to be a guest blogger at Lofty Ambitions because his previous book is Uranium, which won the Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics and garnered him a spot on The Daily Show.
IN THE PALM OF MY HAND
Here is an experience that will make you want to wash your hands immediately—holding a stick of pure uranium. It was about the size of a small mechanical pencil, pure ebony in color, and it left dusty smudges on my hands. I was standing among mill workers at the Ranger Mine, which is located in the midst of some spectacular outback jungle in Australia. The stick of uranium was used in the mill’s lab for assaying purposes. I wanted to look like a tough guy so I inspected it like any other rock and casually handed it back to the technician. But more than anything, I really wanted to wash my hands.
That uranium wasn’t dangerous by itself. The number of unstable U-235 atoms that create the famously explosive critical mass was present at a perfectly safe ratio of 1 to 140, and the stick was not about to catch fire in the way that uranium can spontaneously self-combust when sliced thinly (an interesting state called “pyrophoricity”). The dust on my hands was radioactive, but the signature was small and only hazardous if I put my fingers to my nose and inhaled deeply. From there, it would get caught in fragile lung tissue and emit alpha, beta, and gamma particles at a constant rate. This is what slowly killed so many miners in the dusty adits of the American Southwest and the East German mountains during the Cold War.
I had been writing about uranium for several months at that point, relearning matters of basic atomic physics that had been long forgotten from high school. I had traveled to old mines in Utah and the Czech Republic and interviewed UN diplomats in Vienna. I had visited the site of a deserted mine in Africa once described as a “freak of nature” by a Manhattan Project official because it held ore at a purity level of 62%, which had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. That mine, named Shinkolobwe for a particular kind of thorny fruit, gave up most of the material used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts and continues to leak unknown quantities of ore to local buyers.
But holding this stick of 99% pure concentrated uranium—far better than anything Shinkolobwe yielded in the raw—was my first up-close experience with the subject that I had been chasing for months. It was sort of like a biographer of an elusive subject who talks to multiple friends and acquaintances and then unexpectedly gets introduced to the person in the flesh.
I wanted the moment to be more special than just being passed a lab sample. But after all, this was just an inanimate object. It could not talk. It could only sit there in my palm and chuck off (I couldn’t help but envision it) little packages of protons and neutrons at a rate far faster than the speed of sound, fast enough to travel around the earth’s equator in about two seconds. These alpha particles could be blocked with a barrier as thin as a sheet of paper and my bare skin was adequate protection. But still. This little wand contained a power unlike anything else in nature. It had an instability about it which could be exploited with the proper application of massive industrial force—the immense cascading rows of centrifuges and gaseous diffusion chambers which we had built in secret cities during the war and which Iran was now hiding underneath mountains to shield from American and Israeli spies and bombers.
I felt as if I should have spent more time holding this stick, thinking about this weird little trick of the universe that it held inside. Here was a small sliver of the rock buried in the earth’s crust that had the power to end all life on the planet. One that posed an overwhelming moral test for humanity ever since World War II ended with a uranium-powered exclamation point. There is much we don’t know about uranium and much we don’t know about our future with this mineral after just under seventy years of coexistence with its concentrated form.
Has the scientific genius of mankind outstripped our abilities to take care of the planet, and each other? Have we learned enough not just to crack open an atom, but how to get along despite our racial and political differences? Will we be able to keep our species alive in a world where we have access to such awesome means of destruction?
These thoughts didn’t come in that moment. Other things were on my mind. I wanted to look like a tough guy in front of the miner and chemists, and I handed the uranium back, keeping my faintly dusted hands casually at my side. And when a safe amount of time had passed, I found a reason to excuse myself to the men’s room and there I washed my hands twice with soap.
In the Footsteps (Part 13) February 15, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
On Friday, March 2, Anna will present at a panel entitled “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age.” Her four fellow panelists on this topic are guest bloggers at Lofty Ambitions. Today, Anna shares some of what she will talk about at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago.
On February 29, we’ll post more information about AWP, including links to our recent AWP-related posts.
FALLOUT & FACTS: CREATIVE NONFICTION IN THE NUCLEAR AGE
The nuclear age began in Chicago seventy years ago, when Enrico Fermi conducted the first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago, where my mother earned her law degree a little more than twenty years later.
For a few months in the 1970s, my mother was the Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the state-level regulator of nuclear power plants. She was also the person in the state whom the military contacted when there was a lost nuclear weapon. That happened once while she was director.
Illinois has six operating nuclear power plants, more than any other state. More than 30,000 people live within fifty miles of Braidwood and also within fifty miles of the Quad Cities plant, the secondary radius considered in danger if an accident were to occur. The two units at the Quad Cities plants went online in 1973, and their licenses are good until December 2032. In 2006, almost half of the state’s electricity came from these six power stations. Illinois gets more electricity from nuclear than from coal, even though Illinois has mined coal for more than 200 years. I’m not advocating coal; it’s dirty in its own right. But I grew up here and think of Illinois as a coal state, not a nuclear state.
My father, though, is my more imperative connection to the topic of the nuclear age. He served most of his requisite military service in Pirmasens, West Germany, where the United States had deployed tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons were rotated in and out of the facility where my father was stationed. To do his work, my father descended by elevator with a partner, each of whom had a different code that had to be entered before the elevator would take them underground. My father’s job was, in his words, to scrape corroded uranium off the bombs. He wore no special protection for this work, only a badge that, as he remembered years later, he threw into bin at each week’s end. He was told that this dosimeter measured his exposure to radioactivity, but he figured that the Army didn’t check all the badges and keep track. He never saw any records that referred to his exposure levels.
My father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer just before my sixteenth birthday, though two separate exploratory surgeries did not reveal an originating tumor. The doctors went over my father’s history. Their conclusion—though the cause of cancer is never completely conclusive—was that my father’s illness was the result of his exposure to radioactivity during his military service.
This history began showing up in my writing in graduate school, first in a poem about his military work and in a fragmented story. When I held the first copy of my poetry book my hand five years ago, I opened it and found this history. Sven Birkerts, in The Art of Time in Memoir, “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.” For me, an intuition about connections—my father’s death and Chernobyl, for instance—began to gnaw at me. Birkerts asserts that, for him, part of the draw to memoir came with age:
A curious thing happened to me personally and as a writer when I entered my late forties, that time zone I reluctantly acknowledge as marking the onset of middle age. Quite suddenly, at least in retrospect, my relation to my own past changed. […] It was as if that past, especially the events and feelings of my younger years, had taken a half step back, had overnight, following no effort on my part, arranged themselves into a perspective. No, ‘perspective’ isn’t quite right, for that suggests a fixed, even static arrangement. Rather, these materials had, without their losing their animation or their savor, became available to me.
Indeed, over the last two years, I’ve paid more attention to this topic, have learned to savor my available past, and have started to think of more of my writing as memoir.
We’ve written a lot about nuclear history and our connections to it at Lofty Ambitions blog, including an ongoing, currently 13-part series called “In the Footsteps.” The length of blog posts—most of ours run long at about1000 words—has offered us a way to understand the possibilities and pieces in what otherwise is the large topic of the nuclear age. Blogging as an aspect of creative nonfiction has helped us address a problem that Peter Turchi raises in Maps of the Imagination. He writes the following:
If we attempt to map the world of the story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration , so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information. The opportunities are overwhelming.
What to include and exclude and how to organize remain challenges for me as a creative nonfiction writer, especially when dealing with a cultural topic like nuclear history. We’ve all lived the nuclear age. As Susan Griffin puts it in A Chorus of Stones, “For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.”
Interview: Walt Cunningham February 13, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Apollo, Mars
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Lofty Ambitions had fun talking with Walt Cunningham in 2010, in part because he doesn’t hold back his opinion, whether the topic is going to Mars or global warming. It’s easy to disagree with his ideas, but it’s not easy to stop listening.
In October 1968, Cunningham flew on Apollo 7, a mission we wrote about because it was the first time the now-famous space pen went to space. We sent the link (HERE) to Walt Cunningham, and he responded that we got the story right.
Born in Iowa in 1932, Walt Cunningham is a Midwesterner-turned-Californian like us. His master’s degree is in physics, but his B.A. is in literature, and he’s certainly not the only astronaut who read widely for a broad understanding of the world. He worked as a scientist at the Rand Corporation before joining NASA and was part of the Skylab program after his Apollo stint. He retired from NASA in 1971, but he’s kept busy by writing and investing. And saying exactly what he wants to say.
Update from Ragdale and A Nuclear Birthday February 11, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Einstein, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
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On Thursday evening, after dining on walnut burgers, chipotle sweet potatoes, and sautéed spinach, we built a fire in the fireplace and settled in for a long editing session. We spent more than four hours working our way aloud through the two chapters we’ve drafted since our writing residency began.
Yesterday, it snowed in big clumps. From our second-floor windows, we watched the snow fall. Anna went outside for a short walk and to take some photos. Then, we tried to outline the rest of the chapters, doling out our ideas to the remaining chunks of pages we imagine. We try to outline the next two in more detail, put the ideas in the order they should appear. We have an idea of how long the chapters will be so we move a few things to a later chapter. But because of our experience drafting this project over the last week, we aren’t estimating the number of words or pages we expect an idea to take.
We have a sense of what we want to accomplish before we leave, and we’re pretty sure that, even if everything goes well, we would need three more days than we have. That said, we’re appreciative of the time we do have remaining here at Ragdale.
Today, we also pause to consider Leo Szilard, who was born on this date in 1898. As a Manhattan Project physicist, perhaps the first one, he fits into our “In the Footsteps” series, and he’s someone who’s long interested us.
Born in Hungary, he attended the Institute of Technology in Berlin, where he hung out with the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Planck. With that kind of company, it’s no wonder he ended up thinking, by 1933, after fleeing the Nazis and landing in London, about how a sustained nuclear reaction might work. There are several stories, most told at one time or another by Szilard himself, about how his idea that fission might lead to a bomb came to Szilard, but it’s clear that he was at least partly inspired by reading H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free. By the late 1930s, he was teaching at Columbia University, thinking uranium would be the right element for such a nuclear reaction, and soliciting Einstein’s endorsement of a letter he wanted to send to President Roosevelt. The letter from Einstein to Roosevelt led to the development of the Manhattan Project, and hence the suggestion that Szilard was the first physicist on the project.
Szilard moved on to the University of Chicago, where he helped Enrico Fermi build the first controlled nuclear reaction and held the patent with Fermi for that first nuclear reactor, which they referred to as a “pile.” In this coming week’s regular Wednesday post, we offer a sneak-peek of Anna’s AWP presentation on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age, which mentions this historic event of December 2, 1942, an event that, in a real sense, marked the beginning of the nuclear age.
As the United States grew closer to having a useable nuclear weapon, Szilard became concerned about its use against Japan and pushed unsuccessfully for a test demonstration. He was also disturbed that the military would have control over nuclear weapons and that scientists were not being involved in policy.
Shortly after the war, Szilard gave his attention to biology and even fiction writing, with a collection of short stories related to his experiences and the Cold War and in which dolphins tell the story of our demise. He also met with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and suggested a hot line between the White House and the Kremlin and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rushed to Geneva in hopes of establishing a dialogue between the president and the premier. Only a few months after joining the Salk Institute in 1964, Leo Szilard died in his sleep from a heart attack.
Enrico Fermi, Szilard’s partner in the first nuclear reactor, died of stomach cancer at age 53. Szilard later developed bladder cancer. Szilard’s cancer didn’t kill him, though it might have if he hadn’t undergone radiation and then, much to his doctors’ chagrin and by his own treatment design, more radiation. He had radioactive silver implanted in the tumor. Such implantation radiation treatment was highly unusual then but has since become one common way to treat prostrate cancer.
Szilard’s unconventional thinking didn’t stop with his science. He was known for soaking in a hot bath in the mornings to think and to take breakfast. Taking a hot bath today, perhaps with a glass of wine, might be the most fitting way to celebrate Szilard’s birthday. In 1951, he married Dr. Trude Weiss after they had been pen pals and confidantes for more than twenty years. We like this part of the story especially, in large part because we, too, knew each other twenty years before running off and doing something foolish like that. Szilard and Weiss, though, would spend most of the marriage living apart, something with which we’re not unfamiliar.
Szilard’s legacy, then, as a nuclear scientist and a human being is, like so many of the people about which we are drawn to write, a complex one. He was the Humanist of the Year in 1960, mingling in the ranks of Margaret Sanger and, later, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Helen Caldicott, Margaret Atwood (who will be at AWP in a few weeks), and Bill Nye. Not a bad group overall and certainly eclectic.
In the Footsteps (Part 12) February 8, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Lofty Ambitions is going to AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Doug will present on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Chicago Hilton. As we’ve peeked at letters and telegrams written in bygone days, we’ve learned a lot about archives and how to read these documents. Doug’s expertise as a scientist and as a librarian continues to be a great asset for us, and he’s sharing some of that here at Lofty Ambitions as well as at AWP.
To read the rest of our “In the Footsteps” series, click HERE or on that tag in the tag cloud in the sidebar. To read posts by those presenting presenting at the AWP panel “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” click HERE or on the Guest Blogs category in the menu up top, then scroll for Tom Zoellner, M. G. Lord, Jeff Porter, and Kristen Iversen, whose forthcoming book will be featured in Barnes & Nobel’s Summer Great New Writers program.
PURLOINING THE LETTER: DOCUMENTS OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
I’m currently working on an espionage novel, set during the Manhattan Project. the Lofty Duo has done a fair bit of research, including working in the archives of the Library of Congress, where we’ve read through some boxes of the papers of J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of Los Alamos laboratory during the Manhattan Project. Although I’d taken away several fascinating tidbits from that research project, after hearing Alan Furst discuss methods for building a vocabulary that authentically recreates a historical period, I silently admonished myself for not being more methodical in my own use of the letters, memos, notes, and other ephemera in Oppenheimer’s papers. All these types of documents—letters, memos, telegrams, notes, and other ephemera—play the same role in my research because they, unlike a private journal or a publication intended for the general public, are written for a specific audience.
Since that realization inspired by Furst’s talk, I’ve been more focused in my research use of letters and other materials. I think about my usage as fitting a few primary categories:
- Language and vocabulary development. This aligns with Furst’s suggestions in recreating a time period but has also helped me in creating verisimilitude by learning the military and scientific jargon of the era.
- Events confirmation. This helps me align my novel’s plot with the recorded events.
- Character development. Each document reveals aspects of the person who wrote it and also of the person who was intended to receive it.
A concrete example of the type of historically accurate vernacular that I needed to develop in my novel is the list of codenames assigned to important Manhattan Project scientists. Nobel Laureates Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, for example, were assigned the names Farmer and Baker respectively. The use of code names, primarily for communications and travel purposes, is described in a number of books and biographies about the era. In the richly annotated book Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, authors Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner include a letter from Oppenheimer to the project’s military head, General Leslie Groves, wherein the left-leaning academic encourages the security-obsessed military man to consider assigning code names by saying, “it would be preferable if such well known names were not put in circulation.” Not only do I better understand the practice of codenames, but also the way in which the practice was discussed.
The second way in which letters have played a role in my novel has been to develop my understanding of the sequencing of events associated with the Manhattan Project. The beginning of the project itself is associated with a specific letter, signed by Albert Einstein in October 1939 and hand-carried to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s response was to create a committee to investigate the feasibility of this research. For a program that would ultimately consume $2B dollars, the Manhattan Project got off to a very modest start, spending in the neighborhood of $5K in 1939 and 1940. The papers of Robert Bacher in CalTech’s archives detail the extent of this work. Even more important, by the letters’ very nature—one-to-one communication between the involved scientists—the documents point to the fact that none of the involved parties anticipated the scope of what was to come. That in-the-moment record can be even more important than the hindsight of a historical text that looks back long after the events.
The third letter-use category that I have defined for my own work has been their use in character development, both fictional and historical. Of particular interest to me, for instance, was a recommendation letter written by Richard Feynman, which I encountered in the papers of Robert Oppenheimer in the Library of Congress. Much has been written about Feynman’s quirky, non-conformist character (including much in his own voice, in books that he penned). And yet, after making my way through most of Feynman’s books and several books where Feynman appears, nothing could make his unconventional ways as tangible as a single letter—written for a single person, Oppenheimer—wherein Feynman suggests that a candidate for a job (at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies) will make his greatest contribution by being fantastic at parties.
Other aspects of working with letters in archives can be helpful as well. Recently, I listened to Knox College Professor Doug Wilson discuss how Abraham Lincoln’s predilection for producing multiple drafts of letters has actually influenced the course of scholarship. In a somewhat unusual situation, the final copies of Lincoln’s letters have been archived at the Library of Congress, while the drafts are at the Huntington Library. By comparing the two collections, Wilson discovered that the Library of Congress actually had gaps in its Lincoln Collection, that drafts existed where there was no remaining final copy in the Library of Congress. My research thus far indicates that this tendency to produce multiple drafts of letters (usually one or two handwritten versions that were then typed up, sometimes with a carbon copy, perhaps by a secretary) is also common in the papers of Manhattan Project scientists. While this hasn’t been consciously reflected in my novel by characters writing drafts of letters, it has provided me with an insight into how these people thought, how they planned and revised. It has also caused me to wonder on several occasions about how many of my colleagues draft and revise emails before sending them, as I often do.
I’ll conclude this post as a librarian myself, with some practical advice regarding working with letters in archives. First, call ahead and make an appointment. Particularly in these times of economic uncertainty, archives are overworked and understaffed. During our most recent archival visit to CalTech, drop-ins were turned away. In addition, librarians and archivists are best able to help those who help themselves. By contacting them prior to your visit, they will probably ask you for specifics regarding the materials that you wish to see. In larger archives, materials are often stored offsite. By planning ahead, those materials can be brought to the work area prior to your visit.
Also, think ahead about copyright. In some collections, statements about copyright are included. In others, not so much. Ask questions so that you know the extent to which you can quote or otherwise use documents and how you should credit that use. Depending on the date it was written, the copyright holder of a personal letter, for instance, is usually the writer of that letter, not the recipient or whoever happens to have it in her attic.
Lastly, be cognizant of the age of the materials that you handle. Tearing a letter in half as you pull it out of the box is a rotten way to start a research visit. Holding thin, fragile letters conveys a sense of the preciousness of these materials and their contents and a sense of proximity to the time in which they were written, as if you can hear the letter-writer’s footsteps receding down the hallway.
Guest Blog: M. G. Lord February 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Cognitive Science
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M. G. Lord is a cultural critic, journalist, and the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. Since 1995, she has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the Arts & Leisure section. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New Yorker, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Travel + Leisure, and Artforum. She teaches at the University of Southern California and will anchor the nonfiction division at the first annual Yale Writers Conference in New Haven this summer.
We became interested in M. G. Lord’s work after Doug saw her present on a panel about science writing at the Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference. You can read our post about that panel HERE. After that, Anna read Lord’s book Astro Turf (lots of good Jet Propulsion Laboratory stuff) and, when the opportunity arose, invited Lord to participate in the upcoming AWP panel on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that Lofty Ambitions is featuring each of the presenters on that creative nonfiction panel. Click HERE for the post by Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden. Click HERE for the post by Jeff Porter, author of Oppenheimer is Watching Me. Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium and A Safeway in Arizona, will be our next guest blogger. And if you’re in Chicago on March 2, join us at 1:30p.m. in the Hilton, Continental B.
We’re especially interested in what she’s doing now, namely collaborating on her next book project, which has to do with neuroscience, and, in the process, exploring the technology of drawing.
DISTRACTING ONESELF INTO THE NEXT PROJECT
On February first, Bloomsbury USA published my new book, The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. As you may glean from the title, this is a departure from my previous book, Astro Turf, a family memoir of aerospace culture during the Cold War and an informal history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both books, however, have a common attribute—one that, I suspect has blighted books since Gutenberg invented moveable type: Publication is hell. Or, in any event, publication taxes an author’s nerves.
My strategy for dealing with such stress is to avoid anything written about my work, whether it’s positive or negative. Instead, I immerse myself in a fresh project, ideally one that has little in common with the book under scrutiny. This means not only a different subject but also a new medium. That brings me to my latest endeavor. In collaboration with Dr. Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist who also happens to be an opera singer, I am working on a graphic novel that has to do with the brain.
By working, I mean both writing and drawing, the latter of which today seems more like engineering than art. Two decades ago, when I retired from a 12-year run as a political cartoonist for Newsday, all a caricaturist needed to excel was hand-eye coordination and a mean spirit. I drew malicious pictures with a crow quill pen on Bristol board. But in 2012, the best graphic artists are also software virtuosos. They render some or all of their cartoons digitally, either scanning pen-and-ink drawings into the computer or executing an entire image in a program such as Adobe Illustrator.
To say I lack an aptitude for engineering would be a gross understatement. Never mind that I developed great admiration for engineers while writing Astro Turf. Initially, I was so intimidated by the drawing software that I hired a tutor to help me with it—or, more accurately, to help me decide whether mastery was a realistic possibility. Our first session—on my tutor’s equipment—was psychologically brutal. After two hours of scanning existing drawings and manipulating them in Adobe Photoshop, we moved to the true baptism of fire: drawing directly on a tablet connected to the computer.
All political cartoonists of my vintage—I was in college in the late 1970s—can draw Richard Nixon in their sleep. During Watergate, I taught myself to render the disgraced President on an Etch-a-Sketch, which back then was an eye-popping parlor trick. Compared with a tablet, however, the Etch-a-Sketch is an inexpensive, effortless drawing tool. Now, I faced a pricy, counterintuitive torture device. After another hour of tutoring, I managed to scratch out a digital approximation of Nixon’s flapping jowls and ski-jump beak. And I decided to commit both time and money to embracing the digital future.
Tablets come in two main styles: one on which you draw but your marks appear on a separate monitor; the other that is itself a monitor, so that you see what you have drawn beneath your stylus rather than feet away. As you can imagine, the latter iteration is pricier than the former. I was planning to go the cheap route until the universe sent me a message not to. Last month, a lifestyle magazine asked me to interview Rodolphe Guenoden, a DreamWorks animation supervisor. I expected we would talk about animated movies. But Guenoden’s great passion is graphic novels, and he showed me how he used hardware and software to render them digitally. He made drawing on a Wacom Cintiq—a tablet that also functions as a monitor—seem almost intuitive. I watched him change the way his lines appeared, simulating brushstrokes, pen lines, pencil marks. And I bought the Cintiq.
True, it took me three hours with a tutor to set it up. And another 45 minutes to figure out how to define the margins on a page. In the old days, with a T-square, I could pencil in margins while blindfolded. My hand still reaches for the pens and brushes on my desk. But I allow it to—even Guenoden does his initial storyboarding on paper.
A steep learning curve awaits. But that is exactly what I want. It is guaranteed to distract me from the vicissitudes of publication.
Update from Ragdale & Today’s Birthdays February 4, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Serendipity, WWII
The flight from Long Beach to Chicago was a breeze. It took some time to rent the car because folks, including Tom Brady’s dad, were flying into the Windy City and drving down to Indianapolis for tomorrow’s Super Bowl. Coming from L.A.-area traffic, the drive from O’Hare Airport to Ragdale was amazingly smooth. Does Chicago not have rush hour anymore, or have our standards changed?
Ragdale is nestled in Lake Forest, a luxurious northern suburb perched on Lake Michigan. Upon arrival, we had a glass of wine, a tour of the Barnhouse, and a delicious home-cooked dinner with our six fellow residents and three enthusiastic staff. Several of the residents are from the area, and one is a fellow Knox College alum. Our rooms are comfortable, quiet, and warm.
Books by former residents, including Scott Turow, Sara Peretsky, Mary Gaitskill, Jennifer Haigh, and Alice Sebold, line a wall of shelves by the front door. Anna started reading the uncorrected proof of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Space this morning. Finding a memoir about growing up on the Space Coast was just the sort of serendipity we like to use as encouragement.
Yesterday, on our first full day, we found the gym at Lake Forest College, where Ragdale residents can work out at no cost. It’s the nicest gym we’ve ever seen. The Metra station is nearby, as is the beach, though we haven’t traversed there yet. The Whole Foods was a little farther than we thought, but we picked up a few essentials and got our bearings in case we need to get out for a meal or stop at Barnes & Noble.
And we wrote. For hours. We had pizza with the other residents last night. And then we wrote some more. Some of our drafting is from scratch, and some is drawn from things we’ve already written, though not cut and pasted because we don’t want to inadvertently shape our big project by the structure or language of previous work. We’re rethinking and trying to figure out something new.
This morning, Anna admitted that she’s sick with a cold. Doug will travel into Chicago for dinner with family and friends without her. Today is a break in the routine. We’re not writing as much, but we’re still writing.
And we’re quietly celebrating two birthdays. Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, was born on this date in 1902. If you don’t know the story of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, we recommend The Spirit of St. Louis, starring Jimmy Stewart, himself a pilot and a WWII veteran who trained B-17 bombardiers in the United States, flew B-24s overseas in the war, and even managed to earn a Mach 2 pin by flying a B-58 Hustler—one of Doug’s favorite aircraft—to twice the speed of sound.
Lindbergh’s life, of course, was far more complicated than the film portraying the accomplishment that brought him instant fame both in the United States and abroad. He was interested in a lot of things, including Robert Goddard’s work in rocketry and Nobel Laureate Alexis Carrell’s work in organ surgery. In fact, Charles Lindbergh invented a perfusion pump that contributed to the development of heart surgery. He was given unprecedented access to German and Soviet aviation facilities before WWII and began publicly opposing the war. Some of his statements smack of anti-Semitism, and there are stories (including his daughter’s book) of affairs and secret children in Europe. The story that garnered worldwide notoriety, though, was the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s young son in 1932. The boy’s remains were found a couple of months later, and a perpetrator was convicted and executed.
Charles Lindbergh’s story is a lesson in complexity for us as writers and seems to be, like any life, the weaving together of several stories that may not be seamless. We strive for narrative arc, cause and effect, a beginning and middle and end, but we don’t want to jerry-rig our story.
That brings us to the second birthday. Clyde Tombaugh was born on this date in 1906. We wrote about him briefly in “Happy Birthday, Neptune!” Tombaugh was a fellow Ilinoisan who made his way out West. While working at the Lowell Observatory, he discovered the ninth planet, Pluto. For a long time, that was a good story. But Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006, though even before that, museums had started opening displays of the Solar System without Pluto. The story changed—or rather, the facts remained the same (Pluto is still out there), but the interpretation changed as time passed.
So Clyde Tombaugh’s story is a lesson for us too, as we’re figuring out how to tell our story. The story may change, the details rearranged to lead to new ideas, and that’s okay.
Off to Ragdale! February 1, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
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Tomorrow, we head together for a two-week writing residency at Ragdale, an artists’ colony outside of Chicago. We’ve each held a residency before: Anna for a month at Vermont Studio Center, and Doug for a workshop at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony (read “Gotta Get Away” HERE). Several years ago, we went together to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival (read “Back to School” HERE), but we took separate workshops and were focused on our individual novel projects then. Now, our bags are packed, we’re officially working on a collaborative writing project, and we’re ready to go. Here’s how we prepared.
SHORING UP & WORKING AHEAD
Because of this impending stint to focus on our collaborative project, January has been especially busy. Doug has worked ahead on his tasks at Leatherby Libraries, and Anna has worked ahead on Tabula Poetica’s AWP Bookfair table and fall Poetry Reading Series. A few weeks ago, we traversed a path to CalTech (see our post about those archives HERE) so that Doug could do some extra research on letters for his upcoming conference presentation, and Anna holed up at home for a day here and there to finish a poetry manuscript. We even queued up February’s guest bloggers. We also put conscious effort into catching up with laundry and arranged for our trusted colleague and neighbor to look after our house and, perhaps, throw wild parties in our absence.
In other words, this month has been a necessary whirlwind and a hodgepodge even though we were between semesters. We’re hoping that Ragdale offers a stark contrast to this past month so that we don’t move from one small task to the next disparate obligation hour to hour. We want to forget about email for a few hours a day and not worry about when we’ll get to the dust bunnies that gather against the floorboards.
SETTING BOUNDARIES FOR OUR UNIVERSITY WORK
We each have some tasks at the university that we can’t ignore for two weeks. So we’ll have to check our email messages, probably once a day. But in order to keep that obligation in check day to day, we’ve established some guidelines for ourselves:
- Lower others’ expectations by setting automatic vacation responses that make it clear that a reply won’t be coming soon. We’ll get to it all, but maybe not until after February 15.
- De-prioritize email by not checking it before accomplishing some writing for the day. Our schedule should reflect our priorities, and California is two hours behind anyway.
- Ignore as many messages as possible until after the residency. We must be discerning and not think everything is important, not think that we’re more important than we are. We may need to set a time limit.
OUTLINING THE PROJECT BEFORE WE GO
Our outline is something broadly defined but organized nonetheless, something we’ve bandied back and forth over dinner since we got the thumbs-up from Ragdale in December, something we’ve typed up and printed out so that it looks serious. We’ve also pulled together blog posts we’ve written that might loosely fit somewhere in this outline. The outline means that we aren’t starting from scratch and that we can schedule our time—separately and together—in relation to the content we know we want to produce.
PLANS FOR CHUNKING UP THE DAY
Because we’ve already drafted some content and agreed upon the basic outline, we’ve decided to chunk up each day into three writing sessions to establish a routine.
- Session 1: Writing Apart. After breakfast together, the first part of each day will be spent writing—organizing, drafting, revising—separately for a few hours before lunch. The goal for each morning is to produce something to show each other.
- Session 2: As the Day Demands. After sharing over lunch together, we’ll write separately or together as the content for that day demands. We need to be adaptable and respond to the project as it takes shape.
- Session 3: Writing Together. The end of our day will be spent together, revising what’s drafted, reorganizing content, mapping missing parts, brainstorming for the next day. We’ll read aloud what we’ve drafted separately, which is something we used to do weekly at Charlie’s Ale House in Wheaton but which we have done only sporadically over this past year. We’ll do some drafting together sentence by sentence, which we really enjoy but which has been more difficult to sync up into our schedules in the last six months.
Working separately smacks of efficiency: twice the work in a given amount of time. With just twelve full days of residency, we want to work part of the time in parallel. The work we do side by side gives us the sense that we are more than the sum of our parts, that collaboration allows us to accomplish more than we could otherwise, and that our individual brains can work a little bit harder, a little bit faster than they do when we’re alone. The happy side effect of this collaborative sense is motivation.
WILL IT SUCCEED?
Writing doesn’t always work the way we think it will. This chunking of days looks good on paper, but it might not work as smoothly as we want. Writing separately may encourage us to stray from the outline, each moving in different directions, the balance thrown off when we bring the parts together and discover we each thought different ideas were important. If we notice that we have fundamentally different perspectives, writing together might involve far more time than we expect. No matter what happens, we’ll need to remember that two weeks of writing time is a great gift and just keep going.