On This Date: Marlin Perkins March 28, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Movies & TV
When we were just little kids, Sunday night meant kids television: The Wonderful World of Disney and, before it, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We’d rush through dinner in anticipation of flying over a herd of antelope or sneaking up on a tiger, all before discovering that Kurt Russell was the strongest man in the world and an absent-minded professor had invented flubber.
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Marlin Perkins, host of Wild Kingdom. He was born in Carthage, Missouri, in 1905, and his first zoo job was as a groundskeeper at the St. Louis Zoological Park, for which he was paid $3.75 per week in 1926. He ran Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago for eighteen years before returning as Director to the St. Louis Zoo.
While at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago area’s smaller, urban zoo, Perkins developed a television show called Zoo Parade. This show featured Perkins interacting with the zoo’s animals, just as Jim Fowler and Joan Embery later did on The Tonight Show. Chicago is no stranger to television production, from Kukla, Fran and Ollie to Oprah, and this locally based series made both the zoo and Perkins well known. We are no strangers to Chicago, and Lincoln Park Zoo, which has free admission and is open every day, was Anna’s childhood zoo. In fact, her poem “At the Sea Lion Pool” appears in the new anthology City of the Big Shoulders. All photos in this post were taken at Lincoln Park Zoo in 2010.
While many viewers of Wild Kingdom mistakenly remember Perkins being bitten by a poisonous snake on camera, the real story stems from Zoo Parade, when Perkins was bitten by a rattlesnake during rehearsal. But the event wasn’t mentioned in the episode. That said, Perkins didn’t mind non-venomous snakes taking a chomp, if only to prove to Wild Kingdom viewers how harmless most snakes are.
Jim Fowler, the zoo director who had monkeys hugging Johnny Carson, got his start as Marlin Perkins’ sidekick on Wild Kingdom. Jim, in fact, is remembered fondly for doing much of the hard work, while Perkins narrated calmly. Eventually, in 1985, Perkins retired, and Jim hosted the show himself. Perkins died of cancer a year later.
As kids, we didn’t realize that most of the episodes we saw were reruns, though new episodes were filmed through 1987. We wouldn’t have cared anyway. Mister Rogers, I Dream of Jeannie, and Star Trek were reruns too. It’s not as if we thought Perkins and Fowler were running away from a lumbering bull seal or that a mother elephant was charging Jim’s jeep at that very moment.
Wild Kingdom has been criticized, of course, for the way it created neat thirty-minute stories and for the human-centered way it talked about animals. Admittedly, the show was filmed and edited to provide viewers like us with some Sunday evening drama. But as opposed to much of today’s reality television, Wild Kingdom claimed that nothing was staged to tell a preconceived story and that they didn’t do things that would put animals in danger. That’s a slippery argument, of course, because driving a jeep toward a mother elephant or lassoing an alligator for relocation could be considered staging, and, to anthropomorphize for a second, that alligator might have defined harm differently. But for the 1970s, Wild Kingdom was relatively progressive in its portrayal of and interaction with animals in the their natural habitats.
Now, the show seems dated. In the episode “Lion Country” (see the video below), we may question the opening sequence that ends with a lion standing over a zebra carcass, a bloody chunk eaten from the prey’s buttocks. Was that really what parents wanted their little tykes to see before the magical stories of Disney? For its time, Wild Kingdom was pretty honest about the ups and downs of life as we—animals—know it.
We may question the next segment of “Lion Country” too, as we spend some time with Marlin Perkins in his office for a brief background lecture on lions. Perkins holds W. K., the well-dressed, affectionate chimp named after the show’s title. On Perkins’ desk, Lester, a young lion, is snacking on some ground meat. W. K. pats Lester on the head. It’s a cheesy, everyone-gets-along if we all play by the rules situation.
Perkins’ lecture, though, goes on to talk about how a young lion must learn to be king of the jungle, that he’s not born with the skills and behaviors he will need to survive as a lion. While an oversimplified explanation of the importance of nurture (but at least posed in addition to, not versus, nature), where else on television was an American kid in the the early 1970s going to see images of Africa or hear about how animals learn? Perkins goes on to talk about hunting as an art and about lions having their own culture, though he doesn’t use the word culture. (For a related post on animals and empathy, click HERE.) Is he anthropomorphizing, or presaging current investigation into animal intelligence?
On This Date: Orbit & De-Orbit March 23, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Space Shuttle
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Here’s the orbit anniversary:
On this date in 1965, astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young climbed into the space capsule dubbed Molly Brown for the activist who survived the sinking of the Titanic (and insisted the lifeboat go back for survivors), probably because Grissom’s previous Mercury spaceflight had ended with that capsule sinking into the ocean. Gemini 3 launched from Cape Kennedy and, within five hours, splashed down in the Atlantic. The splashdown’s impact was hard enough that Grissom’s faceplate cracked when his helmet hit the side of the capsule or, perhaps, a knob.
Perhaps the most unusual event during the mission was the consumption of a corned beef sandwich. The Complete Book of Spaceflight claims that the sandwich was purchased by Grissom, smuggled onboard by Young, and eaten by Grissom. One can only imagine the number of crumbs that flew loose in low gravity. While astronauts could be grounded for such transgressions, Young went on to fly in both the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. In a seemingly unrelated notation, NASA reports, “The personal hygiene system was only partially tested.”
For Gemini 3, Roger Chaffee served as CAPCOM, the astronaut who communicated with the capsule from the ground. Both Chafee and Grissom would die in the fire on the ground during the testing for Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.
Here’s the de-orbit anniversary:
On this date in 2001, the Mir space station fell out of orbit and disintegrated into fiery bits as it plummeted through Earth’s atmosphere. Some fragments reached the Earth’s surface, hitting the Pacific Ocean.
Parts of Mir were launched from Kennedy Space Center and Baikonur in Russia between February and April of 1986. Humans occupied Mir for 3,644 consecutive days, and Valeri Polyakov stayed for a record 437 days.
The shower, though, was a debacle, and lots of things leaked, broke, and sometimes caught fire, an especially dangerous problem because it’s an enclosed space and fire behaves differently in low gravity. When the vacuum cleaner broke, the three Mir residents stopped cutting their hair but had trouble tidying up. In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach points out that cognac and whiskey were staples on Mir, perhaps to deal with the habitat’s shortcomings.
Despite all the difficulties of living on Mir, the expedition became, for a few people, a chance to live somewhere other than on Earth. Roach quotes the American who spent 132 days on Mir: “‘The thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming,’ wrote astronaut Jerry Linenger, “that I try not to think about it before going to bed because I become so excited or agitated or something that I cannot sleep with such an enormous size in my mind.’”
Mir was a precursor to the International Space Station, which has exceeded Mir’s record for continuous human occupancy in space. Roughly eight months after one space station disintegrated, another welcomed continuous human occupancy.
UFO March 21, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV
In early February, we had a writing residency at Ragdale (see posts about that HERE and HERE). While there, we began in earnest the process of pulling together the material for a book about our year of following the end of Shuttle. In trying to conjure a context for our shared interest in the space age, we kept going back to the childhoods that forged our interest. The childhood memories that we reflected upon were as likely to be cultural touchstones as they were NASA’s scientific and technical achievements. Chatting and writing about these themes reminded us of a show that Doug watched in his childhood and that we had watched together in 2005: UFO.
UFO was a late-1960s British television show created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, a married couple who shared their working lives, which sounds familiar to us. Prior to UFO, the Andersons teamed up on The Thunderbirds (1965), a show that used their supermarionation technique. After UFO, the Andersons developed another space-themed television show, Space 1999, which featured husband-and wife-team Martin Landau and Barbara Bain in the lead roles.
Doug’s childhood memories of the show are of something scary and slightly illicit. He had to sneak around the house, watching the show in the dark and with the sound on low to avoid waking his parents. Unwittingly, he created the perfect viewing environment, a combination of unease and foreboding, for a show about an ongoing threat to the earth in the form of a piecemeal alien invasion. In an early episode, a dying alien is recovered from a crashed UFO (consistently pronounced as a two-syllable word in the series: You-Pho). After the alien expires and is autopsied, it’s revealed that the alien contained transplanted Earth human organs in its body. And thus, the series conceit is established: the aliens are coming to earth to harvest our organs.
Week after week, alien UFO’s emanating from an unknown origin planet attempt to make their way to earth singly or in small groups (usually of three). In order to do so, they must run the SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) gauntlet: a trio of space interceptors that are launched from the uber-secret Moonbase complex, and a jet fighter called Sky One that is launched from underneath the ocean where it normally cruises affixed to the front of a submarine, SkyDiver. It was the 1960s, when anything was possible. It was the 1960s’ version of 1980. The show’s other conceit is that all SHADO’s activities are concealed by using a movie studio as the cover story for the headquarters.
The show is moody, eerie, and dark. The main character, SHADO Commander Ed Straker, is as unlikable a hero as one can imagine for television. He runs his SHADO fiefdom with a ruthless disregard for his compatriots—there’s an undeclared war going on, after all. Worse, save for two episodes, one about his son and the other about the dismantling of his marriage, he’s completely emotionally flat—seemingly on purpose. Even in those two aforementioned episodes, Straker always chooses SHADO over his personal ties.
Balancing out some of the show’s harder edges are its mod, psychedelic 1960s British vibe. The show’s costuming includes pretty standard sixties iconic fashion, such as Nehru jackets for the male leads and short skirts or clingy jumpsuits for the women, but the vibe really hits the mark in the secondary locations. At the Moonbase complex, most of the clothing is shiny and silver, and the women wear shiny purple wigs (which are not donned when the same characters appear on Earth). The women’s uniforms, looking something like braided metallic track suits, thoughtfully and quickly change into a sleeveless, short skirt number (and viewers see the characters change clothes). On the submarine SkyDiver, men and women both get see-through mesh shirts.
The whole show has a glam-and-gadgets James Bond feel, and there’s a reason for that: many of the actors and several props and stages were used for Bond films. We’re sure that this list is incomplete, but here’s a quick list of the actors who appeared in both UFO and a Bond film: Ed Bishop (You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever), Michael Billington (The Spy Who Loved Me, and he tested for the role of James Bond more than any other actor), Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny!), Vladek Sheybal (From Russia with Love), Steven Berkoff (Octopussy), Anoushka Hempel (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and Shane Rimmer (The Spy Who Loved Me, Diamonds Are Forever, and You Only Live Twice).
That’s not to say that the show avoided hard-hitting issues and make-you-think tropes. The episode “Close Up” (a pun for the movie-studio cover story) involves a space telescope designed to follow a UFO back toward the aliens’ home planet. When the telescope sends images back, everyone realizes that they have no calculations of distance or scale and that a planet—or in the demonstration the scientist gives Straker, a woman’s leg—looks completely different and possibly unrecognizable from different distances. Measurement and scale is a topic we discussed at Lofty Ambitions HERE.
We’re in the midst of re-watching the entire UFO catalog, just one season, but back when a season consisted of 26 captivating episodes. Here’s the opening sequence:
Guest Blog: Daniel Lewis March 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Museums & Archives
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At the end of last year, we wrote about the Huntington Library‘s “Beautiful Science” exhibit HERE. That exhibit was curated by Daniel Lewis, Chief Curator of Manuscripts (History of Science, Medicine, and Technology) and today’s guest blogger. If you can’t get to the Huntington Library yourself, you can watch a YouTube lecture about the exhibit by Lewis HERE.
Daniel Lewis is the author of the new book The Feathery Tribe and draws his guest post from his research into what it means to be an ornithologist. Whether or not you like birds, you’ll find that Lewis’s writing shows his enthusiasm for inquiry, his attention to detail, and his ability to make new, intriguing connections.
THE FEATHERY TRIBE: WHAT RESEARCH MEANS FOR WRITING
I mostly live to write. But more, I live to do original research, rooting around the sometimes-dusty (but often very clean) byways and side-roads of archives around the world, looking for correspondence that has often never been read by anyone other than the original recipient, and virtually none of which has ever been published. It’s a truism that it might take weeks of research to come up with a single sentence for a book. And it’s this kind of research that keeps the hamster wheel in my brain spinning and keeps me moving forward.
I’m an obsessive recorder and transcriber of archival information, storing correspondence I find in a database that records (among many other details) the correspondents, the date, the location written, the text of the letter itself, its call number and the collection it’s from, homegrown subject headings, a summary of the letter, and even where I transcribed the letter (dining room table, airport, hotel room, airplane, etc.). In the course of my most recent book The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds, just out from Yale University Press, I transcribed some 1,892 letters totaling 446,000 words, culled from archives around the world: the Natural History Museum in London; the Blacker-Wood Library in Montreal; the Smithsonian; the Bancroft Library in Berkeley; my own home institution, the Huntington Library; and others. I took all of this information, digested it, and tried to bend it into a particular notion.
I had an idea—after corresponding with the late great evolutionist Ernst Mayr, then in his nineties—that I should write a book about what it meant to be a professional in science, using the Smithsonian’s first Curator of Birds, Robert Ridgway, as the lens. What, after all, did it actually mean to be a professional then, and why did it matter? The answer can’t be reduced to a pat phrase, so I’ll resist doing so here, but it was the quest for the archival materials—correspondence, scribbled memos, postcards, marginalia—that fueled me.
Research turns up all kinds of things, some of which I was able to use in the book, but necessarily, much else that I couldn’t. Scientists are people too, as I’m fond of saying, but they also bring a wonky precision to their letters that can thrill.
People writing about birds for descriptive purposes took a variety of approaches to shorten, simplify, and clarify bird identities. One common practice was to refer exclusively to a number in a standard checklist as a shorthand reference in correspondence, assuming the recipient had the same guide in hand. Naturalists’ and collectors’ letters the world over were thus often filled with long strings of numbers, rather than bird names. Referring to a common checklist’s numbering system, a British birder writes in 1907 to his brother, “Before joining the main road, I saw a Reed Bunting; counting up, I found I had [seen eleven different birds]: 22.214.171.124.126.96.36.1999.277.278.453.”
Some inventive collectors went so far as to suggest new symbological languages to identify, with a single symbol, such things as a male bird in its first plumage, a male in mature plumage, a bird of unknown sex but of a determinate age, and so on, as noted in the image above.
Letters like these intrigue, and for me, they warrant going down a rabbit hole (almost always dusty) to find out more about scientists’ motivations, urges, and idiosyncratic passions. In the case of the people writing about birds, it was all that they wanted to do. “I am still in the medical profession (I see you took your degree too) but I don’t like it a bit. My life is ornithology,” one German physician wrote to a Smithsonian staffer in 1899, one who also happened to have earned a medical degree but then took a job working with birds.
Coming from diverse backgrounds, and often with great expertise in other areas, numerous people happily applied innovation to the discipline of ornithology. Passionate comments like this ornithologist’s motivated me to look at intersections of all kinds in trying to reach a meaningful set of descriptions of just what constituted a professional in science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Lofty Ambitions Blog Trailer March 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Writing.
Tags: Last Chance to See, Space Shuttle
This week, we played with our iMovie software and came up with this blog trailer for Lofty Ambitions. For this piece, we decided to focus on following the end of the space shuttle program and, in particular, the last flight ever, that of Atlantis last July. If you want to know more about our adventures represented in this video, check out our series “Last Chance to See.”
Irish Scientists March 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Beer, Chemistry, Computers, Math, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Physics, WWII
This coming Saturday marks St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday and general celebration of Ireland with which we grew up. In fact, more than 34 million (some say 41 million) Americans claim Irish heritage, which is roughly nine times the population of Ireland and, somehow, reason enough itself for a party. What better way for Lofty Ambitions to celebrate this week than to note some contributions to science by the Irish.
Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore back in 1627, may be the most famous of the Irish scientists. Boyle is, after all, considered the father of the field of chemistry. He considered chemistry’s goal to be investigating what substances are made of, and he claimed the then-popular field of alchemy was not science. In fact, though Francis Bacon advocated inductive reasoning and experimentation, Boyle worked out the particulars of the scientific method still in use today. If you remember your science classes, you probably have at least a vague recollection of Boyle’s Law and also an implicit trust that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related. If the volume of gas increases (more space), the pressure goes down.
William Rowan Hamilton is Ireland’s version of Leonardo DaVinci, for Hamilton knew 13 languages by the time he was nine years of age. Born in 1805, Hamilton started at Trinity College, Dublin when he was 18 and was awarded an honor in classics that first year, a recognition doled out only every two decades. As the story goes, his personal life was excruciating because, as a student, he couldn’t afford to marry the woman he loved, so she married an older, wealthier man, leading Hamilton to write some poetry, drink heavily, and consider ending his life. Luckily, he mustered on and rewrote Newton’s Laws of Motion with his own theory of dynamics. But his eventual marriage was riddled with strife, and his drinking caught up with him; he died at 60 years of age. You can find his papers, along with several other Irish scientists’ archives, at Trinity’s library and his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetary in Dublin.
Another father of a science that the Irish can claim is George Boole, who was actually born in London in 1815 on what would later become Doug’s birthday. Boole moved to Ireland in 1849 for a professorship and kicked off the field of computer science with Boolean algebra while at University College, Cork (then called, for various reasons we won’t go into, Queen’s College, Cork). He wasn’t the only one dabbling in such things, of course, for folks like Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Lovelace (poet Lord Byron’s daughter) were laying the groundwork for computer programs and software, but Boole’s the Irish one in the lot, and we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week. For Boole, differential equations, logic, and probability were passions, though he took time to father five daughters with Mary Everest, a mathematician and education reformer in her own right. Boole remains an Irishman, buried in Blackrock, outside of Cork City.
In the days of yore in which these three Irish scientists made their contributions, few women made inroads in fields like chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Kathleen Lonsdale, born in 1903 in Newbridge, was part of a changing world for women. Her family moved to England when she was young, and she attended Bedford College for Women there and was then offered a position in W. H. Bragg’s research laboratory at University College, London. She began studying molecular structure using X-rays, eventually demonstrated that the benzene ring is flat, and eventually was appointed to head the Department of Crystallography in 1949. Earlier, by the time World War II began, she opposed war altogether and spent a month in prison for refusing civil defense tasks and the fine for not registering, after which she worked on peace and prison-reform issues in addition to science. Lonsdale was the first woman to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society of London and the first woman to serve as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
More recently, Belfast native and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. She was the second author of five, behind Antony Hewish, her thesis director, on a paper documenting their discovery of pulsars. Since then, she’s been lauded with honors and academic posts, including becoming a Fellow in the Royal Society and serving as Dean of Science at the University of Bath. In 2008, she co-edited Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Of this project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell says, according to the Gulbenkian Foundation, “When I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme some twenty years ago, I kept very quiet about my hobby. It is only in the last few years that I have dared to ‘come out’ so it has been heartening that so many of my colleagues have been so willing to take part in this unusual exercise, as well as delightful to see the results of the collaborations.”
Readers may also be interested in our post about “Beer!” that was inspired by reminiscences of a visit to the Guinness factory.
Interview: Charlie Duke March 12, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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One of the coolest things we’ve ever done at Lofty Ambitions is to interview Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke. He’s smart and charming, the kind of person with whom you could happily while away an afternoon talking. Here, we share an excerpt of our conversation from November 2010 that conveys Duke’s enthusiasm for flying, space exploration, and education (he chairs the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation).
Charlie Duke was chosen as an astronaut by NASA in 1966. With his calm Southern voice, he served as CAPCOM for Apollo 11, the mission that put the first human footprint on the Moon’s surface in 1969. Just a few years later, Duke flew on Apollo 16 and planted his own two booted feet on the Moon and traipsed around on its surface with John Young for more than 20 hours (of the more than 71-hour stay), taking rock and soil samples (Apollo 16 picked up more than 200 pounds of such material) and surveying the landscape.
Mmmm…Lovell’s of Lake Forest March 7, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Apollo, Museums & Archives
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At Ragdale, the dinner meal isn’t served on Saturday evenings. There are plenty of tasty leftovers for residents to eat, but we took the opportunity on our second Saturday to traipse down to Lovell’s of Lake Forest, a restaurant started by Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell and now owned and run by his son, Jay. We weren’t sure what to expect. We found good food, good service, good space artifacts, and good new writer friends!
Our two weeks at Ragdale were an amazing writing experience. Our dinner at Lovell’s was a terrific bonus. Jay Lovell serves up the absolutely best dinner you’ll ever find at an aerospace museum. No matter where we find ourselves, we look around and find something unexpected.
Catching Up with Endeavour March 5, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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Usually, we have a guest blogger on the first Monday of the month, but we just had a busy week at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference where we shared the nuclear-focused part of Lofty Ambitions. Today, we’re catching up with the space-focused part of what we’re up to. This morning, NASA posted an overview of their plans to get Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis to their permanent museum homes within the next year. Read that HERE.
NASA Flow Director for Orbiter T&R Stephanie Stilson explains that Discovery will leave Kennedy Space Center in mid-April, which makes us consider a quick trip to the East coast to follow the orbiter from Florida to Washington, D.C. We’d welcome the chance to talk with Stephanie Stilson and have her show us Endeavour once again, after its OMS pods are reinstalled. Endeavour is scheduled to traipse across the country to Los Angeles in the fall. Atlantis doesn’t have far to travel, just down the road to the KSC Visitor Complex, but it will be the last delivered, and there’s sure to be a big party on the Space Coast for that event. “‘I continue to be impressed by the dedication and devotion of the team working to ensure Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour and Enterprise are delivered to their new homes in the best possible condition,’ Stilson says.” You can see our previous interview with Stilson HERE.
We know that many of the people we met over the last eighteen months are following this story, too. Kim Guodace, who was the Orbiter Element Vehicle Engineer, is one of those people tracking the orbiters’ progress. She wants to see each remaining space shuttle in its new museum home. You can read her guest post HERE.