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The Science Writers’ Handbook (2013)
That’s right, this handbook is just out, and it’s worth getting your hands on. The contributions are written by members of SciLance, an invitation-only group of accomplished science writers who got together several years ago to share information.
The premise is that science writing is “about the world around us—what’s in our bones, how stars are born, and why drought scars the landscape—and how new knowledge fits into our society. When done right, science writing can inform, inspire, and even change the course of history. When done wrong…well, let’s not go there.” The Science Writers’ Handbook is about how to do it right.
“While not all science writers are journalists,” Alison Fromme asserts in the first chapter, “the writers of this book believe that all science writers can and should approach their subjects journalistically, with curiosity, an open mind, a healthy sense of skepticism about the material, and transparency about our methods, biases, and sources.”
This book is divided into three sections: The Skilled Science Writer, The Sane Science Writer, and The Solvent Science Writer. In other words, the book covers how to manage the writing itself, how to manage the writing life, and how to make some money. The whole thing is quite practical and readable
We found the following chapters particularly useful in thinking about key aspects of and options for being a science writer.
Chapter 3: Making the Pitch by Thomas Hayden, with boxes (extra info) by Hayden, Monica Baker, and Douglas Fox
The success of a pitch depends upon the story idea, its relevance, its timeliness, the type of piece, extras like photos, and who the author is. Importantly, “You want to build your queries around good story ideas. But you also want to send another message: that working with you will be a low-risk proposition.” This chapter is packed with advice on how to convey that message to an editor.
Chapter 9: Going Long: How to Sell a Book by Emma Marris
Marris points to Rebecca Skloot and The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as a great aspiration for which a writer should not hold her breath. “Instead, you should write a book for one or, ideally, both of the following reasons: you are so gripped by a story, person, or topic that you just have to write a book about it; or you have a good idea for a book, would like to try your hand at long-form writing, and would like to take advantage of the platform it will give you as a book author to further your career.” But it took Skloot more than a decade to write her best-seller, so do not go into a book project on a whim. This chapter has advice for writing a proposal and getting an agent, editing and publicity, and even co-authoring and doing compilations.
Chapter 15: An Experimental Guide to Achieving Balance by Virginia Gewin, wiith a box by Liza Gross
Gewin “trained—for five long years—to be a scientist” but, after some unexpected career turns, uncovered her real passion: “writing about the important topics I’d studied.” The switch in careers to freelance writing was really a switch in lifestyles. She discusses the advantages of having an office outside the home, the difficulty of establishing time boundaries, the role of the smart phone, how “turning down work can also send a positive message,” how to clear your head, and the benefits of having kids to impose balance on your life.
Chapter 24: Social Networks and the Reputation Economy by Emily Gertz, with a box by Sarah Webb
While not all the SciLance writers are tweeting, many find that social media is a great way to connect with the very people you’d want to connect with even without social media—sources, writers, editors. Gertz offers really thoughtful advice and encourages science writers to remain science writers on social media and create an appropriate, genuine persona in the digital world. She also suggests what not to share: bad mouthing others, money matters, family squabbles, and details about what you’re writing. Of course, if you’re live-tweeting an event, as she also suggests, you’re sharing details—the tweets are what you’re writing, at least in part. Getz also emphasizes the need to manage your social networking time, suggesting that you make appointments to check in, use the platform to present sorted information to you, look into apps that increase usability, and choose which social networks are best for you.
The Science Writers’ Handbook isn’t the only guide to science writing out there. Next time, we’ll discuss A Field Guide for Science Writers, to which several of last week’s instructors at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop have contributed.
Tags: Space Shuttle
“Read. Read other people,” Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Lee Hotz advised participants at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. “Go read Jane Austen. How did she pull it off? […] Look for techniques.”
Hotz is a long-time journalist whose work includes an amazing six-part series about the Columbia space shuttle accident investigation called “Butterfly on a Bullet.” He’s covered genetic engineering and earthquakes. He’s been to the Arctic and the Antarctic in search of a story. So when he shared his notions of the nuts and bolts of science writing, we were listening attentively.
Before a writer even gets started on a project, whether it be a news story, a magazine feature, or a book, Lee advises that he or she shed preconceptions because those assumptions can make a person deaf to what’s really being said. He insists, too, that writers can’t write what they haven’t reported. In other words, writing is the culmination of a lot of information gathering and sifting.
In Hotz’s view, “Facts are transformative.” He firmly believes that people need information, not assertions, so that they can make more informed decisions about their lives. He calls himself an obsessive researcher and, in the midst of research, knows that he will use just a tiny fraction of what he’s gathered. “But you don’t know in advance which 1%.” Readers may learn a great deal from reading a piece by Hotz, but his goal isn’t teaching science to his readers. He wants to gather, organize, and share facts about the world and universe in which we live so that we can make better decisions for ourselves.
The core of Hotz’s talk focused on the following rules of thumb for doing science writing (or perhaps any kind of research-based nonfiction):
- Look people in the eye. “Get out of your office,” Hotz said. “Talk to people directly.” There’s really not substitute for in-person interviews if you have that time and money.
- Character matters. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, agrees with this point, and once said at an AWP Conference, “People need stories in order to read the science.” And stories need characters.
- History matters. The past provides a context for understanding subjects, facts, events, and issues. Hidden connections may reside in this sort of research, and it’s story is part of the word history.
- Find a guide. In other words, Hotz said, “Look for a person who can blaze a path for you into the thicket.” Hotz had a guide crucial for his research into the Columbia investigation who never appeared in the published story.
- Organize as you go. At Lofty Ambitions, we’re familiar with being in the midst of events or research and not having time to stop to organize everything we’re accumulating. Drafting our book proposal forced us to organize our thoughts and writing, but it might have been easier if we’d had a system going into the project (which we might have developed if we’d realized from the get-go that it was a big project). Hotz recommends yellow legal pads and DevonThink (software that author Steven Johnson also recommend when we saw him read a couple of years ago).
- Piece it together. Outline. Build the outline with information. Use footnotes to indicate where you got the information so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize later and can provide the footnotes to a fact-checker later.
- Begin in the middle. Hotz recognizes that other writers get stuck perfecting the first sentence before going on. He advises, “Don’t begin, just start.” Writing chunks and scenes without worrying about order can help a writer build a draft more quickly. Or write in chronological order, even though you know the information will need to be reordered later. “I personally believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block,” Hotz asserted. “It’s a writing and thinking problem.”
- Structure matters. Referring to his Columbia story, Hotz said, “Structure mattered to the space shuttle itself, and it mattered to the piece I was writing.” He emphasized that how we know something—who said it, how we found it, how it fits into the story—can matter as much as what we know.
Ta-dah, you have a story—an article or a book.
And then it goes to an editor. Hotz has great respect for his editors and reminded us that, ultimately, the editors are right even if you disagree. The important thing to remember is that when an editor suggests a change, something stopped that reader. The editor may have a good fix, or the writer may need to figure out how to rework the story so that readers aren’t tripped up or distracted.
As a result of our individual conversation with Lee Hotz, we’re already in the midst of figuring out how to rework our story. The process is both daunting and exciting, and that’s why we do it.
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We’re having a great time at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop this week. The days are jam-packed with talks about writing, lectures from academics about their research, meetings with our workshop groups, and socializing over meals.
David Corcoran, the editor of the Science Times section of The New York Times, has given two talks. We mentioned the importance of editing—of being edited—in our most recent post about Good Prose, a book by author Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. Corcoran showed us the story behind the story—the story of the editing process—for this week’s lead story in Tuesday’s Science Times.
A story idea can come from a staff writer, a regular contributor (who sometimes looks like a staff writer to readers), a freelancer who has a history with the newspaper, or a new freelancer. In the case of “In Pursuit of an Underwater Menagerie,” the writer is a scientist and curator at Cornell University who had contributed to NYT’s Scientist at Work blog.
The editors at the newspaper liked her writing. Corcoran and our peers at the Santa Fe workshop found her sentences full of intimacy, specificity, and sensory detail. In particular, Corcoran surmised that she’s comfortable with language like a person who reads a lot. “It’s a gift to be able to write that beautifully,” he said. The editors at NYT also liked her project: her quest with a filmmaker to find and film the real-life sea creatures represented in a nineteenth-century glass collection.
Corcoran initially discussed the possibility for this story with the author, C. Drew Harvell, three or four months ago. It’s timely because she’s doing the project right now, but it wasn’t a news story that had to be written quickly. He asked for 1400 words. For more timely stories, the writing happens as few as the day before the Monday deadline for Tuesday’s Science Times section.
Every writer in the Science Times section gets close editing. Corcoran is first-line editor for all the stories that appear in that section. He weaves streaks and chunks of red and blue text into the tracked-changes version of article drafts. In particular, he wants a strong nut graph—the in-a-nutshell paragraph early on that conveys the gist of the story, why the author is writing it, and why a reader needs to read it now. In the end, editor and writer are collaborators of sorts.
Though Harvell’s story was requested, Corcoran is the person a freelancer contacts with a pitch. If he’s interested, he’ll discuss with the writer the timeframe and length and possibilities for add-ons, like the 360-degree photographs that accompany Harvell’s story and were shot by a NYT photographer using a contraption involving a hamster wheel.
Freelancers shouldn’t get too excited, though, about their pitches to NYT. Over the past six months, staff writers and regular contributors wrote 86% of the articles that appear in the Science Times section. That makes sense; these folks are paid to fill those pages. Established freelancers contribute another 10% of the articles. That leaves only 4% of stories by new freelancers. Corcoran added that new freelancers usually have significant experience writing for other venues.
The New York Times is a tough market to crack. But it is open to new ideas and new writers. And other venues can help a freelancer build clips while forming the amazingly cool story idea for Science Times.
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PurpleStride Chicago April 24, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science.
Today, we are participating in Chapman University’s Literary Pub(lishing) Crawl. If you’re in the area, we encourage you to join us for panels with writers, editors, and agents and a book signing featuring former head of Disneyland Jack Lindquist and journalist David Henley.
On Saturday, we’ll be walking for the second time in PurpleStride Chicago. Last spring, Anna’s Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the annual PurpleStride walk was scheduled on Mary Lee’s birthday so we walked while she was in the hospital. Mary Lee died in December, so we’re walking in her honor on her birthday weekend this year.
Our team is Mary Lee’s Merry Ladies, though, of course, we welcome men on the team as well. We have 14 people signed up to walk, an even bigger team than last year. We welcome donations toward the team or any individual team member. The money goes to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, or PanCan, to support patient advocacy and research.
When we wrote about last year’s PurpleStride, we gave an overview of pancreatic cancer, and mentioned several people who’ve died from this disease: Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, and Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture. Since then, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died from pancreatic cancer last July, having survived 17 months after diagnosis.
The statistics are terrible, with most of those diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic cancer—three out of every four, or four out of every five, depending on the source—dying before one year is up. The five-year survival rate is just 6%, perhaps as low as 4%. Even if it’s caught in its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate is only 14%. Though not as common as many other cancers and more common after the age of 55 and in men, pancreatic cancer is on the increase. (See more at SEER.) Currently the fourth leading cause of cancer death, it’s expected to eclipse all other cancers except lung cancer by 2030. But pancreatic cancer receives less funding from the National Cancer Institute than the other four leading causes of cancer death. (See more at PanCan.)
The most surprising research revealed in the last year was done by a high-school student in Maryland. According to PanCan, Jack Andraka’s “project involves a dipstick technology, whereby a small piece of paper is coated with antibodies that recognize proteins that circulate in the blood or urine of patients with pancreatic cancer, but not individuals without the disease. This technology is much quicker and less expensive than standard laboratory tests.” This preliminary research is especially promising because 80% of patients are diagnosed after the cancer has metastasized. If a simple test could detect the disease earlier, when a small tumor could be surgically removed, survival rates could creep up. Andraka is racking up the awards for his idea and working with companies to test it and make it available to the public.
Meanwhile, scientist Alec Kimmelman is investigating how pancreatic cancer cells work, as it’s important to know exactly how they function differently from normal cells in order to destroy them without harming healthy cells. By looking at cell metabolism, Kimmelman discovered, for instance, that pancreatic cancer cells process sugar differently. More recently, in an article in Nature, Kimmelman and his team revealed, “that pancreatic cancer cells break down glutamine in a manner that is unique from normal cells. Furthermore, the study shows that pancreatic cancer cells are quite dependent on glutamine as a source of energy.” Now, research is needed to figure out how to inhibit—in the body, not just in the lab—the ability of the cancer cells to break down glutamine, so that the cancer cells die or are left more vulnerable to existing treatments.
The weather in Chicago for last year’s PurpleStride was drizzly and cold, and it looks as if it will be much the same this year. Mostly, we hope it dries up after this past week of terrible flooding in Illinois. It’d be great if it were a bit warmer on Saturday, too.
Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Serendipity
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Also see Part 1 of “Science Writing at AWP 2013.”
We like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions, but attending an AWP panel that is comprised of Pireeni Sundaralingam, Alan Lightman, C. Dale Young, and Sandra Alcosser tends to make one pause, get a little introspective, and ask, “Could I be working just a tad bit harder?”
Three of the four panelists are writers who happen to moonlight as accomplished scientists (Sundaralingam and Lightman) and a physician (Young). The fourth panelist (Alcosser) is a poet who has collaborated deeply with scientists, particularly in the area of the environment. When we originally saw the panel “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction” in the program, we were hoping for a craft panel. Our initial disappointment at finding out that the event was a reading was short-lived, disappearing completely once the artists began sharing their work.
The first reading was from poet Sandra Alcosser. Alcosser is the author of seven books including Except by Nature, Sleeping Inside the Glacier (for which she collaborated with the artist Michele Burgess), and A Fish to Feed All Hunger and is co-director of the MFA program at San Diego State University. She was also Montana’s first poet laureate and has called Big Sky Country her home for more than thirty years. Alcosser began her reading by defining a word that was new to the Lofty Duo: Zugunruhe. Alcosser told us that scientists had appropriated the word from German—its literal meaning is “move” + “restlessness”—in their attempts to explain the human desire for travel. And travel she did. Drawn from her newest book, Alcosser read a sequence of poems that ranged over human experience: Serbian myth in The Winged Hussars, a widowed cellist’s musical elegy for his dead wife in The Blue Vein, and a scientist’s work on a blood ranch—raising lambs whose blood would be used to feed a zoo’s vampire bats—in Lamb of God. Alcosser also mentioned her recent tenure as a poet-in-residence at the Brookfield Zoo. This work was a part of a larger project, The Language of Conservation, sponsored by Poets House. A pdf of the book that resulted can be found here.
The panel was heavy on poets and poetry. This happy occurrence dovetailed neatly with Robert Fredericks’ comment in the previous science writing panel; he said something to the effect that scientists are the second heaviest user of metaphors after poets.
The second panelist to read was poet C. Dale Young. Young balances his writing career with a career as a physician. As a part of his writing life, Young is the poetry editor for New England Review and teaches at Warren Wilson College. Interestingly, Young’s MFA preceded his MD, which is contrary to the way we often think of artists whom are also scientists. Each of the poems in Young’s reading–”Influence,” “Sigma,” “The Ether Dome,” and “Sepsis”–were directly concerned with medicine and science. Young preceded his reading of “Sigma” with a touch of irony by relating how he loathed mathematics, particularly statistics, as an undergrad. Naturally, in his career as a physician, he wound up in the one field in medicine that makes use of math on a daily basis, radiation oncology.
This particular comment resonated deeply with Doug. Once, as an undergrad, Doug swore that the last thing he would do with his life was to write software. This, of course, is a perversely un-prescient act by someone who would go on to spend much of his career in IT and writing software. Observing events like this in his life and the lives of others has led us to occasionally posit to friends that, perhaps, irony is the most powerful force in the universe. This semester Doug is teaching programming to a classroom largely comprised of Creative Writing majors. Oh, the circular irony of it all.
The Lofty duo have been fans of the next panelist since we encountered Einstein’s Dreams. Alan Lightman was the first person at MIT to hold appointments in both the humanities and the sciences. Lightman’s books Einstein’s Dreams and Good Benito have been praised for their seamless blend of spare, lyrical prose and physics, specifically general relativity. For the panel, he read from his novel Reunion. Lightman’s reading elicited enormous laughter as he shared the second chapter from the novel. The chapter relates the curious fictional story of German astronomer/lothario Carl Schmeken. Schmeken is fond of naming the asteroids that he discovers for his lovers: Asteroid Catrina 1894, Asteroid Eva 1894, Asteroid Ilsa 1895, and Asteroid Winifried 1895. The chapter takes a humorous turn when Schmeken meets the woman he surely hopes will result in the discovery and naming of Asteroid Lena 1898. Instead, after being rebuffed by the young Lena Hammans, Schmeken falls apart, and 1898 is the end of the astronomer’s career. As longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know, we never pass up a chance to mention serendipity. Here’s a sentence that describes Lena’s realization after observing Schmeken’s reaction to being rebuffed by her: “She was shocked that a man of science could act in such a way, until she understood sometime later that sex is the most powerful force in the universe.” While we appreciate Lightman’s use of his character to proffer an alternative theory, until we see more evidence, we’re sticking with irony and serendipity as the most powerful forces in the universe.
The panel’s final reading came from the moderator, Pireeni Sundaralingam. Sundaralingam was the third poet on the panel, and she is also trained as a cognitive scientist. In fact, she has managed to make the intersection of art and science the focus of her scientific work. Her dissertation was on metaphor and the brain, and she is currently writing a book about poetry, the brain, and perception. Sundaralingam’s selection of poems intimately stitched together art and science. In particular, her poem “Vermont, 1885″ rendered the story of W. A. Bentley, the first person to photograph a snowflake, into compelling verse.
We founded Lofty Ambitions together, a poet and a computer scientist, as a way for the two of us to combine some of our lifelong interests by writing about aviation and science. And we like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions. We emerged from the two science writing panels that we attended at this year’s AWP invigorated and focused in a way that we know will allow us to continuing doing this thing that we call Lofty Ambitions.
Science Writing at AWP 2013 March 20, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Books, Serendipity
We’ve written about our fondness for attending science-oriented panels at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference on a number of occasions (see HERE and HERE and the links in these posts). This year—earlier this month—we were able to attend two science-writing panels at AWP, “Science Writing for All” and “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction.”
The moderator for “Science Writing for All,” science journalist Robert Frederick, opened the panel with a nerdy science—GPS—quip: “According to something in space, it’s 1:30p.m.” That set the tone for the panel and for trying to live up to the panel’s title, namely that science and science writing is everywhere and for everyone.
A constant reference point for the panel was the forthcoming book Science Writer’s Handbook, edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Each panel member was a contributor to this text, and each made at least one reference to it. Though we haven’t seen a copy of it yet, Doug will be ordering one for the university’s library. The panelists made it seem like a lively collection chock-full of practical, pragmatic advice for the aspiring science writer.
Frederick used the book as a launching point for his presentation. “Is this science writing?” Frederick asked while waving a hand towards a slide displaying an image of the gang from The Big Bang Theory. We’re huge fans of TBBT—though we watch it on DVD, several episodes in an evening, as opposed to in real time, so, please, no Season Six spoilers (we’re looking at you Brigid Leahy)—and when it became apparent that Frederick wasn’t just posing a rhetorical question for the panel to contemplate, Doug happily shouted, “Absolutely.” Other voices in the crowded conference room piped up in agreement. One image at a time, Frederick’s slides added NCIS, Sherlock, and Grey’s Anatomy to the conversation. Each time, he re-invoked his question and received affirmation from the rest of us. The audience hesitated only at the last image rendered, a Downton Abbey still. Frederick indicated that Downton Abbey, a favorite among writerly and literary types we know, probably wasn’t science writing, but, as a good scientist, he considered the series an unfinished experiment and was going to continue to collect data until he was certain one way or the other.
Frederick continued his effort to paint a portrait of the everywhereness of science and science writing by asserting that humans are always experimenting. While we are not all scientists, we are all experimenters. Even as children we try things out. Frederick experimented with playing in the dirt and with swimming, noting that the former was done in isolation but the latter encouraged others’ participation. He extended the experiment by combining dirt and water, leading to a clear response from his mother; she shrieked.
This panel covered a lot of ground, touching upon the role of craft for any science writer and the importance of metaphor and how scientists and science writers use language. Green houses, for instance, are good things, whereas greenhouse gas is insidious. Or the term genetic blueprint implies a designer; it works as a metaphor. While science writing can be about big ideas, the details—the words chosen—matter a great deal.
The other three panelists were Jill U. Adams, Jenny Cutraro, and Douglas Starr, which allowed the session to cover even more ground.
Adams is a scientist who runs a science fair for kids and who has written a lot of articles. One of her pieces in the Los Angeles Times examined the controversy of more than a year ago about whether schools could count pizza as a vegetable in the lunches they provide students. Who knew that tomato paste got special treatment that other purees don’t get? Who knew that tomato paste may actually earn its special treatment with more of vitamins A and C than green beans and more calcium and iron than applesauce? The point, for Adams, is that, in science writing, science is about people and policy.
Most of Cutraro’s recent work is science writing for kids and teachers, but she also brought up her previous job as a science writer at Purdue University, where she summarized—and thereby translated—science that was being done there. She pointed out how many places science writing happens, from hospitals to museums to television shows like NOVA to publications like National Geographic to The Learning Network website.
Cutraro had some specific pointers for those of us interested in writing for a young audience: use direct leads, define terms early on, limit each sentence to one scientific concept, use analogies that make sense to the audience, and don’t assume prior knowledge. These suggestions, of course, can be adapted for an adult, lay readership as well.
After hearing about all these places to publish science writing and tips for getting one’s work published, Starr gave sobering news: it’s difficult to make a living as a science writer. His suggestion—and his books Blood and The Killer of Little Shepherds bear this out—is to find areas where science overlaps with some other aspect of the world, such as science and the legal system or, as with Adams’ article, science and the school system. He also pointed out that, while the internet has undercut the importance of newspapers, the shift has opened a channel through which institutions directly connect with their constituencies or readers.
So, do you need a graduate program to teach you how to be a science writer? Starr says no but talked about what Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism teaches: how to think, how to dig into a story, how to interview, and how to structure a story. He recommend reading John McPhee’s recent article in The New Yorker called “Structure.” He also recommend Jeanne Fahnestock’s book Rhetorical Figures in Science.
We’ll end this week’s post with that little snippet of serendipity, for Fahnestock was one of the faculty who trained and supervised graduate teaching assistants in English at the University of Maryland when Anna earned her MFA there. But return next week to read more about science writing at AWP.
Fukushima Daiichi, Nuclear Power, Nuclear Weapons March 11, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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Today marks the second anniversary of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Along with the Chernobyl accident in 1986, it is designated as a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The amount of radioactive contaminants released during Japan’s accident is, however, far less than in Russia’s. Also, recent predictions for health consequences suggest that the rise in cancer rates and deaths in Japan may be less than initially expected, according to the World Health Organization, in part because the accident occurred over time and many people had fled the tsunami and thereby avoided early and extended exposure. The uptick in cancer rates—thyroid cancer, breast cancer, leukemia—is most likely for the children of the area. The Japanese government predicts that the cleanup effort will take forty years.
Please read our regular post from last Wednesday—“The Second Anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident”—for some of our reflections on the accident and our unfolding thinking.
Here in the United States—in our backyard in Southern California—the San Onofre nuclear power plant sits idle for the time being. The San Onofre license is good through 2022, but more than a year ago, a leak forced the plant to shut down. During maintenance, unexpected wear in metal tubes and one leak that resulted from this wear was discovered. A redacted report released Friday indicates that changes to the problematic generators were proposed before installation, but some of those changes required regulatory approval and, therefore, weren’t made. Mitsubishi, the company that manufactured the generators, claims that the changes would not have prevented the wear that was discovered.
Presumably—now in hindsight after inspection, rather than predicted as part of normal operation—the extensive wear resulted from the vibrations of parts that occurs when the plant runs at full power. The steam in the system was very dry, a known problem, but the kind of damage that occurred hadn’t been seen before. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, the companies that own the nuclear power plant, have proposed repairs and running at less than full power.
Southern California, of course, is earthquake prone, so the Fukushima Daiichi accident casts a long shadow across the Pacific Ocean on whether the San Onofre plant should start up again, even if it’s running at 70% power. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station—yes, SONGS—lies five miles from the nearest fault and is designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake. Risk analysis at the time the San Onofre plant was designed indicated that the largest tsunami wave likely to hit the area would be 25 feet high, so the wall protecting the plant reaches 30 feet.
Also in the news lately and somewhat related, since nuclear power emerged from nuclear weapons research, is the problem at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford produced plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project and is now home to 177 tanks of nuclear waste, six of which are leaking, possibly releasing hundreds of gallons of radioactive material per year. Tanks at Hanford have been stabilized before, in 2005, after leaking millions of gallons, so this news about leaking now wasn’t unexpected. This place remains the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. Cleanup is underway, riddled by delays and changes of plans, and will take decades and billions of dollars.
Our parents were children when the nuclear age began, when the first chain reaction was achieved by Enrico Fermi in Chicago and the first atomic bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert. The world’s first experimental nuclear power plant went online in Idaho in 1951, Russia started using a nuclear plant to power a grid in 1954, and England turned on the first commercial nuclear plant in 1956. All of this occurred before we were born.
We were born into an existing nuclear age. The Three Mile Island accident occurred on March 28, 1979, when we were in grade school and less than two weeks after the movie The China Syndrome—a film about a nuclear power plant accident—was released. The Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986, when we were in college and just months before Anna did a short study abroad course in the Soviet Union that had to be rescheduled to avoid the stop in Kiev, a couple of hours away from the disaster area. The Fukushima Daiichi accident occurred two years ago today, on March 11, 2011, as we went about our adult lives across the expanse of an ocean.
The Second Anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident March 6, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
Note: Photographs in this post were taken at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque in May 2011.
Two years ago, on March 11, 2011, one of the worst nuclear accidents the world has ever known occurred at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. The cleanup continues today and will continue for years to come.
That prefecture in Japan remains devastated. One need only look at the photo essay of ghost towns recently published in Bloomberg to see that, while we go about our daily lives, others across the Pacific Ocean live with the results of the nuclear accident every day. One need only hear the story of Atsufumi Yoshizawa published in The Independent early this month; Yoshizawa was a Tepco engineer who went back into the plant with a group of fellow workers to see what they could do to keep the accident from getting worse. One need only think about the fuel rods still in the mess, the debris still being removed. Or one need only think about the baby girls born in the last year who are 70% more likely to develop thyroid cancer; other cancers—breast cancer, leukemia—are expected to have an uptick in years to come for the population most exposed to radioactivity there.
Within a few days of the accident, we wrote about “Measurement and Scale.” Japan’s nuclear accident was the result of a 9.0 earthquake, and we wanted readers to ponder how enormous a shaking of the earth’s crust that was.
Later that month, we wrote about “Radiation vs. Radioactivity.” Radiation describes many physical processes; radios and light bulbs emit radiation. Radioactivity refers to the more specific process of nuclear decay. The danger from the nuclear accident—the danger that remains—is from radioactivity.
After that, as reports were emerging about exactly what substances had escaped into the atmosphere and ground around Fukushima Daiichi, we wrote about “Uranium & Plutonium & Fission.” Not all radioactive substances are equally toxic. Uranium is found in nature, whereas plutonium is manmade. Plutonium is especially toxic and stays around for a long, long time.
But the radioactive substances that were making the news in the weeks after Japan’s nuclear accident weren’t uranium and plutonium, so we wrote “Fission Products and Half Lives.” The products of nuclear fission—iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90—were what had escaped and continued to escape from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Our bodies absorb and metabolize each of these isotopes differently, so that iodine-131 collects in the thyroid, whereas strontium-90 affects the bones. These substances have a much swifter rate of decay than their parent elements uranium and plutonium, but they still stick around for decades.
Within two months of the nuclear accident, we write a two-part series on “Radioactivity and Other Risks” HERE and HERE. We wanted to talk about how we—individually and generally—weigh risk in our lives. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not unknown risks in Japan, but those who planned and built the nuclear power plant calculated that an earthquake of that magnitude and tsunami with waves of the height that occurred in 2011 were unlikely.
In that pair of posts, we also talked about the tricky nature of risk. Radioactivity affects each body differently, and most research we’ve been using to understand exposure risks is from the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only recently have studes suggested that we’re exposing ourselves to potentially dangerous levels of radioactivity because we treat medical testing as safe and routine.
We’ve written about things nuclear since Japan’s accident two years ago, but the last time we mentioned Fukushima Daiichi specifically was at the end of 2011. We at Lofty Ambitions are interested in nuclear physics, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power, but even we didn’t bother to say anything about Fukushima Daiichi for more than a year. If we put it aside, certainly most people have. Sure, the anniversary will be covered in mainstream news media this coming week. But the nuclear accident of March 11, 2011, changed the world. The world became a little more risky that day.
In the wake of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan shut down all of its 50 nuclear power plants. Leaders talked about phasing out nuclear energy in Japan. But instead, Japan has toughened its standards for nuclear plants, and new leaders promise that some plants will go back online soon.
Meanwhile, debris from Japan’s tsunami is expected to wash onto the shores of British Columbia in Canada this year. The cleanup in Japan will continue for decades to come.
Lofty Ambitions at YouTube March 4, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Apollo, Last Chance to See, Museums & Archives, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
We have a Lofty Ambitions YouTube channel where you can find an an array of videos we’ve posted over more than two years. Those videos include space shuttle launches and chats with astronauts. Here are five among our favorites:
The Last Launch of a Space Shuttle (July 2011)
Dee O’Hara: First Nurse to the Astronauts
Michael Barratt: STS-133 Astronaut & Physician Studying Radiation
Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Last Takeoff from Kennedy Space Center
Fireworks Over Space Shuttle Atlantis: The End of the Shuttle Program
Lofty Ambitions at AWP 2013 February 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
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Next week, we head to Boston for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. We’re excited because we’ve never been to Boston and because the conference is brimming panels, readings, and events. When exactly will we sneak away to see the Freedom 7 space capsule currently on display at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum?
Last year, before we headed to AWP in Chicago, we ran a series of guest posts by writers who were presenting at that conference, as well as posts about our own presentations. You can check out last year’s AWP run-up post, including links to guest posts by Kristen Iversen, Jeff Porter, M. G. Lord, and Tom Zoellner by clicking HERE.
Even before this year’s conference begins, Anna will participate in the Festival of Language, a marathon reading event at Dillon’s on Wednesday, March 6, at 5:30-10:30 p.m. Anna is slated for the last 90-minute session. What should she read?
Anna has been nominated to run for a position on the AWP Board. She’s running unopposed, it turns out, so she’s not agonizing too much over the results. That said, if you’re an individual member or if you teach at a member program, we encourage you to take time to vote at AWP’s elections webpage or on paper at the conference. AWP voting is especially important this year because the organization needs a quorum to change its governance procedures to comply with Virginia law.
What does becoming an AWP Board member mean? An official dinner, an all-day board meeting, another official dinner, and a national program directors meeting, then a regional program directors meeting—all before the conference really gets going at full tilt. Who knows what the next four years of her board term might entail?
Since Anna isn’t yet on the board, she’s presenting at a panel called “Creative Writing Under Siege,” which is scheduled for Saturday, March 9, at noon. She’s drafted her comments and discovered that she contradicts herself. It could be a panel with fireworks.
Doug is overseeing the Tabula Poetica table at the conference bookfair. Stop by H2 to talk with one of us or a Chapman University MFA student. We’ll have the first print issue of TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics available, and donations, of course, will be welcomed. TAB also just launched its monthly electronic issues, all of which will be archived HERE. Read work by Hadara Bar-Nadav, Robin Behn, Evie Shockley, and Marjorie Perloff in Issue #2, and check for Issue #3 in mid-March.
Here’s the AWP book signing schedule at the Tabula Poetica table (H2):
Thursday at 1:30pm: Kate Greenstreet
Friday at Noon: Allison Benis White
Friday at 1:00pm: Stephanie Brown
Saturday at 9:30am: Lynne Thompson
Saturday at 10:00am: Kate Gale
We’re still perusing the conference schedule, trying to pick and choose, divide and conquer. The early morning spot on Thursday offers a panel called “Knowledge and Manifestation: Science in Contemporary Poetry,” but we’re wondering whether we can manage to get to anything at 9:00 a.m. after our jam-packed Wednesday. That afternoon, “Science Writing for All” is on our list of things to do.
And then there’s Friday and Saturday—oh my!