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!
Lofty Ambitions at The Huffington Post February 25, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Art & Science, Music, Physics
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Roughly ten days ago, The Huffington Post asked us to write an article for their next TED Weekends feature. They chose a popular Ted Talk–Honor Harger’s “A History of the Universe in Sound”–and asked some of their bloggers to write responses and riffs that would be posted over several days. We are pleased that HuffPost noticed our work and happy to contribute to a section that gets front-page coverage.
Our post is called “Voices Carry,” after the ‘Til Tuesday song (see video below). Among the voices to which that title refers is the Golden Record, now carried toward the edge of our universe by two Voyager spacecraft. We also discuss poet Robert Frost, President John F. Kennedy, and sferics. Read (and then “like” or maybe share) the whole post by clicking HERE.
This year’s TED Conference begins on Tuesday–’til Tuesday, then. It runs through Friday in Long Beach, California, but the $7500 tickets are sold out. The conference moves to Vancouver next year.
“Voices Carry” is not our first article at The Huffington Post. Anna’s recently published post there is “5 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Chemo.” We’ve also published the following articles together there:
The Eurythmics, Apollo, the International Space Station, and Landsat February 13, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, ISS, Music
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Thirty years ago—on January 21, 1983—The Eurythmics released a single called “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These).” In that song’s video (see the end of this post), Annie Lennox stands at the end of a long conference table surrounded by empty chairs. On the table sits a globe. Behind her, a screen shows the Apollo 11 launch and then an image of the Earth from space. She looks directly at the camera—at us—while pointing behind her at that image, clouds swirling over land masses and ocean, and asserts, Sweet dreams are made of these. As she goes on—singing, Who am I to disagree?—we see astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in their white flight suits inside their capsule on the screen behind her.
These were the days in which MTV played a full schedule of videos and used, as their station identification image, an enhanced photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, with an MTV flag planted on the lunar surface. MTV used Aldrin as the inspiration for the statuette of their Moonman award, sometimes referred to as the Buzzy, which honors the year’s best work in music videos. The first MTV awards were held in 1984, when The Cars won best video and a year during which the space shuttle flew five missions. The Hubble Telescope hadn’t yet been launched; that occurred in 1990, with repairs and upgrades beginning in 1993. The International Space Station (ISS) was still only a dream, with the first assembly mission in 1998.
Space exploration is indeed that out of which sweet dreams are made. Going to the Moon was the result of dreaming big as a nation, and the Moon landing is now a vivid memory in our collective dreams. A space station shared by nations had long been the stuff of science fiction, but that dream became a reality that has been continuously occupied for more than a dozen years now.
This past week, we saw the ISS fly over our heads twice. Though we’ve seen it before, probably first in April 2001 with its second long-duration crew, the sight amazes us every time. This past week’s passes were especially bright, brighter than the stars in the sky. If not for its speed across the night sky’s dark expanse, the ISS might be mistaken, at first, for an aircraft. But inside what looks tiny from our vantage are astronauts living life more than two hundred miles above the Earth, circling the globe once every ninety minutes. (Click HERE to find flybys for different U.S. locations.)
How is this not a dream, in the sense of having a vision or an aspiration? The etymology of the word dream is actually under contention, with some suggestions that it stems from a word meaning joy, merriment, noise, or, yes, music. Sweet dreams really are made of these.
Dream might stem from words related to deception, which leads us to consider that the ISS offers two very different perceptions, one of us looking up at the swift, bright dot in the sky and the other of the six crew—Chris Hadfield recently chatted with William Shatner and sang with Barenaked Ladies from the ISS (see the end of this post)—looking out at the Earth’s surface, clouds swirling over the California coast. Our vantage deceives us, in that we forget or cannot fully imagine other perspectives.
That other perspective—the one from Earth’s orbit—is important. On Monday, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, or Landsat 8, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base. NASA’s Landsat program began in 1972, with a satellite that circled the globe for almost six years. Landsat’s satellites continue to provide data about the Earth’s surface to scientists and many others. The information from Landsat helps aircraft avoid bird strikes and helps wine growers and farmers manage their crops for maximum yield and deliciousness.
The images and data from Landsat are available to anyone who wants to use it. That’s right, we fund NASA collectively through the federal budget, so the information from these satellites belongs to all of us. As the website for Education and Public Outreach puts it, “Our goal is to enable you to access and use the entire Landsat Program’s data, imagery, and associated science content for your own purposes.”
One of the most recent discoveries by Landsat 7—a satellite launched in 1999, the immediate predecessor for the new Landsat 8 launched on Monday—is of Antarctic penguins. Sure, scientists knew there were penguins in the Antarctic. And no, Landsat 7 doesn’t have resolution good enough for scientists to see and count actual penguins on the Earth’s surface. But researchers at the British Antarctic Survey used Landsat images to measure the extent of penguin poop that stained ice brown when the creatures gathered during mating season. Decades-old research was finally updated in 2009, with researchers locating ten new colonies of emperor penguins and determining that six previously existing colonies had moved.
In other words, we have penguins running around right here on Earth, but we couldn’t really see them until we looked at them from space. As the song goes, Everybody’s looking for something. British researchers are looking for penguins, European Union leaders are looking for the wine-growing potential of each member nation, and leaders here in the western United States want to see where all our water is going. To see these things, we need the perspective that we can only get from stepping away and looking down from space.
Consider the images from the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968: the first time we really saw the whole Earth, and the Earthrise photograph in which our planet peeks above the lunar surface, instead of the other way around.
Perspective comes from the Latin: to clearly perceive, to look closely. Oddly, space exploration has taught us that, sometimes, we perceive most clearly and look most closely when we gain some distance.
NASA Airborne Science Program (Part 4 / #NASASocial) February 6, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Dryden Flight Research Center
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Before we get to our main topic for today, we want to remind readers that we contributed to The Next Big Thing blog hop last week. Some of the writers we tagged have now posted their contributions; check HERE for Karen An-hwei Lee and HERE for Stephanie Vanderslice.
Less than two weeks ago, we spent an entire day as insiders at Dryden Flight Research Center exploring NASA’s Airborne Science Program. Today, we’ll talk about UAVSAR and one of the engineers involved. But you may want to review the previous posts in this series:
UAVSAR is one of NASA’s aircraft-based programs to collect data about the Earth’s surface, including vegetation, ice, volcanoes, and earthquakes. The project started in 2004, with instrument—radar—development, and began collecting data in 2009. The precise, but unwieldy, acronym stands for Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar.
What does that really mean? In practice, UAVSAR involves a pod, which is filled with electronic equipment, attached to the bottom of the Gulfstream-III we saw that day in the hangar. The pod we saw attached was one of two radar pods, each using a different frequency. The pod works by sending radio waves toward the ground. The waves bounce back up off the swathe of Earth and are received by the pod.
Multiple flights over the same swathe—using Dryden-developed software and the aircraft’s autopilot to cover the same area within thirty-three feet—allows comparison of data over time so that scientists can see how the Earth is changing. UAVSAR has been used to study the movement and varied thickness of the oil slick after the Deepwater Horizon accident (see video below), the evolving characteristics of Mount St. Helens, the shifts in the glacial ice flows of Greenland, land changes after the earthquake in Haiti, and river flooding in Mississippi. The radar can even measure soil moisture in a designated area.
Yunling Lou, a radar engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), brought UAVSAR to life for us. She got her start in the field with NASA’s AIRSAR, a similar airborne science project based in NASA’s DC-8 that also tested new radar technology. During her NASA career, she’s moved back and forth between airborne and spaceborne science projects.
In fact, she worked on the landing radar for Curiosity. Yes, that’s right, Yunling Lou, with whom we talked at length, helped to make sure that the Mars rover landed safely. For part of its descent—during those seven minutes of terror—success depended on Lou and the rest of her team.
Right now, though, she’s focused on UAVSAR and the wealth of data it provides to scientists worldwide. Last year, the project flew roughly eighty science flights, and Lou expects that, this year, the Gulfstream-III will fly roughly ninety flights using the radar pod we saw and another fifty flights with the other pod.
Lou no longer flies missions herself. Other, often newer radar engineers at JPL do that. She told us, “Deployment is a distraction or a break” from the regular work schedule at JPL. All the radar operators in the plane are also radar engineers. In other words, the people who use the equipment are the people who design the equipment.
What Lou likes most about her work breaks into two aspects. First, “There’s always a challenge every few years. […] The technical challenge is always there.” JPL keeps working to improve the radar so that the data becomes more useful, too. Second, the end-user scientist makes her feel relevant. She meets the scientists who use the data that is gathered through UAVSAR—the clients who want certain kinds of data—so she understands that the work she does makes a difference in how scientists understand what happens to the Earth.
What Lou does—what NASA supports through UAVSAR—matters to all of us. Even though we don’t analyze the data ourselves, the data from NASA’s airborne Earth sciences projects shape the way we understand the Earth and help communities deal with real-life problems like flooding. This extensive science project may well inform our decisions about the future and how to thrive on the shifting, flowing, forested surface of this planet.
NASA Airborne Science Program: Flight Suit (Part 3 / #NASASocial) January 30, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books, Dryden Flight Research Center, GRAILTweetup, Space Shuttle
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Today, we focus on the pilot flight suit worn by those who fly high-altitude aircraft like the venerable ER-2. The ER-2 is the civilian version of the military’s U-2 spy plane, a sixty-year-old aircraft design that has a reputation for being a handful to fly. NASA, of course, doesn’t spy. Instead, the ER-2 flies at the edge of space, roughly 70,000 feet above the Earth, to, according to NASA’s website, “scan shorelines, measure water levels, help fight forest fires, profile the atmosphere, assess flood damage, and sample the stratosphere.” But just because it’s being used for science doesn’t make the ER-2 any easier to fly. Last year while visiting Dryden, Doug heard test pilot Nils Larson say of the aircraft, “If you’re having a bad day and the U-2’s having a bad day, it can be a BAD DAY.”
At that altitude and with a partially pressurized cockpit, the pilot needs to wear a suit that is, according to NASA’s Josh Graham, 80% the same as the orange launch-and-reentry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. The differences between these flight suits and spacesuits lie mainly in the neck area and oxygen system. If the ER-2 pilot didn’t have such a suit, the lack of pressure at 65,000 feet would cause his blood to boil. Looking at the flight suit he brought for demonstration, Graham said, “This is somebody’s father. They need to come home.”
Each pilot is issued two of these suits, at a cost of $300,000 apiece, along with one helmet, which adds another $100,000 to the price of the outfit. The suit itself weighs thirty-five pounds and comes in thirteen standard sizes, though Graham pointed to a pilot standing behind us and said that he gets a special suit because he’s especially tall.
All the current suits—NASA’s flight suits and spacesuits—are handmade by the David Clark Company in Massachusetts. Each suit takes six to eight months to complete. The suit works in layers. The layer we see is yellow, but Graham unhitched the helmet and peeled back the outer layer so that we could view the layer of mesh, hand-woven hundred-pound fishing line. These outfits are designed to hold up with a tear as long as three inches or with a quarter-sized hole.
The David Clark Company also made the Gemini spacesuits, which were used for extravehicular activity in which, according to Michael Collins in Carrying the Fire, “oxygen came from the spacecraft via an umbilical, and then went through a chest pack.” Apollo spacesuits were made by the International Latex Corporation, or ILC, and had an “oxygen supply from a back pack.” Of ILC’s work, which applies to David Clark’s work as well, the book Spacesuit says the following: “similar to sewing a bra or girdle,” “unprecedented precision,” “highly regulated,” “elaborate process,” and “the delicate art of their collective synthesis.”
Collins played a crucial role with the Apollo suits: “My job was to monitor the development of all this equipment, to make sure that it was coming along all right, that it was going to be safe and practical to use, and that it would please the other guys in the astronaut office.” Though NASA’s ER-2 flight suits are already well developed, Joshua Graham does this sort of overseeing for aircraft operations, making sure each suit is ready to go.
One of the facets of NASA’s social media program that we enjoy is the opportunity to rub shoulders with other aviation and space nerds. While visiting the Space Coast to participate in a Tweetup and watch the GRAIL twins launch in 2011, Doug met the granddaughter of a woman who had worked as part of the team that assembled the Apollo spacesuits.
As we were examining the flight suit up close last week, Graham pointed out the small whiffle ball attached to a tether on the front of the get-up. When the flight suit initially inflates, it poofs up. This raises the helmet so that the pilot can’t see. He feels around the front of his suit to find the plastic ball, which he pulls down. This simple action readjusts the neck of the suit and helmet, and he’s ready to zoom.
Some of the flights are long, and no one wants a hungry, woozy pilot. But the pilot can’t take off his helmet to grab a bite to eat. Instead, his helmet has a feeding hole, and food—the sample we saw was caffeinated chocolate pudding (which sounds very useful)—is packed in tubes with stiff straws attached. The pilot can jab the straw into the hole in his helmet and suck the snack down.
Other human needs are also likely to occur on long flights, so the suit is also designed with a device like a condom connected to a tube, which the pilot wears so that he can relieve himself at any time. Graham didn’t discuss what the women pilots do, and earlier in the day, a NASA representative indicated that NASA currently had no women test pilots. What we didn’t know was that pilots must carefully control what Graham referred to as “number two.” If a pilot feels the need to defecate during a mission, he must declare an inflight emergency and return home as fast as he safely can. NASA doesn’t want to encourage a poop that costs $300,000.
Toward the end of our time in this section of the tour of the hangar at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, or day off), Doug asked Graham about the clunky spurs on the back of the suit’s boots. Graham responded that this aircraft is the only one that still uses hooks and cables in its ejection seat. The spurs hook to cables to pull his feet to the seat and keep his limbs from flailing during ejection. Then, at 14,000-16,000 feet, the pilot can cut the cable and parachute down safely.
The planes are cool. The ER-2 is fascinating because it flies incredibly high. The science is important. The ER-2 and its predecessor have been collecting data since the early 1970s, sampling the stratosphere and mapping large forest fires. Last week’s flight suit demonstration reminded us that the people are crucial to NASA’s Airborne Science Program.
NASA Airborne Science Program (PHOTOS / #NASASocial) January 26, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center
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We spent all day yesterday at Dryden Flight Research Center for an insider’s look at NASA’s Airborne Science Program. We drove to Palmdale on Thursday and had dinner, yes, at Yard House. The next morning, we arrived at the designated parking lot in Palmdale shortly after 7:00 a.m. That’s pretty early for us to be fully functioning, but we boarded the bus with the rest of the social media crowd and were off to Edwards Air Force Base. After lunch, the bus returned us to the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, pronounced day off) for a full afternoon of talks and up-close time with aircraft.
We’re already drafting posts about different aspects of the program–specific aircraft, pilot flight suits, what scientists learn from aircraft-based data collection–but we start here with a photo overview.
Read the next installment about NASA’s Airborne Science Program HERE.
NASA Airborne Science Program (Part 1) January 23, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Beer, Dryden Flight Research Center, Space Shuttle
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We admit it; we’re hooked. We like being insiders. We’re curious about what NASA is up to, even though they’re no longer up to the space shuttle program.
We also like Palmdale, California, though we haven’t seen all that much of it. We drove out that way for the first time on Thanksgiving weekend of 2008, shortly after we moved to California, to see the space shuttle Endeavour land at Edwards Air Force Base. That trip—just a couple of hours drive each way—set the stage for our two-year adventure following the end of the space shuttle program two years later.
Palmdale is a place with lodging close to Dryden Flight Research Center, so that’s where we stayed when we followed Endeavour home to California last year. On that trip, we stayed an extra night, exhausted from our cross-country travel between California and Florida and back and, suddenly, not wanting to rush to LAX to see Endeavour’s last landing, instead preferring the image of the shuttle aloft to linger in our minds as long as possible.
During that last jaunt into the desert, we dined at the Yard House in Palmdale. We’re creatures of habit, dining there three nights in a row, just as we had found favorite restaurants on the Space Coast and stuck with them, though one went out of business and then went out of business again between our visits. So we imagine that, in the next couple of days, we’ll sit ourselves down at Yard House to enjoy an ahi poke bowl, Gardein buffalo wings, and, depending on their monthly special drafts, a Lagunitas IPA or a Half Acre Daisy Cutter, the new beer we discovered in Chicago earlier this month
Tomorrow, we’re off to Palmdale not so much for a familiar meal, of course, but to spend a day learning about NASA’s Airborne Science Program. As NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden once reminded us, the first A in NASA stands for aeronautics. In addition to studying space, NASA studies the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, using satellites and aircraft. We’re part of a group of social media nerds who will get a “behind-the-scenes” look at airborne science projects on Friday.
According to NASA, the program’s primary objectives are as follows:
- Conduct in-situ atmospheric measurements with varying vertical and horizontal resolutions
- Collect high-resolution imagery for focused process studies and sub-pixel resolution for spaceborne calibration.
- Implement “sensor web” observational strategies for conducting earth science missions including intelligent mission management, and sensor networking.
- Demonstrate and exploit the capabilities of uninhabited and autonomous aircraft for science investigations
- Test new sensor technologies in space-like environments
- Calibrate/validate space-based measurements and retrieval algorithms
What does that mean? We’re not sure yet, but we’ll definitely share what we find out. We’re thinking ice caps and forest canopy and pollution. In the afternoon, we’ll be “in the hangar,” so we’re hoping to see several different airplanes, including the unmanned Global Hawk originally designed for military surveillance and the ER-2, and maybe peek at the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that’s sitting out there in the desert somewhere with nothing much to do. You’ll just have to check back at Lofty Ambitions to find out what airborne science means (Part 2: PHOTOS and Part 3: Flight Suit).
In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 15) January 2, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons
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Last Wednesday, Lofty Ambitions introduced Jean Dayton and our serendipitous meeting with that woman of the Manhattan Project and nuclear history. You can start with that post by clicking HERE.
Jean Klein Dayton would have been 88 years old this past Sunday. In continuing with our theme of chance, of serendipity, we hadn’t thought about Jean in quite a while, but recently, when tidying up the Manhattan Project area of Doug’s writing space, something in the stack of books, notes, photos, and maps brought Jean into a moment’s focus. Later, fingertips on laptop keyboard, Doug did a quick search for Jean (“jean klein dayton manhattan project”). Almost at the top of the search results was Jean’s obituary in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper. She had died more than three years earlier in March 2009.
Also in that first page of results were links to information about Jean in Manhattan Project related websites and books. In particular, Doug was drawn to the passages about Jean in the book, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. It was a more-than-appropriate reminder of how we came to interview Jean in the summer of 2004. That summer was a furious maelstrom of activity. Doug was focused on writing up the results of his PhD research, Anna copyedited, and together we planned the moves necessary to reunite our household after five years of maintaining one residence in Oregon and another in the Midwest.
Doug hadn’t so much forgotten about his encounter with Jean Dayton and her association with the Manhattan Project as he had boxed them up and put them away like holiday decorations in the attic of his mind. Doug’s novel project, set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, could easily consume weeks of time. Time that took him away from his dissertation. Time that he couldn’t afford if he were to finish his degree. Eventually, after some lengthy self-bargaining, working on the novel became a reward. It was a present Doug would give to himself for finishing his dissertation. But toward the end of that summer, running out of time if he were to finish before the move back to Illinois, Doug found himself fingering the spines of books about the Manhattan Project in Oregon State’s Valley Library. What had started out as a simple errand to return a stack of books about software engineering and qualitative research methods—two topics not often seen together at the time—had become a mini-break away from the drudgery of academic writing.
When Doug came across Their Day in the Sun, he instantly remembered the woman that he’d run into after the Cold War lecture more than a year earlier. He quickly skimmed the book’s index for her entry. Upon finding and reading Jean’s pages in the book, Doug was once again fascinated by this person and wondered if there would be time to interview her before leaving Corvallis for good. We quickly discussed the situation and decided that we would just have to make time for the interview. The phone call to set up the interview was very much like the last time that Doug and Jean spoke: quiet, full of pauses, and somewhat awkward. We agreed to a meeting in the cafeteria at a hospital in Corvallis. Jean or her husband was undergoing treatment at the time.
The interview began with lots of background about Jean’s life. She’d gone to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project as the wife of a physicist, Henry Hurwitz. After the war, Hurwitz would be a leading thinker in the area of the nuclear power plants and made significant contributions to the design and development of nuclear submarines. Jean and Henry would ultimately divorce, but during the war, like many of the smart, capable scientists’ wives at the Manhattan Project, she pitched in.
Doug reminded her of their meeting after the Galison talk where she’d indicated that she worked for Edward Teller. She nodded, but said nothing. Even after further prompting, Jean was unwilling to provide specifics about the nature of her own work. In fact, before agreeing to the interview she required that we provide her with any notes that we took so that she could forward them to the security office at Los Alamos. We kept our word, and we can only assume that she did too. Jean exuded a calm competence that suggested when she said she would do something, she did. About her work during the Manhattan Project, Their Day in the Sun has this to say:
“Dayton started in the Electronics Division, making Geiger counters and other equipment and installing an interoffice phone system. She transferred to weapons testing in order to get outdoors, and she later helped to design the detonation system for the hydrogen bomb. John von Neumann selected her for the job because he felt that a mathematician would take to long to figure out the system. A person working intuitively, he hoped, would be more efficient.”
Although the book’s description doesn’t precisely coincide with Jean’s recollection—she indicated that she worked for Teller (von Neumann’s countrymen and friend)—it does pinpoint her thinking as to the reason that she was chosen. Also, given Teller’s role in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, it’s likely that she was collaborating with both men.
During the interview, Jean was much more open about day-to-day life on The Hill (one of the many monikers that Los Alamos went by during the Manhattan Project). Jean was reluctant to mention the names of many of the personages that she encountered during her time on The Hill. After mentioning a dinner party that she held where three of the attendees would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize, we developed a habit of guessing whom she was talking about. If we guessed correctly, she’d confirm our guess with a quick nod. One of the attendees at her dinner party was a young Richard Feynman. After we made that connection, Jean fondly recalled broadcasting an advice-for-the-lovelorn radio show with Feynman. She also related that Feynman had developed a bit of a crush on her. Still married at the time, Jean introduced Feynman to her sister, and the two dated for a time.
It’s been more than eight years since we interviewed Jean. Jean arrived at Los Alamos in 1943. She was nineteen years old, younger than many of our students. Jean Dayton was our first interview as a team. We feel like we did a pretty good job, but now that we’ve done more research and visited Los Alamos ourselves, there are many things that we wish we could ask.
In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 14) December 26, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nuclear Weapons, Serendipity, WWII
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As frequent readers of Lofty Ambitions well know, we’re big believers in serendipity–that chance meeting with an idea, a place, or a person (or even better, a combination of those). Afterwards, your thoughts move in a new, unexpected direction. Last week’s post was about recent serendipity, and this week’s is about serendipity from our past.
In May 2003, while he was a graduate student at Oregon State University, Doug had just such a chance collosion while attending a lecture about the Cold War and nuclear weapons. Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics at Harvard University, was speaking about a documentary that he had recently completed, The Ultimate Weapon: The H-bomb Dilemma. The title of Galison’s talk was “Filming and Writing History: The H-bomb Debate.” Doug had just started doing research for a historical novel set during the Manhattan Project, and the talk seemed to dovetail neatly with this new project.
One of the 20th century’s most controversial scientific figures, Edward Teller, is often referred to as the father of the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb). The H-bomb came into the world’s consciousness in 1952, less than ten years after the atomic bomb. Although much distinguishes the two types of weapons, not the least of which is that they operate on different physical principles; atomic bombs use fission, H-bombs use fusion, and the resulting difference between the two weapons is their destructive power. Atomic bombs have a practical upper limit in explosive yield based on the size of their uranium or plutonium core (see more HERE). Hydrogen bombs (more commonly called thermonuclear weapons in the latter stages of the Cold War) are nearly unlimited in their destructive potential. The primary requirement for increasing their power is adding more fuel (see more HERE).
Galison’s documentary–which aired on the History Channel in August 2000–gave voice to a number of the people associated with the development and deployment of thermonuclear weapons. In his talk, Galison made it seem as if he had a particular fondness for, or at least was intrigued by, the nuclear weapons designer Theodore “Ted” Taylor. Taylor had a reputation for being a particularly innovative thinker, a producer of remarkably elegant designs, although perhaps elegant isn’t quite the right term when the context is nuclear weapons. In the late 1950s, Taylor worked with physicist Freeman Dyson on Project Orion, an extravagantly ambitious plan to create a spacecraft capable of deep-space travel. At a time when NASA had yet to place a man in orbit, the mavens behind Orion were proposing a ship that could scoot easily past Mars and make its way to the outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and even Pluto (back in the days when Pluto was punching above its weight and still held planet status). Potential multi-generational missions involving dozens of scientists, their families, and a small menagerie of farm animals gallivanting off to Alpha Centauri were considered. The magical elixir that would power the enormous Orion? Not Star Trek’s dilithium crystals or ion drives. No, Orion was designed to ride a steady stream of H-bomb explosions. Megaton class (1) H-bombs would be ejected from the rear of Orion, detonated at a so-called safe distance, and the resulting stream of radiation and shock waves would push against a gigantic metal plate–logically enough called a pusher plate–fixed to Orion’s backside. Orion, of course, never went beyond the drawing board.
In his later years, Taylor became an ardent critic of the nation’s nuclear weapons program and its potential for nuclear proliferation. Not so with Edward Teller. Teller remained a passionate defender of nuclear weapons and his role in the creation of the H-bomb until the end of his life in 2003.
At the end of Galison’s talk, Doug went up to the speaker’s lectern to ask him a question about Ted Taylor. Doug was not the only person in the audience whose personal interests weren’t fully addressed in the short Q&A; there were a half-dozen people in line to speak with Galison. Standing quietly in front of Doug was a tiny, elderly woman. When it was her turn to speak with Galison, the woman stepped forward and began to tell her story. She had been a part of the Manhattan Project. There, she worked as a kind of assistant to Edward Teller. Though not a physicist, she’d studied biology at Cornell University, Teller valued her unorthodox problem solving strategies–what we’d today call outside-the-box thinking–and often gave her problems to work on, thorny, unusual problems that were stymieing the physicists.
The woman’s interaction with Galison was economical. She did the majority of the speaking, and after a brief moment of silence, she turned and left. Even after standing in line and while still wanting to ask Galison a question, Doug made a very easy decision: he followed the woman. As reached the lecture hall’s doorway, Doug tapped her gently on the shoulder. Introducing himself and explaining his interest in the Manhattan Project, Doug asked her if he might interview her about her experiences. With a look that suggested she was taken aback by this turn of events, she thought for a moment and ultimately said in a soft voice, “Yes.” Again she turned to leave, and again Doug tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Your name. I need your name.” This time, the frown on her face indicated that she hadn’t anticipated this question as a part of the bargain. After a brief pause, she relented and said, “Jean Dayton.”
Las Vegas, the National Atomic Testing Museum, and the Last Sixty Years November 28, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons
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This past weekend found us making our annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Las Vegas. The combination of bright lights, driving distance, and no mid-semester house cleaning/no post-dinner dishwashing is irresistible. It also helps that, over the years, members of our families have happily made the trip to join us. A weekend in Vegas may mean slot machines and poker to some folks, but here at Lofty Ambitions, it means at least one trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum (click HERE for a sense of our visit two years ago).
At Lofty Ambitions, we like museums. If the accumulated word count of our writing about museums hasn’t made that fact absolutely clear, we’ll say it again just so that it sinks in: We really like museums. We’ve written professionally about museums for conferences, journals, and books. Where others might plan a vacation based on a specific beach, we’ve been known to plan getaways around how many different museums we can pack into a voyage.
An affiliate museum of the Smithsonian Institution, the layout, exhibit design, and quality of the materials at the National Atomic Testing Museum meets the highest standards of the profession. For those whom are curious about this specific corner of America’s nuclear history, the exhibits are intellectually stimulating and information rich. After just a few minutes of gazing inside the museum, Doug and his father were struck by the fact that this year’s visit nearly coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the two controversial nuclear tests of the early Cold War.
The Operation Ivy series of weapons tests took place on the Enewetak atoll in November 1952. The seventh series of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States, Operation Ivy consisted of two separate tests: Mike, conducted on November 1, 1952, and King, which was detonated on November 16. Both tests were designed to push the envelope of what was then known about the design of nuclear weapons.
The Ivy Mike test introduced a couple of new words into the nation’s burgeoning Cold War lexicon: thermonuclear and megaton. Although a previous test, George, had made use of fusion principles (as opposed to the fission that occurs in an atomic weapon), the Mike test is considered to be the first thermonuclear weapons test. In fact, Mike took its name from its anticipated explosive yield, itself a curious word suggesting some sort of harvest. Mike began with an “m”—m for megaton—because its scientists predicted an explosion in the megaton range. Less than a decade after the world had been forced to begin thinking about bombs that exploded with the force of 1,000 tons of TNT—a kiloton—humanity was forced to again expand its definition of destruction when explosions of 1,000,000 tons of TNT were introduced into the world. Aside from its destructive potential, Ivy Mike’s other distinguishing feature was that it was an impractical weapon. Designed by physicist Richard Garmin, Ivy Mike was more than twenty feet tall and weighed more than sixty tons. When Mike was detonated, it provided a staggering example of the kind of destruction that might await humanity’s future. At a yield of over ten megatons, Mike obliterated the patch of land that it occupied. In an instant, Eugelab—an island in the Enewetak atoll chain—was transformed into a mile-wide, 150-foot deep crater. Because of Mike’s design, the radioactive release was enormous, with highly radioactive debris falling into the ocean up to forty miles from ground zero.
King also took its name from its anticipated yield—“k” for kiloton—but it might as well have taken it from its destructive power vis-à-vis the 33 atomic bomb tests that preceded it. At a yield of 500 kilotons, King was the largest atom—fission—bomb designed and tested to that point.
These two tests conducted during Operation Ivy were the largest of their time. In fact, when measured in kilotons and megatons—the verbiage of nuclear weapons that is meant to connect the destructive power of nuclear weapons with the more comprehensible world of TNT and chemical explosives—the 10.4 megaton Ivy Mike was more than ten times more powerful than all of the atomic weapons that had preceded it. The previous thirty-three atomic weapons, twenty-nine American bombs, three Russian, and one British, represented an aggregate destructive release of almost 950 kilotons.
In part because the fear and uncertainty of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation was something with which the Lofty duo grew up, we both are drawn to attempt to understand what transpired. That’s why we are drawn back to the National Atomic Testing Museum.