Serendipity and Generation Space December 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Apollo, Serendipity, Space Shuttle
add a comment
There are a lot of us who are part of Generation Space: every American born from the end of the 1950s, when Sputnik was launched by the Russians and NASA was founded in the United States, to the early 1980s, when the space shuttle program got off the ground. But we aren’t always aware of how broadly and deeply growing up with Apollo and Shuttle has influenced our lives.
Sometimes, though, we are reminded unexpectedly. That’s serendipity:
“[S]erendipity is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you. It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked. […] Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries.” –Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From
When Anna started reading Carole Radziwill’s book What Remains, she had no reason to think the space shuttle would be mentioned. The book is a memoir about falling in love with her husband, Anthony, who was John Kennedy’s cousin. Three weeks after Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette, who was Radziwill’s close friend, died in a plane crash, Anthony died from cancer. The book is about love and loss, not about technology and history. But Radziwill is roughly our age; she’s part of Generation Space.
So, on page 61, Radziwill explains why she became a journalist:
“Before I was a wife or a widow, I was a journalist, and that started in Annette Kriener’s office at ABC, on Sixty-Seventh and Columbus. Really it started ten months before on an ordinary January morning, watching TV in my parents’ kitchen. The space shuttle Challenger exploded, and an entire life occurred to me. From a thirteen-inch black-and-white television I saw a completely different world develop, beyond Suffern [where I’d grown up]. I watched the coverage and became absorbed with the network news anchors, and I made up my mind. As far-fetched as it seemed, I wanted to be there. I wanted to tell the story, not watch it.”
Radziwill, like us, was a college student on January 28, 1986. The space shuttle program changed the trajectory of her life.
As Anna was reading What Remains, we were also catching up with Season 5 of The Big Bang Theory. The male main characters in this series are the nerdiest of nerds and work at CalTech, though arguably, Howard Wolowitz—the engineer of the bunch—works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which counts among its successes Curiosity, the rover now perusing the surface of Mars. So The Big Bang Theory has an awareness of Generation Space, even though that’s a term we’ve coined.
Three of the main characters are played by Generation Space actors. Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard Hofstadter, who was born in Belgium in 1975, but grew up in Chicago in the 70s and 80s, meaning we were all Illinoisans then and making him six years old when the space shuttle began and ten years old when Challenger exploded in 1986. Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper, was born in 1973, making him eight years old when the space shuttle first launched in 1981. Simon Helberg, who plays Howard Wolowitz, was born the year before STS-1.
Still, when the series began in 2007, there existed no reason to expect Howard Wolowitz to fly as a payload specialist on a mission to the International Space Station. But there was Howard, strapped into the roomiest Soyuz capsule we’ve ever seen, in an episode that first aired on May 12, 2012, almost a year after the space shuttle program ended. What really surprised us, though, was that the other American astronaut on the mission was Mike Massimino, someone we’ve met and interviewed. (Massimino was born in 1962, so he’s Generation Space, too.) As the rocket launches, Massimino yells, “I love this part!”
At the end of the episode, Sheldon, who is watching the launch on television back home in Pasadena with rest of the gang, says, “Boldy go, Howard Wolowitz.” Sheldon’s wish is the wish of Generation Space, who grew up with Star Trek’s Enterprise and its five-year mission “to boldy go where no man has gone before.”
In these moments of exhilaration, happy accidents become anchored.
5 Takeaways from the Writer’s Digest Conference October 24, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
Last weekend, we attended the Writer’s Digest Conference West. We wanted to get out of the academy and see what’s what in mainstream publishing. A lot of what was said, we already knew. Some of that provided good reminders. A few tidbits were new to us, or at least new approaches to tried-and-true advice.
1) Writer and Author are different roles.
That writer and author are different roles we embody isn’t always the way we talk about our writing lives, but it’s a helpful distinction to make in order to carve out focused writing time as well as consider how to present your work to others, including an agent, an editor, or a reader. This distinction lingered in the air like perfume, but literary agent Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freyman Literary Agency was the person to say it bluntly: “Gone is the day when you can sit in a black turtleneck and just write.”
Of course, Sands is speaking from the agent’s perspective, so she wants writers to think of themselves as authors. She wants us to treat approaching an agent or an editor—maybe even a reader—as if we’re applying for a job. She wants us to know that our work will be judged according to how quickly we can immerse someone in the world of the story, whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction. She wants an author to set aside hubris and humility, perhaps the two most necessary qualities in a writer.
2) What’s your book about?
Authors have to field the question What is your book about? Marketing consultant Rob Eagar advised, “Never answer that question.” What the person is really asking is What’s in it for me?
The question, then, is an invitation to tell someone why he or she should read your book. Does your book provide a vicarious experience? Does it add to that person’s knowledge about culture or history? Is your book funny or heart wrenching? Eagar emphasizes that what drives the writer will drive readers. If we think about why we are writing about the end of the space shuttle program, we’ll be able to figure out why readers will benefit from our book. We can transform our interest and investment of time into readers’ interest and investment of time.
3) It’s about voice, not brand.
With all the pressure these days to build a snazzy platform with a zillion tweets and posts that garner a zillion hits, it was great to hear novelist and game designer Chuck Wendig tell us that voice matters. That’s what writers want to hear. As he put it, storytelling is art, and writing is craft, and that needs to be working.
Wendig is especially leery of branding because it can mimic typecasting. Once Bob Denver became Gilligan, he couldn’t be anyone else in the public’s gaze. For those writers, like Wendig and us, who want to write more than one kind of thing, branding might limit us. That’s not to say one shouldn’t build a platform and an audience but that one’s voice—art and craft—is one’s mark on the world. And he’s convinced that for every author, there exists an audience.
4) If it’s not working, do something else.
If a writer takes every piece of advice about building a platform, she will face two problems. First, of course, she’ll have no time for the writing that is the raison d’etre for the platform. Second, she won’t be playing to her strengths and hiding her weaknesses. Both Rob Eagar and Chuck Wendig emphasized that authors shouldn’t waste their time doing tasks that they aren’t enjoying and that aren’t paying off.
If you don’t like people, reading tours and workshops should be avoided. If you’re going to tweet once a month about what you had for dinner, why bother? If you can’t write anything under 5000 words, don’t blog. As blogger Nina Amir pointed out, if you start a blog, but it doesn’t work—you want to change your focus or nobody outside your family is reading it—you can hit the delete button and start fresh. In other words, authors have lots of options, can test out those options, and can make individualized decisions instead of thinking there’s only one best way.
5) Screw the numbers. Readers are individuals.
That’s what Chuck Wendig said, and we want to believe it. But it’s not easy. Agents check the numbers. Editors check the numbers. Some authors check their BookScan numbers every day. We recently heard a poetry editor say that their marketing person checks how many Facebook friends a poet has. Numbers matter enough that you can buy Twitter followers to make you look more popular, though there also now exists software to determine how many fake followers a person has.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Each reader really is an individual, a real person who makes a decision to buy your book, to invest his time in what you’ve written. Writing is most often done in isolation, one person crafting sentences one by one to make something artful. Reading, too, is most often done in isolation, one person holding a book or an e-reader. Even those authors who sell millions of books depend on one person at a time, each reader taking in the words alone. Of course, every author hopes that the words matter to that reader enough that he tells two people, and they tell two people.
On Finding an Agent: Working, Working, Working September 5, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Writing.
Tags: Airshows, Space Shuttle
Good news! Two weeks ago, we signed with a literary agent who wants to represent our book about following the end of the space shuttle program. In fact, we sent out eight queries in mid-July, had three requests for our book proposal, and signed with the agent we most wanted before September 1. Easy as pie! Not—
Not so fast. Not fast, and not so easy. In fact, the phrase easy as pie refers to the eating of the delicious desert, not to the making of it, not to the effort of rolling the dough at the perfect temperature and moisture level to the perfect thickness—or thinness—not to achieving the proper flakiness of crust, nor to the slow simmering of berries and sugar. Writing isn’t just about finding an agent, though that’s part of the recipe for those of us writing novels or nonfiction in hopes of eventual book publication. Writing is about making something.
Of course, we’re thrilled to be working with Alice Tasman. We’re excited about what this might mean, and we’ve toasted our recent success. We’re also grateful to Emily Gray Tedrowe, a novelist we met at Ragdale, for putting us in touch with her agent, who is now our agent. And we’re pleased to hear that novelist Timothy Schaffert has been represented by Alice Tasman for a decade and is still thrilled.
But signing with an agent is part of a much larger process, the process of working together, of writing week to week. Having an agent, like many other steps in this process, is a reason to keep writing. Each step in the larger process is both a goal and a motivation. We have an agent—that means we get to keep working on this project.
Our two-week residency at Ragdale in February of this year was the same sort of step. Being awarded a writing residency was a goal we had, something we wanted to achieve—something we want the opportunity to do again. It’s a reward we had to work toward, writing for a long time and developing a focus before we felt ready to try to prove ourselves worthy as nonfiction writers to a judging panel. But that writing residency was motivation, too, the kick-off to Anna’s sabbatical and to the work we did together on the book proposal, including drafting chapters of the book. Those two weeks were the most productive writing time we’ve ever had, separately or together, and propelled us into the steady work we’ve done over the following six months on what we’re now calling Generation Space.
Certainly, we can trace the work for this project back a couple of years, before Ragdale. We started this blog in July of 2010 with a commitment to post every Wednesday. We actually post more often, and we’ve done a series of guest posts and a series of video interviews, but the most important thing was that we set a goal—post every Wednesday—that gave us a reason to keep writing together. By the end of that October, we were flying off to Florida to see one of the last space shuttle launches. We traveled to the Space Coast four times in nine months. We applied for media credentials; that’s what writers who want to cover events do. We did our homework; that’s what writers who want to produce in-depth nonfiction do. We wrote, then we wrote some more; writing is what writers do most. We worked steadily, we revised, and we took some risks and learned from mistakes. We did what we were supposed to do.
We can trace the process even further back. In the summer of 2004, we presented a paper about aviation museums at a conference in Amsterdam. During our early days together in Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio, we had made our way to local air shows and had tossed around the idea of writing a book about the air show culture generally or WWII pilots in particular. We’d been going to aviation museums too, so on a whim, we sent in an abstract for a conference call for papers. The goal was Amsterdam, but presenting that paper was a reason to keep pursuing the topic of aviation and spaceflight. We followed up with two articles together, one in an edited collection called Bombs Away! and the other in the journal Curator. We had started writing about what interested us most, and editors gave us a nod. It wasn’t fast or easy, but that’s how things are supposed to work.
Each thing we were supposed to do, each step a writer is supposed to take, seemed both a reward and a motivation for us over the last ten years. Sure, the process is different for every writer, and also different for different projects. Sure, we failed to see Discovery’s last launch after we optimistically flew cross-country to the Space Coast two years ago. Sure, we’ve been strung along for months by an editor at a mainstream magazine, only to be rejected in the end—and we’ve been rejected without being strung along, too. We haven’t finished the complete draft of our book (though that’s partly because we have yet to follow Endeavour and Atlantis to their museum homes this year), so we’re absolutely not finished doing what we’re supposed to do.
Every writer—every project—must find his or her own path and pace. But we found that the system works, as long as we keep working, keep writing. And we’re not the only ones who’ve discovered this. Our writer friend and Anna’s occasional collaborator on matters of pedagogy, Stephanie Vanderslice, recently signed with an agent too. Like us, Stephanie found that, if you get a call from an agent, that means she’s enthusiastic and really gets what you’re trying to accomplish. And Stephanie recognizes the importance of editors and agents: “Her [the agent’s] suggestions made complete sense; she is a shrewd and perceptive editor—not surprisingly, since that’s what she was for ten years before becoming an agent. I went back to the novel immediately knowing exactly what I wanted to do and feeling really good about it (knock wood). I’ll have a piece coming out in the Huffington Post this week about all the reasons we should fear a world without editors–this is yet another reason why.” We appreciate editors and agents too; we don’t always succeed, but we’ve become better writers as we’ve negotiated this system.
Doug’s grandmother used to chide, “Working, working, working.” She was one of those work-ethic believers, someone who thought good people work hard, someone who thought working hard made you a good person. For writers, the quality of the work matters, and timing matters. We have our own writing process, the habits that keep us immersed in sentences and paragraphs. But it’s also the larger process that keeps us working week to week, that keeps us looking ahead.
The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics & a Poem August 22, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Einstein, Nobel Prize, Physics
add a comment
Last week, we posted “You say, Festschriften; I say, that’s a funny word.” The next evening, we attended a public discussion among Yakir Aharonov, Sir Michael Berry, Paul Davies, François Englert, and Nobel Laureate Sir Anthony Leggett; that discussion was called “The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics: Achievements and Opportunities.” We were impressed by how well these physicists made their own specialized fields accessible to the lay audience. What also impressed us, as another colleague reiterated that night, was the enthusiasm these scientists conveyed for their work. Even those in the audience who don’t know a neutron from a gluon must have been excited to see these men still curious, still fascinated, still questioning.
That public event opened what was a working conference that extended through Saturday, concluding with the dedication of the Yakir Aharonov Alcove in Leatherby Libraries, donated by Kathleen M. Gardarian to honor the physicist’s 80th birthday. Charlene Baldwin, the Dean of Leatherby Libraries, is a fan of our work at Lofty Ambitions and also a great appreciator of poetry and literature. She, of course, provided the welcome for the dedication event and included excerpts from one of Anna’s poems in her remarks.
We post here the entirety of that prose poem “Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists,” which is available the collection Constituents of Matter:
Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists
It is the light she longs to find,
When she delights in learning more.
Her world is learning: it defines
The destiny she’s reaching for.
At nineteen, Albert Einstein picks up an apple and an orange in the market. Today, this is two, but there are many ways of counting, and, of course, he knows apples and oranges should never be compared. He wants both but does not buy either. His wife may not be strong enough to endure this kind of resistance.
At the evening garden party, Marie Curie lifts a glowing test tube out of her pocket to show her colleagues what she has discovered. Everyone stares at her husband’s hands in the strange light. Later, she smooths ointment on his hands and bandages them. She knows it is too late for anything more.
Werner Heisenberg hikes all day at a steady pace to clear his head. It is too cold to swim, even for him. When he gets home, he remembers only one particular tree, the way its limbs arched as if growing. Or was that his wife lifting herself up from her garden, waving to him even? Or, he thinks, that may have been a different hike altogether.
Enrico Fermi listens to Neils Bohr carefully. Who wouldn’t? He knows that later he will not remember if he was surprised at the question. He straightens his jacket as if that is answer enough. To accept a Nobel Prize is rarely such a difficult choice. His wife will be pleased, he will have to write a speech, and they will leave Italy.
Just as the water begins to boil, Richard Feynman and his colleague realize that spaghetti, when snapped, breaks into three pieces. Always. They break all the spaghetti they have. He is sure there is a great theory involved. His first wife has been dead many years, and he misses their dinners. He knows he will be dead soon, too.
It Takes a Village To Build a Blog June 27, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Apollo, Art & Science, Museums & Archives, Serendipity, Space Shuttle, SpaceX
add a comment
Two years ago this coming Sunday, we launched Lofty Ambitions blog. This piece marks our 276th post. At this second anniversary of our work together as bloggers, we can’t help but reflect that it’s not just about us, that one thing led to another, and that Lofty Ambitions has become more than the sum of its parts.
Two years ago, not many people knew we were interested in the space program and thinking about trying to attend a space shuttle launch. But word traveled quickly, and now family, friends, and strangers refer to us as space nerds. Last fall, when we were checking in for Homecoming at Knox College, a woman behind us said something like, Look, it’s the space nerds. Although we had never met this woman before in person, she had contacted us by email during one of our trips to Space Coast for a shuttle launch. While we were momentarily taken aback by the sudden collapsing of our online world with our physical world, we were happy to be recognized for what we were trying to build and discuss. And she went so far as to suggest that her husband—a scientist, museum curator, and fellow traveler to the Space Coast—might want to write a guest blog. We can’t wait to see it (nudge, nudge).
Occasionally, in extremely thoughtful gestures, these people who’ve discerned our lofty interests give us gifts accordingly. These objects have become part of the blog and our way of thinking about who we are in the world. Even before we began this blogging adventure, our friends Lisa and Jim gave us a beautiful wooden aircraft propeller, a wedding gift and a symbol of our departure for California. Since then, Anna’s mother has passed along a wooden model of the space shuttle that she picked up at an auction. Doug’s boss brought us a rubber bathtub-worthy version of the shuttle that he picked up at an aviation museum. Most recently, Doug’s mom sent us Astro-Barbie and a Lego model of the space shuttle to build, two gifts we wrote about HERE.
Gifts work two ways, of course. One of the objects we purchased during a visit to Kennedy Space Center was a mission patch for STS-107, the last mission of the orbiter Columbia. We gave this memento to Marilyn Harran, the Director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University, the university where we work. That patch, really just a little something we picked up and thought she might appreciated personally, is now on display as part of a tribute to Ilan Ramon, one of the astronauts who perished in the Columbia accident.
We gave the patch to Marilyn because she recognized us as space nerds early on. In fact, she invited us to a screening of An Article of Hope hosted by the Rodgers Center, and one of the producers of that film about Ilan Ramon and the Columbia accident became our first guest blogger (read his post HERE). Astronaut Mike Massimino participated via Skype in the discussion after the film showed, and we interviewed Massimino months later (see that video HERE), when he and we were at Kennedy Space Center to watch a launch. Even more recently, Marilyn invited us to the naming celebration for the Ilan Ramon Day School, where we saw Ramon’s wife speak and met astronaut-turned-SpaceX-manager Garrett Reisman (read about that HERE).
Other mission patches from the mother of Sally Ride, the nation’s first woman in space, were donated to the Leatherby Libraries by a library board member, in large part because Doug has made it known we’re interested in space exploration and the shuttle program. Doug has also worked with NASA to add several original models of satellites and a thermal tile from a shuttle orbiter to the library’s archives (read more HERE and HERE).
The most extensive collection of shuttle-related materials in the archives is the Roger and Roberta Boisjoly NASA Challenger Disaster Collection. The collection consists of boxes of documents, photos, and pieces of o-rings that Roger donated to Chapman University as a result of his long-time friendship with our colleague Mark Maier, who studies workplace ethics. Recently, Doug has worked with archivist Rand Boyd to develop a lecture and traveling exhibit, which made its debut at the Columbia Memorial Space Center earlier this month (an event that deserves its own post in the weeks to come). Roger, who died early this year, wrote a guest post for us HERE.
The objects—the propeller, the toys, the patches—represent the people and events who have shaped, cheered on, and contributed to the blog. The people, events, and objects, along with our writing here, have become a self-reinforcing process. We rack up this dynamic to serendipity, knowing full well that these happy collisions aren’t really accidental. Shared intellectual space, whether physical (Doug works across the hall from Marilyn) or virtual, creates the opportunity for these interactions. Because the blog keeps us attuned to all things space, science, and writing, we notice and can take advantage of these interactions because they’re especially meaningful to us.
We know we’re not alone in this project we call Lofty Ambitions. One of the most wonderful examples of the village that builds this blog is the email we received from a father whose son was doing a history project about space exploration and the Cold War. The boy and his research partner wanted to talk with an Apollo astronaut because such a primary source would distinguish their project in the state competition. We pointed the father to a few contacts, with little expectation that he’d get through. Alan Bean, Apollo 16 veteran and now a painter, responded to the man’s email almost immediately and set up a ten-minute phone conversation with the fifth-grade historian. Inspired by that success, the man tracked down a couple of other astronauts. The boy and his research partner became champions in California’s National History Day state competition.
Lofty Ambitions is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than what you see on the blog each week. The reach and rewards of our work are greater than the number of hits, re-posts, or tweets. As we mark our two years of traveling and writing together, we thank our readers for becoming part of the village that builds a blog.
Lofty Ambitions at The Huffington Post June 2, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Space Shuttle, SpaceX
add a comment
Yep, that’s right. We’re blogging at The Huffington Post, too.
Our co-written posts there are, of course, about the same sorts of things we discuss here. But the content is different, and we take a slightly different approach there. And if you read the comment threads over at HuffPost, you’ll see a lot of strong opinions about space exploration, the role of NASA, the future of SpaceX, and much more. We’d like our regular Lofty Ambitions readers to get involved in that HuffPost conversation too.
Here are the links to our pieces published at The Huffington Post thus far:
SpaceX: Giving Berth, Hatching, Making a Splash (June 1, 2012)
SpaceX: Future or Failure? (May 22, 2012)
In addition, Anna is posting at HuffPost on her own and also with a group of fellow creative writing teachers. Here are the links for those pieces:
The Itsy-Bitsy Book Club (May 17, 2012)
Setting the Record Straight on Creative Writing (April 12, 2012)
What Is Creative Writing Anyway? (February 27, 2012)
Creative Writing Can Be Taught (February 4, 2012)
Space Toys May 2, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Space Shuttle
add a comment
This year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference took place at the beginning of March in Chicago, and we posted about that (click HERE). Whenever our travels take us to Chicago, we try to smash as many activities as we possibly can into the few days in the city that we’ve considered our second home for the better part of two decades. In addition to our conference obligations, this year’s mad dash included a party for our usual assemblage of lifelong friends, meeting with our writing group, bumping into new and old colleagues, and seeing whatever family we can corral into trekking up to Chicago.
In a roundabout way, the Saturday that time spent with his parents got us to thinking a bit about how the blog has become a community effort, a family effort. After our return to California, our inklings about this communal effort were confirmed.
A few weeks after AWP, an unexpected package for Anna arrived at our door. Anna will declaim loudly that she hates surprises, unless that surprise is a gift. After a decisive unwrapping, the gift that emerged was a recast vintage Barbie doll, clad in a spacesuit with a helmet. We named her Astro-Barbie.
The Barbie doll is a complex cultural object, but as we’ve mentioned recently (see our Marlin Perkins post HERE), we’ve been thinking about our childhoods, and there’s no denying that Barbie and Ken were a part of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. This particular Barbie doll is a reproduction of the 1965 vintage Barbie decked out as Gemini astronaut. As if to somehow atone for her maker’s 1992 anti-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) statement that “Math is tough,” a floating thought bubble is positioned next to our Barbie’s coiffure. The text reads, “Yes, I am a rocket scientist!” And, in all honesty, we think it rocks.
The plot thickened a few days later when Doug’s mother called to ask if we’d received any packages lately. She, and her favorite minion—Doug’s sister Suellen—were co-conspirators orchestrating the arrival of Astronaut Barbie. On the phone, Doug’s mom’s tone also made it clear that Doug should be expecting a gift in the mail any day. At first, Doug guessed that perhaps a similarly space-suited and booted Ken doll might be headed his way. Doug’s mom’s reaction, a hearty laugh laden with a “not even close” tone, convinced Doug to think a bit more. The day spent shopping in Chicago came to mind, and in particular, a stop at the Lego store in Water Tower Place. While there, Doug’s eye was drawn to the Shuttle Expedition Lego.
The Shuttle Expedition Lego kit has it all: astronauts and pad workers, orbiter (named Expedition, but around our house to be known as OV106), SRBs, fuel tank, even a few Lego lights for simulating that bathed-in-white-light look depicted in so many nighttime photos of the shuttle stack on the pad. The kit is reminiscent of many models that Doug built in his childhood, plastic vessels into which he poured time and effort, imagination and play, and time and money.
Time came up twice in that last sentence, and it was also one of the first things that Doug’s mom mentioned when he guessed that that was what she had put in the mail. She wondered openly when he would find the time to assemble OV106, and Doug did too. Then, just this week, while staring dreamily at the shuttle kit’s box, a habit Doug developed on childhood model building projects and a singularly important part of the process, he noticed that the part count was labeled prominently on the box: 1230 pieces. In one of those flashes of inspiration that hits us all from time to time, Doug realized that he could use building the model as a reward system for progress on writing projects.
Dividing the total number of pieces by four gives 307.5, which is a good page count goal for a novel manuscript. So, for every page that gets written, Doug can assemble together four pieces of OV106. We’ll keep you all informed as to how this space-shuttle as reward system works.
And if Anna finds some human-sized space boots that Astro-Barbie is sporting, she’ll set some serious goals for that reward.
For another Lofty Ambitions post about childhood toys, click HERE.
Guest Blog: Daniel Lewis March 19, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Museums & Archives
add a comment
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]: 18.104.22.168.22.214.171.1249.277.278.453.”
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.”
Mmmm…Lovell’s of Lake Forest March 7, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Apollo, Museums & Archives
add a comment
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.