Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Science Writing, 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, Science Writing, 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.
A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 2) March 13, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, WWII
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Also see PART 1 of “A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain.”
For the last 40 years, at least in the public’s eyes, Florida’s Space Coast and Houston have been the homes of American manned space flight. But in the earliest days of America’s space program, a select group of engineers calling themselves the Space Task Group (STG) made their home in rural Virginia at the Langley Research Center. Langley is NASA’s oldest research home, founded in 1917 by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (just as you would think, NACA). The STG at Langley, inaugurated on November 5, 1958, came into existence little more than a month after NACA became NASA. These name changes and group birthings were all of a piece. Forty-five years ago, the nation was obsessed with space—and the nation remains intrigued.
In our February 20th post, we hinted that the February 20th, 1959, cancellation of AVRO’s CF-105 Arrow aircraft—less than six months after NASA was itself born—wound up being a boon for America’s fledgling space program. America’s first human spaceflight program, Project Mercury, was announced to the world six days after NASA was born, but that ambitious program was struggling to get its legs under it. The STG, with its single-minded view of putting an American in space, also had trouble finding its footing and was viewed with skepticism by the airplanes-only culture of Langley’s old guard.
Aeronautics was becoming Aerospace, but not everyone was excited by the changes that this shift implied. In part, resistance was only logical. The American aviation industry had achieved remarkable successes since the end of World War II. The nascent American efforts in space didn’t have a record of success. Not only had the Russians beaten the Americans into space with Sputnik, but they had done it spectacularly. Sputnik had been followed less than a month later by Sputnik-2, and that second Sputnik had carried a living creature, a dog named Laika. America’s side of the space-race equation was also spectacular, but mostly spectacular failures. The nationally televised explosion of America’s first attempted satellite launch—the Vanguard mission on December 6, 1957—earned it the derisive nickname Kaputnik.
Into this environment came the opportunity for NASA’s STG to add significant engineering talent. Arguably, AVRO’s Arrow was the most advanced aircraft in active engineering and development at that time, and it was cancelled. The United States’ most advanced interceptor aircraft of that moment, the North American Aviation XF-108 Rapier—with delta wings and predicted Mach 3 performance, it was quite similar to the Arrow—was also cancelled in 1959. Both were victims of the coming age of ballistic missiles and pushbutton warfare. But whereas the American XF-108 project was limited to engineering drawings and a single wooden mock-up, the CF-105 Arrow knew the feel of air beneath its wings.
In all, AVRO designed, manufactured, and flight-tested six Arrow aircraft. This effort had given a talented young cadre of AVRO engineers experience at the leading edge of aeronautical engineering. The Arrow was the first aircraft designed to use a fly-by-wire system, a means of controlling the aircraft’s flight surfaces with electronic systems. The Arrow was designed in great part on computers. An IBM 704 mainframe computer at AVRO Canada’s headquarters in Malton, Ontario (near Toronto), was used not only for design purposes, but also for simulation and modeling. In fact, data collected during the Arrow flight test program was analyzed on the 704 and then fed back into the simulator. In sum, the young AVRO engineers had just the sort of experience that NASA’s STG needed for Project Mercury.
Ultimately, the AVRO engineers wound up in the STG because of the Arrow’s chief designer, Jim Chamberlin. Chamberlin was a known quantity to engineers at Langley from the collaborative work between AVRO and NACA on wind-tunnel testing for the Arrow and because of an earlier project, the AVRO VZ-9 Car (a saucer shaped jet).
As the layoffs took hold, Chamberlin and others jumped into action. Arrows to the Moon, a comprehensive look by author Chris Gainor of the contributions that AVRO engineers made to the American space program, indicates that the original idea was for a two-year exchange that would bring engineers from the cancelled Arrow project to the STG at Langley. NASA benefited by getting an immediate injection of talent for Project Mercury. AVRO hoped to get returns from sending its best-and-brightest off for two years for the equivalent of a graduate degree, a U.S.-funded, on-the-job school that was essentially the only program in space systems design and engineering in the free world.
When all was said and done, 32 AVRO engineers joined the STG. Another fantastic book that touches on this subject, Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox’s Apollo: The Race to the Moon, recounts a story in which Robert Gilruth, first head of the STG, told one of the AVRO engineers, Tec Roberts, “We thought about taking more of your crowd from AVRO…but we figured twenty-five percent aliens in the American space program was sufficient.”
Those aliens would make contributions to the American space program that are still being felt to this this day.
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!
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:
A Lucky Disaster, or Canada’s Loss, NASA’s Gain (Part 1) February 20, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
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One version of the history of manned space exploration goes something like this: in the darkest days of the Cold War, American and Russian engineers—armed with only their wits and slide rules—duked it out, mano a mano, in a contest for supremacy of the high frontier, outer space. The Russians struck first on every front: first unmanned satellite to orbit the earth—a beeping, silvery sphere called Sputnik; first mammal to orbit the earth—a dog named Laika; and most impressively, the first human being in space—Yuri Gagarin. We Americans quickly caught up with the Russians, repeated their first steps—though we favored simians in space over canines—and eventually surpassed Russian spaceborne achievements by landing human beings on the Moon.
Whether intentionally or by omission, that story fails to credit the significant contributions that other nations made to what, in a less politically contentious world, likely would have been seen as a set of achievements to be shared by all humanity. Neil Armstrong’s first words while standing on the Moon—That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind—can be seen as a attempt to share some credit with all human beings for the achievement, but many people don’t consider what other nations might have been doing while the Russians and Americans were racing to space.
German rocket scientists made significant contributions to the nascent American space program. Indeed, space nerds likely know of the contributions of Dr. Kurt Debus. His name adorns Kennedy Space Center’s conference center, a place where we have met and interviewed astronauts on a couple of occasions. Anyone who has ever watched Apollo 13 has seen Tom Hanks, in the guise of Jim Lovell, adopt a phaux-teutonic accent and ham it up by saying, “I vonder vere Günter vent?” a pun on the name of famed Launch Pad Leader Günter Wendt. In reality—a concept always a distant second to story in Hollywood—astronaut Donn Eisele had uttered those words during Apollo 7. And of course, Wernher von Braun achieved enough stature and fame from his work on the Apollo program that he—a German who became a naturalized citizen of the United States—is often referred to as the father of the American space program.
A story that isn’t often told is of the contributions that America’s neighbors to the north made to NASA and the space program.
Fifty-four years ago today, on February 20, 1959, the Canadian arm of the British aircraft company A. V. Roe—more generally known as AVRO—killed its most ambitious project to date, the CF-105 Arrow. The death of the Arrow Program resulted in the southern migration of a number of Canadian—and Britons who’d already relocated once to Canada—scientists and engineers who would contribute mightily to the American space program.
The Arrow was a product of the revolutionary changes in aircraft design and manufacturing that took place in the 1950s. In the almost exactly ten years that passed from Chuck Yeager’s October 14, 1947, flight that broke through the sound barrier to the October 4, 1957, announcement by AVRO that it was going to build the Arrow, human ingenuity produced a dizzying variety of solutions to the problems of going faster, higher, and farther. Yeager’s mount in 1947, the Bell X-1—which he named Glamorous Glennis after his wife—was shaped like a rifle bullet with wings slapped on as an afterthought because, after all, it’s an airplane, it’s gotta have wings. Six years later, in 1953, Scott Crossfield flew at twice the speed of sound in the D-558-2 Skyrocket. The bodies—the fuselage—of the two aircraft had roughly the same bullet shape, but the Skyrocket sliced through the skies above Edwards Air Force Base on wings that swept backwards at 35 degrees.
The Arrow, which had its first flight in 1958, was intended to intercept Soviet bombers carrying atomic and thermonuclear weapons over the arctic and on into North America. To meet the requirements of this mission, it was posited that the Arrow would need to be able to fly at three times the speed of sound—Mach 3—or roughly 1980 miles per hour. That this was the Arrow’s performance target, when no piloted jet-propelled aircraft—research or otherwise—had yet attained that speed speaks to the engineering audaciousness of the era.
The date of AVRO’s announcement to build the Arrow—October 4, 1957—was the same day that Sputnik first circled the earth. The management of AVRO had the decided misfortune to announce their newest and most important aircraft on the same day that the Russians launched the first-ever manmade satellite. The party for bigwigs that evening, which included American aviation executives, officials, and military personnel (both NACA–the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s immediate predecessor–and the USAF had contributed to the Arrow’s design) ended in disbelief and with everyone talking about spacecraft instead of aircraft.
Timing, as they say, is everything, and the Arrow never could get its timing right. The new engines upon which it was depending in order to reach Mach 3 were forever behind schedule. Sputnik’s launch had refocused military conversations on the viability of manned aircraft in the coming era of ballistic missiles and push-button warfare. In the end, the Arrow became too expensive—approximately $400M a year for several years in a row, or as the adage attributed to, but not likely said by Illinois politician Everett Dirksen asserts, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money”—for the government of Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and fifty-four years ago the program was put to rest. The announcement effectively cashiered the 14,000 AVRO employees working on Arrow.
One of those employees was a young engineer named R. Bryan Erb. Erb was among the AVRO engineers who migrated to NASA, and years later he described the event as a lucky disaster for himself. Considering the amount of raw engineering talent that would ultimately decamp AVRO and head for the warmer climes that NASA called home, NASA administrators could have described the Arrow cancellation the same way.
Check back at Lofty Ambitions to read more about how some of the people who made this journey from AVRO to NASA left a lasting impression on America’s space program.
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.