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Palomar Observatory September 4, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Palomar1Serendipity: A few weeks ago, we were at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and Doug looked at Google Maps to get a sense of exactly where we were in this world. While dragging the map around on the screen of the iPad, he noticed that Dorland was located on the side of Palomar Mountain. Palomar, we soon learned, means pigeon house, though we noticed no pigeons among the rabbits, lizards, deer, and tarantulas. What Doug already knew was that Palomar means observatory.

As Anna’s aunt is fond of saying, what are the odds? How did two space nerd writers happen to end up at a writing residency on the same mountain as an observatory only a few weeks after attending Launch Pad, an astronomy workshop for writers?

Palomar3On the map, Palomar Observatory looked to be very close to our mountainside cabin. We are still not used to mountains and did not fully understand that the proximity was as the pigeon flies. So we decided to reallocate some of our residency time to visit one of the world’s greatest astronomical observatories. It turned out that the very next Saturday and Sunday coincided with the very last days of public access before some maintenance. When serendipity knocks, we answer. Timing matters.

We agreed on Sunday for our field trip, since that would space our breaks three days apart. When we pinned down driving directions, we understood the actual distance by road around the mountain. Public tours were at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. so we set our alarm, the only time we did that during our two-week residency.

Doug drove, and Anna navigated, a division of labor upon which we’d relied for going new places since our days of living in Maryland and negotiating the crazy DC spoke system of streets. When we arrived at in the Palomar Observatory parking lot, Doug wasn’t the only woozy traveler emerging from a car. We’d inadvertently taken the less curvy, less twisty road up the mountain, but it was plenty winding for our sensibility.

Palomar2We bought our tickets. The ticket office, which is also a gift shop, has posted instructions on what to do if you’re bitten by a rattlesnake. We headed to the dome. On the sides of the path, rattlesnake warning signs are posted roughly every 25 yards. Happily, we saw no slithering creatures.

The tour began outside the dome. Our guide directed our attention to an enormous concrete disc near the employee parking lot. Our docents assured us that, despite common lore, the 21-ton disc was not a mooring spot for alien spacecraft. The circular concrete slab had stood in for the telescope’s primary mirror—replicating its shape, size, and weight—to test the telescope during its construction, before the actual mirror had been completed.

Palomar4Before entering the dome, our docent told us about Russell Porter, a Renaissance man who had sailed with arctic explorers, first as an artist and then as an astronomical observer. This architect and engineer designed the Palomar Observatory building as well as the Hale Telescope and Schmidt camera telescope that are housed inside. Porter loathed the architectural design of the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Pasadena and chose, instead, a gleaming white, art deco structure.

The dome went up in 1935-1936. It rises 135 feet into the air, and its diameter spans 137 feet. The rotating top of the dome weighs 1000 tons. Each of two shutters, which pull back so that the telescope can view the night sky, weighs 125 tons. Big. Beautiful.

Then, we went inside.

Continue reading about the rest of our field trip to Palomar Observatory HERE.

Space Telescopes: Herschel → Hubble → Webb June 26, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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A Lotta-Lotta Stars: Globular Cluster M22 (Hubble/NASA)

Just over a week ago, the Herschel Space Observatory was turned off for good. Built and operated by the European Space Agency, Herschel launched on May 14, 2009, and hung out at a Lagrangian Point—at L2 or 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the opposite direction of the Sun. It did its job—and a really good job at that—for almost four years.

Herschel sent thousands of images back to Earth, allowed scientists to better understand star formation, and sought evidence of water vapor, oxygen, and deuterium in our Solar System and beyond. In fact, scientists couldn’t keep up with the data coming back from Herschel, so even though the telescope is now silent, the analysis of what Herschel saw will continue for years to come.

Within a couple of years, the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990 and orbits Earth at about 560 kilometers above us, will face a similar fate. The possibility of maintenance and servicing missions for Hubble ended when the space shuttle stopped flying two years ago.

Sombrero Galaxy (Hubble/NASA)

Over the last few weeks—in part because we’ll be attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in July—we’ve been catching up with Hubble by watching Experiencing Hubble: Understanding the Greatest Images of the Universe. This series of lectures about astronomy is organized around a Top 10 list of Hubble images from David M. Meyer, a professor at Northwestern University. The lectures are loosely hung on the spectacular composite photographs, so that, for instance, a Hubble view of the Sombrero Galaxy offers entre into a wider discussion of galaxy shapes and distances generally and, by route of explanation of galaxy distances, to the work of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. In other words, each lecture is triggered by a particular Hubble image and unfolds in a way that invites the non-scientist to learn about astronomy related to what that image displays.

One of Hubble’s major achievements was to allow scientists to narrow their estimate of the universe’s rate of expansion and thereby better estimate the age of the universe. As scientists sorted through the information that Hubble provided, they surmised that the expansion may well be accelerating and that dark energy—a phenomenon scientists surmise indirectly—might be the cause of this speeding up of the universe’s expansion.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hitting Jupiter (Hubble/NASA)

In addition, Hubble sends back remarkable images that continue to allow astronomers to better understand how stars are formed and die. Images and data also suggest that black holes really are likely at the centers of many galaxies. Closer to home, Hubble allowed scientists to watch Comet Shoemaker-Leavitt 9 collide with Jupiter in almost real time. And though Pluto was demoted from planet status, Hubble saw that it has a fifth moon.

What’s on the horizon, so to speak, in the lineage of space telescopes? If all goes well—it was canceled, then un-canceled a couple of years ago—the James Webb Space Telescope is set to head toward L2 in 2018. Like the International Space Station, this set of instruments is a collaborative project among many countries.

Eagle Nebula (M16): Pillars of Creation in Star-Forming Region (Hubble/NASA)

The plan is for Webb to use infrared observation to see through the so-called dust in space and show us objects that have been especially difficult to see, even with Herschel and Hubble, because they are very-very far away, dim, or cold. The hope is that, as a result, we will better understand even earlier history of the universe and the formation of stars, planets, and perhaps even life.

Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013

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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?”

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

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.

Light BulbsThe 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.

Anatomical Dissection HeadThe 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, 2013

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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.”

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

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.

Entrance to the California Science Center

Entrance to the California Science Center

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.

Lofty Editing

Lofty Editing

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.

Lofty Ambitions at The Huffington Post February 25, 2013

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“VOICES CARRY” by ANNA LEAHY & DOUGLAS DECHOW

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.

The Golden Record (NASA)

The Golden Record (NASA)

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.

Today, Honor Harger responded to the group os posts. You can find the amazing collection of TED Weekends HERE and find Harger’s responses to this particular TED Weekend 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:

“Want to Be an Author? 5 Insider Tips”

“Neil Armstrong and the Space Generation”

“5 Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do” & “5 More Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do”

“Space Shuttle: On the Anniversary of the Last-Ever Mission” (PHOTOS)

“SpaceX: Giving Berth, Hatching, Making a Splash”

“Endeavour Slideshow: On the First Anniversary of Its Last Flight” (PHOTOS)

“SpaceX: Future or Failure?”

On This Date January 9, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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Today is the birthday—first flight day—of two aircraft that share some background but also differ significantly. A good portion of the world was at war in the 1940s, and that gave rise to these two aircraft in different places. The AVRO Lancaster first took to the war-torn skies of England seventy-two years ago, in 1941, when test pilot Bill Thorn coaxed prototype BT308 to off of the tarmac and into the air at Manchester’s Ringway Airport. Two years later, in 1943, the prototype L-049 Constellation made its first flight, a short hop really, from Burbank, CA, to Muroc Air Force Base (later to become Edwards Air Force Base and also current home to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center).

Constellation, Galesburg, IL (photo by White Aero Restorations)

Large, four-engined, and born during World War II are among the very limited set of characteristics that the Lancaster and the Constellation had in common. That said, both aircraft followed architect’s Louis Sullivan’s “form ever follows function” dictum to a tee and turned out very differently.

The Lancaster was designed as a bomber. Utilitarian, slab sided, and broad winged, the Lancaster is not easily mistaken for anything but a military aircraft. The Lancaster began military service in February 1942, and more than 7,000 would be built before the last “Lanc” was retired in 1963. During WWII, Lancaster’s flew nearly 160,000 missions. The Lancaster gained particular fame during the war for its use of bouncing bombs in mission against dams.

While the Lanc was decidedly of its time, the Lockheed Constellation—affectionately known as the “Connie”—had an art deco design, a blend of organic shapes and machine grace, that was ahead of its time. Much larger than the Lanc—early Connies had a takeoff weight of 137,500 lb versus the Lanc’s 68,000 lb—the Lockheed design was curved and sinous. Many mid-twentieth-century trains, planes, and automobiles were shaped to cheat the wind, and a designer’s eyeball of that era served as a wind-tunnel test. The Connie looks like it’s going fast even when it is sitting still.

Constellation (photo USAF)

Much is often made of Howard Hughes’s involvement in the design of the Connie. In reality, Hughes’ TWA simply issued the specification for the Connie, and Lockheed engineered an aircraft to satisfy that spec. Once the Connie was flying though, Hughes, ever the promoter and master showman, made headlines with the aircraft. Because of his close relationship to Lockheed, Hughes managed to finagle the use of an early Constellation. Once he had it, he repainted it in TWA colors and promptly set a speed record while flying it across the country. Passengers on that trip included Hughes’s gal-pal Ava Gardner and Lockheed engineer (and Upper Peninsula native) Kelly Johnson. On his return trip, Hughes garnered more press by giving Orville Wright what would be the aviation pioneer’s last flight.

Despite its obvious style and speed—the Connie was faster than a number of WWII fighter aircraft—the Connie had a short and somewhat difficult career. Its Wright 3350 engines had a reputation for inflight fires, leading to uncomfortable jokes about the Connie, which had four engines, being the world’s faster trimotor. On top of that, the first generation of jet airliners arrived just as the Connie began to hit its stride. Although Connies survived for a number of years in the military and in passenger service outside of the United States, this aircraft made its final domestic revenue flight in 1967.

 

Lancasters, RAF, 1942 (photo U.K. Govt)

As we’ve written elsewhere, we have a fondness for visiting small airports just to see what’s sitting on the ramp. We developed this ritual while we were both professors at our alma mater, Knox College, in the late-1990s. Years later, on a return trip to Galesburg, we visited the local airport—call sign KGBG—for old-time’s sake. Sitting there in all of its shapely, aluminum glory was a Constellation.

The first Constellation that we saw in the metal was the so-called MATS Connie, one of the handful still flying and once owned by John Travolta. We’ve also seen the military variant at Chanute-Rantoul, just outside of Champaign, IL, where our colleague Richard Bausch once served. President Eisenhower flew on a Constellation; he had two in service at the time.

Only two Lancasters remain airworthy, one in the United Kingdom and one at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. There’s a Lanc near us, though, in Chico, CA, that folks are planning to restore to flying condition. A reminder that we haven’t yet thoroughly investigated the aviation history that’s right in our own back yard here in Southern California.

The End of the End (Part 6: PHOTOS) November 7, 2012

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A few days ago, we posted PHOTOS, but we have hundreds of great shots of the great last ride of Atlantis. Today, we share some of the more personal photographs.

Actor Luke Wilson & Anna

 

Anna with the dark countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center

 

Anna & Doug, journalists at the KSC News Center

 

Anna & Doug with the Vehicle Assembly Building

 

Shuttle Skirt with Shuttle Atlantis

 

Astronaut Eileen Collins signs shuttle skirt.

 

Anna with models in the news briefing room

 

Shuttle Crossing

 

Margaret Lazarus Dean with Atlantis

 

Gloves for space nerds Margaret and Anna

 

Anna & Doug with thirty astronauts behind them

 

Anna & Doug with Atlantis

 

Doug with Atlantis

 

Anna with Atlantis

 

Anna & Doug at El Leoncito

 

Columbia Memorial Space Center (and R.I.P. Neil Armstrong) August 29, 2012

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Of course, we acknowledge the death of Neil Armstrong this past weekend. Neil Armstrong is dead, and we’re the grown-ups now.

Neil Armstrong (NASA)

We are working on a piece that we will probably post at The Huffington Post later this week. Many have weighed in on the man’s accomplishments and the meaning of his death, and we have some thoughts to add. So we’ll join the conversation at The Huffington Post that includes Margaret Lazarus Dean, Seth Shostack, and others. With much being written and much of it incredibly eloquent, we are taking our time with this one. In some ways, that sentence above—Neil Armstrong is dead, and we’re the adults now—captures something about our larger sense of being the space generation.

So today, here, we look back a couple of months to share information about a science museum. In June, Doug and his colleague Rand Boyd had a chance to give a talk about the Roger and Roberta Boisjoly NASA Challenger Disaster Collection, which is housed in Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries. The venue for Doug and Rand’s talk was the Columbia Memorial Space Center.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center is located just across the street from the historic North American Aviation (NAA) plant in Downey, California. The NAA plant played an integral role in the United State’s aerospace history. During its seventy-year run as an aircraft, missile, and spacecraft factory, historic aviation names such as Champion, Curtis, Vultee, Consolidated, Convair, North American, North American-Rockwell, and Boeing all passed through the site. At the beginning of World War II, fully one-seventh of the military’s aircraft were being manufactured at the Downey plant.

These days, the former aircraft factory is home to Downey Studios, a film production space where Iron Man (1 and 2), Space Cowboys, and Cloverfield (among dozens of others) were filmed, at least in part. But, in the 1960s and 1970s, the NAA plant was front and center in America’s manned space program. The Apollo Command and Service Modules were built at this facility, as were significant portions of the space shuttle orbiters. Even today, a remaining space shuttle—albeit a one-winged, engineering mock-up without a permanent home—is being housed at Downey Studios. There is a movement afoot to ensure that the Columbia Memorial Space Center becomes the permanent home to the shuttle mock-up, but for now, the center will have to settle for becoming the mock-up’s most recent temporary home.

Mural at Columbia Memorial Space Center

Obviously given Downey’s strong connection to aerospace history, it’s no accident that the city of Downey chose this location for the site of the Columbia Memorial Space Center. On the day that Doug visited the center, more than two hundred fifth-graders from a local school had also visited the center. That kind of activity fits neatly with the center’s educational mission, which is focused on serving as a hands-on activity center for space science. As would be expected, the center has a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program, one that has a core focus on flight, robotics, and engineering. Many NASA-affiliated programs are accelerating past STEM and heading for STEAM, so, given its location and history, it would be interesting to see if the Columbia Memorial Space Center is able to somehow forge a tie-in with film making and its current programs.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center was created as a national memorial to the crew of STS-107, seven astronauts who died when the orbiter Columbia broke apart during reentry. (Related Lofty Ambitions blog posts HERE and HERE.) One of the first images that grabs and holds your attention as you enter the center is a wall-sized mosaic of Columbia’s last mission. The seven thousand individual images that unite to form the mosaic are snapshots of Columbia, the seven-member crew, and their training and preparation. When taken in its entirety, the mosaic is a compelling image of the moment that the STS-107 crew left the Earth for the last time. Up close, the individual images are a hauntingly intimate and personal glimpse into the lives of seven professionals who died doing something they loved.

The facility also houses a Challenger Learning Center. In this learning space, kids become members of a space shuttle crew on a simulated mission to return to the Moon or go to Mars. This part of the center is designed for groups and requires reservations, so area teachers should check it out.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00a.m. to 5:00p.m, with shortened hours on Sunday from 11:00a.m. to 3:00p.m.

Doug and Rand had a great time at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, and Anna will undoubtedly make the trip next time there’s an opportunity. In the meantime, Doug and Rand are considering ways to bring the Boisjoly collection to more people. Feel free to contact us via email if you have ideas for that project.

The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics & a Poem August 22, 2012

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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.

                                    —Marie Curie

 

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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.

The Planetary Society and Your Place in Space August 5, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Curiosity, Just Hours from Landing (NASA)

Yesterday, we committed ourselves to braving the California intrastate highway system (SR-57 and I-210) in order to attend Planetfest 2012 in Pasadena. Today, we are doing it again. Planetfest is an event held by The Planetary Society, an organization dedicated to furthering the message of the value of planetary exploration through education, outreach, and lobbying. The Planetary Society was founded in 1980 by scientists Carl Sagan, Louis Freedman, and Bruce Murray.

This year, Planetfest is timed to coincide with the landing of the Mars Science Lander (MSL)—now generally known as Curiosity—on August 6th at 5:31 UTC. (Coordinated Universal Time—yes, we know that the acronym doesn’t match the words. It’s the result of one in a long-line of English-language v. French-language scientific squabbles. You can read about it HERE.) It’s rare that timing of any historic event these days favors the West Coast of the United States, but we should have verification of a successful landing by bedtime. The landing should occur at 10:17pm PDT. With the fourteen-minute delay for Curiosity to relay information from Mars back to Earth, that’s 10:31pm for us, plenty of time to celebrate a bit and be home just after midnight.

Curiosity’s Cameras (NASA)

The first day of Planetfest included dozens of speakers (see our post of quotes yesterday HERE), an exhibit hall, and an art show featuring work by members of the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA). The IAAA was founded as an organization after a group of space artists met at one of the first Planetfests. The Planetary Society has a history of bringing together like-minded individuals and giving them an opportunity to find their “Place in Space.” Those notions of interaction and our place in the universe reached a high point in an afternoon panel featuring early-career scientists and engineers (a couple of whom are still students). Several of the young scientists indicated that their burgeoning interest in space and science was enhanced through contact with The Planetary Society events. One even pointed to a college internship through The Planetary Society.

Attendance at yesterday’s event peaked at about 300 people in the early afternoon. During the day, it was reported that today’s event is completely sold out; there are approximately 1000 seats set up in the Pasadena Convention Center ballroom. So The Planetary Society has arranged for an overflow viewing area for watching the NASA feed of the landing (purchase tickets HERE).

Mission Support Area at JPL (NASA)

Here at Lofty Ambitions, our first real contact with The Planetary Society came through the SETI@Home program, which asked average folks to process on their home computers signals from radio-telescopes looking for intelligent life somewhere out there in the rest of the universe. The program was co-sponsored by UC-Berkeley. Doug ran SETI@Home on an iMac SE Graphite while he was in graduate school. He fired up that computer earlier this week to see that he’d contributed just under 2500 hours of the iMac’s time to the SETI@Home.  If you want more information about how you can participate, take a look HERE.

Curiosity on Mars, Expected August 6 (NASA)

Shortly after this post is up at Lofty Ambitions, we’ll be making our way once again to Pasadena and Planetfest. It’s landing day! We’re nervous. We’ve watched  “Seven minutes of terror” a dozen times–you can watch it at the end of this post. We’ve just finished reading the “Mission Overview” section of the MSL/Curiosity press kit. You don’t have to look too closely at the description of the mission to recognize the complexity of what is being attempted in this Mars landing. At the same time, we’re excited and hopeful and not just a little bit proud of what human beings try to accomplish—and often do accomplish, despite the complexity of the task or the risk involved.

A theme that has run through space-nerd circles since the end of the space shuttle program has been that we—specifically the United States—have become risk averse and that, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “We stopped dreaming.” See that video below. That’s a question for another day. Today is a day for reveling in what we can accomplish when we dare to dream big.

In less than twelve hours, we’re going to drop a Mini-Cooper-sized rover vehicle onto the surface of Mars. It will skydive, then bungee-jump its way down in those last few minutes. If all goes well, in a few weeks, that rover will begin to tell us a story about another planet.

As Bill Nye, ever the Science Guy and now also the CEO of The Planetary Society, said yesterday, “This weekend is going to change the world.” We believe him.

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