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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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
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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



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.

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.

From 3R’s to STEAM (Discovery Departure, Part 11) July 25, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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Although it seems ages ago at this point, a little over two months ago, we were in Washington, DC, watching two space shuttles, Discovery and Enterprise, move to their permanent homes.  Discovery took up residence in the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, in a very deft and public move into the gallery that Enterprise formerly occupied. Enterprise headed for a new midtown address in the City that Never Sleeps, taking up residence at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

In our ten-hour day at Udvar-Hazy, we not only got to see Enterprise meet Discover;, the two shuttles had never been in the same place before. As members of the press, we had the opportunity to interview several of the speakers from that morning’s ceremony. We’ve already written about our interviews with astronaut and Senator John Glenn, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and the first woman to command a space shuttle, Eileen Collins. Two of our other conversations from that day were with people directly connected to Discovery’s new home: Dr. Wayne Clough, the twelfth Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and General John R. Dailey, Director of the National Air and Space Museum, which is part of the Smithsonian system. Both men were enthusiastic about what has come to be known as STEAM.

We had heard of STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—before and make that the topic of one question we usually asked astronauts we meet. What, then, was STEAM? Dailey made it clear that art is now part of thinking when it comes to educating future generations and informing the public who wander their ways through the National Air & Space Museum’s two facilities. Art is crucial in the educational configuration of subjects because it embodies creativity, imagination, and innovation. The approach of the artist is necessary for big leaps in the STEM disciplines and important for cultural development more generally.

We had, in fact, viewed an art exhibit at the facility on The Mall the day before the Discovery installation and meeting these two men. The National Air and Space Museum has a 4500-object art collection, of which they have space to display very little. Dailey’s hope is for increased visibility of that collection in its current buildings and, importantly, a new art facility that will contain exhibits and long-term storage. Having seen images from the Hubble Telescope exhibited at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and, earlier, another exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, we can understand the importance and value of making such artwork available more widely. We can imagine the hundreds of paintings of aircraft that are currently in crates and out of view and how bringing those to light would generate a conversation about the relationships between form and function, aesthetics and technological innovation.

In addition to the physical objects, the National Air and Space Museum has committed to digitizing as much of its holdings as feasible, eventually making every artifact in its collection accessible online. Dailey stated that, when an artifact is added to the collection now, it is photographed in 144 views so that it can be rendered digitally in three dimensions. This commitment fits the museum’s mission and allows millions of teachers and students to study the museum’s collection.

Clough concurred, saying that he grew up in a small country town and was unaware that such things as these artifacts existed. “That’s a shame,” he stated, clearly wanting to ensure that future generations have more access to the artifacts of the century of flight and the objects of the Space Age than he did.

The National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts are on board with STEAM, each having new grant programs to encourage connections and collaborations between the arts and sciences. Though we hadn’t heard the term STEAM before talking with these two gentlemen, Lofty Ambitions has been engaged in this combination. We are, after all, a poet and a scientist. In addition, check out the following guest posts for some other great examples of STEAM in action:

Joe Bonomo 
Dethe and Daniela Elza
Lylie Fisher
Brian Foster
Claudine Jaenichen
Leslie Adrienne Miller
Debora Rindge
Peter and Kirsten Stoltz

It Takes a Village To Build a Blog June 27, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Space Exploration, Writing.
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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).

Marilyn Harran, Garrett Reisman, Anna Leahy, Douglas Dechow (photo by Clifford Lester)

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.

Doug, John Glenn, & space nerd Margaret Lazarus Dean

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.

Space Toys May 2, 2012

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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.

Doug spent a whole day spent chatting, shopping, and eating with his parents, and Anna joined in some of that fun after packing up the Tabula Poetica table at the AWP bookfair.

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, 2012

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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.


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]:”

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.

Guest Blog: M. G. Lord February 6, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
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M. G. Lord  is a cultural critic, journalist, and the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.  Since 1995, she has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the Arts & Leisure section. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the  New Yorker, Vogue, The Wall Street JournalLos Angeles Times, Travel + Leisure, and Artforum. She teaches at the University of Southern California and will anchor the nonfiction division at the first annual Yale Writers Conference in New Haven this summer.

Photo by Collin Thalken

We became interested in M. G. Lord’s work after Doug saw her present on a panel about science writing at the Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference. You can read our post about that panel HERE. After that, Anna read Lord’s book Astro Turf (lots of good Jet Propulsion Laboratory stuff) and, when the opportunity arose, invited Lord to participate in the upcoming AWP panel on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that Lofty Ambitions is featuring each of the presenters on that creative nonfiction panel. Click HERE for the post by Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden. Click HERE for the post by Jeff Porter, author of Oppenheimer is Watching Me. Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium and A Safeway in Arizona, will be our next guest blogger. And if you’re in Chicago on March 2, join us at 1:30p.m. in the Hilton, Continental B.

We’re especially interested in what she’s doing now, namely collaborating on her next book project, which has to do with neuroscience, and, in the process, exploring the technology of drawing.


On February first, Bloomsbury USA published my new book, The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. As you may glean from the title, this is a departure from my previous book, Astro Turf, a family memoir of aerospace culture during the Cold War and an informal history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both books, however, have a common attribute—one that, I suspect has blighted books since Gutenberg invented moveable type: Publication is hell. Or, in any event, publication taxes an author’s nerves.

My strategy for dealing with such stress is to avoid anything written about my work, whether it’s positive or negative. Instead, I immerse myself in a fresh project, ideally one that has little in common with the book under scrutiny. This means not only a different subject but also a new medium. That brings me to my latest endeavor. In collaboration with Dr. Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist who also happens to be an opera singer, I am working on a graphic novel that has to do with the brain.

By working, I mean both writing and drawing, the latter of which today seems more like engineering than art. Two decades ago, when I retired from a 12-year run as a political cartoonist for Newsday, all a caricaturist needed to excel was hand-eye coordination and a mean spirit. I drew malicious pictures with a crow quill pen on Bristol board. But in 2012, the best graphic artists are also software virtuosos. They render some or all of their cartoons digitally, either scanning pen-and-ink drawings into the computer or executing an entire image in a program such as Adobe Illustrator.

To say I lack an aptitude for engineering would be a gross understatement. Never mind that I developed great admiration for engineers while writing Astro Turf. Initially, I was so intimidated by the drawing software that I hired a tutor to help me with it—or, more accurately, to help me decide whether mastery was a realistic possibility. Our first session—on my tutor’s equipment—was psychologically brutal. After two hours of scanning existing drawings and manipulating them in Adobe Photoshop, we moved to the true baptism of fire: drawing directly on a tablet connected to the computer.

Aerial View of JPL (NASA)

All political cartoonists of my vintage—I was in college in the late 1970s—can draw Richard Nixon in their sleep. During Watergate, I taught myself to render the disgraced President on an Etch-a-Sketch, which back then was an eye-popping parlor trick. Compared with a tablet, however, the Etch-a-Sketch is an inexpensive, effortless drawing tool. Now, I faced a pricy, counterintuitive torture device. After another hour of tutoring, I managed to scratch out a digital approximation of Nixon’s flapping jowls and ski-jump beak. And I decided to commit both time and money to embracing the digital future.

Tablets come in two main styles: one on which you draw but your marks appear on a separate monitor; the other that is itself a monitor, so that you see what you have drawn beneath your stylus rather than feet away. As you can imagine, the latter iteration is pricier than the former. I was planning to go the cheap route until the universe sent me a message not to. Last month, a lifestyle magazine asked me to interview Rodolphe Guenoden, a DreamWorks animation supervisor. I expected we would talk about animated movies. But Guenoden’s great passion is graphic novels, and he showed me how he used hardware and software to render them digitally. He made drawing on a Wacom Cintiq—a tablet that also functions as a monitor—seem almost intuitive. I watched him change the way his lines appeared, simulating brushstrokes, pen lines, pencil marks. And I bought the Cintiq.

True, it took me three hours with a tutor to set it up. And another 45 minutes to figure out how to define the margins on a page. In the old days, with a T-square, I could pencil in margins while blindfolded. My hand still reaches for the pens and brushes on my desk. But I allow it to—even Guenoden does his initial storyboarding on paper.

A steep learning curve awaits. But that is exactly what I want. It is guaranteed to distract me from the vicissitudes of publication.


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