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The Science Writers’ Handbook (2013)
That’s right, this handbook is just out, and it’s worth getting your hands on. The contributions are written by members of SciLance, an invitation-only group of accomplished science writers who got together several years ago to share information.
The premise is that science writing is “about the world around us—what’s in our bones, how stars are born, and why drought scars the landscape—and how new knowledge fits into our society. When done right, science writing can inform, inspire, and even change the course of history. When done wrong…well, let’s not go there.” The Science Writers’ Handbook is about how to do it right.
“While not all science writers are journalists,” Alison Fromme asserts in the first chapter, “the writers of this book believe that all science writers can and should approach their subjects journalistically, with curiosity, an open mind, a healthy sense of skepticism about the material, and transparency about our methods, biases, and sources.”
This book is divided into three sections: The Skilled Science Writer, The Sane Science Writer, and The Solvent Science Writer. In other words, the book covers how to manage the writing itself, how to manage the writing life, and how to make some money. The whole thing is quite practical and readable
We found the following chapters particularly useful in thinking about key aspects of and options for being a science writer.
Chapter 3: Making the Pitch by Thomas Hayden, with boxes (extra info) by Hayden, Monica Baker, and Douglas Fox
The success of a pitch depends upon the story idea, its relevance, its timeliness, the type of piece, extras like photos, and who the author is. Importantly, “You want to build your queries around good story ideas. But you also want to send another message: that working with you will be a low-risk proposition.” This chapter is packed with advice on how to convey that message to an editor.
Chapter 9: Going Long: How to Sell a Book by Emma Marris
Marris points to Rebecca Skloot and The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as a great aspiration for which a writer should not hold her breath. “Instead, you should write a book for one or, ideally, both of the following reasons: you are so gripped by a story, person, or topic that you just have to write a book about it; or you have a good idea for a book, would like to try your hand at long-form writing, and would like to take advantage of the platform it will give you as a book author to further your career.” But it took Skloot more than a decade to write her best-seller, so do not go into a book project on a whim. This chapter has advice for writing a proposal and getting an agent, editing and publicity, and even co-authoring and doing compilations.
Chapter 15: An Experimental Guide to Achieving Balance by Virginia Gewin, wiith a box by Liza Gross
Gewin “trained—for five long years—to be a scientist” but, after some unexpected career turns, uncovered her real passion: “writing about the important topics I’d studied.” The switch in careers to freelance writing was really a switch in lifestyles. She discusses the advantages of having an office outside the home, the difficulty of establishing time boundaries, the role of the smart phone, how “turning down work can also send a positive message,” how to clear your head, and the benefits of having kids to impose balance on your life.
Chapter 24: Social Networks and the Reputation Economy by Emily Gertz, with a box by Sarah Webb
While not all the SciLance writers are tweeting, many find that social media is a great way to connect with the very people you’d want to connect with even without social media—sources, writers, editors. Gertz offers really thoughtful advice and encourages science writers to remain science writers on social media and create an appropriate, genuine persona in the digital world. She also suggests what not to share: bad mouthing others, money matters, family squabbles, and details about what you’re writing. Of course, if you’re live-tweeting an event, as she also suggests, you’re sharing details—the tweets are what you’re writing, at least in part. Getz also emphasizes the need to manage your social networking time, suggesting that you make appointments to check in, use the platform to present sorted information to you, look into apps that increase usability, and choose which social networks are best for you.
The Science Writers’ Handbook isn’t the only guide to science writing out there. Next time, we’ll discuss A Field Guide for Science Writers, to which several of last week’s instructors at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop have contributed.
To read the first part of our “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular” series, click HERE. That post discusses Elie Wiesel’s wisdom about words and writing. This week, we are immersed in the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and continue our series with a discussion of a new book about writing.
Their advice? For one thing, don’t start a piece the way we just did. “The habit of compression,” they write, “along with the exigency of a deadline, can lead a reporter to insert information into a sentence randomly, as if tucking in loose shirttails.” We wanted our readers to be impressed by Tracy Kidder even if you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine or Mountains Beyond Mountains, so we changed the Pulitzer Prize into an adjective to describe Kidder. Likewise, editor, a noun, was used as an adjective so that you’d know Todd plays a different role.
Other advice? Well, don’t do what we just did in the last paragraph. Okay, what Kidder and Todd call “the new vernacular” can work in a blog post because it’s “fun and highly readable. Like its antecedents, the new vernacular represents a democratic impulse, an antidote to vanity and literary airs. It’s friendly, it’s familiar.” All well and good, but the danger is that this style “imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel, like the chain restaurant that tells its patrons ‘You’re family’.”
Good Prose isn’t all nitty-gritty advice, though. Kidder and Todd tell stories, offer different perspectives on the same writerly issue, and give a full sense of the writing life. Since we’ve been revising early chapters of our book manuscript, we were drawn to the section called “Being Edited and Editing,” to which each author contributes an essay. Here, we find out about the evolution of the relationship between Kidder and Todd, and we are reminded of the crucial role that revision and editing play for most writers, for most books.
“Editing isn’t just something that happens to you,” Kidder reminds us. “You have to learn how to be edited.” We consider ourselves pretty good at being edited, in part because we edit each other all the time. Kidder adds, “[W]hen someone takes the trouble to read and respond honestly, I ought to feel grateful, even if I don’t.” Suck it up, we tell ourselves, when our writing group questions the length of time we spend on the history of the development of the space shuttle. We really were grateful when our agent suggested our original two book chapters be jettisoned completely before she submitted the proposal to editors, which, of course, meant that we needed to polish up new chapters to include.
More recently, these past couple of months, we’ve been revamping again, not jettisoning whole chapters, but deleting the equivalent of a quarter or a third of a chapter, then rebuilding with greater focus. Kidder distinguishes between tinkering, which “is the kind of rewriting that the advent of word processing encouraged, by making it so easy,” and “figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for ways to tell your story.” And we make that distinction too. Both kinds of revision become crucial, but, as Elie Wiesel said a few weeks ago, we must resist falling in love with our own words.
In fact, Kidder echoes Wiesel in several ways. They both overwrite early drafts and consider revising—sculpting, in Wiesel’s word—a writer’s privilege. They look for what’s essential. They want to tell a good story.
Todd offers other ways of looking at editing. He asserts that the writer and editor need not be of a similar temperament or share confidences in order to create a strong, long-term working relationship that makes for good literature. What quality must the writer have in order to make the relationship work? “A ‘thick skin’ doesn’t begin to describe the necessary virtue. It is essentially an act of generosity [to be edited].” And what quality must the editor possess? “The editor needs only some tact and the willingness to read things repeatedly.” The relationship between writer and editor is, ideally, one steeped in reciprocal generosity.
Writers—we among them—might keep in mind the changing role of editors in the publishing realm, with increased emphasis on acquisition and marketing and less reward for working extensively with writers to shape the book. Todd points to two pleasures for editors: “One is acquisition, the collector’s pleasure. The other is working with writers. […] As a writer, of course, what you really want is someone strong on both accounts.” Ultimately, though, he sees the resistance to editing far more likely to reside in the writer than the editor.
That said, he also draws a line. “Editors, in any medium, should avoid rewriting, and if they do try to rewrite, then the writer is justified in resisting.” It’s not that the editor couldn’t rewrite—and a part of us wishes that our agent had produced a few new pages for us to claim—but revision will almost certainly work better if the writer does the work so that the style feels seamless.
Here’s a passage from Good Prose that captures our sentiments, that suggests why we remain grateful for our discussions with our writing group and with our agent:
All good writing ultimately is a contest with the inexpressible. Every good passage leaves some thing unsaid. So it ought to be hard. But you don’t want to make it harder than necessary. The best thing and editor can do is to help the writer to think, and this is the most satisfying part of an editor’s work, collaborating at the level of structure and idea.
Next week, we’ll be participants in the weeklong Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. It’s a chance to step back from our material and think consciously about how we write. As we gear up for the intensive workshop, we’re using this opportunity to think about writing in general and to remind ourselves of the craft and methods we’re honing every time we revise a chapter in the book manuscript or draft a blog post here.
For this reason, we found the chance to hear Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel at Chapman University during his annual visit as a Presidential Fellow especially well timed. Many of the week’s events and conversations focused on writers, writing, and literature. We soaked up as much as we could and share some of Wiesel’s wisdom here.
In an on-stage conversation with our colleague Tom Zoellner, who has written about uranium for Lofty Ambitions, Wiesel talked about his days working as a reporter as well as the fiction and nonfiction writing he’s done. Wiesel asserted, “Had I not written Night, I would not have written any other book.” He might have remained a journalist, but that first novel opened a new way of life and writing for him.
“Silence is good for a novel,” Wiesel said, “but not for journalism.” Nonfiction reveals. Nonfiction gives voice. In another conversation with librarians, he put it a different way: “[Silence is] fraught with meaning. […] Silence is good for literature, but not life.”
Of his writing process for his books, he said that he overwrites, producing long, inclusive drafts for his novels. “Sculpture is what you take off,” he said, indicating that his novels are formed by deciding what is not essential. Perhaps, he was also suggesting that erasing or deleting creates the silences that he finds crucial for literary works. In the conversation with librarians, he talked more specifically about this sculpting, saying, “A 500-page manuscript can become two hundred pages very quickly. […] Only the bones remain. No flesh.” With Zoellner, he joked, “You sometimes have more books in the wastebasket.” Most importantly, he intimated, the writer must return to the desk. “You write,” he insisted, “even though you know maybe you will fail.”
And how does he manage to delete passages that are beautifully written but not essential? “I’ve never fallen in love with my words.” He asks himself what his words want to do and what they want to be. His words have goals and responsibilities; his books are something in addition to conveying something.
Morality is a responsibility Wiesel feels as a writer. About the role of morality in literature and the responsibility of the writer to compose a moral book, he said, “I cannot speak for all writers. I can barely speak for myself. It is a choice.” In another conversation, he added, “The main thing is the respect for the other.” He also pointed out, “We cannot intervene only with words. […] Only words can produce change.” This statement applies generally, of course, but the Holocaust survivor speaks from personal experiences as well. Ultimately, though, as he told Zoellner, “The role of the writer is to tell a good story.”
In the conversation with the university’s librarians, Wiesel expanded on his sense of his own writing process, saying, “I know when it’s finished. I almost know from the beginning.” While he may know when a book is finished, that process takes a long time. Wiesel doesn’t use a computer, yet he asserted, “I rewrite everything three times.” We grew up and started writing before computers were widely available, and we didn’t have a simple word processor until the end of our college years, yet the thought of rewriting a book-length manuscript by hand now sounds daunting.
As we take time to step back from our writing to think consciously about craft for a few weeks, we also remind ourselves that writers learn by reading. Wiesel pointed to different books he appreciated for different reasons, Albert Camus’ The Plague for its philosophy more than for its literary accomplishment and The Stranger for the absurdity. “The library is sacred,” he said. “The greatest moment is before I begin reading. […] I invite myself into the book.”
What better sentiment right now? Off to Santa Fe for a week and on the verge of summer, we look forward to inviting ourselves into the next book. We relish this long moment of anticipation.
Read our next post “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Good Prose HERE.
PurpleStride Chicago April 24, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science.
Today, we are participating in Chapman University’s Literary Pub(lishing) Crawl. If you’re in the area, we encourage you to join us for panels with writers, editors, and agents and a book signing featuring former head of Disneyland Jack Lindquist and journalist David Henley.
On Saturday, we’ll be walking for the second time in PurpleStride Chicago. Last spring, Anna’s Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the annual PurpleStride walk was scheduled on Mary Lee’s birthday so we walked while she was in the hospital. Mary Lee died in December, so we’re walking in her honor on her birthday weekend this year.
Our team is Mary Lee’s Merry Ladies, though, of course, we welcome men on the team as well. We have 14 people signed up to walk, an even bigger team than last year. We welcome donations toward the team or any individual team member. The money goes to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, or PanCan, to support patient advocacy and research.
When we wrote about last year’s PurpleStride, we gave an overview of pancreatic cancer, and mentioned several people who’ve died from this disease: Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze, and Randy Pausch of The Last Lecture. Since then, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died from pancreatic cancer last July, having survived 17 months after diagnosis.
The statistics are terrible, with most of those diagnosed with exocrine pancreatic cancer—three out of every four, or four out of every five, depending on the source—dying before one year is up. The five-year survival rate is just 6%, perhaps as low as 4%. Even if it’s caught in its earliest stage, the five-year survival rate is only 14%. Though not as common as many other cancers and more common after the age of 55 and in men, pancreatic cancer is on the increase. (See more at SEER.) Currently the fourth leading cause of cancer death, it’s expected to eclipse all other cancers except lung cancer by 2030. But pancreatic cancer receives less funding from the National Cancer Institute than the other four leading causes of cancer death. (See more at PanCan.)
The most surprising research revealed in the last year was done by a high-school student in Maryland. According to PanCan, Jack Andraka’s “project involves a dipstick technology, whereby a small piece of paper is coated with antibodies that recognize proteins that circulate in the blood or urine of patients with pancreatic cancer, but not individuals without the disease. This technology is much quicker and less expensive than standard laboratory tests.” This preliminary research is especially promising because 80% of patients are diagnosed after the cancer has metastasized. If a simple test could detect the disease earlier, when a small tumor could be surgically removed, survival rates could creep up. Andraka is racking up the awards for his idea and working with companies to test it and make it available to the public.
Meanwhile, scientist Alec Kimmelman is investigating how pancreatic cancer cells work, as it’s important to know exactly how they function differently from normal cells in order to destroy them without harming healthy cells. By looking at cell metabolism, Kimmelman discovered, for instance, that pancreatic cancer cells process sugar differently. More recently, in an article in Nature, Kimmelman and his team revealed, “that pancreatic cancer cells break down glutamine in a manner that is unique from normal cells. Furthermore, the study shows that pancreatic cancer cells are quite dependent on glutamine as a source of energy.” Now, research is needed to figure out how to inhibit—in the body, not just in the lab—the ability of the cancer cells to break down glutamine, so that the cancer cells die or are left more vulnerable to existing treatments.
The weather in Chicago for last year’s PurpleStride was drizzly and cold, and it looks as if it will be much the same this year. Mostly, we hope it dries up after this past week of terrible flooding in Illinois. It’d be great if it were a bit warmer on Saturday, too.
Gus Grissom April 3, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books
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Today marks the anniversary of Gus Grissom’s birth. Grissom, born Virgil but known as Gus, was a veteran of three spaceflight missions across three space programs. The shortest of the original seven astronauts would have been 87 years old today.
He flew the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft on the Mercury-Redstone 4 mission on July 21, 1961. Grissom was aloft for less than sixteen minutes and never reached orbit. He was the second American in space, Alan Shepard having been the first a couple of months earlier. Upon his return, as Liberty Bell 7 sloshed in the waves and Grissom finished some flip-switching while the recovery helicopter made its final moves, emergency explosives blew the hatch. Grissom scrambled out and nearly drowned, tangled in external lines and waving to helicopters to drop him a lifeline. Filling with water and the resulting weight, Liberty Bell 7 sank, unable to be lifted by the recovery helicopter and recovered decades later in 1999.
Grissom’s next big foray to space was on Gemini 3, the first manned flight of that space program. He had been Shepard’s backup, and Shepard was grounded with an inner ear disorder, so Grissom became the first person to fly to space twice.
In a nod to Grissom’s previous mission, he and fellow Gemini 3 astronaut John Young named their spacecraft Molly Brown, as in the unsinkable. When NASA disapproved of the name, the crew is said to have suggested Titanic as an alternative. While this story emanates a whiff of apocrypha, we have come to think of astronauts as a somewhat cheeky bunch and are willing to believe that Young and Grissom were of that ilk at the time. After that, NASA took a break from naming the capsules, until Apollo 9.
For its time, Gemini 3 was a lengthy mission, at more than four hours and three complete orbits. This flight also involved Young sneaking a corned beef sandwich on board and presenting it to a surprised and hungry Grissom. Fellow Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins, in his book Carrying the Fire, notes that, during the parachute deployment, which can wrench the spacecraft violently at the mission’s conclusion, Grissom “whack[ed] his head into the instrument panel, cracking his helmet visor.”
Grissom, seemingly beset by odd mishaps, was assigned to the first planned Apollo mission, designated AS-204 based on a complicated naming system. Sadly, he and his crewmates, Roger Chaffee and Ed White died in that spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967. A fire had started near Grissom’s seat and had flourished in the 100% oxygen at the ground pressure of 16 psi.
Of that fateful day, Collins writes of getting the initial news in Houston:
After what seemed like a long time, Don [Gregory] finally hung up and said very quietly, ‘Fire in the spacecraft.’ That’s all he had to say. There was no doubt about which spacecraft (102) or who was in it (Grissom-White-Chaffee) or where (Pad 34, Cape Kennedy) or why (a final systems test) or what (death, the quicker the better). All I could think of was, My God, such an obvious thing and yet we hadn’t considered it. We worried about engines that wouldn’t start or wouldn’t stop; we worried about leaks; we even worried about how a flame front might propagate in weightlessness and how cabin pressure might be reduced to stop a fire in space. But right here on the ground, when we should have been most alert, we put three guys inside an untried spacecraft, strapped them into couches, locked two cumbersome hatches behind them, and left them no way of escaping a fire.
One of the Apollo 1 crew reported the fire, then White said clearly, “Fire in the cockpit.” Communication continued for seventeen seconds. The crew struggled to escape. In ideal circumstances, escape took 90 seconds, but even in practice, the crew had never been able to egress that quickly. Someone uttered, “Get us out.” The fire burned so hot and the hatches were so complicated that it took the rescuers five minutes to reach the bodies of Grissom, Chaffee, and White. Though they suffered serious burns, which may have contributed to their deaths, their suits had been surprisingly effective protection against the flames. The three astronauts had died of asphyxiation.
Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington Cemetery, while White rests at West Point. Gus Grissom finished drafting his book Gemini: A Personal Account of Man’s Venture into Space only days before his death. There, he had written. “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
Science Writing at AWP 2013 March 20, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Books, 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.
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!
NASA Day of Remembrance February 1, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books, Space Shuttle
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Today is the anniversary of the Columbia accident in which seven astronauts perished when the space shuttle ripped apart during reentry. The cause of the accident was a piece of foam insulation that had come loose from the external fuel tank as the shuttle accelerated during launch. That debris gouged a hole in the thermal tiles of the leading edge of a wing. NASA did not ask the Department of Defense for in-space images of the damage. Unprotected in one small spot, the shuttle’s skin was breached by extreme heat as it descended into the atmosphere on February 1, 2003. A prior flight in 1988 had involved similar damage, and its commander, Hoot Gibson, had expressed grave concerns about catastrophic failure during reentry.
A few days ago, the nation commemorated the Challenger accident, which occurred on January 28, 1986. The crew of seven perished during launch, just seventy-three seconds into the flight. The cause of that accident was an O-ring failure in a joint of a solid rocket booster. The rubber ring failed to seal the joint during liftoff because the overnight ambient temperature had been too cold, below the manufacturer’s recommended minimum launch temperature. Engineers like Roger Boisjoly had expressed grave concerns in the day before launch.
Less than twenty years before that, on January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 died during a test on the ground. A fire broke out and swept swiftly—in less than twenty seconds—through the sealed, pure-oxygen-infused capsule. The capsule burst, and flames spread. It took several minutes to reach the three astronauts, far too late to save them. An exact cause was never determined, though the fire started with an electrical arc in the lower part of the capsule. A later investigation indicated that, in addition to possible sources in the capsule’s equipment, an electrical arc could have been created by friction when the astronauts adjusted their positions. Experiments also determined that the seemingly miraculous Velcro that the astronauts had used by the yard to affix items to the module walls burned like holiday wrapping paper, hot and fast in the oxygen. Earlier warnings about the dangers of using a pure-oxygen environment had gone unheeded.
What seems most disheartening to us about these three accidents is that specific concerns had been raised before each catastrophe. Hindsight may be 20/20, but foresight was in no way blind to the risks—to the specific risks that caused these fatal accidents in manned spaceflight.
What seems most horrific about these three accidents is that the astronauts died quickly but not instantly. Challenger pilot Michael Smith uttered, “Uh-oh.” A couple of minutes later, the crew cabin of Challenger plunged into the ocean intact, with three of the crew having activated their emergency air packs. Because cabin pressure was lost early in the break-up, none were likely to have been conscious when they hit the water. Likewise, the crew of Columbia likely lost consciousness quickly—“within seconds,” according to NASA’s report—when the orbiter broke apart. Lethal trauma occurred when the astronauts, their lower bodies strapped into their seats, were subjected to what NASA calls “cyclical rotation motion.” The crew of Apollo 1 reported the fire, and one astronaut tried to open the hatch. The final plea from the crew of Apollo 1: “Get us out!
Today at Lofty Ambitions, we honor the three lost crews of the U.S. manned space program.
APOLLO 1: Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee
CHALLENGER, STS-51L: Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnick, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and teacher Christa McAuliffe
COLUMBIA, STS-107: Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Mike Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark
In 2003, astronaut Rick Hauck pointed out that space exploration is dangerous; 18 of the 430 people who had gone to space by that time had died. The shuttle had had two fatal accidents, as had the Soyuz capsule. While some of these spacefarers flew multiple missions, more than four percent had died on the job. The risk of death for astronauts cannot be eliminated.
Out of each of these accidents, however, came changes to equipment, astronaut training, and NASA processes. Time was taken to understand the flaws in the system, whether they lay in an O-ring or the ways in which engineers’ concerns were overridden by managers. Sending human beings beyond Earth’s atmosphere is a fraught and mighty accomplishment. In Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer—the 90th anniversary of his birth was yesterday—wrote, “[I]t was that he hardly knew whether the Space Program was the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity.”
As the British poet Robert Browning wrote in 1855, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”
NASA Airborne Science Program: Flight Suit (Part 3 / #NASASocial) January 30, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Books, Dryden Flight Research Center, GRAILTweetup, Space Shuttle
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Today, we focus on the pilot flight suit worn by those who fly high-altitude aircraft like the venerable ER-2. The ER-2 is the civilian version of the military’s U-2 spy plane, a sixty-year-old aircraft design that has a reputation for being a handful to fly. NASA, of course, doesn’t spy. Instead, the ER-2 flies at the edge of space, roughly 70,000 feet above the Earth, to, according to NASA’s website, “scan shorelines, measure water levels, help fight forest fires, profile the atmosphere, assess flood damage, and sample the stratosphere.” But just because it’s being used for science doesn’t make the ER-2 any easier to fly. Last year while visiting Dryden, Doug heard test pilot Nils Larson say of the aircraft, “If you’re having a bad day and the U-2’s having a bad day, it can be a BAD DAY.”
At that altitude and with a partially pressurized cockpit, the pilot needs to wear a suit that is, according to NASA’s Josh Graham, 80% the same as the orange launch-and-reentry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts. The differences between these flight suits and spacesuits lie mainly in the neck area and oxygen system. If the ER-2 pilot didn’t have such a suit, the lack of pressure at 65,000 feet would cause his blood to boil. Looking at the flight suit he brought for demonstration, Graham said, “This is somebody’s father. They need to come home.”
Each pilot is issued two of these suits, at a cost of $300,000 apiece, along with one helmet, which adds another $100,000 to the price of the outfit. The suit itself weighs thirty-five pounds and comes in thirteen standard sizes, though Graham pointed to a pilot standing behind us and said that he gets a special suit because he’s especially tall.
All the current suits—NASA’s flight suits and spacesuits—are handmade by the David Clark Company in Massachusetts. Each suit takes six to eight months to complete. The suit works in layers. The layer we see is yellow, but Graham unhitched the helmet and peeled back the outer layer so that we could view the layer of mesh, hand-woven hundred-pound fishing line. These outfits are designed to hold up with a tear as long as three inches or with a quarter-sized hole.
The David Clark Company also made the Gemini spacesuits, which were used for extravehicular activity in which, according to Michael Collins in Carrying the Fire, “oxygen came from the spacecraft via an umbilical, and then went through a chest pack.” Apollo spacesuits were made by the International Latex Corporation, or ILC, and had an “oxygen supply from a back pack.” Of ILC’s work, which applies to David Clark’s work as well, the book Spacesuit says the following: “similar to sewing a bra or girdle,” “unprecedented precision,” “highly regulated,” “elaborate process,” and “the delicate art of their collective synthesis.”
Collins played a crucial role with the Apollo suits: “My job was to monitor the development of all this equipment, to make sure that it was coming along all right, that it was going to be safe and practical to use, and that it would please the other guys in the astronaut office.” Though NASA’s ER-2 flight suits are already well developed, Joshua Graham does this sort of overseeing for aircraft operations, making sure each suit is ready to go.
One of the facets of NASA’s social media program that we enjoy is the opportunity to rub shoulders with other aviation and space nerds. While visiting the Space Coast to participate in a Tweetup and watch the GRAIL twins launch in 2011, Doug met the granddaughter of a woman who had worked as part of the team that assembled the Apollo spacesuits.
As we were examining the flight suit up close last week, Graham pointed out the small whiffle ball attached to a tether on the front of the get-up. When the flight suit initially inflates, it poofs up. This raises the helmet so that the pilot can’t see. He feels around the front of his suit to find the plastic ball, which he pulls down. This simple action readjusts the neck of the suit and helmet, and he’s ready to zoom.
Some of the flights are long, and no one wants a hungry, woozy pilot. But the pilot can’t take off his helmet to grab a bite to eat. Instead, his helmet has a feeding hole, and food—the sample we saw was caffeinated chocolate pudding (which sounds very useful)—is packed in tubes with stiff straws attached. The pilot can jab the straw into the hole in his helmet and suck the snack down.
Other human needs are also likely to occur on long flights, so the suit is also designed with a device like a condom connected to a tube, which the pilot wears so that he can relieve himself at any time. Graham didn’t discuss what the women pilots do, and earlier in the day, a NASA representative indicated that NASA currently had no women test pilots. What we didn’t know was that pilots must carefully control what Graham referred to as “number two.” If a pilot feels the need to defecate during a mission, he must declare an inflight emergency and return home as fast as he safely can. NASA doesn’t want to encourage a poop that costs $300,000.
Toward the end of our time in this section of the tour of the hangar at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF, or day off), Doug asked Graham about the clunky spurs on the back of the suit’s boots. Graham responded that this aircraft is the only one that still uses hooks and cables in its ejection seat. The spurs hook to cables to pull his feet to the seat and keep his limbs from flailing during ejection. Then, at 14,000-16,000 feet, the pilot can cut the cable and parachute down safely.
The planes are cool. The ER-2 is fascinating because it flies incredibly high. The science is important. The ER-2 and its predecessor have been collecting data since the early 1970s, sampling the stratosphere and mapping large forest fires. Last week’s flight suit demonstration reminded us that the people are crucial to NASA’s Airborne Science Program.
The Next Big Thing (blog hop) January 28, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Space Shuttle
Poet Kristin LaTour tagged us for The Next Big Thing that’s going around the blogosphere. Here, we take on the ten questions that series poses.
What is your working title of your book?
We were born into the Apollo era, and Doug’s earliest memory is of watching the Moon landing. We came of age in the shadow of the space shuttle. As we followed the end of the shuttle program over the last couple of years, we realized that there’s a big swath—those born between the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the first shuttle launch in 1981—that is Generation Space. When Neil Armstrong died last year, this space generation became the adults of this world.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
We started writing together in 2004, when we presented a paper about how aviation museums represented World War II. We sent in an abstract because we wanted to visit Amsterdam together, but after the conference, we published an essay version of our paper in an edited collection and kept writing together.
In 2008, we moved to Southern California for new jobs. As we packed our belongings, we started talking about how this move might be an opportunity for us because this area has a long tradition in aviation. We started Lofty Ambitions blog in 2010, in part to write about the aviation and spaceflight history that surrounded us. Generation Space is a natural outcome of our years together.
What genre does your book fall under?
Generation Space is part science writing, part cultural commentary, part memoir. Some might call it literary journalism.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
When we started following the end of the space shuttle program in the fall of 2010, we didn’t expect to meet actors. But it turns out that a lot of Americans from all walks of life are interested in space exploration. Seth Green of The Family Guy was at a #NASAtweetup for a shuttle launch, and we met Luke Wilson last time we were at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). We sat behind June Lockhart of Lost in Space at the title transfer of Endeavour here in California and saw Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek there too. And we’ve seen celebs of other sorts at KSC, like Anderson Cooper, John Oliver, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
As for who would play us, that’s hard to imagine. Maybe Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion, who currently star together in Castle. The two characters have different styles but work well together, collaborating on crime solving and, to a certain extent, novel writing. Katic has dark hair and pale skin like Anna, and we have a friend who’s met Katic’s brother. Of course, Fillion knows how to do space from Firefly and Serenity, and we’ve been watching him since Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Maybe our book could even be adapted for an episode of Castle, with someone attacked by one of the alligators that lives in the ditch near the launch pad at KSC—only, Richard Castle knows it’s murder.
Mostly, if we somehow get a movie deal for Generation Space, we probably won’t care who plays us, though Doug would veto Michael Chiklis.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Star Trek‘s Enterprise set out on a five-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before, but NASA has gone boldly for fifty years and counting—Generation Space figures out what that means for us as a spacefaring nation and for our future.
Okay, we used a dash to get two sentences.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
We’re represented by Alice Tasman at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. We wrote about landing an agent here at Lofty Ambitions. Since then, with Alice’s suggestions in mind, we’ve revised our book proposal.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
We’ll let you know when we’re finished. We started drafting in earnest about a year ago at a two-week residency at Ragdale, and we have roughly half the book in really good shape and the rest mapped out.
Of course, we researched and wrote blog posts over two years, before we started drafting as a book. While we can’t merely cut and paste blog posts, a blog-to-book project means that we generated a lot of ideas and material that we can now use as we draft chapters. We’ve reorganized our thinking to form a table of contents that makes sense for Generation Space, and we’re distilling and expanding from blog posts to form chapter outlines. We end up re-drafting, then we revise and revise and revise.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
In some ways, our book works like Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden. She tackles nuclear weapons manufacturing, so the topic is different. But, like Iverson, we’re covering a blend of science and history and including personal experience. Another book with that sort of balance is Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl!, which is a personal and scientific investigation of allergies, or Tom Zoellner’s Uranium, which investigates all things—discovery, mining, uses, misuses—uranium. In all these science books, the author becomes part of the story, a vehicle for understanding the topic. And all three of these authors have contributed guest posts to Lofty Ambitions.
In other ways, our book is immersion journalism, a project book like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport, or Tracy Kidder‘s The Soul of a New Machine. We immerse ourselves in a place we’ve never been before, and we learn—through failure and success—how to be insiders in a particular time and place to understand an aspect of our culture and ourselves. There’s an arc to our story and to the story of U.S. space exploration that we couldn’t convey solely through blog posts.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The trigger for following the end of the space shuttle and, ultimately, for writing Generation Space was driving out to the desert—to Edwards Air Force Base—on Thanksgiving weekend in 2008 to see Endeavour land.
By that point, the shuttle program as set to end within a few years, so we started wondering what that meant for us as individuals who grew up with American manned spaceflight as a given and for the country. Within two years, we went to KSC to see a launch. And we kept going and going.
Serendipity played a huge role in keeping us focused on this project. Through one colleague, we met Roger Boisjoly, a whistleblower in the Challenger accident (today—January 28—is the anniversary), and his papers are now archived at our university. Through another colleague, we attended an event celebrating the Ilan Ramon Day School; Ramon died in the Columbia accident, and we saw his wife speak and met astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is now at SpaceX. During our residency at Ragdale, we discovered that Lovell’s Restaurant—as in Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell—was nearby so we ate a delicious meal in the midst of space artifacts. Our friend Leslie Pietrzyk recently sent Albert Goldbarth’s poetry chapbook The End of Space to Anna. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t stumble across something connected to Generation Space. Serendipity is ongoing inspiration.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Most books about the space shuttle are really technical and demand a lot of the lay reader or are heavily photographic, without much information or narrative into which you can sink your reading teeth. We’re writing for for strollers as well as for studiers. A reader will learn a lot but find the story accessible. We have a story to tell.
Also, we’re writing in the voice that we developed for Lofty Ambitions. We write as a couple, though it’s clear when a particular experience is Anna’s or something happened specifically to Doug. We don’t know of any other book co-written by a poet and a science librarian; we have fun writing together, and the collaborative voice comes naturally to us now.
So that’s our take on The Next Big Thing. Keep reading—we’ve tagged the following writers for next week’s round of The Next Big Thing. Click on each name to continue reading The Next Big Thing next week!