The Next Big Thing (blog hop) January 28, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Science Writing, 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!
In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 15) January 2, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons
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Last Wednesday, Lofty Ambitions introduced Jean Dayton and our serendipitous meeting with that woman of the Manhattan Project and nuclear history. You can start with that post by clicking HERE.
Jean Klein Dayton would have been 88 years old this past Sunday. In continuing with our theme of chance, of serendipity, we hadn’t thought about Jean in quite a while, but recently, when tidying up the Manhattan Project area of Doug’s writing space, something in the stack of books, notes, photos, and maps brought Jean into a moment’s focus. Later, fingertips on laptop keyboard, Doug did a quick search for Jean (“jean klein dayton manhattan project”). Almost at the top of the search results was Jean’s obituary in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper. She had died more than three years earlier in March 2009.
Also in that first page of results were links to information about Jean in Manhattan Project related websites and books. In particular, Doug was drawn to the passages about Jean in the book, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. It was a more-than-appropriate reminder of how we came to interview Jean in the summer of 2004. That summer was a furious maelstrom of activity. Doug was focused on writing up the results of his PhD research, Anna copyedited, and together we planned the moves necessary to reunite our household after five years of maintaining one residence in Oregon and another in the Midwest.
Doug hadn’t so much forgotten about his encounter with Jean Dayton and her association with the Manhattan Project as he had boxed them up and put them away like holiday decorations in the attic of his mind. Doug’s novel project, set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, could easily consume weeks of time. Time that took him away from his dissertation. Time that he couldn’t afford if he were to finish his degree. Eventually, after some lengthy self-bargaining, working on the novel became a reward. It was a present Doug would give to himself for finishing his dissertation. But toward the end of that summer, running out of time if he were to finish before the move back to Illinois, Doug found himself fingering the spines of books about the Manhattan Project in Oregon State’s Valley Library. What had started out as a simple errand to return a stack of books about software engineering and qualitative research methods—two topics not often seen together at the time—had become a mini-break away from the drudgery of academic writing.
When Doug came across Their Day in the Sun, he instantly remembered the woman that he’d run into after the Cold War lecture more than a year earlier. He quickly skimmed the book’s index for her entry. Upon finding and reading Jean’s pages in the book, Doug was once again fascinated by this person and wondered if there would be time to interview her before leaving Corvallis for good. We quickly discussed the situation and decided that we would just have to make time for the interview. The phone call to set up the interview was very much like the last time that Doug and Jean spoke: quiet, full of pauses, and somewhat awkward. We agreed to a meeting in the cafeteria at a hospital in Corvallis. Jean or her husband was undergoing treatment at the time.
The interview began with lots of background about Jean’s life. She’d gone to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project as the wife of a physicist, Henry Hurwitz. After the war, Hurwitz would be a leading thinker in the area of the nuclear power plants and made significant contributions to the design and development of nuclear submarines. Jean and Henry would ultimately divorce, but during the war, like many of the smart, capable scientists’ wives at the Manhattan Project, she pitched in.
Doug reminded her of their meeting after the Galison talk where she’d indicated that she worked for Edward Teller. She nodded, but said nothing. Even after further prompting, Jean was unwilling to provide specifics about the nature of her own work. In fact, before agreeing to the interview she required that we provide her with any notes that we took so that she could forward them to the security office at Los Alamos. We kept our word, and we can only assume that she did too. Jean exuded a calm competence that suggested when she said she would do something, she did. About her work during the Manhattan Project, Their Day in the Sun has this to say:
“Dayton started in the Electronics Division, making Geiger counters and other equipment and installing an interoffice phone system. She transferred to weapons testing in order to get outdoors, and she later helped to design the detonation system for the hydrogen bomb. John von Neumann selected her for the job because he felt that a mathematician would take to long to figure out the system. A person working intuitively, he hoped, would be more efficient.”
Although the book’s description doesn’t precisely coincide with Jean’s recollection—she indicated that she worked for Teller (von Neumann’s countrymen and friend)—it does pinpoint her thinking as to the reason that she was chosen. Also, given Teller’s role in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, it’s likely that she was collaborating with both men.
During the interview, Jean was much more open about day-to-day life on The Hill (one of the many monikers that Los Alamos went by during the Manhattan Project). Jean was reluctant to mention the names of many of the personages that she encountered during her time on The Hill. After mentioning a dinner party that she held where three of the attendees would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize, we developed a habit of guessing whom she was talking about. If we guessed correctly, she’d confirm our guess with a quick nod. One of the attendees at her dinner party was a young Richard Feynman. After we made that connection, Jean fondly recalled broadcasting an advice-for-the-lovelorn radio show with Feynman. She also related that Feynman had developed a bit of a crush on her. Still married at the time, Jean introduced Feynman to her sister, and the two dated for a time.
It’s been more than eight years since we interviewed Jean. Jean arrived at Los Alamos in 1943. She was nineteen years old, younger than many of our students. Jean Dayton was our first interview as a team. We feel like we did a pretty good job, but now that we’ve done more research and visited Los Alamos ourselves, there are many things that we wish we could ask.
5 Takeaways from the Writer’s Digest Conference October 24, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
Last weekend, we attended the Writer’s Digest Conference West. We wanted to get out of the academy and see what’s what in mainstream publishing. A lot of what was said, we already knew. Some of that provided good reminders. A few tidbits were new to us, or at least new approaches to tried-and-true advice.
1) Writer and Author are different roles.
That writer and author are different roles we embody isn’t always the way we talk about our writing lives, but it’s a helpful distinction to make in order to carve out focused writing time as well as consider how to present your work to others, including an agent, an editor, or a reader. This distinction lingered in the air like perfume, but literary agent Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freyman Literary Agency was the person to say it bluntly: “Gone is the day when you can sit in a black turtleneck and just write.”
Of course, Sands is speaking from the agent’s perspective, so she wants writers to think of themselves as authors. She wants us to treat approaching an agent or an editor—maybe even a reader—as if we’re applying for a job. She wants us to know that our work will be judged according to how quickly we can immerse someone in the world of the story, whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction. She wants an author to set aside hubris and humility, perhaps the two most necessary qualities in a writer.
2) What’s your book about?
Authors have to field the question What is your book about? Marketing consultant Rob Eagar advised, “Never answer that question.” What the person is really asking is What’s in it for me?
The question, then, is an invitation to tell someone why he or she should read your book. Does your book provide a vicarious experience? Does it add to that person’s knowledge about culture or history? Is your book funny or heart wrenching? Eagar emphasizes that what drives the writer will drive readers. If we think about why we are writing about the end of the space shuttle program, we’ll be able to figure out why readers will benefit from our book. We can transform our interest and investment of time into readers’ interest and investment of time.
3) It’s about voice, not brand.
With all the pressure these days to build a snazzy platform with a zillion tweets and posts that garner a zillion hits, it was great to hear novelist and game designer Chuck Wendig tell us that voice matters. That’s what writers want to hear. As he put it, storytelling is art, and writing is craft, and that needs to be working.
Wendig is especially leery of branding because it can mimic typecasting. Once Bob Denver became Gilligan, he couldn’t be anyone else in the public’s gaze. For those writers, like Wendig and us, who want to write more than one kind of thing, branding might limit us. That’s not to say one shouldn’t build a platform and an audience but that one’s voice—art and craft—is one’s mark on the world. And he’s convinced that for every author, there exists an audience.
4) If it’s not working, do something else.
If a writer takes every piece of advice about building a platform, she will face two problems. First, of course, she’ll have no time for the writing that is the raison d’etre for the platform. Second, she won’t be playing to her strengths and hiding her weaknesses. Both Rob Eagar and Chuck Wendig emphasized that authors shouldn’t waste their time doing tasks that they aren’t enjoying and that aren’t paying off.
If you don’t like people, reading tours and workshops should be avoided. If you’re going to tweet once a month about what you had for dinner, why bother? If you can’t write anything under 5000 words, don’t blog. As blogger Nina Amir pointed out, if you start a blog, but it doesn’t work—you want to change your focus or nobody outside your family is reading it—you can hit the delete button and start fresh. In other words, authors have lots of options, can test out those options, and can make individualized decisions instead of thinking there’s only one best way.
5) Screw the numbers. Readers are individuals.
That’s what Chuck Wendig said, and we want to believe it. But it’s not easy. Agents check the numbers. Editors check the numbers. Some authors check their BookScan numbers every day. We recently heard a poetry editor say that their marketing person checks how many Facebook friends a poet has. Numbers matter enough that you can buy Twitter followers to make you look more popular, though there also now exists software to determine how many fake followers a person has.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Each reader really is an individual, a real person who makes a decision to buy your book, to invest his time in what you’ve written. Writing is most often done in isolation, one person crafting sentences one by one to make something artful. Reading, too, is most often done in isolation, one person holding a book or an e-reader. Even those authors who sell millions of books depend on one person at a time, each reader taking in the words alone. Of course, every author hopes that the words matter to that reader enough that he tells two people, and they tell two people.
You say, Festschriften; I say, that’s a funny word. August 15, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, Nobel Prize, Physics
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PUBLIC EVENT TOMORROW: “The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics,” 5:30p.m. in Fish Interfaith Center, Chapman University
Around the Lofty Ambitions household, our tongues have been tripping regularly over the lovely German word Festschriften (and its singular, Festschrift). As any good dictionary will tell you, a Festschrift is a book produced to honor a noteworthy academic, usually on a significant birthday. It is a kind of lifetime achievement award, often produced by the doctoral students that the recipient has advised during her or his career.
For the last five months, Doug has been involved in the planning of a conference to honor Chapman University faculty member and 2010 National Medal of Science winner Yakir Aharonov. Aharonov is celebrating his 80th birthday this August, so this conference invites fifty of Aharonov’s colleagues to Chapman’s campus on August 16-18, 2012. Like most academic conferences, the working conference itself is open only to researchers presenting original work. However, because of the high level of interest in the conference, it’s going to be live-streamed on the web (click HERE for info). After the conference ends, each of the presented papers will be collected and printed in a Festschrift.
Luckily for those of us who don’t do ground-breaking work in theoretical physics, the conference kicks off with an amazing public event: “The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics: Achievements and Opportunities.” This discussion will be held tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. in the Wallace Chapel of the Fish Interfaith Center. The event speakers include some of the most accomplished physicists in the world: Yakir Aharonov, Sir Michael Berry, Paul Davies, François Englert, and Nobel Laureate Sir Anthony Leggett. If quantum physics were an Olympic event, these are the guys who collect the gold medals. If you are in Southern California tomorrow, you should be there too.
Yakir Aharonov, born and raised in Israel and educated there and in the United Kingdom, is best known for the Aharonov-Bohm effect, a quantum mechanical phenomenon proposed by himself and his doctoral advisor, David Bohm, in 1959. Aharonov’s more recent work is in the area of subatomic weak measurement, non-locality, and the idea that random quantum mechanical effects can be caused by future events. In other words, on the subatomic level, a cause might happen after its effect. Aharonov shared the Wolf Prize in 1998 with Michael Berry “for the discovery of quantum topological and geometrical phases, specifically the Aharonov-Bohm effect, the Berry phase, and their incorporation into many fields of physics.”
Michael Berry, born, raised, and educated in the United Kingdom, defined a quantum mechanical phase called, of course, the Berry phase. Like Aharonov, Berry has a slew of honors, from the Maxwell Medal in 1978 that encourages physicists early in their careers to the Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for work with frogs and magnets. And a Thompson –Reuters poll indicated Aharonov and Berry have a pretty good chance at a Nobel Prize in physics one of these years.
Paul Davies is currently at Arizona State University but is a Brit by birth and education. According to the conference brochure, “Paul Davies’ research has focused on the big questions [a reference to the Australian television show The Big Questions, to which he contributed]: the origin of the universe; the origin of life; the deep nature of reality; the mysteries of time; and the realm of quantum physics.” He’s even involved with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. His latest books—meant for a popular audience, not just for theoretical physicists—are The Eerie Silence and Information and the Nature of Reality.
François Englert, another Wolf Prize winner, must have been pleased when CERN’s new particle accelerator came up with possible confirmation of a particle theorized by Englert and Robert Brout and independently by Peter Higgs. Englert spent most of his life and career in Belgium, with a two-year stint at Cornell University with Brout. (See him talk about the recent Higgs boson news HERE.)
Anthony Leggett, a dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom, works in low-temperature physics and superfluidity. Never heard of superfluidity? That’s what earned Leggett the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2003; he shared the prize with V. L. Ginzburg and A. A. Abrikosov. In 2004, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
So this is the dance card for Lofty Ambitions on Thursday evening. Our electrons will be spinning wildly on their heels. Who knows what collisions will occur?
Lofty Ambitions at AWP February 29, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Information, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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We’re really excited that both of us are presenting at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference this year and that our presentations are directly related to what we do at Lofty Ambitions.
CLICK TO READ LOFTY POSTS HIGHLIGHTING AWP PRESENTERS:
Doug will talk about archives and the use of letters in fiction and creative nonfiction on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Lake Ontario Room of the Chicago Hilton. Our recent visit to the CalTech archives is also related his talk; read that post HERE.
Anna is the organizer for a panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” which will be held on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m. in Continental B at the Chicago Hilton. It’s a great topic for this year in the Windy City because it’s the 70th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction, which Enrico Fermi set off at the University of Chicago.
AWP actually begins today with set-up for the bookfair. For the first time, Chapman University, Tabula Poetica, and the Fowles Center for Creative Writing have a table at the AWP Bookfair—D-21. So Anna will be setting up posters and book displays this afternoon. You can find the list of the booksignings at the table on the Tabula Poetica homepage—click HERE.
We also want to give a nod to Tiffany Monroe, an MFA student at Chapman University, who is presenting on a panel called “MFA Students Speak Up” on Friday, March 2, at 9:00a.m. Tiffany will also help us with the bookfair table.
If you’re in Chicago this coming weekend, you can meet Chapman University authors in person on Saturday, when the bookfair is open to the public. Stop by Table D-21 any time 9a.m.-3p.m. that day. Look for the Lofty duo around town!
Guest Blog: Tom Zoellner February 20, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Today, we feature our colleague Tom Zoellner. He’s part of Anna’s panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age. Check out the rest of the panelists in our other recent guest posts: KRISTEN IVERSEN, JEFF PORTER, and M. G. LORD. And if you’re at AWP, join us for the panel on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m.
Tom’s latest book is A Safeway in Arizona, part memoir, part history, part cultural commentary, all an exploration of Arizona as the context of the shooting rampage that injured Gabrielle Giffords, his friend. But we asked him to be a guest blogger at Lofty Ambitions because his previous book is Uranium, which won the Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics and garnered him a spot on The Daily Show.
IN THE PALM OF MY HAND
Here is an experience that will make you want to wash your hands immediately—holding a stick of pure uranium. It was about the size of a small mechanical pencil, pure ebony in color, and it left dusty smudges on my hands. I was standing among mill workers at the Ranger Mine, which is located in the midst of some spectacular outback jungle in Australia. The stick of uranium was used in the mill’s lab for assaying purposes. I wanted to look like a tough guy so I inspected it like any other rock and casually handed it back to the technician. But more than anything, I really wanted to wash my hands.
That uranium wasn’t dangerous by itself. The number of unstable U-235 atoms that create the famously explosive critical mass was present at a perfectly safe ratio of 1 to 140, and the stick was not about to catch fire in the way that uranium can spontaneously self-combust when sliced thinly (an interesting state called “pyrophoricity”). The dust on my hands was radioactive, but the signature was small and only hazardous if I put my fingers to my nose and inhaled deeply. From there, it would get caught in fragile lung tissue and emit alpha, beta, and gamma particles at a constant rate. This is what slowly killed so many miners in the dusty adits of the American Southwest and the East German mountains during the Cold War.
I had been writing about uranium for several months at that point, relearning matters of basic atomic physics that had been long forgotten from high school. I had traveled to old mines in Utah and the Czech Republic and interviewed UN diplomats in Vienna. I had visited the site of a deserted mine in Africa once described as a “freak of nature” by a Manhattan Project official because it held ore at a purity level of 62%, which had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. That mine, named Shinkolobwe for a particular kind of thorny fruit, gave up most of the material used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts and continues to leak unknown quantities of ore to local buyers.
But holding this stick of 99% pure concentrated uranium—far better than anything Shinkolobwe yielded in the raw—was my first up-close experience with the subject that I had been chasing for months. It was sort of like a biographer of an elusive subject who talks to multiple friends and acquaintances and then unexpectedly gets introduced to the person in the flesh.
I wanted the moment to be more special than just being passed a lab sample. But after all, this was just an inanimate object. It could not talk. It could only sit there in my palm and chuck off (I couldn’t help but envision it) little packages of protons and neutrons at a rate far faster than the speed of sound, fast enough to travel around the earth’s equator in about two seconds. These alpha particles could be blocked with a barrier as thin as a sheet of paper and my bare skin was adequate protection. But still. This little wand contained a power unlike anything else in nature. It had an instability about it which could be exploited with the proper application of massive industrial force—the immense cascading rows of centrifuges and gaseous diffusion chambers which we had built in secret cities during the war and which Iran was now hiding underneath mountains to shield from American and Israeli spies and bombers.
I felt as if I should have spent more time holding this stick, thinking about this weird little trick of the universe that it held inside. Here was a small sliver of the rock buried in the earth’s crust that had the power to end all life on the planet. One that posed an overwhelming moral test for humanity ever since World War II ended with a uranium-powered exclamation point. There is much we don’t know about uranium and much we don’t know about our future with this mineral after just under seventy years of coexistence with its concentrated form.
Has the scientific genius of mankind outstripped our abilities to take care of the planet, and each other? Have we learned enough not just to crack open an atom, but how to get along despite our racial and political differences? Will we be able to keep our species alive in a world where we have access to such awesome means of destruction?
These thoughts didn’t come in that moment. Other things were on my mind. I wanted to look like a tough guy in front of the miner and chemists, and I handed the uranium back, keeping my faintly dusted hands casually at my side. And when a safe amount of time had passed, I found a reason to excuse myself to the men’s room and there I washed my hands twice with soap.
In the Footsteps (Part 13) February 15, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
On Friday, March 2, Anna will present at a panel entitled “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age.” Her four fellow panelists on this topic are guest bloggers at Lofty Ambitions. Today, Anna shares some of what she will talk about at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago.
On February 29, we’ll post more information about AWP, including links to our recent AWP-related posts.
FALLOUT & FACTS: CREATIVE NONFICTION IN THE NUCLEAR AGE
The nuclear age began in Chicago seventy years ago, when Enrico Fermi conducted the first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago, where my mother earned her law degree a little more than twenty years later.
For a few months in the 1970s, my mother was the Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the state-level regulator of nuclear power plants. She was also the person in the state whom the military contacted when there was a lost nuclear weapon. That happened once while she was director.
Illinois has six operating nuclear power plants, more than any other state. More than 30,000 people live within fifty miles of Braidwood and also within fifty miles of the Quad Cities plant, the secondary radius considered in danger if an accident were to occur. The two units at the Quad Cities plants went online in 1973, and their licenses are good until December 2032. In 2006, almost half of the state’s electricity came from these six power stations. Illinois gets more electricity from nuclear than from coal, even though Illinois has mined coal for more than 200 years. I’m not advocating coal; it’s dirty in its own right. But I grew up here and think of Illinois as a coal state, not a nuclear state.
My father, though, is my more imperative connection to the topic of the nuclear age. He served most of his requisite military service in Pirmasens, West Germany, where the United States had deployed tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons were rotated in and out of the facility where my father was stationed. To do his work, my father descended by elevator with a partner, each of whom had a different code that had to be entered before the elevator would take them underground. My father’s job was, in his words, to scrape corroded uranium off the bombs. He wore no special protection for this work, only a badge that, as he remembered years later, he threw into bin at each week’s end. He was told that this dosimeter measured his exposure to radioactivity, but he figured that the Army didn’t check all the badges and keep track. He never saw any records that referred to his exposure levels.
My father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer just before my sixteenth birthday, though two separate exploratory surgeries did not reveal an originating tumor. The doctors went over my father’s history. Their conclusion—though the cause of cancer is never completely conclusive—was that my father’s illness was the result of his exposure to radioactivity during his military service.
This history began showing up in my writing in graduate school, first in a poem about his military work and in a fragmented story. When I held the first copy of my poetry book my hand five years ago, I opened it and found this history. Sven Birkerts, in The Art of Time in Memoir, “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.” For me, an intuition about connections—my father’s death and Chernobyl, for instance—began to gnaw at me. Birkerts asserts that, for him, part of the draw to memoir came with age:
A curious thing happened to me personally and as a writer when I entered my late forties, that time zone I reluctantly acknowledge as marking the onset of middle age. Quite suddenly, at least in retrospect, my relation to my own past changed. […] It was as if that past, especially the events and feelings of my younger years, had taken a half step back, had overnight, following no effort on my part, arranged themselves into a perspective. No, ‘perspective’ isn’t quite right, for that suggests a fixed, even static arrangement. Rather, these materials had, without their losing their animation or their savor, became available to me.
Indeed, over the last two years, I’ve paid more attention to this topic, have learned to savor my available past, and have started to think of more of my writing as memoir.
We’ve written a lot about nuclear history and our connections to it at Lofty Ambitions blog, including an ongoing, currently 13-part series called “In the Footsteps.” The length of blog posts—most of ours run long at about1000 words—has offered us a way to understand the possibilities and pieces in what otherwise is the large topic of the nuclear age. Blogging as an aspect of creative nonfiction has helped us address a problem that Peter Turchi raises in Maps of the Imagination. He writes the following:
If we attempt to map the world of the story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration , so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information. The opportunities are overwhelming.
What to include and exclude and how to organize remain challenges for me as a creative nonfiction writer, especially when dealing with a cultural topic like nuclear history. We’ve all lived the nuclear age. As Susan Griffin puts it in A Chorus of Stones, “For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.”
Update from Ragdale and A Nuclear Birthday February 11, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Einstein, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
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On Thursday evening, after dining on walnut burgers, chipotle sweet potatoes, and sautéed spinach, we built a fire in the fireplace and settled in for a long editing session. We spent more than four hours working our way aloud through the two chapters we’ve drafted since our writing residency began.
Yesterday, it snowed in big clumps. From our second-floor windows, we watched the snow fall. Anna went outside for a short walk and to take some photos. Then, we tried to outline the rest of the chapters, doling out our ideas to the remaining chunks of pages we imagine. We try to outline the next two in more detail, put the ideas in the order they should appear. We have an idea of how long the chapters will be so we move a few things to a later chapter. But because of our experience drafting this project over the last week, we aren’t estimating the number of words or pages we expect an idea to take.
We have a sense of what we want to accomplish before we leave, and we’re pretty sure that, even if everything goes well, we would need three more days than we have. That said, we’re appreciative of the time we do have remaining here at Ragdale.
Today, we also pause to consider Leo Szilard, who was born on this date in 1898. As a Manhattan Project physicist, perhaps the first one, he fits into our “In the Footsteps” series, and he’s someone who’s long interested us.
Born in Hungary, he attended the Institute of Technology in Berlin, where he hung out with the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Planck. With that kind of company, it’s no wonder he ended up thinking, by 1933, after fleeing the Nazis and landing in London, about how a sustained nuclear reaction might work. There are several stories, most told at one time or another by Szilard himself, about how his idea that fission might lead to a bomb came to Szilard, but it’s clear that he was at least partly inspired by reading H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free. By the late 1930s, he was teaching at Columbia University, thinking uranium would be the right element for such a nuclear reaction, and soliciting Einstein’s endorsement of a letter he wanted to send to President Roosevelt. The letter from Einstein to Roosevelt led to the development of the Manhattan Project, and hence the suggestion that Szilard was the first physicist on the project.
Szilard moved on to the University of Chicago, where he helped Enrico Fermi build the first controlled nuclear reaction and held the patent with Fermi for that first nuclear reactor, which they referred to as a “pile.” In this coming week’s regular Wednesday post, we offer a sneak-peek of Anna’s AWP presentation on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age, which mentions this historic event of December 2, 1942, an event that, in a real sense, marked the beginning of the nuclear age.
As the United States grew closer to having a useable nuclear weapon, Szilard became concerned about its use against Japan and pushed unsuccessfully for a test demonstration. He was also disturbed that the military would have control over nuclear weapons and that scientists were not being involved in policy.
Shortly after the war, Szilard gave his attention to biology and even fiction writing, with a collection of short stories related to his experiences and the Cold War and in which dolphins tell the story of our demise. He also met with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and suggested a hot line between the White House and the Kremlin and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rushed to Geneva in hopes of establishing a dialogue between the president and the premier. Only a few months after joining the Salk Institute in 1964, Leo Szilard died in his sleep from a heart attack.
Enrico Fermi, Szilard’s partner in the first nuclear reactor, died of stomach cancer at age 53. Szilard later developed bladder cancer. Szilard’s cancer didn’t kill him, though it might have if he hadn’t undergone radiation and then, much to his doctors’ chagrin and by his own treatment design, more radiation. He had radioactive silver implanted in the tumor. Such implantation radiation treatment was highly unusual then but has since become one common way to treat prostrate cancer.
Szilard’s unconventional thinking didn’t stop with his science. He was known for soaking in a hot bath in the mornings to think and to take breakfast. Taking a hot bath today, perhaps with a glass of wine, might be the most fitting way to celebrate Szilard’s birthday. In 1951, he married Dr. Trude Weiss after they had been pen pals and confidantes for more than twenty years. We like this part of the story especially, in large part because we, too, knew each other twenty years before running off and doing something foolish like that. Szilard and Weiss, though, would spend most of the marriage living apart, something with which we’re not unfamiliar.
Szilard’s legacy, then, as a nuclear scientist and a human being is, like so many of the people about which we are drawn to write, a complex one. He was the Humanist of the Year in 1960, mingling in the ranks of Margaret Sanger and, later, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Helen Caldicott, Margaret Atwood (who will be at AWP in a few weeks), and Bill Nye. Not a bad group overall and certainly eclectic.
Guest Blog: M. G. Lord February 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Cognitive Science
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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 Journal, Los 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.
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.
DISTRACTING ONESELF INTO THE NEXT PROJECT
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.
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.
Guest Blog: Jeff Porter January 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Nuclear Weapons
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On March 2, Anna will be joined by four other writers at “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Panelist Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden, has already contributed a guest post to Lofty Ambitions (click HERE). Today, we a post by another panelist, Jeff Porter.
We’ve not yet met Jeff Porter, though Anna read Oppenheimer Is Watching Me, one of the books that inspired the panel. The book draws from Porter’s past: his father worked for a defense contractor, and young Jeff, like many of us, was born into the Cold War. His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, The Missouri Review, and Isotope (a journal of literary writing about nature and science that we are sad to say is no longer publishing). Jeff Porter teaches at the University of Iowa and focuses on media studies as well as creative nonfiction.
ON JOHN HERSEY, ATOMIC WRITER
I’m an atomic writer, though I wish I had a t-shirt to prove it. Any real evidence of what I am is kept secret in my mitochondria, and I’d rather not go there. A t-shirt would be much cooler.
The very first atomic writer, John Hersey, did not receive a t-shirt either. He did, however, get a personal issue of The New Yorker, the only time the entire magazine was turned over to one story. William Shawn had sent Hersey to Japan nine months after the bombing of Hiroshima, suggesting that he look into the lives of the survivors. In the countless words thus far printed about the bomb, rarely had the human side of the story been put before readers. That changed with the August 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker. For 15¢, you could read the stunning documentary tale of six people who lived through the nightmare of Hiroshima.
In all, Hersey had met with over fifty Japanese survivors. He narrowed that group down to six—a Jesuit priest, a clerk, a seamstress, a physician, a Methodist minister, and a surgeon—each of whom he interviewed for six weeks before returning to New York. A month later, Hersey turned in a 150-page manuscript. Initially, the editors planned to run the piece in four consecutive installments of the magazine, as they would later do with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but at the last moment Shawn decided to take the unprecedented step of devoting an entire issue to Hersey’s story.
The magazine’s editor in chief, Harold Ross, wasn’t sold on the idea of turning the genteel The New Yorker into a house of tragedy. Banishing the magazine’s signature cartoons in favor of gloom and doom seemed a bad idea. Nevertheless he signed on, but not before requesting hundreds of changes to the text. At 31,000 words, Hersey’s story took up all 68 pages of magazine space. Everything else was stripped away except for the cover art, which featured a lively park scene teeming with people at play that gave little indication as to what lay inside the magazine. For readers, this would be no picnic.
Here’s Mr. Tanimoto, the Methodist minister educated in the U.S., fleeing in confusion after the flash of the bomb:
Mr. Tanimoto, fearful for his family and church, at first ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city ; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing.
Though grim, a description like this is a far cry from later narratives of atomic disaster, such as The Day After (1983), television’s sensationalized account of American survivors of an imaginary nuclear war. In fact, Hersey’s text repeatedly understates the catastrophe, focusing instead on mundane details delivered in a deadpan voice. Hersey’s style is so flat as to be ironic, but the irony mostly serves to dignify the subjects of the piece at the expense of the spectacle.
By many accounts “the most famous magazine article every published,” Hersey’s story of Hiroshima found a way around the nuclear sublime (and the enchantment of a new technology) that would cast a spell over American writers for decades to come. He opened the door of atomic discourse to literature, and for that he deserved his very own magazine.