Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Science Writing, Serendipity
add a comment
Also see Part 1 of “Science Writing at AWP 2013.”
We like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions, but attending an AWP panel that is comprised of Pireeni Sundaralingam, Alan Lightman, C. Dale Young, and Sandra Alcosser tends to make one pause, get a little introspective, and ask, “Could I be working just a tad bit harder?”
Three of the four panelists are writers who happen to moonlight as accomplished scientists (Sundaralingam and Lightman) and a physician (Young). The fourth panelist (Alcosser) is a poet who has collaborated deeply with scientists, particularly in the area of the environment. When we originally saw the panel “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction” in the program, we were hoping for a craft panel. Our initial disappointment at finding out that the event was a reading was short-lived, disappearing completely once the artists began sharing their work.
The first reading was from poet Sandra Alcosser. Alcosser is the author of seven books including Except by Nature, Sleeping Inside the Glacier (for which she collaborated with the artist Michele Burgess), and A Fish to Feed All Hunger and is co-director of the MFA program at San Diego State University. She was also Montana’s first poet laureate and has called Big Sky Country her home for more than thirty years. Alcosser began her reading by defining a word that was new to the Lofty Duo: Zugunruhe. Alcosser told us that scientists had appropriated the word from German—its literal meaning is “move” + “restlessness”—in their attempts to explain the human desire for travel. And travel she did. Drawn from her newest book, Alcosser read a sequence of poems that ranged over human experience: Serbian myth in The Winged Hussars, a widowed cellist’s musical elegy for his dead wife in The Blue Vein, and a scientist’s work on a blood ranch—raising lambs whose blood would be used to feed a zoo’s vampire bats—in Lamb of God. Alcosser also mentioned her recent tenure as a poet-in-residence at the Brookfield Zoo. This work was a part of a larger project, The Language of Conservation, sponsored by Poets House. A pdf of the book that resulted can be found here.
The panel was heavy on poets and poetry. This happy occurrence dovetailed neatly with Robert Fredericks’ comment in the previous science writing panel; he said something to the effect that scientists are the second heaviest user of metaphors after poets.
The second panelist to read was poet C. Dale Young. Young balances his writing career with a career as a physician. As a part of his writing life, Young is the poetry editor for New England Review and teaches at Warren Wilson College. Interestingly, Young’s MFA preceded his MD, which is contrary to the way we often think of artists whom are also scientists. Each of the poems in Young’s reading–”Influence,” “Sigma,” “The Ether Dome,” and “Sepsis”–were directly concerned with medicine and science. Young preceded his reading of “Sigma” with a touch of irony by relating how he loathed mathematics, particularly statistics, as an undergrad. Naturally, in his career as a physician, he wound up in the one field in medicine that makes use of math on a daily basis, radiation oncology.
This particular comment resonated deeply with Doug. Once, as an undergrad, Doug swore that the last thing he would do with his life was to write software. This, of course, is a perversely un-prescient act by someone who would go on to spend much of his career in IT and writing software. Observing events like this in his life and the lives of others has led us to occasionally posit to friends that, perhaps, irony is the most powerful force in the universe. This semester Doug is teaching programming to a classroom largely comprised of Creative Writing majors. Oh, the circular irony of it all.
The Lofty duo have been fans of the next panelist since we encountered Einstein’s Dreams. Alan Lightman was the first person at MIT to hold appointments in both the humanities and the sciences. Lightman’s books Einstein’s Dreams and Good Benito have been praised for their seamless blend of spare, lyrical prose and physics, specifically general relativity. For the panel, he read from his novel Reunion. Lightman’s reading elicited enormous laughter as he shared the second chapter from the novel. The chapter relates the curious fictional story of German astronomer/lothario Carl Schmeken. Schmeken is fond of naming the asteroids that he discovers for his lovers: Asteroid Catrina 1894, Asteroid Eva 1894, Asteroid Ilsa 1895, and Asteroid Winifried 1895. The chapter takes a humorous turn when Schmeken meets the woman he surely hopes will result in the discovery and naming of Asteroid Lena 1898. Instead, after being rebuffed by the young Lena Hammans, Schmeken falls apart, and 1898 is the end of the astronomer’s career. As longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know, we never pass up a chance to mention serendipity. Here’s a sentence that describes Lena’s realization after observing Schmeken’s reaction to being rebuffed by her: “She was shocked that a man of science could act in such a way, until she understood sometime later that sex is the most powerful force in the universe.” While we appreciate Lightman’s use of his character to proffer an alternative theory, until we see more evidence, we’re sticking with irony and serendipity as the most powerful forces in the universe.
The panel’s final reading came from the moderator, Pireeni Sundaralingam. Sundaralingam was the third poet on the panel, and she is also trained as a cognitive scientist. In fact, she has managed to make the intersection of art and science the focus of her scientific work. Her dissertation was on metaphor and the brain, and she is currently writing a book about poetry, the brain, and perception. Sundaralingam’s selection of poems intimately stitched together art and science. In particular, her poem “Vermont, 1885″ rendered the story of W. A. Bentley, the first person to photograph a snowflake, into compelling verse.
We founded Lofty Ambitions together, a poet and a computer scientist, as a way for the two of us to combine some of our lifelong interests by writing about aviation and science. And we like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions. We emerged from the two science writing panels that we attended at this year’s AWP invigorated and focused in a way that we know will allow us to continuing doing this thing that we call Lofty Ambitions.
Guest Blog: M. G. Lord February 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Cognitive Science
add a comment
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.
On This Date: Five Notable Events October 30, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Cognitive Science, Music, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
add a comment
On October 30, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a secret document mandating that the United States maintain and develop its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Just four years later, on this same date, the Soviet Union detonated the largest explosive device ever, Tsar Bomba. The estimated yield was 50 megatons, which is almost one-and-a-half times the power of the combined yield of the two bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For one brief moment, Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Yet Tsar Bomba was one of the cleanest—least fallout relative to yield—nuclear weapons tests. We wrote more about this nuclear test in “Measuring the Unthinkable” and included a video of the detonation there.
Today is also the anniversary of the launch of space shuttle Challenger’s last successful mission, STS-61A. The 1985 Spacelab mission was astronaut Guion Bluford’s second. His first mission two years earlier was the first time an African-American had been to space. The only woman on Challenger’s last successful crew, the first crew of eight, was Bonnie Dunbar. STS-61A was her first of five shuttle missions. In addition to performing science experiments, the crew launched the Global Low Orbiting Messaging Relay satellite, a proof-of-concept for military communications. Challenger’s last landing was at Edwards Air Force Base on November 6, 1985.
We have several other posts that talk about Challenger, including “Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia” and “25th Anniversary of the Challenger Accident.” In addition, we have guest posts by Roger Boisjoly, Allan McDonald, and Richard Cook, three engineers involved in the launch that day.
Today is also the fourth anniversary of the death of Washoe, a chimpanzee and the first non-human to communicate with American Sign Language. She was originally captured for use in the space program but ended up in Nevada, then the University of Oklahoma, and later Central Washington University She died at the age of 42. The New York Times obituary notes that not all scientists agree that Washoe and others like her were really communicating, not without signals and prompts from her trainers. But Washoe opened up a lot of questions and led to a great deal of additional research into learning and communication across species. See our birthday post for Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity HERE.
On a cheerier note and with a linguistic, if not exactly topical connection, to the usual subject matter of Lofty Ambitions, today is Grace Slick’s 72nd birthday. Born Grace Barnett Wing in Evanston, Illinois, where Anna’s mother grew up, Grace Slick joined Jefferson Airplane in 1966. After that band split up, Grace and some bandmates formed Jefferson Starship. In 2006, Virgin America Airlines named its first aircraft Jefferson Airplane.
Virgin Galactic, another entity in the Virgin conglomerate, is now booking seats. If you want to go to space, all you need is a $20,000 deposit and the full $200,000 when they’re ready to launch. Click HERE to reserve a spot. We wrote about one of their most recent hires, Mike Moses, the shuttle program’s Launch Integration Manager in “I Remember California: I Remember Mike Moses.”
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1) September 4, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, Cognitive Science, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Physics
add a comment
In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the bridgekeeper asks three questions, much like the security questions now used for credit card accounts. What is your name? Lofty Ambitions. What is your quest? GRAIL. What is your favorite colour? According to Crayola, America’s favorite color is blue. We suppose this bridgekeeper’s question calls for a separate post on color and the light spectrum.
In just a few days, Doug will head off to an event that feels like a mixture of old and new, familiar and strange, routine and unexpected. He’ll return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for another lofty quest: GRAIL, or the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory. The two GRAIL spacecraft, identical twins, are scheduled to launch on Thursday, September 8, and Doug is covering the days surrounding the launch as part of the GRAIL Tweetup.
FOLLOW DOUG’S TWITTER FEED: http://twitter.com/#!/dougdechow
In addition to tagging this series with its title, we’ll also use the tag GRAILTweetup to make it easier to follow on Twitter.
We didn’t expect to head back to the Space Coast. At least, we didn’t expect to return this year, soon after witnessing the last-ever space shuttle launch. We are somewhat stunned that NASA finds itself unable to launch human beings into space and remains unprepared to articulate a consistent, achievable future for human space exploration. Our rational, logical selves understand how much simpler and more effective lifeless, robotic space probes are. The Voyager twins may be among humankind’s greatest achievements, whizzing out of the earth’s ecliptic plane and on to whatever cold, dark fate awaits them. They have traveled farther from the sun than Pluto, which was classified as a planet when they left Earth in 1977. But few people take notice of them. Few will mourn the passing of lifeless, robotic space probes, no matter their accomplishments.
We owe a lot to NASA. Maybe that’s why our thoughts about the space program are not always completely rational and logical. Doug’s first memory in and of life is watching Apollo on television as a tyke. His first job out of college was as an abstractor and indexer at NASA’s Center for AeroSpace Information, a job that helped keep us fed, clothed, and adequately lodged for three of the most invigorating years of our lives together. Doug’s job at NASA coincided with us striking out alone together, far from our families and homes and into the cultural-political fray that is the metropolitan D.C. area.
Over the past whirlwind year, NASA employees have guided us to understand and interact with the world in new ways. News Center flacks like Allard Beutel, security guards like Omar Izquierdo, volunteers like Matthew Baker, and engineers like Stephanie Stilson (see our interview with Stilson HERE) have been some of the most competent and conscientious professionals with which we’ve ever dealt. They’ve helped us become more eager journalists (two posts on that subject are HERE and HERE), more informed bloggers, and more interesting people.
We’ve traveled enough in the past year that we now think of airport codes—MCO—instead of stopover and destination cities. Three years ago, when we were just settling into our new life in Southern California, if a soothsayer had foretold of our year cycling between SNA and MCO, we might have stared at each other blankly, wondering how and why we’d end up working for The Mouse. After three years, when we mention that we haven’t yet been to either Disney theme park, others stare blankly or get embarrassed for us. Even Mike Coats, the Director of Johnson Space Center, chastised Anna for never having experienced the pixie dust (see that interview HERE). But it hasn’t yet made our list of things to do. It can wait.
Six weeks ago, GRAIL wasn’t on our list of things to do. Then, NASA sent out a call to Twitter users, and Doug was chosen to participate in the meet-and-greet that is the next NASA Tweetup. NASA has become avid about social media. The Tweetup tents for the last three launches were air-conditioned and had separate high-speed wireless that worked better in the hour after launch than that for the press. Two NASA websites won Webby Awards this year, and Astronaut Doug Wheelock won a Shorty Award for an image of the Moon he tweeted. If you don’t follow Astro_Mike, you’re not getting the most space geek out of your social networking. Mike Massimino has more than 1.2 million followers on Twitter.
For a while, people lamented that the rise of video games and personal computers would make us all more isolated from each other. Each of us would be holed up in our offices and our homes, interacting only with an individual machine. While Nicholas Carr in The Shallows and others point to cognitive changes that remain disconcerting, Facebook and Twiiter and all the rest of social media have connected us in ways we couldn’t imagine ten years ago. Social networking allows us to stay in touch with friends we haven’t seen in years, and it invites people who might otherwise never encounter one another into larger social networks—perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but far from isolated. Fears that technology would further distance people from each other physically and emotionally seem to have been unfounded.
Plenty of people go about their days without Facebook or Twitter. Some people don’t bother with the internet at all and get along just fine, though they’re missing a chance to read this post. When Anna’s mom invested in an iPad, scrolled through photos right away (this weekend, she’s reliving the national Elvis impersonator semi-finals), played virtual solitaire for hours, and even started sending email messages, we knew her world had changed. NASA is all in too, and space geeks are using Facebook pages, a wiki, Google docs, and a variety of social media to share information about GRAIL instantly. And the virtual interaction supports the in-person gathering, including a barbeque, that will be this coming week’s Tweetup.
This trip to the Space Coast, therefore, will be different because Doug will view the events through the lens of the Tweetup. He’ll be busy looking for Nichelle Nichols and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This trip will also be different because Anna is staying home, working with her graduate and undergraduate students to create together a (private) cross-course blog about poetry. Together, we will negotiate, for the first time, how to co-write posts while separated by 3000 miles. We plan to post every day this week! Check back to see how we manage.
Last Chance to See (Part 12) July 15, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Cognitive Science, Last Chance to See, Music, Space Shuttle
“Jet lag,” muttered one of his friends, “long trip from California. Really mucks you up for a couple of days.”
“I don’t think he’s been there at all,” muttered another. “I wonder where he has been. And what’s happened to him.”
~Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish
In our blog anniversary post (click HERE for that one), we tried to make a sort of sense of what we’ve been doing over the past year. That was on July 1, before we headed off to the Space Coast for the last-ever space shuttle launch. This past week has been an intense physical and emotional experience in which we’ve lost track of time. We’re settling back into our regular routines; Anna went to the dry cleaner and the grocery store; Doug returned to his daily job at the library. But our attention remains on STS-135 too.
Atlantis and the International Space Station are now orbiting our planet at roughly 17,500 miles an hour. That means the astronauts experience a sunrise and sunset every hour-and-a-half or so, making for more than 15 shuttle space days for every Earth day, if we define a day by sunrise. But shuttle astronauts in space don’t mark time that way. Instead, their clock (and that big countdown clock you saw on NASA-TV and CNN last Friday) ticks off mission elapsed time (MET). At twenty-four hours MET, Flight Day 2 begins.
At the beginning of each flight day, the astronauts are awakened with a song from Earth. Music marks time for them in a less precise, more culturally inflected way than MET. On Flight Day 2, that wake-up song was “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay, picked by Pilot Doug Hurley. Coldplay has awakened shuttle astronauts three times before.
For Flight Day 3, Commander Chris Ferguson chose “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. It’s the fourth time E.L.O. has awakened a shuttle crew.
And what did Mission Specialist and native Illinoisan Sandy Magnus choose for Flight Day 4? “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down. Not a bad message for NASA right now.
Flight Day 5 started with “More” by Matthew West, chosen by Mission Specialist Rex Walheim.
On Flight Day 6, Elton John offered a special message for the STS-135 crew. “Rocket Man” woke up this crew and the crews of four previous shuttle crews.
As part of his message to STS-135 on Flight Day 7, Michael Stipe said, “I recorded ‘Man on The Moon’ for NASA in Venice, Italy, where Galileo first presented to the Venetian government his eight-power telescope, and in 1610 wrote ‘The Starry Messenger’ (Sidereus Nuncius), an account of his early astronomical discoveries that altered forever our view of our place in the universe.” R.E.M.’s “Happy Shiny People” has awakened two previous shuttle crews.
“Good Day Sunshine” by Paul McCartney, with a cheery message from the former Beatle, roused the crew on Flight Day 8 at 12:59a.m. EDT today, on Friday, July 15. They had a bit of a computer problem at the beginning of their sleep shift, so NASA let the astronauts sleep a half-hour later than the planned schedule. They are in the midst of transferring the payload to the ISS, and they talked with President Obama and reporters today.
These last few days back home in California, we wish that our time was as organized as that of astronauts in orbit. The odd hours we’ve kept this last week in Florida and the day of travel on Tuesday, with the three-hour time change, have left our heads spinning. We’re coming off that odd mix of exhaustion and adrenaline, feeling sleepy and alert simultaneously, but starting to get back on track with things we’d put aside and shored up.
What might it mean to measure time according to our missions, with a version of MET? The mission clock would begin at zero and elapse as we (presumably) made progress on the project over time. Blog elapsed time: +379 days. Novel elapsed time: +5 years, if we include research and breaks for moving and other writing projects. Or perhaps, the clock should stop when we are working on another project, like a hold in the countdown clock before launch. Though they have a multitude of tasks, the astronauts are focused on a single mission; they can’t stop the MET clock while they draft a short story because they can’t interrupt the mission tasks for other ideas that come to mind. If something is scheduled for +4 days, it must occur on the fourth day of the mission whether the shuttle’s mission begins on its originally scheduled launch date or, after a delay, two days or two months later.
On the Earth’s surface, we move among several projects at a time. We write a blog while holding down day jobs. We write articles together and separately and have larger writing projects too. Just as it would quickly become silly for orbiting astronauts to count days by each sunrise they view, those of us under the great influence of gravity cannot keep accurate track using mission elapsed time. The way a person measures time must fit the circumstances, while also making sense with the way the larger world works.
It turns out that the shuttle astronauts are not beholden only to MET. They are moving between MET and the coordinated universal time (UTC) of the International Space Station (ISS). UTC is a carefully devised standard time, a more precise replacement for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), with even leap seconds added to sync up UTC with the Earth’s rotation. The second (and millisecond) are constant, but larger units can vary in order to keep universal time accurate. Computers also use UTC. Because the ISS is an ongoing project, a destination for many individual shuttle missions over the years, using an MET clock would run up days into meaningless numbers. Elapsed time isn’t that important to know on the ISS. The unload the shuttle payload when it gets there, not according to some schedule the ISS itself has. So that the STS-135 crew can move between the shuttle and ISS time zones without getting too confused, the space shuttle has a UTC clock too.
Music provides yet another way to mark time, both as a daily wake-up demarcation and in a larger sense. Songs stick with us. Admit it, you thumped to Chumbawamba in the fall of 1997. How old were you when E.L.O. was churning out the hits in the 1970s? Ah, “Rocket Man” and 1972: the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, The Price is Right begins and Bewitched ends. Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 conclude U.S. manned spaceflight (or so it seemed at the time).
As Daniel Levitin puts it in This Is Your Brain on Music, “The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.”
He goes on to explain why you may have a particular affinity for “Rocket Man” or “Tubthumping.” “Researchers point to the teen years as the turning point for musical preferences. It is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest, even those children who didn’t express such an interest in music earlier. As adults, the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is ‘our’ music, corresponds to the music we heard during these years. [...] Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert [hah, a pun!] to ‘tag’ the memories as something important.”
Chris Ferguson was 16 years old, that emotionally charged time of self-discovery, when “Mr. Blue Sky” was released in 1978. In 1997, when Chumbawamba hit the charts, Sandy Magnus had recently been selected for astronaut training and began her work at Johnson Space Center that led to her first shuttle mission in 2002. Nothing in Rex Walheim’s official NASA biography indicates why 2004, when “More” was released, might have been a particularly emotionally charged time for him, but that song was the most-played song on Christian radio that year. In 2008, when Coldplay released “Viva la Vida,” Doug Hurley was training for his first space shuttle mission.
At breakfast at the Village Inn in Titusville, this past week, we heard “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb, a song we hadn’t heard in years, a song that was on the K-tel record that Anna received at her boy–girl birthday party in eighth grade.
On one of our previous trips to the Space Coast, the radio in our rental car had been left set to FM 96.5 when we picked it up. This station plays a mix of classic rock that we don’t listen to much anymore, but it replicates the playlist of 97X, the radio station from Moline, Illinois, of Doug’s teen years. (As a curious aside, Doug’s high school locker number was 97. Each fall for the four years that Doug attended AHS, an “X” mysteriously appeared next to the locker number, making his locker 97X.) The Orlando station’s signal is strong, the songs familiar fodder for our NASA-visit mode.
Great White’s “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” the 1989 cover of a 1975 Ian Hunter song (Ian was a founding member of Mott the Hoople, a name that has the feel of a Douglas Adams novel), was in heavy rotation this past week. After not hearing that song for more than two decades, we probably heard the ode to groupies and casual sex every day last week. For Doug, “Once Bitten Twice Shy” calls to mind the summer of 1989, when he studied Russian at Beloit College. The song and that moment in time that it recalls link together several of the themes that we’ve been exploring. Who’d have predicted from the vantage of that late-1980s summer, still several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and more than two years before the end of the Soviet Union, that today Russian would be an official language on the space station (all U.S. astronauts who serve extended periods on the ISS speak Russian) and that the United States will require Soyuz rockets to carry astronauts into low-earth orbit?
Radioactivity and Other Risks (Part 2) May 6, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Biology, Books, Cognitive Science, Physics, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
add a comment
If you want to start with Part 1 of “Radioactivity and Risk,” click HERE. This post is part of a loose series, most of which were regular Wednesday posts that unfolded in the wake of the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi. We include the whole list at the end of this post. Here is “Radioactivity and Risk (Part 2)”:
One of the risks every astronaut faces in orbit and beyond is the exposure to radioactivity. Last Friday, when we were in Florida for the not-launch of Endeavour (which as of today is delayed at least until May 16), we spoke with astronaut Michael Barratt about this particular risk. He’s interested in this topic not only because he spent almost 200 days on the International Space Station, which exposed him to a lot of radiation (from which the rest of us on the ground are better protected by Earth’s atmosphere), but also because he is a medical doctor who has studied the exposures and effects of radiation and written about it in his book Principles of Clinical Medicine for Space Flight. One of the problems he pointed out in understanding the risk astronauts face from radiation is that astronauts are a relatively small population for medical study. Even so, he said that recommended radiation exposure guidelines for astronauts have become more conservative in recent years and now are also weighted for gender, weight, age, and other health criteria.
That’s the tricky thing about exposure to radioactivity: it’s difficult to predict its effect on any specific individual. In fact, most current assessment of the risk of exposure is based on the atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a much larger population than the astronaut corps, but problematic for extrapolating to ourselves today. Excepting Chernobyl workers, most of us are not exposed to very large blasts of radioactivity. That said, the radiation to which we are exposed today has increased since the late 1940s.
We have seen a dramatic rise in exposure to radioactivity used in medicine, such as CT scans, though also mammograms, dental x-rays, and other diagnostic and treatment procedures. Last year, at ScienceWatch.com, Director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University David Brenner said, “In the US, the average radiation dose to which we are exposed has doubled in the past 30 years. The average dose from natural background sources has not changed, but what has changed is a more than six-fold increase in the average radiation dose from medical imaging.” In 2008, Time noted of CT, or CAT, scans, “some physicians are raising concerns about the safety of such procedures—most notably, an increase in cancer risk. A CT scan packs a mega-dose of radiation—as much as 500 times that of a conventional X-ray.” One study in the article raised additional concern about the 41% of patients undergoing CT scans who had already undergone two or more scans. While the benefit of having a CT scan may more than offset the risk of radiation exposure, Brenner also points out that “at the doses corresponding to a few CT scans there are direct epidemiological data from about 30,000 A-bomb survivors who were on the peripheries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who were exposed in this low-dose range. This low-dose subpopulation has been followed for more than 50 years, and shows a small but statistically-significant increased cancer risk.”
In addition to having more medical tests than in previous decades, we’ve increased air travel. The more you fly—and the higher you fly—the more radiation to which you’re exposed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “For a typical cross-country flight in a commercial airplane, you are likely to receive 2 to 5 millirem (mrem) of radiation, less than half the radiation dose you receive from a chest x-ray.”
Of course that doesn’t include that extra, scattered smattering if you fly out of an airport with the new body scanners. Wired reported in March that the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) “mandated [backscatter X-ray machines] as the preferred airport screening method in February 2009” but is reevaluating the more than 500 scanners in at least 78 or so airports “after testing produced dramatically higher-than-expected results.” An earlier article in the Wired series about the backscatter X-ray machines discussed a group of scientists raising concerns and quoted one of them as especially concerned with the increased risk when exposed to x-rays as we get older. In a CNN piece last year, David Brenner said, “If you think of the entire population of, shall we say a billion people per year going through these scanners, it’s very likely that some number of those will develop cancer from the radiation from these scanners[.]”
When it comes to risk, we’re talking probabilities. The risk that one airport scan poses to one person is very, very small. Almost no one will develop cancer just because they take a few jaunts to Europe. But the risk is not zero. And once the group exposed is large enough, then statistics indicate that someone will develop cancer as a result of exposure to radioactivity that is, for each individual, not very risky at all. In addition, as Michael Barratt pointed out in our interview with him, we’re not each equally vulnerable or hearty. What if you’re a weekly business traveler from Denver (the higher above sea level you live, the greater the exposure to cosmic radiation) who has undergone radiation treatment for cancer, whose father died of cancer, and who had a couple of CT scans after a car accident several months ago?
Even for those workers who know they may be exposed to ionizing radiation, the risk is not always clear to them. The average nuclear power plant worker in the United States is exposed to 300 mrem whole body equivalent, in addition to the presumed average of 300 or 360 mrem background radiation to which the average American is exposed, depending on which source you read. According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, “In the United States, regulatory standards allow workers to be exposed to ionizing radiation that can cause 1 additional cancer fatality per 400 workers per year. Because radiation-dose limits cover only single sources (e.g., a nuclear plant) or exposure classes (workplace, medical, or public) and are defined for average occupational exposure, workers typically do not know their precise cumulative, individual, and relative risks from radiation.” In other words, no individual seems to know how much exposure to radioactivity he or she faces, nor the risk of cancer that exposure poses long term.
If we don’t understand the risk, we can’t manage it very well. If the level of risk is unknown or unclear, it’s difficult to weigh a given risk against the benefits. Clearly, many people don’t think twice about taking a cross-country flight. Maybe that’s because we’ve heard that the average American is more likely to die in a car accident than in a plane crash. In fact, according to NOVA in 2006, the chance of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million, whereas the chance of dying in a car accident is 1 in 5000. But does knowing that keep you from getting into a car? Our perception of risk doesn’t always line up with the facts. And who is this average American anyway? As NOVA states, “[Y]ou are not the average American. Nobody is.”
In addition to today’s post, check out our previous posts in our Radioactivity Series as follows (CLICK on the title):
March 16: Measurement and Scale
March 28: Three Mile Island Anniversary
March 30: Radiation vs. Radioactivity
April 6: Uranium & Plutonium & Fission
April 13: Fission Products & Half-Lives
April 20: Radioactivity Units of Measure
April 26: The Anniversary of Chernobyl
April 27: Nuclear Secrecy
Guest Blog: Patricia Sobczak March 21, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs.
Tags: Cognitive Science, Computers
add a comment
This week, we welcome Patricia Dillon Soczak to Lofty Ambitions for a new twist. Pattie is the Director of Development for the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University, where we work too. But we asked her to write for us because she’s currently a student at Fielding Graduate University in Southern California where she is earning her Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems. Her area of research is understanding how playing video games prepares players to become effective contributors in the workplace, and we’re interested in how the cognitive skills might translate. Patricia has a background in higher education (as a librarian, instructor, academic advisor, and administrator), manufacturing and industrial engineering, project and program management, and technical and educational sales. She holds an MBA from Pepperdine University and a Masters of Library Science from San Jose State University. Pattie and Doug are collaborating on a presentation about the notion of play for an interdisciplinary series hosted by Chancellor Daniele Struppa to which Anna contributed earlier this academic year.
CAN ADULTS PLAY?
As a baby boomer, I grew up playing all sorts of games: card games, sports, and board games. As a child, it was acceptable for me to pass the time away in the endless pursuit of having fun. Fast forward a few decades, and I still play games, only these games are on a computer and this pursuit isn’t something I talk about without some type of qualification. Why? So that the person I am talking to doesn’t think that I’m lazy, crazy, or both.
I like to play and I believe that most adults do as well, though many will not admit to it. I’ve taken my love of play to the next level. In less than a year, I will complete a doctoral program in human and organizational systems. My dissertation topic stems from my belief that video games, specifically the massively multiplayer online games (MMOG), are fertile training grounds for workers in the twenty-first century.
My entrance into the world of video games came at me from two distinctly different, though related, events. First was an assignment to create a program in video game design. As a complete newcomer (or newbie) to this subject matter, I nonetheless became part of a vital team of educators and professionals who, over the period of a year, developed a viable program. This experience sparked my interest to learn more about video gaming in general. Secondly, as part of the process of building this program, I had the opportunity to travel to some of the most notable video game design shows and conferences. On one of my trips, I had the chance to watch a colleague prepare and lead a twenty-five-player quest (or instance) in the video game World of Warcraft (WoW), the most popular MMOG, with over twelve million subscribers located all over the world.
I watched her and her fellow gamers play for hours and was absolutely amazed at what I witnessed. Twenty-five unique characters (avatars) with different yet complementary skills, assembled, set out some basic ground rules, shared strategies, and subsequently forged ahead as a cohesive team to beat the so-called boss and reap the rewards. It reminded me of going into organizations to run team-building sessions. The same dynamics are in place: a group of people with mixed yet complementary skills, focused on achieving a group goal. Yet this group of gamers seemed more cohesive and capable than most work groups. I wondered why.
From this simple observation, I started to play WoW and for the last three years, barring illness and work commitments, I have continued to play. I am currently a level 62 Blood Elf Hunter and I play for the Horde. I play with my son, my nephew in the army, and other players I meet in game. And I started my Ph.D. program with the idea to use the research for my dissertation to test my belief that high-level players of WoW are gaining competencies that are relevant for the twenty-first-century work place.
As I begin my pilot study, I am starting to interview players for my research. I’m continually impressed by the players with whom I talk. Contrary to the media hype, these players are responsible, capable, and accomplished people from all walks of life. They tell me they play because it is fun, exciting, empowering, and exhilarating. They play because they feel better about themselves when they accomplish a quest, mentor another player, or learn new skills. As I continue my research, there is much I still need to know about the game, about the players, and about what is happening to these players as they play. I still need to know, can adults play?
Mark Kelly, Gabrielle Giffords, and Grit February 14, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Cognitive Science, Space Shuttle
1 comment so far
Last Monday, astronaut Mark Kelly rejoined the crew of STS-134 for their final training for the April launch of space shuttle Endeavour. Mark Kelly has been on leave from NASA since January 8, when his wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was shot at a public event in Tuscon, Arizona. The next day, Scott Simon of NPR said, “Gabby Giffords has true grit. I don’t mean the kind you see in movies, but the grit to work hard, love your family and serve your country.”
By the end of last week, Gabrielle Giffords had spoken her first words since the shooting. She asked for toast. “The progress she has made has been nothing short of a miracle,” Mark Kelly said on ABC. Spokesperson C. J. Karamargin said of Giffords’s aggressive, six-hour-per-day rehabilitation and her progress, “Don’t discount the grit and determination of this particular patient.”
Psychology professor Angela Duckworth about the role of grit in high achievement (we’ve posted her TED talk below). Duckworth, drawing from William James’s “The Energies of Men,” argues there are qualities that unlock talent, so talent in itself is not a harbinger of success. She asks, what is it that enables a person to become a world-class teacher or performer—or perhaps a representative or astronaut? And she calls the quality she studies grit, after the film True Grit, starring John Wayne (and remade last year). She notes that Francis Galton, meteorologist, inventor, and (unfortunately) eugenicist, asserted that achievement depended upon talent, passion, and hard work, to which his half-cousin Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution and natural selection, replied that he was interested to hear that talent might have a role.
Duckworth’s ideas aren’t entirely new. Several articles in Scientific American Mindover the last few years, including a late 2007 article by psychologist Carol S. Dweck, have discussed an array of qualities that may be at least as or more important than talent. An overview article in The Boston Globe by Jonah Lerher (reprinted in The Best American Science Writing) suggests that smart people may be less likely to work hard and therefore, in the long run, may not take advantage of the talent they have. How many people do you know who are intelligent but can’t stay on task? If you get the right answer to a problem, do you attribute it to talent or to hard work? Lerher writes, “Interestingly, it also appears that praising children for their intelligence can make them less likely to persist in the face of challenges, a crucial element of grit. […] A big part of our success, Dweck says, stems from our beliefs about what leads to success.”
Two weeks ago, no one knew whether Mark Kelly would finish his training for what may be the last space shuttle launch ever (funding is up in the air for STS-135). NASA claims that the decision remained in Mark Kelly’s hands, though they put some checks in place. Kelly returned first on a trial basis for some intensive mission simulations. He claims that he put aside his personal feelings, including wanting to be the last shuttle commander, instead considering what was right for NASA and what was right for his family. Both NASA and Kelly are confident that his years of experience as a military pilot and as an astronaut will help him compartmentalize and stay focused on the mission. As he said during a recent press conference, “I have been practicing for twenty-four years.” Several friends of Gabrielle Giffords have said, too, that it’s what she would want, because she married an astronaut and knew the risks and because her recovery is going well.
A month ago, Representative Giffords was probably meeting with staff about the week’s schedule, including a town hall gathering outside a grocery store the next day. Today, she is likely repeating small tasks for hours on end during physical and speech therapy, while Mark Kelly is likely repeating tasks to command what is the most complex flying machine ever built. Endeavour, under Mark Kelly’s command, is scheduled to launch April 19 for a fourteen-day mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and other parts to the International Space Station. Mark Kelly hopes that Gabrielle Giffords will be present for the countdown. This couple didn’t develop grit on January 8, but that day offers a lens through which the rest of us can bear witness to persistence in the face of challenges.
For more coverage of Mark Kelly’s return to service at NASA, click on the following for Politico, Space.com, MSNBC, Huffington Post, and NASA’s official press release. Click here to follow Mark Kelly on Twitter.
Happy Birthday, Colo! December 22, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Cognitive Science, Museums & Archives
add a comment
On this date in 1956, Colo was born. Her birth marked the first time a gorilla was born in captivity. And she’s thrived better than most. At 54 years of age today, Colo is the oldest captive gorilla living in the world. She shares today as her birthday with her grandson J.J.
Colo’s mother rejected her at birth. This rejection is a relatively common but not fully understood occurrence for captive-born gorillas. This lack of understanding isn’t particularly surprising, as researchers don’t know much about gorilla births in the wild. Her early human caretakers, who hand-reared the baby gorilla, briefly referred to her as Cuddles. Her name was chosen through a contest and is short for her birthplace: COLumbus, Ohio. Those caretakers bottle-fed Colo and dressed her in clothes. Colo would go on to bear three children of her own, with her mate Bongo. She did not raise those gorillas, though Colo did care for twin grandchildren.
On the one hand, anthropomorphizing this gorilla—dressing her in clothes, referring to second-generation offspring as grandchildren—is evidence of our own self-centeredness. It’s awfully presumptive to think that Colo shares our emotions and ways of thinking about the world. When we project our thoughts and feelings onto an animal—or another human, for the matter—to explain their behavior, we may miss the opportunity to understand that individual more deeply.
Empathy is a tricky thing; it depends on our ability to understand and project our own emotions, but ultimately requires the broader ability to understand another’s perspective in addition to our own. In the issue of American Scholar out this week, Richard Restak explains that the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain “is concerned with representing our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well as providing us with representations of the mental states of other people.” When we anthropomorphize gorillas without understanding their mental states, though, we may jump to conclusions and miss other interesting and relevant possibilities.
On the other hand, it’s no wonder we think of these great apes as very much like humans. Depending on how one parses it, since some genes vary more than others, gorillas share about their 95% of DNA with human beings. The chimpanzee and bonobo are our only closer genetic relatives, with 98% similarity. We remember first coming across this fact, at the Columbus Zoo, where Colo has lived all her life. We read the fact on a placard as we watched a woman bottle-feed a bonobo behind the glass.
Gorilla gestation is about 8½ months, nearly identical to that of humans. Baby gorillas stay with their mothers for three or four years, a timeframe reminiscent of human children, who generally, in the United States, go off to kindergarten at age five. Females mature at about age 11, often earlier in captivity. Human girls reach menarche at about age 12, often earlier if heavier. Gorillas have even been seen having sex face to face.
We’ve long known apes are social animals, living in troops with one or a few mature males, several females, and their young. Recent studies indicate that gorillas may be empathetic, too, which makes sense for social creatures. Richard Restak, in his discussion of empathy in humans, links our social nature with our ability to empathize: “The research finding that out thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others are processed in the same brain areas confirms what sages and religious thinkers have been saying throughout the ages: we’re not isolated components in an impersonal social network but, rather, deeply social creatures capable of imagining each other’s internal experiences.”
What if apes, being social creatures, are also empathizers? One researcher points out that both humans and apes console each other after, say, a defeat, whereas monkeys do not. In 2008, a gorilla in a German zoo clutched her dead baby, the second offspring she had rejected, and the zookeeper there said that mothers in the wild sometimes carry around their dead babies for weeks. Researchers in Scotland observed chimpanzees dealing with an impending death through increased grooming of the sick chimp. The chimps suffered fitful sleep in the immediate wake of the death and avoided the spot where the chimp had died. Another researcher found that orangutans share the phenomenon of contagious laughing with humans. Still other research shows that ape babies make pouting faces to get their mothers’ attention and, in one experiment, tried to make the experimenter smile.
We know, too, that gorillas use tools, turning sticks into digging implements or weapons. And there’s Koko, the gorilla who has been taught sign language to communicate with humans (see video below). Koko is the subject of a long-term research project. Because gorillas don’t have the physical capacity for human speech, the researchers use sign language with Koko to study interspecies communication and its possibilities. The thinking is that each species has its own communication system; gorillas use gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations to communicate with each other. And some species are sufficiently intelligent and aware to be taught ways, like American Sign Language, to communicate with humans; Koko scored in the 80s and 90s on IQ tests. One wonders whether her researchers would do as well on a test designed and administered by Koko.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the Western Gorilla—Colo’s species—as critically endangered. IUCN uses this classification based on projections, as of 2008, that the gorilla is likely to face an 80% population reduction over three generations (66 years, from 1980 to 2046). Hunting—poaching—and disease, particularly Ebola, have devastated the wild gorilla population in Africa over the last two decades. Mining, the timber industry, farming, and climate change threaten the gorillas’ habitat. The Eastern Gorilla—the Mountain and Eastern Lowland gorillas—is considered endangered, but not yet critically endangered. Twenty years ago, the Western Gorilla—the Western Lowlad and Cross River gorillas—was considered vulnerable; ten years ago, this gorilla was endangered. Now, this gorilla is critically endangered, and the next step on this trajectory is to become extinct in the wild.
This morning, Nancy Roe Pimm was on hand at the Columbus Zoo to sign her book Colo’s Story. The zoo celebrated Colo’s birthday with cake for the apes, and special cake for the zoo’s visitors too. More than a year ago, Colo was anesthetized for a series of medical tests, because her keepers worried about her bouts of fasting and lethargy. She seemed to be depressed, perhaps showing signs of aging. But the tests showed nothing wrong physically, and her heart was strong. Undoubtedly, Colo didn’t think of her lethargy, medical tests, or her birthday party today the same way the humans do. Yet this celebration offers Lofty Ambitions an opportunity to ponder how animals are studied and considered.
Guest Blog: Claudine Jaenichen December 6, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Art & Science, Cognitive Science
1 comment so far
From my teenage ambition of becoming a forest firefighter, in 2002, I volunteered for the Santa Barbara Sherriff Department’s Search and Rescue team (SAR). My day job did not manifest into the firefighter I thought I would become, but SAR gave me the opportunity to explore that second life’s ambition. Eventually, this teenage heroic dream job would find its way into the mainstream of my college education, adult life, and my current scholarly work in information design.
In order to become an active SAR volunteer, a person was required to dedicate one year to SAR academy and complete various certifications—from rappelling to avalanche rescues. Swift Water Rescue consisted of an intensive weekend in classroom and textbook work and prototype exercises and ended with river rescue training at the Kern River in Class III rapids, just one mile upstream from Class IV rapids. Classes measure the intensity, predictability and strength of river current, so these were relatively intense, unpredictable, strong currents. This last exercise, which took place in a real-life simulation, proved to be an introduction to my personal unconscious personality, the discovery of temporary cognitive paralysis, and effects on information comprehension and retention under significant amounts of stress.
When the SAR team entered the water, we were assigned a very basic and introductory exercise: to swim the width of a soccer field to get to the other side of the riverbank. There was a strong, steady current, and as I entered the water, what I noticed most was seeing and hearing the white rapids about fifty yards downstream. I was in a kind of daydream, numb and unaware. I approached the current at a direct 90 degrees—instead of the 45 degrees that would have given me leverage against the current—and was swept away as quickly as the rapids took me. I lost both my fins and my right water shoe, and cold water rushed into my unzipped wetsuit. I had only attached two of the three buckles on my life vest. I did not tighten my helmet; it hung to the side of my head. Quickly, the simulation training transitioned into a full-blown “code blue” rescue—a rescue of me.
I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do, even though I’d already learned and memorized the lessons well. I panicked and tried to stand up, which is a deadly reaction because feet get caught in loose rock anchoring a person to the bottom of the riverbed. My worst attempt was trying to grab filters. One of the most memorable chapters in the textbook deals directly with this. Filters are branches on the sides of the riverbank that act as vacuums causing people to get dragged under. The rescue lasted eight minutes and 52 seconds. I was collected, assessed, and placed on the riverbank, barefoot, still numb and unaware.
Danger triggered my unconscious personality—a theory from Gestave Le Bon’s The Crowd about how people react irrationally, emotionally and in exaggeration to danger no matter what prior or current intellectual ability a person posses (2002). Entering the water unprepared and unaware, regardless of my previous training, demonstrated temporary cognitive paralysis—the common idea that people freeze in an emergency.
Five years following that awe-awakening experience, my current scholarly work applies issues in cognition and emergency psychology when assessing semiotics and visualization used in public evacuation information. People who are asked to evacuate an aircraft, a public building, or their personal residence will be under a various amount of cognitive demands, susceptible to temporary cognitive disorder or paralysis. Visual and written instructions, just as in verbal strategies, need to be clear, concise, and authoritative in order to be effective.
Graphic variables (i.e. type, texture, hierarchy, orientation, color, shape), external and internal components, and “rules of legibility” as defined by Jaques Bertin in Semiology of Graphics (1983) were assessed in city and aircraft evacuation material. As an example, the image below shows three sections from city evacuation maps demonstrating various usages of the color variable. The color variable performs differently in its relationship to direction, legibility, coding, and labeling. In the first map, the color variable is highly saturated and overcomes text in significant areas of the map. The second map uses color to communicate zoning areas for city official use, but is not usable to the evacuee. The texture and orientation of color constantly interferes with the intension and reading of this map. The third map uses the least amount of color and is most relevant and assessable to the person reading this map for evacuation.
I’ve reviewed two approaches of evacuation information, which provide juxtapositional perspectives and outcomes in visual representation and effectiveness of communication, planning, and training.
City evacuation maps were not consistent in content or visual execution. Level of detail, viewpoints, and way-showing were fundamentally diversified. It is also worth noting that resident evacuation material is usually not accessed until the moment of need—people don’t study the maps ahead of time.
Aircraft safety cards were more narrative in the delivery of information, and content was consistent. Repetition was an advantage to the frequent flyer due to FAA regulations of safety review before takeoff.
I always tell my design students “design with empathy.” People who are asked to evacuate are under distress and comprised levels of intellectual planning, orientation, and comprehension. These campaigns need to deliver the message and account for issues in time limitations, stress, and the psychology of well-being. I know what this means because of my own rescue experience, so I emphasize that necessary empathy when I work with students as well as in my own design projects.