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.
The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics & a Poem August 22, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Einstein, Nobel Prize, Physics
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Last week, we posted “You say, Festschriften; I say, that’s a funny word.” The next evening, we attended a public discussion among Yakir Aharonov, Sir Michael Berry, Paul Davies, François Englert, and Nobel Laureate Sir Anthony Leggett; that discussion was called “The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics: Achievements and Opportunities.” We were impressed by how well these physicists made their own specialized fields accessible to the lay audience. What also impressed us, as another colleague reiterated that night, was the enthusiasm these scientists conveyed for their work. Even those in the audience who don’t know a neutron from a gluon must have been excited to see these men still curious, still fascinated, still questioning.
That public event opened what was a working conference that extended through Saturday, concluding with the dedication of the Yakir Aharonov Alcove in Leatherby Libraries, donated by Kathleen M. Gardarian to honor the physicist’s 80th birthday. Charlene Baldwin, the Dean of Leatherby Libraries, is a fan of our work at Lofty Ambitions and also a great appreciator of poetry and literature. She, of course, provided the welcome for the dedication event and included excerpts from one of Anna’s poems in her remarks.
We post here the entirety of that prose poem “Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists,” which is available the collection Constituents of Matter:
Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists
It is the light she longs to find,
When she delights in learning more.
Her world is learning: it defines
The destiny she’s reaching for.
At nineteen, Albert Einstein picks up an apple and an orange in the market. Today, this is two, but there are many ways of counting, and, of course, he knows apples and oranges should never be compared. He wants both but does not buy either. His wife may not be strong enough to endure this kind of resistance.
At the evening garden party, Marie Curie lifts a glowing test tube out of her pocket to show her colleagues what she has discovered. Everyone stares at her husband’s hands in the strange light. Later, she smooths ointment on his hands and bandages them. She knows it is too late for anything more.
Werner Heisenberg hikes all day at a steady pace to clear his head. It is too cold to swim, even for him. When he gets home, he remembers only one particular tree, the way its limbs arched as if growing. Or was that his wife lifting herself up from her garden, waving to him even? Or, he thinks, that may have been a different hike altogether.
Enrico Fermi listens to Neils Bohr carefully. Who wouldn’t? He knows that later he will not remember if he was surprised at the question. He straightens his jacket as if that is answer enough. To accept a Nobel Prize is rarely such a difficult choice. His wife will be pleased, he will have to write a speech, and they will leave Italy.
Just as the water begins to boil, Richard Feynman and his colleague realize that spaghetti, when snapped, breaks into three pieces. Always. They break all the spaghetti they have. He is sure there is a great theory involved. His first wife has been dead many years, and he misses their dinners. He knows he will be dead soon, too.
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?
Plutonium at Its Worst and Best August 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Chemistry, Mars, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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This week marks the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively, in 1945. Tens of thousands died on those dates, and more people died, as a result of radiation sickness, in the weeks and years following. War reveals human beings at their worst. Nuclear weapons represent our largest, surest capability for self-destruction.
In commemoration for that time, we encourage you to read the poem “Hiroshima’s Secrets” at Lofty Ambitions and to seek out other ways to remember. We’ve written a lot more about nuclear weapons and the nuclear history of the United States—read some of it HERE.
The night before this anniversary—last night—our thoughts were elsewhere. We were following the story of Curiosity, the Mars rover that landed at 10:31pm Pacific Time. Or rather, the rover landed at 10:17pm, and the confirmation signal reached Earth fourteen minutes later. A few minutes after that, two thumbnail photos arrived from Curiosity’s Hazcams, cameras positioned on the front and rear of the rover, cameras with a fisheye lens and amazing focus from four inches to the horizon. Curiosity’s wheels were firmly planted on relatively smooth, even ground. We could see Curiosity’s shadow cast on the surface of Mars.
The two most recent rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—were powered by solar panels. Curiosity, though, is much larger and more complex than those predecessors, so it needed more oomph and a longer life. Besides, solar panels can be compromised by the dust whipping about the Martian landscape. Curiosity is powered, therefore, by what NASA calls “a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) supplied by the Department of Energy.” In other words, Curiosity runs on a nuclear battery containing more than ten pounds of plutonium-238.
In 1941, chemist Glenn Seaborg developed Pu-238 from uranium-238. As it decays and generates the heat that makes it useful as fuel in a robot’s battery, Pu-238 decays back into that uranium isotope. The half-life for Pu-238 is more than eighty-seven years. In comparison, the isotope plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. Pu-238 does not explode like a bomb and is made in a ceramic form in an attempt to reduce health hazards. Neither the United States nor Russia produce Pu-238 anymore, though Russia has a small stockpile from which NASA purchases the isotope. Because its primary use is as battery power for NASA’s robotic space missions, there is some discussion of restarting production in the United States to ensure that the sort of Mars and outer planet exploration NASA has in mind can continue beyond 2020, but funding has not been approved by Congress.
This week, we remember the destruction that nuclear weapons can unleash in a single instant. May we also look to the skies this week and know that Curiosity, powered by its nuclear battery, is readying itself to explore the geochemistry of another world. May we glimpse, in Bill Nye’s words last night, “Humans at their very best.”
Going Nuclear: From New Mexico to Colorado to Nevada June 13, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Today’s post is an extension of or at least directly related to our “In the Footsteps” series, in which we trace the nuclear history of the United States.
On this date in 1911, Luis W. Alvarez was born. He would go on to become a world-renowned physicist, eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his work in particle physics, resonance states, bubble chambers, and data analysis. Just before his work on nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, Alvarez, while based briefly at the University of Chicago, helped develop a plan for the first intelligence gathering and monitoring of nuclear development in other countries, at the time Germany.
Then, he became one among a host of scientists who worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico on the Manhattan Project. There, Alvarez worked on the first plutonium bomb, Fat Man, which was used on Nagasaki. In fact, he flew on The Great Artiste with the detection equipment he developed to measure the explosive power of the nuclear detonations over both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, he turned his attention to particle accelerators, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and the cause of dinosaur extinction.
Last Tuesday, Anna headed over to the local Barnes & Noble to pick up the new book by a recent Lofty Ambitions guest blogger. Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats made its debut on June 5, 2012, and as a Discover Great New Writers selection. The book has been chosen as a common reader for incoming students at Virginia Commonwealth University, and it’s getting great reviews. So Anna tucked it into her bag and headed off to Las Vegas to read it under the cabana.
What we like about Full Body Burden is the concept of science writing to which we keep returning here at Lofty Ambitions, namely that good science writing tells a story and is about the people as well as the science or technology. Kristen goes one step further, as we do here on our blog, by weaving her own story—memoir—into the larger cultural story. Or rather, Kristen recognizes that she too is part of the story of Rocky Flats in Colorado, where she spent her childhood and where plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were produced until 1992. So we learn about Kristen’s horses—Tonka, Sassy, and the others—and family life in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as about the fires in 1957 and 1969 at the Rocky Flats facility operated then by Dow Chemical.
The story of Rocky Flats, including its two major fires and its day-to-day leakage, is one that most of us don’t know. To put its importance in perspective, here’s a tidbit from Full Body Burden: “In early December 1974, residents wake up to a socking headline in the Rocky Mountain News: cattle near rocky flats show high plutonium level. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study has found that cattle in a pasture just east of Rocky Flats have more plutonium in their lungs than cattle grazing on land at the Nevada Test Site, where the United States conducted hundreds of aboveground nuclear explosions in the 1950s and 1960s. Plutonium, uranium, americium, tritium, and strontium are found in measurable quantities in the cows’ bodies, and levels of plutonium in the lungs and tracheo-bronchial lymph nodes of the cows are especially high.”
Indeed, 928 nuclear tests (some with multiple detonations) were conducted both above and below ground at the Nevada Test Site (check this link to see warning to users) between 1951 and 1992, the year the United States agreed to a nuclear test ban and the year Rocky Flats stopped producing plutonium triggers. While the United States performed more than 200 atmospheric tests, some of those were done in the Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of nuclear tests in Nevada—more than eight hundred—were underground detonations. The last aboveground test at the Nevada Test Site occurred on July 17, 1962. Of course, underground tests raised dust too, and some, like Buster-Jangle Uncle in 1951 and Baneberry in 1970, had visible releases of fallout well above the Earth’s surface.
We know these facts about the Nevada Test Site in part because, while in Las Vegas, we usually visit the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo Road, just a few minutes drive off The Strip. Doug drove out to Las Vegas on Saturday to spend the night and retrieve Anna and some friends. So this trip provided another opportunity to visit the museum on Sunday, in the midst of reading about the nation’s nuclear history in Full Body Burden.
In the films at the museum, we were reminded of what the shift from aboveground testing to underground testing meant for the people involved in the program. One person pointed out that, though many scientists and engineers initially opposed the move, “The data was much better underground.” Another man, though, worries that, when we moved nuclear testing underground and out of sight, “We shielded ourselves and the public from what a nuclear test is really like.” The United States hasn’t conducted a critical nuclear explosion in twenty years.
The Nevada Test Site remains ready to resume nuclear testing, though. A test site engineer in one of the museum’s films went so far as to state, “As long as you have a nuclear stockpile, the day will come when you have to have a nuclear test.” A New York Times article this year notes that our current agreement with Russia limits us to 1550 deployed weapons and “thousands more warheads [that] can be kept in storage as a backup force” and additional short-range nuclear weapons. Given the order for a nuclear test, the Nevada Test Site could be ready again within two or three years.
Guest Blog: Claire Robinson May April 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
We just never know whom we’re going to find for our next guest post. Today, we’re featuring the granddaughter of Kenneth T. Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity nuclear test. This guest post is a great complement to our In the Footsteps series, which you can find HERE.
Claire Robinson May is a playwright in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program. Her ten-minute performance piece, The Trinity Project, is being produced this month by the Oddy Theater Lab. Her full-length plays Mother/Tongue and Standardized ChildTM have been performed at Cleveland Public Theatre. She teaches Legal Writing at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband, two sons, and a few other animals.
KENNETH BAINBRIDGE, IN HIS GRANDDAUGHTER’S WORDS
“Now we are all sons of bitches.” That’s what my grandfather, Kenneth T. Bainbridge, said after the successful Trinity test of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. Not a grand soliloquy like J. Robert Oppenheimer’s—Ken cut right to the heart of the matter.
Ken Bainbridge directed the Trinity Test. He always said he was glad the test was a success because otherwise he would have had to climb the tower to investigate what had gone wrong.
Ken was forty at the time of the test and a married father of three. He was a Harvard University physics professor who had relocated his family to Los Alamos, New Mexico, so that he could work on the Manhattan Project, one of the most top-secret endeavors in history.
Ken and his nine-year-old son, Martin, drove from Cambridge to Los Alamos in early July 1943. In late August, after Ken had arranged for their housing, my grandmother, Margaret Bainbridge (Peg), brought daughters Margaret (Margi) and Joan out to Los Alamos on the train. Joan was six. My mother, Margi, was fourteen months old. She learned to walk on the train to New Mexico. They lived at Los Alamos for the next two years.
The Bainbridges moved into a two-family house on the coveted Bathtub Row (so named because the street had the only housing units with bathtubs). Physicist Norman Ramsey’s family lived on the other side of the house. (Ramsey would go on to share a Nobel Prize in 1989.) Joan and Martin explored the new landscape, distressing the patrol guards with their utter disregard of the security fence.
Oppenheimer managed the gasoline rations so that scientists and their families could take the occasional day trip. There were picnics, mineral collecting outings, and visits to the pueblo. Joan remembers weekend fishing trips and other adventures with her father, writing, “I have some childhood memories with Dad at Los Alamos—I still have the trout rod he made for me, hand wrapped with silk . . . but, thinking about it, there are not as many as I might have imagined. He was very absorbed and then gone much of the time in the spring of ’45.” The test blast would occur on July 16, 1945.
After the war, my grandfather joined the numerous physicists who spoke out against nuclear weapons. But he never wavered in the conviction that developing the bomb was necessary. He later wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that he had “a somewhat bloodthirsty viewpoint on the war” when he decided to join the Manhattan Project because he’d already heard first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities from some of the European scientists he knew.
When I studied the history of science as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the early 1990s, I invited my grandfather to come to campus to hear a panel discussion that took place each year in one of the core science courses. Scientists such as Hans Bethe and Victor Weisskopf spoke to students about the development of the bomb and the decision to use it against Japan to end the war. Ken’s Los Alamos friends would wave from the stage, delighted to spot him in the Science Center auditorium. I was always proud to be with him. It was hardly a coincidence that my undergraduate studies focused on the history of twentieth-century physics.
Ken Bainbridge didn’t want to be remembered only for the bomb. He had many other achievements, both before and after the war, including his work on the Harvard cyclotron and the first experimental verification of E=MC2. When he chaired the Harvard University physics department in the early 1950s, Ken staunchly defended colleagues against the blacklisting attacks of Senator Joseph McCarthy. My grandfather was widely respected in his field as a careful and conscientious experimentalist and as a mentor to younger physicists. He was beloved by his family and many friends.
My grandfather died in 1996, shortly before his 92nd birthday. His wife, Peg, had died suddenly in 1967, several years before I was born. With both of them gone, I can’t help but wonder what transpired between my grandparents in the days after the test, when the families finally knew what really had been going on at Los Alamos. I wonder what role the experience may have played in Peg’s decision not long after the war to become a Quaker, a faith that wholly rejects violence. I now find myself drawn to the point where human history and family history intersect, in a blinding desert sky.
Irish Scientists March 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Beer, Chemistry, Computers, Math, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Physics, WWII
This coming Saturday marks St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday and general celebration of Ireland with which we grew up. In fact, more than 34 million (some say 41 million) Americans claim Irish heritage, which is roughly nine times the population of Ireland and, somehow, reason enough itself for a party. What better way for Lofty Ambitions to celebrate this week than to note some contributions to science by the Irish.
Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore back in 1627, may be the most famous of the Irish scientists. Boyle is, after all, considered the father of the field of chemistry. He considered chemistry’s goal to be investigating what substances are made of, and he claimed the then-popular field of alchemy was not science. In fact, though Francis Bacon advocated inductive reasoning and experimentation, Boyle worked out the particulars of the scientific method still in use today. If you remember your science classes, you probably have at least a vague recollection of Boyle’s Law and also an implicit trust that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related. If the volume of gas increases (more space), the pressure goes down.
William Rowan Hamilton is Ireland’s version of Leonardo DaVinci, for Hamilton knew 13 languages by the time he was nine years of age. Born in 1805, Hamilton started at Trinity College, Dublin when he was 18 and was awarded an honor in classics that first year, a recognition doled out only every two decades. As the story goes, his personal life was excruciating because, as a student, he couldn’t afford to marry the woman he loved, so she married an older, wealthier man, leading Hamilton to write some poetry, drink heavily, and consider ending his life. Luckily, he mustered on and rewrote Newton’s Laws of Motion with his own theory of dynamics. But his eventual marriage was riddled with strife, and his drinking caught up with him; he died at 60 years of age. You can find his papers, along with several other Irish scientists’ archives, at Trinity’s library and his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetary in Dublin.
Another father of a science that the Irish can claim is George Boole, who was actually born in London in 1815 on what would later become Doug’s birthday. Boole moved to Ireland in 1849 for a professorship and kicked off the field of computer science with Boolean algebra while at University College, Cork (then called, for various reasons we won’t go into, Queen’s College, Cork). He wasn’t the only one dabbling in such things, of course, for folks like Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Lovelace (poet Lord Byron’s daughter) were laying the groundwork for computer programs and software, but Boole’s the Irish one in the lot, and we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week. For Boole, differential equations, logic, and probability were passions, though he took time to father five daughters with Mary Everest, a mathematician and education reformer in her own right. Boole remains an Irishman, buried in Blackrock, outside of Cork City.
In the days of yore in which these three Irish scientists made their contributions, few women made inroads in fields like chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Kathleen Lonsdale, born in 1903 in Newbridge, was part of a changing world for women. Her family moved to England when she was young, and she attended Bedford College for Women there and was then offered a position in W. H. Bragg’s research laboratory at University College, London. She began studying molecular structure using X-rays, eventually demonstrated that the benzene ring is flat, and eventually was appointed to head the Department of Crystallography in 1949. Earlier, by the time World War II began, she opposed war altogether and spent a month in prison for refusing civil defense tasks and the fine for not registering, after which she worked on peace and prison-reform issues in addition to science. Lonsdale was the first woman to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society of London and the first woman to serve as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
More recently, Belfast native and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. She was the second author of five, behind Antony Hewish, her thesis director, on a paper documenting their discovery of pulsars. Since then, she’s been lauded with honors and academic posts, including becoming a Fellow in the Royal Society and serving as Dean of Science at the University of Bath. In 2008, she co-edited Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Of this project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell says, according to the Gulbenkian Foundation, “When I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme some twenty years ago, I kept very quiet about my hobby. It is only in the last few years that I have dared to ‘come out’ so it has been heartening that so many of my colleagues have been so willing to take part in this unusual exercise, as well as delightful to see the results of the collaborations.”
Readers may also be interested in our post about “Beer!” that was inspired by reminiscences of a visit to the Guinness factory.
In the Footsteps (Part 12) February 8, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Lofty Ambitions is going to AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Doug will present on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Chicago Hilton. As we’ve peeked at letters and telegrams written in bygone days, we’ve learned a lot about archives and how to read these documents. Doug’s expertise as a scientist and as a librarian continues to be a great asset for us, and he’s sharing some of that here at Lofty Ambitions as well as at AWP.
To read the rest of our “In the Footsteps” series, click HERE or on that tag in the tag cloud in the sidebar. To read posts by those presenting presenting at the AWP panel “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” click HERE or on the Guest Blogs category in the menu up top, then scroll for Tom Zoellner, M. G. Lord, Jeff Porter, and Kristen Iversen, whose forthcoming book will be featured in Barnes & Nobel’s Summer Great New Writers program.
PURLOINING THE LETTER: DOCUMENTS OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
I’m currently working on an espionage novel, set during the Manhattan Project. the Lofty Duo has done a fair bit of research, including working in the archives of the Library of Congress, where we’ve read through some boxes of the papers of J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of Los Alamos laboratory during the Manhattan Project. Although I’d taken away several fascinating tidbits from that research project, after hearing Alan Furst discuss methods for building a vocabulary that authentically recreates a historical period, I silently admonished myself for not being more methodical in my own use of the letters, memos, notes, and other ephemera in Oppenheimer’s papers. All these types of documents—letters, memos, telegrams, notes, and other ephemera—play the same role in my research because they, unlike a private journal or a publication intended for the general public, are written for a specific audience.
Since that realization inspired by Furst’s talk, I’ve been more focused in my research use of letters and other materials. I think about my usage as fitting a few primary categories:
- Language and vocabulary development. This aligns with Furst’s suggestions in recreating a time period but has also helped me in creating verisimilitude by learning the military and scientific jargon of the era.
- Events confirmation. This helps me align my novel’s plot with the recorded events.
- Character development. Each document reveals aspects of the person who wrote it and also of the person who was intended to receive it.
A concrete example of the type of historically accurate vernacular that I needed to develop in my novel is the list of codenames assigned to important Manhattan Project scientists. Nobel Laureates Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, for example, were assigned the names Farmer and Baker respectively. The use of code names, primarily for communications and travel purposes, is described in a number of books and biographies about the era. In the richly annotated book Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, authors Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner include a letter from Oppenheimer to the project’s military head, General Leslie Groves, wherein the left-leaning academic encourages the security-obsessed military man to consider assigning code names by saying, “it would be preferable if such well known names were not put in circulation.” Not only do I better understand the practice of codenames, but also the way in which the practice was discussed.
The second way in which letters have played a role in my novel has been to develop my understanding of the sequencing of events associated with the Manhattan Project. The beginning of the project itself is associated with a specific letter, signed by Albert Einstein in October 1939 and hand-carried to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s response was to create a committee to investigate the feasibility of this research. For a program that would ultimately consume $2B dollars, the Manhattan Project got off to a very modest start, spending in the neighborhood of $5K in 1939 and 1940. The papers of Robert Bacher in CalTech’s archives detail the extent of this work. Even more important, by the letters’ very nature—one-to-one communication between the involved scientists—the documents point to the fact that none of the involved parties anticipated the scope of what was to come. That in-the-moment record can be even more important than the hindsight of a historical text that looks back long after the events.
The third letter-use category that I have defined for my own work has been their use in character development, both fictional and historical. Of particular interest to me, for instance, was a recommendation letter written by Richard Feynman, which I encountered in the papers of Robert Oppenheimer in the Library of Congress. Much has been written about Feynman’s quirky, non-conformist character (including much in his own voice, in books that he penned). And yet, after making my way through most of Feynman’s books and several books where Feynman appears, nothing could make his unconventional ways as tangible as a single letter—written for a single person, Oppenheimer—wherein Feynman suggests that a candidate for a job (at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies) will make his greatest contribution by being fantastic at parties.
Other aspects of working with letters in archives can be helpful as well. Recently, I listened to Knox College Professor Doug Wilson discuss how Abraham Lincoln’s predilection for producing multiple drafts of letters has actually influenced the course of scholarship. In a somewhat unusual situation, the final copies of Lincoln’s letters have been archived at the Library of Congress, while the drafts are at the Huntington Library. By comparing the two collections, Wilson discovered that the Library of Congress actually had gaps in its Lincoln Collection, that drafts existed where there was no remaining final copy in the Library of Congress. My research thus far indicates that this tendency to produce multiple drafts of letters (usually one or two handwritten versions that were then typed up, sometimes with a carbon copy, perhaps by a secretary) is also common in the papers of Manhattan Project scientists. While this hasn’t been consciously reflected in my novel by characters writing drafts of letters, it has provided me with an insight into how these people thought, how they planned and revised. It has also caused me to wonder on several occasions about how many of my colleagues draft and revise emails before sending them, as I often do.
I’ll conclude this post as a librarian myself, with some practical advice regarding working with letters in archives. First, call ahead and make an appointment. Particularly in these times of economic uncertainty, archives are overworked and understaffed. During our most recent archival visit to CalTech, drop-ins were turned away. In addition, librarians and archivists are best able to help those who help themselves. By contacting them prior to your visit, they will probably ask you for specifics regarding the materials that you wish to see. In larger archives, materials are often stored offsite. By planning ahead, those materials can be brought to the work area prior to your visit.
Also, think ahead about copyright. In some collections, statements about copyright are included. In others, not so much. Ask questions so that you know the extent to which you can quote or otherwise use documents and how you should credit that use. Depending on the date it was written, the copyright holder of a personal letter, for instance, is usually the writer of that letter, not the recipient or whoever happens to have it in her attic.
Lastly, be cognizant of the age of the materials that you handle. Tearing a letter in half as you pull it out of the box is a rotten way to start a research visit. Holding thin, fragile letters conveys a sense of the preciousness of these materials and their contents and a sense of proximity to the time in which they were written, as if you can hear the letter-writer’s footsteps receding down the hallway.
Update from Ragdale & Today’s Birthdays February 4, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Serendipity, WWII
The flight from Long Beach to Chicago was a breeze. It took some time to rent the car because folks, including Tom Brady’s dad, were flying into the Windy City and drving down to Indianapolis for tomorrow’s Super Bowl. Coming from L.A.-area traffic, the drive from O’Hare Airport to Ragdale was amazingly smooth. Does Chicago not have rush hour anymore, or have our standards changed?
Ragdale is nestled in Lake Forest, a luxurious northern suburb perched on Lake Michigan. Upon arrival, we had a glass of wine, a tour of the Barnhouse, and a delicious home-cooked dinner with our six fellow residents and three enthusiastic staff. Several of the residents are from the area, and one is a fellow Knox College alum. Our rooms are comfortable, quiet, and warm.
Books by former residents, including Scott Turow, Sara Peretsky, Mary Gaitskill, Jennifer Haigh, and Alice Sebold, line a wall of shelves by the front door. Anna started reading the uncorrected proof of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Space this morning. Finding a memoir about growing up on the Space Coast was just the sort of serendipity we like to use as encouragement.
Yesterday, on our first full day, we found the gym at Lake Forest College, where Ragdale residents can work out at no cost. It’s the nicest gym we’ve ever seen. The Metra station is nearby, as is the beach, though we haven’t traversed there yet. The Whole Foods was a little farther than we thought, but we picked up a few essentials and got our bearings in case we need to get out for a meal or stop at Barnes & Noble.
And we wrote. For hours. We had pizza with the other residents last night. And then we wrote some more. Some of our drafting is from scratch, and some is drawn from things we’ve already written, though not cut and pasted because we don’t want to inadvertently shape our big project by the structure or language of previous work. We’re rethinking and trying to figure out something new.
This morning, Anna admitted that she’s sick with a cold. Doug will travel into Chicago for dinner with family and friends without her. Today is a break in the routine. We’re not writing as much, but we’re still writing.
And we’re quietly celebrating two birthdays. Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, was born on this date in 1902. If you don’t know the story of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, we recommend The Spirit of St. Louis, starring Jimmy Stewart, himself a pilot and a WWII veteran who trained B-17 bombardiers in the United States, flew B-24s overseas in the war, and even managed to earn a Mach 2 pin by flying a B-58 Hustler—one of Doug’s favorite aircraft—to twice the speed of sound.
Lindbergh’s life, of course, was far more complicated than the film portraying the accomplishment that brought him instant fame both in the United States and abroad. He was interested in a lot of things, including Robert Goddard’s work in rocketry and Nobel Laureate Alexis Carrell’s work in organ surgery. In fact, Charles Lindbergh invented a perfusion pump that contributed to the development of heart surgery. He was given unprecedented access to German and Soviet aviation facilities before WWII and began publicly opposing the war. Some of his statements smack of anti-Semitism, and there are stories (including his daughter’s book) of affairs and secret children in Europe. The story that garnered worldwide notoriety, though, was the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s young son in 1932. The boy’s remains were found a couple of months later, and a perpetrator was convicted and executed.
Charles Lindbergh’s story is a lesson in complexity for us as writers and seems to be, like any life, the weaving together of several stories that may not be seamless. We strive for narrative arc, cause and effect, a beginning and middle and end, but we don’t want to jerry-rig our story.
That brings us to the second birthday. Clyde Tombaugh was born on this date in 1906. We wrote about him briefly in “Happy Birthday, Neptune!” Tombaugh was a fellow Ilinoisan who made his way out West. While working at the Lowell Observatory, he discovered the ninth planet, Pluto. For a long time, that was a good story. But Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006, though even before that, museums had started opening displays of the Solar System without Pluto. The story changed—or rather, the facts remained the same (Pluto is still out there), but the interpretation changed as time passed.
So Clyde Tombaugh’s story is a lesson for us too, as we’re figuring out how to tell our story. The story may change, the details rearranged to lead to new ideas, and that’s okay.
On This Date: Radium, Tu-144, and Earthquakes December 26, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Airshows, Concorde, Earthquakes, Nobel Prize
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On most Mondays, we post either a piece by a guest blogger (first and third Mondays) or a video interview (second and fourth Mondays). We do have video interviews queued up for the new year (and just wait ’til you see who!), but today we take the opportunity for one of our “on this date” posts.
In 1898, just three years into their marriage, one of our favorite collaborative couples of yesteryear announced at the French Academy of Sciences that they’d isolated radium. Marie and Pierre Curie had isolated the element five days earlier, though it wasn’t named until the following year. They did come up with the term radioactivity, and radium was the second ray-producing element they’d discovered that year. The first was polonium. They continued to work with an enormous amount of pitchblende to isolate a wee bit of radium. And they didn’t patent their processes, thereby allowing the larger scientific community to readily use their work.
Radium was applied as luminescence on watch dials and aircraft switches, which, it turned out, was quite dangerous for those who painted those dials and switches. It was also added to cosmetics before such a glow was considered hazardous. Later, it was used to treat cancer, though, of course, because it is radioactive and because the body processes it like calcium, it likely caused the leukemia and related illnesses from which Marie Curie died in 1934.
Marie Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry, in part for her role in discovering radium. (Because Pierre died in 1906, he did not share in this award.) Her earlier Nobel Prize, which she shared with Pierre and Henri Becquerel in 1903, was in physics for their work in radiation. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, the first person to be awarded a second, and one of just two people to be awarded Nobel Prizes in different fields. (Linus Pauling is the other.) We’ve written about Marie Curie before—click HERE to read more.
Today is also the anniversary of the Tupolev Tu-144’s entry into supersonic transport service in the Soviet Union. The Soviet government began developing this aircraft in 1963. But the first production airliner crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1973. Accusations of espionage and cover-ups surrounded the investigation. With delays after this debacle, the Tu-144 ended up first flying mail on this date in 1975, with commercial flights beginning almost two years later (and almost as long after Concorde started its commercial routes). The Tu-144, which shares so many design cues with Concorde (dropped nose, cranked wing, and slender fuselage) that its nickname in the Western press was Concordski, was riddled with problems and had only a short commercial run, flying passengers from November 1, 1977 through June 1, 1978. A more recent use of the Tu-144 was as a flying laboratory for NASA.
This past year, one of the top news stories was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent damage to the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi. (Read some of that HERE and HERE.) Today is the seventh anniversary of another devastating earthquake, a 9.2 (numbers vary by source) quake in Indonesia, India Thailand, and the surrounding areas, that also produced tsunamis. It was so strong that some estimate that the entire world moved a full centimeter. As with most recent earthquakes, this one in the Indian Ocean was the result of subduction, or one tectonic plate scraping under an adjacent tectonic plate. In this case, hundreds of miles of a tectonic plate moved about 50 feet.
When this subduction occurred, the seabed rose, pushing water up. In the vast, deep ocean, that sort of wave isn’t much of a problem and is difficult to detect. But as the tsunami reaches shores, the wave can be devastating, and no warning system was in place for the Indian Ocean. The tsunami, of course, reached different shorelines at different times—several minutes or several hours—depending on the distance of the land from the earthquake’s epicenter. In some places, the waves washed a mile inland.
This natural disaster killed almost 230,000 people and is considered one of the ten deadliest natural disasters of all time. In addition to the cost of human life, it devasted coral reefs and wetlands and contaminated freshwater sources. Haiti’s earthquake, the second anniversary of which occurs next month, was even deadlier. Earthquakes change the face of the earth and the faces of the world.