On This Date: Lunar Eclipse & More! December 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Airshows, Biology, Chemistry, Nobel Prize, Physics, Railroads, Wright Brothers
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Last night, we set our alarm for 5:30a.m. so that we could take a look at the total lunar eclipse. A total eclipse had occurred earlier this year, in June, but it wasn’t visible from North America.
The moon hung in our western sky, its face three-quarters in shadow. We watched the slow process, which takes several hours, for about ten minutes. Then set the alarm for 6:15a.m. to see how much it had changed. By then, the sun was rising over our backs, and the moon had sunk behind trees that line the street a couple of blocks away. Still, we could make out the reddish glow of the lunar orb.
If you remember your grade-school science lessons, you’ll recall that a lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth gets in between the Sun and the Moon and blocks the Sun’s rays from striking the Moon. Lunar eclipses are beautiful in part because the alignment necessary happens to occur when the Moon is full. In fact, even before the eclipse, last night’s Moon was striking.
We didn’t brush up on our how-to-photograph-the-Moon instructions, but Universe Today has some amazing photos and a video HERE. MSNBC also has a great collection of photos HERE. A Seattle blogger also has amazing shots from around the globe HERE.
If you missed this weekend’s eclipse, mark your calendar for April 15, 2014.
If you’re looking for other events to commemorate today, it’s the anniversary of the awarding of the first Nobel Prizes in 1901. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in Physics that year.
Jacobus van ‘t Hoff was awarded the chemistry prize for his work on dilute solutions and how they behaved, mathematically speaking, like gasses. In his address, he espoused the role of imagination in science.
The prize in physiology or medicine that year went to Emil von Behring, who came up with the diphtheria vaccine and also a serum to prevent tetanus. If you haven’t had a tetanus booster in more than ten years, you could commemorate this anniversary with the CDC-recommended tetanus shot to prevent the potentially deadly bacterial infection of the nervous system. Of course, consult your doctor because contraindications exist too.
There’s some controversy as to whether von Behring should have shared the financial rewards for the diphtheria serum and the Nobel Prize with Paul Ehrlich, who shared the prize in 1908 for work in immunity. A year later, Ehrlich developed a cure for syphilis, though even now, no vaccine is available.
Today is also the anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental flight across the United States and the first cross-country airmail, which began on September 17, 1911. Clearly, not a nonstop! In fact, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, great-grandson of Matthew Perry, stopped 70 times (not all planned), finally landing in Long Beach, California, on December 10. The last twenty miles from Pasadena had included two stops and a broken ankle. To celebrate and fully complete his transit, the pilot taxied his plane (the Vin Fizz, named to advertise a grape soda) into the Pacific Ocean. Only a few months later, on April 3, 1912, in a sad bit of irony, Rodgers, who had received about 90 minutes of flight instruction before his first solo in June 1911, perished when his exhibition flight over Long Beach ended in the ocean near where he had completed his transcontinental trek.
We end today’s post with an excerpt from a poem by Emily Dickinson, who was born on this date in 1830. Though the poem isn’t about a lunar eclipse (the full poem is available at The Academy of American Poets), it does resonate with our viewing early this morning:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
Guest Blog: Sandra Beasley October 3, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Nobel Prize
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Today, this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine was announced and went to three men who devoted themselves to cancer research and understanding immunity. Sadly, Ralph Steinman, who holds half the prize, died three days ago from pancreatic cancer, before hearing the good news. Today, we celebrate the accomplishments of Steinman, Bruce Buetler, and Jules Hoffman with a guest post related to the body’s immune system.
We’d seen Sandra Beasley’s name in the program at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, and Anna had read one of her poetry collections and friended Sandra Beasley on Facebook. We’re especially interested in her new book, a memoir about growing up with allergies and about the immune system, a complicated topic that’s interested us for years but that we haven’t covered here at Lofty Ambitions. Last month, Leslie Pietrzyk launched an online literary journal called Redux, and Sandra and Anna are on the journal’s editorial board. We’ve discovered that Sandra is smart, positive, and energetic. When we contacted her about a doing a guest post about allergies and the immune system, she agreed and also revealed that her grandfather worked for NASA during Project Mercury. She’s woven that all together here.
Sandra Beasley is the author of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life (Crown, 2011), as well as two poetry collections: I Was the Jukebox (W. W. Norton, 2010), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Theories of Falling (New Issues, 2008), winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. She lives in Washington, DC. You can find more info at www.SandraBeasley.com and follow her on Twitter at @SandraBeasley.
THE SCIENCE INSIDE US
In the first chapter of my memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, I describe an early influence in understanding my body—and by association the multiple and deadly food allergies that have shaped my life. That influence? Reader’s Digest, specifically the long-running series “I am Joe’s…”/“I am Jane’s…” a column written in the first-person perspective of organs as they suffer critical illness or injury. Here’s an excerpt from my book about reading Reader’s Digest:
I adored these columns partially because they satisfied my flair for the dramatic. Who didn’t want Jane’s thyroid, or Joe’s lungs? Their viscera were so much more interesting than mine. Between the ages of eight and twelve I was sure I had experienced bouts with kidney stones, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mammary cysts (which turned out to be…breasts), a heart arrhythmia, lockjaw, retinitis pigmentosa, and (though I was fuzzy on the details) prostate cancer.
There must have been days when my family regretted ever introducing me to Joe and Jane. Perhaps they realized that in long run, after my initial hypochondria passed, these articles would teach me the elements of diagnosis: developing internal measures of what was “normal” and what was aberrant, understanding how individual symptoms related to a whole, and knowing when to ask for help. In other words, these articles taught me how to manage allergic reactions.
I would find Reader’s Digest at the home of my grandfather, a doctor. Not just any doctor: as a captain in the U.S. Navy, Carl E. Pruett served on loan to NASA as a Director of Space Medicine for the astronaut program. During Project Mercury, he had monitored the vital signs of men such as Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr. There is a stretch of wall in his house devoted to NASA memorabilia. As a child I would sit on the bottom stair and gaze at those newspaper clippings, signed photographs, and a scale model of the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
My grandfather died of Legionnaires’ disease in 1991. There has been any number of moments since when I have missed him: learning to drive, or college graduation, or upon getting my first apartment in the city. But working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl has given me a stronger pang than any other. I wish he were here.
In part, I wish he’d been here to help. In examining the science of allergy, this book required a different skill set from my poetry. I had to research a technical topic, translate into layman’s terms, then read with a journalist’s eye to ensure I’d stayed truthful. All writers need safe audiences—people they can ask, “Is this clear? Is this accurate?” As I wrangled with explaining a MAST cell response and quoting doctors from the AAAAI Conference, I missed his calm expertise. He had anchored our family, particularly in the years when my father was away with the Army and my mother was handling my allergies and asthma on her own.
This book might have opened a dialogue I’d have never had with him otherwise. As children of the military know, getting our parents and grandparents to talk about their accomplishments can be like picking a lock with a wet noodle. But now I’d have had the vocabulary to start a conversation. I know what it’s like to comb through The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, reading between lines of data to see what the doctors really think. I look at the auto-injectors of Demerol the astronauts were given, and I recognize the technology behind the EpiPen I carry in my purse.
My grandfather and his colleagues were charged with patients who, by definition, were adventurers of the greatest extreme. As doctors, they tracked the pulses. They counted the heartbeats. They took the temperatures. They had to constantly push the astronauts toward self-inspection. How do you feel? Can you continue? It’s a poor approximation, but in my life I so often have to weigh the value of individual experiences against the physical risk of my allergies. How dangerous did it get? How did doctors balance the burden of protecting their patients and furthering their journey?
I wish I could ask him these questions. I wish he’d had longer to share his knowledge in life. Instead, all I can do is direct his lessons outward: I try to channel his compassion, his precision, his curiosity. I might not reach the moon in this body. But I can aim for the stars in my writing.
In the Footsteps (Part 9) August 31, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
On this date in 2005, nuclear physicist Józef Rotblat died. Born in Poland, Rotblat joined The Manhattan Project in 1944. When he was certain that Germany was no longer pursuing an atomic bomb, he put in a request to leave the bomb-building project in Los Alamos. Shortly thereafter, he was accused of being a spy and was prohibited from returning to the United States for two decades.
Having opposed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the political use of atomic weapons in the emerging struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Joseph Rotblat returned to England to work on nuclear science for other purposes. He turned his attention to medical uses for radioactivity and to studying nuclear fallout, including the dangers of Strontium-90. He played an instrumental role in questioning the real extent of contamination from the Castle Bravo nuclear test and claimed that the nuclear weapons used in these tests were especially dangerous because they unfolded in three stages, with the last fission stage drastically intensifying radioactive contamination.
In 1995, Joseph Rotblat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Pugwash Conferences, an organization he helped found in 1957. The 59th Pugwash Conference was held in Berlin this past July and focused on Europe’s contribution to nuclear disarmament.
Rotblat helped bring wider attention to the dangers to humans of exposure to radioactivity. By that time, though, radioactivity had made its way into some common uses that may today seem odd. At the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, which we visited earlier this year, we saw lots of examples of the popularizing of radioactive substances and the idea of radioactivity’s power.
A poster boasts the benefits of Tho-Radia, a line of beauty creams and cosmetics containing Thorium and Radium. French women bought the concoctions in hopes that it would keep their skin healthy and stimulate beauty. Notice how the lighting in the advertising poster makes the woman’s face glow. Sadly, one of its creators banked on the last name he shared with two Nobel-winning scientists, Pierre and Marie Curie.
A much more familiar pop-culture outgrowth of nuclear science was the shoe-fiting fluoroscope. Thousands of these contraptions dotted America’s shoe store landscape as early as the 1930s. Kids loved to step up, stick their feet into the bottom of the wooden box, and look through the top to see the bones of their feet inside the shoes. Parents could take a peek to see that the shoes fit well. By the late 1940s, concern arose about exposing kids to radioactivity so that the fluoroscopes disappeared from shoe stores only to reappear as museum artifacts decades later.
Another widely known use of Radium was in the luminescent paint used on watches and clocks from 1917 to 1926. Thousands of women, now known as Radium Girls, painted hundreds of dials a day. To keep the brushes sharply pointed, they would use their lips or tongue. Five of the women later sued and reached a settlement that influenced our understanding of radioactivity tolerance levels, workplace safety standards, and labor laws.
In a bit of irony, The Manhattan Project temporarily ended the use of radioactive uranium oxide in the orange-red pottery glaze used by Fiesta for their dinnerware. In 1936, Fiesta introduced the United States to solid-color, mix-and-match ceramic dinnerware. In 1944, though, the Army needed all the uranium that was available to build an atomic bomb. Fifteen years later, Fiesta reintroduced its red plates and bowls, but this time, they used depleted, instead of natural, uranium. On the positive side for Fiesta, their dinnerware is lead free, made in the United States, and no longer made with radioactive materials.
As we meandered through these artifacts, a song by Blind Boys of Alabama played in the background (see video below too):
In nineteen hundred and forty-five
The atom bomb, it came alive.
In nineteen hundred and forty-nine
The USA got very wide.
We found out a country across the line
Had an atom bomb of the very same kind.
Everybody’s worried ’bout the atomic bomb.
But nobody’s worried about the day my lord will come
When he hits (great god almighty) like an atom bomb
When he comes, when he comes.
As the displays at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History make clear, we can’t eliminate radioactivity from our daily lives or from the larger world. We saw artifacts of popular culture of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s—items for daily use and sensational gadgets—about which few had any concern at the time. We’ve written before about the difficulties that individuals and entities have assessing risk (HERE and HERE). But Joseph Rotblat left us lessons about becoming more aware of the actual exposure levels and risks associated with radioactivity. We end this post with his words, which are taken from his Nobel lecture. (And then we top that off with a video for the Blind Boys of Alabama song mentioned above.)
But science, the exercise of the supreme power of the human intellect, was always linked in my mind with benefit to people. I saw science as being in harmony with humanity. I did not imagine that the second half of my life would be spent on efforts to avert a mortal danger to humanity created by science.
In the Footsteps (Part 6) August 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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In the fall of 2006, we wrote an article for Curator: The Museum Journal (“Not Just the Hangars of World War II: American Aviation Museums and the Role of Memorial”). One of the museum curators that we interviewed for the article, Katherine Huit, then of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, described museum-goers as “streakers, strollers, and studiers.” Now, after a few more years of doing this thing we do, we’d like to add one more category. We’re not sure what to call ourselves (and those like us, you know who you are), but we like to think of our efforts as extreme-museum-going.
We don’t just study the scripts on the exhibit plates; we take notes, sometimes lots of notes. The first time we visited the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Doug took down verbatim the text on each plate until his hand cramped, ending up with just over 100 paragraphs of text. We also do drawings, diagrams, and floor layouts and snap photos. The floor layout of the Udvar-Hazy Center’s display of the Enola Gay, the B-29 piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets and named for his mother, was actually quite helpful for the Curator article. It wasn’t until we reviewed our notes that we realized that the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, which was constructed at Los Alamos, was surrounded on all sides by aircraft flown by nations of the Axis Powers. The enemy aircraft were so numerous that, at floor level, it was actually impossible to photograph the gleaming, stainless-steel-skinned B-29 without also capturing an Arado Ar 234 B-2 Blitz, an Aichi M6A1 Seiran, or a Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Our overall feeling was that, even in its retirement, the Enola Gay could not be without context and the larger story.
We dive so deeply into each exhibit because we are unsure when we will get back or if we will ever get back to see those artifacts. But that kind of attention to detail can also have an obscuring effect. When we visited the Enola Gay the first time, we missed the forest for the trees. The trees are striking.
On our visit to National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH), we decided to pull back a bit from extreme-museum-going, to land closer to studiers on our scale from streakers to the extreme. Not that we don’t peer at the trees, but we’re more interested right now in the story—the forest—than in peeling away the layers of bark of an individual tree or two. Our notebooks are a bit thinner, perhaps because, with a digital camera, we take more photographs.
The natural traffic flow of NMNSH is akin to a timeline of the nuclear experience, beginning with Rutherford and Einstein The story proceeds through the Manhattan Project and the Cold War and ends with the ubiquity of nuclear power plants and the promise of green energy. A quick glance at Doug’s notebook reveals that, by the time he got to the Cold War section, he was just taking down the names of the primary items in each exhibit. Comparing our notebooks, we each have different tidbits with very little overlap.
The Cold War exhibit revealed the remarkable inventiveness that humanity has been willing to demonstrate in the pursuit of destruction. The weapon that really grabs your attention is the SADM (click for related FILM), or Special Atomic Demolition Munition. This is an atomic bomb that was intended to be carried by one or two soldiers. (If you watch the film in the link, that’s the warhead that the swimmer is strapping to his groin. The irony of the symbolism makes you wonder who really had a sense of humor.)
For Anna, this weapon has significant import. Leahy family lore has it that Anna’s father, Andy, scraped paint or rust off nuclear weapons at the Pirmasens Weapons Depot in West Germany, during his time as an enlisted man in the Army. As best as we can tell, it is likely that the SADM was this type of tactical atomic weapon that Andy Leahy would have been working on. Part of this story is the conclusion that Anna’s father reached about the Cold-War-era safety and monitoring measures that his group used: almost non-existent. Each man was issued a film badge dosimeter to affix to his person before descending into the below ground caverns where the weapons were stored. At the end of each week, the men would toss their dosimeters into a large bin. Andy and the other men assumed that no one actually examined the badges. There was certainly no hope of determining their own exposures.
The story of men being asked to scrape blistered, corroded paint off of stored atomic weapons begs belief and current common sense. And yet, in the context of the Cold War, where soldiers were denied access to basic information about atomic weapons and openly exposed to all manner of atomic tests (and the ensuing fallout), it becomes a more plausible story.
Anna’s father died after an extended fight with cancer that was everywhere in the abdomen, all at once, with no site of origin. When Anna’s lawyer mother (her father was also lawyer) attempted to obtain Andy’s service records, she found that his unit’s records had been destroyed in a fire. They had been held in a fire-protected, government document storage building in St. Louis.
The first time that Anna detailed her father’s cancer to Doug, he was reminded of James Gleick’s book Genius and the description of Richard Feynman’s cancer. Standing at NMNSH in front of a weapon that plausibly killed Anna’s father—ironically, by not fulfilling its expressed design—in this place that is, in part, a testament to the of the work of Feynman and thousands of other Los Alamos scientists reminded us of the threads that connect us to history. Threads that have us walking in the footsteps of those who’ve come before us. Whether we know it or not.
In the Footsteps (Part 2) June 15, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Railroads, WWII
To view more photographs (different photographs!) and Part 1 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.
Henry Cullen, Anna’s grandfather, was a Pullman conductor on The Chief, one of the Santa Fe Railway’s famous named trains, its route spanning two-thirds of the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles. During the last two years of World War II, Henry noticed something odd: a steady stream of men with foreign accents, voices inflected with the tones of middle and Eastern Europe, lots of German, were getting off the train in Lamy, New Mexico. The place was beautiful, with mountains rising in the distance no matter where you looked. But there wasn’t much there. Even the famed Harvey House El Ortiz, with its quaint hacienda-like atmosphere and its gorgeous Mary Colter-designed interior, was an open lot next to Lamy’s Santa Fe station, having been shuttered in 1933, burned in 1938, and razed in 1943.
It was only in the denouement of the war, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, when news about Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Manhattan Engineer District was released to the public, that it became clear to Conductor Henry Cullen what was going on in the high-desert near Lamy and who those mysterious men riding his train had been. Scientists like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and Niels Bohr, some traveling under assumed names (Enrico Fermi = Ed Farmer, Niels Bohr = Nicholas Baker), arrived in Lamy from their academic posts at the University of Chicago and the East Coast and also from Berkeley and the West Coast.
Lamy is an even quieter town now. The one-hundred-year-old Amtrak station is manned by Vince, who gave us the historical and cultural lay of the land when we visited to walk in the footsteps of the nation’s atomic scientists. Vince pointed out the geodetic marker placed into the outside wall of the depot by the National Geodetic Survey, which maintains a database of these reference points. Vince seemed especially pleased that someone thought the Lamy train station would be around for long enough to make it an appropriate reference point for the larger landscape.
When the Manhattan Project scientists arrived in Lamy, a specially designed car—a Plymouth sedan that had been extended limo-style—was waiting for them. The car is now at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque. We’ll write a separate post about that museum, but the car is especially intriguing because it was almost lost forever. Someone saw the beat-up vehicle in a local junkyard and thought he recognized it. The serial numbers matched the records from the Manhattan Project, and the limo was restored, using photographs to match even the upholstery to its WWII look.
From Lamy, the scientists were chauffered to Santa Fe, just under twenty miles away. They would drive past La Fonda, a destination hotel spot at the end of the Santa Fe Trail since 1607. The current building went up in 1921 and was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway three years later. The railway leased the hotel to Fred Harvey, and it remained a Harvey House until 1968. Once again, like she did for so many of the California, New Mexico, and Arizona Harvey Houses, Mary Colter designed the interior spaces to match her vision of the American West. We imagine scientists on their way to or from Los Alamos—or on a brief respite from The Hill—might sit at the bar or in the well-lighted dining room to talk about their ideas and enjoy the famous Harvey hospitality of that era. In fact, one day, a local widow was having lunch at La Fonda when a man in a porkpie hat approached her table and offered her a job to run an office just a couple of blocks away.
As a result of that conversation, instigated by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the initial destination of an atomic scientist in Santa Fe was 109 E. Palace Avenue, where Dorothy McKibbin, that local widow, welcomed every non-military individual associated with the Manhattan Engineer District to their new home in the middle of nowhere. McKibbin arranged for a scientist’s material goods to be delivered to Los Alamos, set up a bank account, gave each person an identification card, and informed every scientist that his new mailing address was P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sometimes, Oppenheimer would visit for martinis and a steak dinner. Occasionally, physicists would spend the night at her home on Old Pecos Road, leaving Dorothy’s son Kevin to sleep in the backyard.
Dorothy stayed on in her role for a couple of decades. Now, though, 109 E. Palace stands empty. We had been inside a few years earlier, when the place was a high-end linens shop. But when we were in Santa Fe at the end of May of this year, the property, once so crucial to the work at Los Alamos, was available for lease.
After being heavily processed and lightly acclimated by Dorothy McKibbin in Santa Fe, the scientist would get back into that limo and head to Los Alamos, another 36 miles into the Jemez Mountains. Depending upon the weather, those three dozen miles could take as long as four hours. The vistas are breathtaking. We imagine the scientists gasped most audibly as they realized they were crossing a one-lane wooden bridge and might meet a military truck rushing steeply downhill toward them. The bridge is still there, off to the side and beneath the current highway running over the Rio Grande River.
A military checkpoint greeted the scientists as they reached The Hill. Most scientists would then head to the assorted apartments, hutments, and barracks that had been hastily built for the rapid influx of personnel. Enrico Fermi lived in a nice stone building on 20th Street, Edward Teller lived in a smaller house with a shared driveway on 49th Street, and Richard Feynman took to bed in what was more like a dormitory for the men who didn’t bring wives with them. A few, including Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s leader, lived in a lovely cottage on Bathtub Row, so named because these were the only residences with bathtubs. The street remains officially named Bathtub Row. That’s where Richard Baker, the father of plutonium chemistry, lived from 1959-1995 and where the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum now stands.
The Lofty duo has spent a good deal of time traveling this past year. These trips are fleeting glimpses of the past, rapid images of someone famous running to a distant gate, or the two of us dashing to pick up a rental car. How different it must have been to be a physicist in 1944, boarding The Chief in Chicago for somewhere new. Henry Cullen’s train took 49 hours, 49 minutes to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles and 47 hours, 24 minutes for the return trip. Those travelers spent two days bumping into strangers, some of whom were preparing to change the course of history. To walk in the footsteps of atomic scientists is to try to understand that time and its relationship to our own.
To go on to Part 3 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.
Up and Away and Cosmic Rays May 25, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Physics, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
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Physicists in the current world of high energy and particle physics cast their collective gaze in the direction of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Owing to the Lofty duo’s well-documented interest in all things science—and to the fact that one of us, Doug, used to work at Fermilab, home to what was, formerly, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Tevatron—we’re sure to be writing about the LHC and its discoveries as they unfold.
But first things first. Last week, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) was delivered to the International Space Station by space shuttle Endeavour and her crew and is now offering an unparalleled view of the cosmos by virtue of its purchase 200 miles above the surface of the earth. This new science experiment reminds us that there was a time when, if you wanted to be at the cutting edge of probing the secrets of matter and the universe, you didn’t do it on earth. You used a balloon. Why do science in a balloon-basket? Roll back your memory to the tools and techniques of late 19th-century physics.
The electroscope, sometimes called an electrometer, is often the featured device in high school and freshman physics courses for demonstrating electric charge. Electroscopes played an important early role in the discovery and characterization of radioactivity when Ernest Rutherford (1908 Nobel Prize winner who did much early work on alpha and beta radiation) and Pierre and Marie Curie (Nobel Prize winners together in 1903 and for Marie in 1911 who did early work on the theory of radioactivity and isotopes) used the device to make measurements of the intensity of the radioactivity associated with various substances, in particular radium and its decay products, radon and polonium. (Search “radioactivity” here at Lofty Ambitions to see some other interesting takes on this topic.)
As Rutherford, the Curies, and other experimenters continued to use electroscopes in their experiments, they began to run into an odd effect: their electroscopes would continue to “leak” electrical charge, even when they weren’t being exposed to radioactive materials. Efforts to build more robust electroscopes, namely by adding thick lead shielding around the experimental apparatus, failed to completely prevent the leakage effect. Physical intuition convinced a number of scientists that a previously unknown form of radioactivity—and given its ability to pass through lead barriers, a very powerful one—was responsible for the leakage effect.
A natural assumption was that there was some form of radiation present in the earth that was responsible for the effect. Therefore, the next step in understanding radioactivity was to eliminate the effect of earth-based radioactivity by getting off of the ground. In 1910, Jesuit priest Father Thomas Wulf did just that by hauling an electroscope to the upper levels of the Eiffel Tower (he went up approximately 900 feet). In one of those lovely curious moments that litter the scientific record, Wulf discovered that the leakage effect in his electroscope was nearly as great as was predicted by theory. From this result, he inferred that, in addition to earth-based radioactivity, there must also be a source in the heavens as well.
Other physicists took up the challenge posed by Wulf’s results, and the only recourse that presented itself was to go every higher. So, in the years1911-1913, Austrian-born physicist Victor Hess loaded a balloon gondola full of electroscopes and hopped in with what must have been a amazing spirit of adventure. Hess’s experiments soared ever higher, culminating with measurements made at 17,500 feet. His characterization of the intensity of ionizing radiation at various altitudes gave the first proof that, after reaching a minimum at about 5000 feet, ionizing radiation levels continued to climb dramatically, thereby demonstrating the extraterrestrial origin of the rays.
Many other scientists were deeply involved in this research area, too. In fact, it would be American Robert Millikan of the Nobel Prize-winning oil-drop experiment who gave this radiation its name: cosmic rays. But ballooner Hess would be honored with the discovery of cosmic rays, and in 1936, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his high-flying work.
The spirit of Victor Hess and the other researchers who performed early cosmic ray experiments lives on in the AMS-02 that is now orbiting our planet. Those scientists of yore sought to escape as much of the earth’s atmosphere as they could to perform their work. Today, the AMS-02 has done them one better by leaving the earth’s atmosphere to bask in the cosmic rays.
A Launch to Remember (Part 13) May 16, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Nobel Prize, Space Shuttle
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STS-134 CREW WALKOUT at 5:11a.m. on May 16, 2011
We arrived at the KSC News Center at just after 3a.m. this morning. Within an hour, we had gone through the dog-sniffing security and were on the bus to the astronaut walkout, where we waited about an hour for the STS-134 crew to emerge.
The STS-134 mission is commanded by Mark Kelly, about whom we’ve written before. Kelly’s wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, is not among the Members of Congress listed among those attending today’s expected launch. California Representative Jim Costa is among the five Members of Congress who plan to view the launch here at KSC, and other VIPs include Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins (one of our favorite astronauts!), Irish Embassy official Catherine O’Connor, and Nobel Laureate and Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS, we’ll have a post on that soon) Principal Investigator Sam Ting.
The crew ate before they suited up. Mark Kelly, Greg Johnson, and Mike Fincke had lobster, though Kelly opted for a spinach salad and pear instead of a baked potato and salad. Roberto Vittori and Andrew Feustal, whose relatives (parents, perhaps) were in front of us in line at the KSC gift shop yesterday, feasted on pasta. Vittori’s was cooked al-dente and served with bread and extra virgin olive oil, whereas Feustal opted for pasta primavera with chicken strips. Greg Chamitoff had a turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich with salt and vinegar chips, Greek nonfat yogurt, and a banana. We also grabbed a bite: bagels and Diet Coke, with oranges and snack bars planned for later this morning.
The crew looked especially happy this time out and into the Astrovan. They didn’t linger as long as the last time, the recent not-launch when they knew the engineers were working a problem. As we compose this post, the crew has been strapped into the orbiter, the orbiter access hatch is now closed, and the astronauts are checking various systems, including communications with Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The sun has now come up over the horizon behind Endeavour, and the News Center is buzzing. Anna tried on the glove of the EVA suit used for spacewalks that’s on display for press. We hope to do a couple of interviews with astronauts in a couple of hours. And we’re hoping that the cloud cover blows off. No matter how this goes, we’ll update again later. In the meantime, our final photo in this post features the first seven astronauts chosen by NASA for the Mercury program.
A Launch to Remember (Part 11) May 14, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Nobel Prize, Physics, Space Shuttle
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We made our way from California to Florida once again. We’ll head to Kennedy Space Center on Sunday morning. In the meantime, here’s what’s caught our attention.
THE ALPHA MAGNETIC SPECTROMETER
Even now, comfortably residing in the aft section of space shuttle Endeavour’s bay is a sixteen-ton, three-meter-square instrument that represents a laundry list of significant commitments: 16 years from drawing board to delivery; 600 scientists, engineers, and technicians from 56 institutions and 16 countries to design and build it; and $1.5B (yep, that’s billions) of cash to fund it. And that price tag doesn’t include the $500M cost of launching the instrument into space and connecting it up on its new home, the International Space Station (ISS). This extraordinary expenditure of scientific and financial capital is labeled with a descriptive moniker: Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, commonly referred to as AMS. More precisely, this machine is AMS-02, having been preceded by a ten-day proof-of-concept flown by the STS-91 mission on the space shuttle Discovery in 1998.
So, why the big money, the multinational collaboration, and the long-term investment? The AMS is the brainchild of Nobel laureate Sam Ting, a particle physicist at MIT. The fact that the AMS will spend its working life affixed to the ISS is the result of a marriage of convenience, perhaps necessity (as it’s sometimes difficult to tease the two apart), between Dr. Ting and former NASA chief Dan Golden. In 1991, Dan Golden was desperately seeking scientific legitimacy for the ISS. At the same time, Dr. Ting was looking for the best possible spot in the world for his device to access unadulterated, so-called primary, cosmic rays. When hunting cosmic rays, it doesn’t get much better than 200 miles above the earth’s atmosphere. If you also happen to need to transfer a significant amount of data to physicists so they can analyze it, the ISS is a pretty good place to be. In fact, it not only provides support for communicating data, it also provides power and navigation. If you’re building an AMS to orbit the Earth, the ISS simplifies the project enough that it becomes much more possible.
We’ll have a future post about cosmic rays and their role in science, once the AMS is up in orbit and working. For now, suffice it to say that cosmic rays can be used to glean a significant amount of information about the universe’s past, its current makeup, and quite possibly its future evolution. In other words, if the AMS gets very lucky, it could revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
On a more workaday level, the AMS was designed to sift through the streams of cosmic rays that will pass through its multiple layers of detectors. The AMS will be looking for hints about one of the great cosmological mysteries: why the universe is predominantly comprised of matter. The logical outcome of the Big Bang Theory is that matter and antimatter should have been created in equal amounts. If this is the case, where did all of the antimatter go? The AMS hopes to find out.
Another question that the AMS will attempt to answer is perhaps an even greater mystery than the disappearance of—or our lack of ability thus far to detect—antimatter. Cosmologists, astronomers, and astrophysicists are confronted by the fact that what we can see in the universe—the visible matter in the universe—accounts for less that 5% of the matter that MUST be present in the universe if we explain it gravitationally. Simply put, from what we can observe, there simply isn’t enough matter to account for the rate at which the universe is expanding. Most current theories that attempt to explain this apparent contradiction do so by invoking dark matter and dark energy. Sam Ting and the hundreds of other scientists on the AMS project are hopeful that clues as to the nature of dark matter will be revealed by the project.
To accomplish this—to give scientists a chance to find dark matter—the AMS had to be a formidable piece of technology. At its heart is a 1250-Gauss permanent magnet that will curve the path of charged particles that make up cosmic rays. Particles that bend one way are ordinary matter, whereas those that are bent in the opposite direction are antimatter. The AMS has 300,000 data channels to transmit information about the particles passing through it. The dry run in 1998 had nearly 100M cosmic ray events in 103 hours, so they’re expecting a lot of data. We’re at the Space Coast hoping they start getting that data from space in about a week.
Nuclear Secrecy April 27, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
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At the end of March, an interesting article appeared on CNN.com in the TECH section. Entitled “Former truck driver deciphers top secrets of first atomic bombs,” the article detailed the efforts of John Coster-Mullen to understand the physical aspects of Fat Man and Little Boy, the weapons that gave rise to the atomic age and the Cold War. Coster-Mullen’s book Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, of which we have a copy, is an exacting, detail-driven exploration of the construction of those two weapons (and the dozens of test and engineering articles that were also constructed).
Coster-Mullen’s book has much in common with Chuck Hansen’s U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History, in that they were both created through extensive research, exhaustive Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and obsessive mindsets. A detailed discussion of the two texts is something that we’ll probably do in the future, but for this post, we’d like to address two of the misunderstandings that are created by the CNN article’s title and the follow-on, user-generated commentary.
Every time a book (or even an article about the book) like Coster-Mullen’s comes along, there is an outcry that the author shouldn’t be making so-called secrets about nuclear weapons public. Really, though, there has never been any such thing as an atomic secret, at least not one that could be kept secret for very long. Despite the uninformed blathering of our elected class that took place during the Cold War, it was clear by 1945 to most of the Manhattan Project scientists that it was only a matter of time until other nations had learned the secrets of manufacturing nuclear weapons. As was said at the time, “No nation has a monopoly on the laws of nature.”
This acknowledged fact led to vigorous debate among top Los Alamos scientists about the advisability of simply making the designs for Little Boy and Fat Man open secrets, not really secret at all. The history and background on this debate is covered exhaustively in the Trinity chapter and Epilogue of Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The leading proponents for this open dissemination of the bomb designs were Nobel Prize winners Niels Bohr (known as not-so-tricky Nicholas Baker when extra security was employed) and Leo Szilard, holder of the patent for sustain chain reaction.
Even though the Manhattan Project designs were never released into the open scientific literature, a staggering amount of information about the design and implementation of nuclear weapons was publically available in scientific journals throughout the Cold War. Any sufficiently motivated group of scientists and engineers would have been able to build their own nuclear weapon, probably from the moment that the designs for the Manhattan Project weapons were finalized.
The clearest test of this thesis came about as a byproduct of the so-called “Nth Country Experiment,” which was run by the Atomic Energy Commission and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in the 1960s. Predicated on the fact that the United States was the first country to develop nuclear weapons, Russia was the second, and so on, the experiment asked: What resources would it take for a small, presumably hostile (or at least moderately belligerent) nation to become the Nth-country?
The program took three recent physics Ph.D.s who had no prior exposure to nuclear weapons development, provided them with access to open literature and computational resources, and tasked them with developing a nuclear weapon. The young physicists took up the challenge of designing the more difficult Fat Man or implosion-type weapon. Their design was completed in two-and-a-half years—even though they weren’t working on this project full time—and adjudged by weapons experts to have a fair probability of having produced a plausible, working weapon.
Then, as now, the only technical activities that stand in the way of the production of nuclear weapons is obtaining and enriching the fissile materials: uranium and plutonium. That’s what we hear about in the news—acquisition and enrichment—because the secret was out before it could be kept.
Radioactivity Units of Measurement April 20, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Physics, Radioactivity
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Recently, the ongoing nuclear disaster that is Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was given the ultimate designation on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), a 7. Many media outlets covered the rationale behind the reclassification, including an article from the New York Times. The IAEA also has a pamphlet online that explains the various designations.
What’s common to both the NYT article and the IAEA pamphlet is the use of terminology—in the form of units—that attempts to quantify some aspect of measuring radioactivity. Most of the articles that discuss the upgrading (the use of the word upgrade here is unfortunate, as if the Japanese people have somehow had their lot improved) of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster to a level 7 also mention that at least some part of the rationale for the higher designation is the amount of radioactive materials that have been released into the environment. Most articles cite a report from the Nuclear Safety Commission that puts the total amount of released radioactive materials at 630,000 terabecquerels (TBq). (By comparison, the Chernobyl disaster is estimated to have had a total release of 5.2 million TBq.) The INES pamphlet also makes use of radiation measurement units. For example, in a level 2 incident, members of the public would have to receive dosages of greater that 10 millisieverts (mSv).
Articles about the Fukushima Daiichi accident have contained a bewildering array of terms that are used in measuring radiation: curies, rads, rems, becquerels, and sieverts are among those that we recall reading over the last month. A couple of others used for measuring radiation, but that we haven’t seen mentioned, are grays and roentgens.
One of the reasons for the multiplicity of the radiation measurement units is the dilemma that we have faced in the United States for far too long now, the use of U.S. common units versus SI units (SI stands for the International System). The other reason for the wide array of units is vastly more interesting: there exist a range of types of radiation measurements that one might want to take. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to address four types of radiation measurements and their respective units: 1) Activity, 2) Exposure, 3) Absorbed dose, and 4) Equivalent dose.
Measuring activity is effectively asking the question, “How much?” In other words, one type of measurement assesses how much radioactivity has been released into the environment. As was mentioned earlier, in the case of Fukushima Daiichi, the answer to that question is 630,000 TBq. The becquerel is an SI unit that that corresponds to a single radioactive decay (or disintegration) event per second. The U.S. unit that describes activity is the curie (named for Pierre and Marie Curie, about whom we’ve written before), and it’s tied to the radioactive decay processes of a sample of radium (an element the Curies discovered). So, one curie is equal to the amount of radioactive decay that take place in radium in one second. In mathematical terms, that’s 3.7 x 10 to the 10th decays (37,000,000,000, if you’re keeping score at home). The conversion relation for curies and becquerels is an relatively straightforward: 1 curie = 3.7e+10 becquerels. The important think to keep in mind is that both curies and becquerels are measurements of activity.
The next radiation measurement worth exploring is exposure. Although you might naturally assume that exposure would imply a human or some other tangible target, that wouldn’t be exactly right. (In fact, that’s closer to dosage, which we discuss below.) Instead, radiation exposure measures the ionization of a mass of dry air, whether or not any person is exposed to it. In fact, using the term exposure has an even more constrained meaning in that it is only applicable to energy deposited in the air by gamma and x-rays (not, say, for beta decay). (See more about radiation terms HERE.) The U.S. unit for measure exposure is the roentgen, and the SI equivalent is coulombs/kilogram. But there are better measures than exposure for describing the biological dangers that one might face by coming into contact with radioactivity.
Dosages come in several flavors; two of the most common are absorbed dose and equivalent dose. Each of these dosage measures attempts to quantify the biological impact of coming into contact with radioactive materials. The first measure—absorbed dose—addresses the effects of the energy that is deposited—or absorbed—as ionizing radiation interacts with the body. The U.S. unit for this measurement is the rad, which is an acronym for radiation absorbed dose. The SI unit for absorbed dosage, and one that we haven’t yet seen in the press, is the gray (gy). One gray is equivalent to 100 rads.
The final dose measurement of particular interest to us right now is the radiation measure that we have encountered most frequently in the media: equivalent dose. The equivalent dose differs from the absorbed dose in that it accounts for differing types of radioactivity. Different types of radiation—alpha-, beta-, gamma-, x-rays—interact with matter in distinctive and unequal ways. The equivalent dose introduces a quality factor to address the discrete biological damage regimes of each type of radioactivity. The U.S. unit for equivalent dose is the rem. Again, this is an acronym; it stands for roentgen equivalent man—or roentgen equivalent in man, meaning mammal. To come up with a measurement in rems, it is necessary to multiply rads by the quality factor for the specific radiation type. The SI unit of equivalent dose is the sievert (sv). It can be exchanged with rems in the same way that rads and grays are converted: a single sievert is equivalent to 100 rems. In other words, equivalent dose—as expressed in rads or sieverts—is really important because it’s a way to weight absorbed dosage in a way that better reflects what radioactivity means to the human beings who come in contact with it.
(For a big conversion chart of these and other measurements for radiation, click HERE.)
The INES grades radiological events as either incidents (levels 1-3) or accidents (levels 4-7). No number on this scale is exactly equivalent to any of the four ways of measuring radioactivity, and other factors, in addition to radioactivity levels, are considered when assessing the extent of a radiological event. We’d like to suggest another term for the worst nuclear accidents: cataclysm. Thankfully, there have been only two level-7 accidents; Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi clearly meet the intended definition of cataclysm, a word whose etymology comes from the Greek kataklysmós, meaning flood deluge. In the case of these two events, it hasn’t been torrents of water that have changed the earth’s surface, rendering the area uninhabitable. Instead, showers of radioactive isotopes—such as the cesium, iodine, and strontium we discussed last week—have turned the areas around Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi into a wasteland.