Lofty Ambitions at AWP February 29, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Information, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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We’re really excited that both of us are presenting at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference this year and that our presentations are directly related to what we do at Lofty Ambitions.
CLICK TO READ LOFTY POSTS HIGHLIGHTING AWP PRESENTERS:
Doug will talk about archives and the use of letters in fiction and creative nonfiction on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Lake Ontario Room of the Chicago Hilton. Our recent visit to the CalTech archives is also related his talk; read that post HERE.
Anna is the organizer for a panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” which will be held on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m. in Continental B at the Chicago Hilton. It’s a great topic for this year in the Windy City because it’s the 70th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction, which Enrico Fermi set off at the University of Chicago.
AWP actually begins today with set-up for the bookfair. For the first time, Chapman University, Tabula Poetica, and the Fowles Center for Creative Writing have a table at the AWP Bookfair—D-21. So Anna will be setting up posters and book displays this afternoon. You can find the list of the booksignings at the table on the Tabula Poetica homepage—click HERE.
We also want to give a nod to Tiffany Monroe, an MFA student at Chapman University, who is presenting on a panel called “MFA Students Speak Up” on Friday, March 2, at 9:00a.m. Tiffany will also help us with the bookfair table.
If you’re in Chicago this coming weekend, you can meet Chapman University authors in person on Saturday, when the bookfair is open to the public. Stop by Table D-21 any time 9a.m.-3p.m. that day. Look for the Lofty duo around town!
Guest Blog: Tom Zoellner February 20, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Today, we feature our colleague Tom Zoellner. He’s part of Anna’s panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age. Check out the rest of the panelists in our other recent guest posts: KRISTEN IVERSEN, JEFF PORTER, and M. G. LORD. And if you’re at AWP, join us for the panel on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m.
Tom’s latest book is A Safeway in Arizona, part memoir, part history, part cultural commentary, all an exploration of Arizona as the context of the shooting rampage that injured Gabrielle Giffords, his friend. But we asked him to be a guest blogger at Lofty Ambitions because his previous book is Uranium, which won the Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics and garnered him a spot on The Daily Show.
IN THE PALM OF MY HAND
Here is an experience that will make you want to wash your hands immediately—holding a stick of pure uranium. It was about the size of a small mechanical pencil, pure ebony in color, and it left dusty smudges on my hands. I was standing among mill workers at the Ranger Mine, which is located in the midst of some spectacular outback jungle in Australia. The stick of uranium was used in the mill’s lab for assaying purposes. I wanted to look like a tough guy so I inspected it like any other rock and casually handed it back to the technician. But more than anything, I really wanted to wash my hands.
That uranium wasn’t dangerous by itself. The number of unstable U-235 atoms that create the famously explosive critical mass was present at a perfectly safe ratio of 1 to 140, and the stick was not about to catch fire in the way that uranium can spontaneously self-combust when sliced thinly (an interesting state called “pyrophoricity”). The dust on my hands was radioactive, but the signature was small and only hazardous if I put my fingers to my nose and inhaled deeply. From there, it would get caught in fragile lung tissue and emit alpha, beta, and gamma particles at a constant rate. This is what slowly killed so many miners in the dusty adits of the American Southwest and the East German mountains during the Cold War.
I had been writing about uranium for several months at that point, relearning matters of basic atomic physics that had been long forgotten from high school. I had traveled to old mines in Utah and the Czech Republic and interviewed UN diplomats in Vienna. I had visited the site of a deserted mine in Africa once described as a “freak of nature” by a Manhattan Project official because it held ore at a purity level of 62%, which had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. That mine, named Shinkolobwe for a particular kind of thorny fruit, gave up most of the material used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts and continues to leak unknown quantities of ore to local buyers.
But holding this stick of 99% pure concentrated uranium—far better than anything Shinkolobwe yielded in the raw—was my first up-close experience with the subject that I had been chasing for months. It was sort of like a biographer of an elusive subject who talks to multiple friends and acquaintances and then unexpectedly gets introduced to the person in the flesh.
I wanted the moment to be more special than just being passed a lab sample. But after all, this was just an inanimate object. It could not talk. It could only sit there in my palm and chuck off (I couldn’t help but envision it) little packages of protons and neutrons at a rate far faster than the speed of sound, fast enough to travel around the earth’s equator in about two seconds. These alpha particles could be blocked with a barrier as thin as a sheet of paper and my bare skin was adequate protection. But still. This little wand contained a power unlike anything else in nature. It had an instability about it which could be exploited with the proper application of massive industrial force—the immense cascading rows of centrifuges and gaseous diffusion chambers which we had built in secret cities during the war and which Iran was now hiding underneath mountains to shield from American and Israeli spies and bombers.
I felt as if I should have spent more time holding this stick, thinking about this weird little trick of the universe that it held inside. Here was a small sliver of the rock buried in the earth’s crust that had the power to end all life on the planet. One that posed an overwhelming moral test for humanity ever since World War II ended with a uranium-powered exclamation point. There is much we don’t know about uranium and much we don’t know about our future with this mineral after just under seventy years of coexistence with its concentrated form.
Has the scientific genius of mankind outstripped our abilities to take care of the planet, and each other? Have we learned enough not just to crack open an atom, but how to get along despite our racial and political differences? Will we be able to keep our species alive in a world where we have access to such awesome means of destruction?
These thoughts didn’t come in that moment. Other things were on my mind. I wanted to look like a tough guy in front of the miner and chemists, and I handed the uranium back, keeping my faintly dusted hands casually at my side. And when a safe amount of time had passed, I found a reason to excuse myself to the men’s room and there I washed my hands twice with soap.
In the Footsteps (Part 13) February 15, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
On Friday, March 2, Anna will present at a panel entitled “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age.” Her four fellow panelists on this topic are guest bloggers at Lofty Ambitions. Today, Anna shares some of what she will talk about at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago.
On February 29, we’ll post more information about AWP, including links to our recent AWP-related posts.
FALLOUT & FACTS: CREATIVE NONFICTION IN THE NUCLEAR AGE
The nuclear age began in Chicago seventy years ago, when Enrico Fermi conducted the first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago, where my mother earned her law degree a little more than twenty years later.
For a few months in the 1970s, my mother was the Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the state-level regulator of nuclear power plants. She was also the person in the state whom the military contacted when there was a lost nuclear weapon. That happened once while she was director.
Illinois has six operating nuclear power plants, more than any other state. More than 30,000 people live within fifty miles of Braidwood and also within fifty miles of the Quad Cities plant, the secondary radius considered in danger if an accident were to occur. The two units at the Quad Cities plants went online in 1973, and their licenses are good until December 2032. In 2006, almost half of the state’s electricity came from these six power stations. Illinois gets more electricity from nuclear than from coal, even though Illinois has mined coal for more than 200 years. I’m not advocating coal; it’s dirty in its own right. But I grew up here and think of Illinois as a coal state, not a nuclear state.
My father, though, is my more imperative connection to the topic of the nuclear age. He served most of his requisite military service in Pirmasens, West Germany, where the United States had deployed tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons were rotated in and out of the facility where my father was stationed. To do his work, my father descended by elevator with a partner, each of whom had a different code that had to be entered before the elevator would take them underground. My father’s job was, in his words, to scrape corroded uranium off the bombs. He wore no special protection for this work, only a badge that, as he remembered years later, he threw into bin at each week’s end. He was told that this dosimeter measured his exposure to radioactivity, but he figured that the Army didn’t check all the badges and keep track. He never saw any records that referred to his exposure levels.
My father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer just before my sixteenth birthday, though two separate exploratory surgeries did not reveal an originating tumor. The doctors went over my father’s history. Their conclusion—though the cause of cancer is never completely conclusive—was that my father’s illness was the result of his exposure to radioactivity during his military service.
This history began showing up in my writing in graduate school, first in a poem about his military work and in a fragmented story. When I held the first copy of my poetry book my hand five years ago, I opened it and found this history. Sven Birkerts, in The Art of Time in Memoir, “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.” For me, an intuition about connections—my father’s death and Chernobyl, for instance—began to gnaw at me. Birkerts asserts that, for him, part of the draw to memoir came with age:
A curious thing happened to me personally and as a writer when I entered my late forties, that time zone I reluctantly acknowledge as marking the onset of middle age. Quite suddenly, at least in retrospect, my relation to my own past changed. […] It was as if that past, especially the events and feelings of my younger years, had taken a half step back, had overnight, following no effort on my part, arranged themselves into a perspective. No, ‘perspective’ isn’t quite right, for that suggests a fixed, even static arrangement. Rather, these materials had, without their losing their animation or their savor, became available to me.
Indeed, over the last two years, I’ve paid more attention to this topic, have learned to savor my available past, and have started to think of more of my writing as memoir.
We’ve written a lot about nuclear history and our connections to it at Lofty Ambitions blog, including an ongoing, currently 13-part series called “In the Footsteps.” The length of blog posts—most of ours run long at about1000 words—has offered us a way to understand the possibilities and pieces in what otherwise is the large topic of the nuclear age. Blogging as an aspect of creative nonfiction has helped us address a problem that Peter Turchi raises in Maps of the Imagination. He writes the following:
If we attempt to map the world of the story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration , so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information. The opportunities are overwhelming.
What to include and exclude and how to organize remain challenges for me as a creative nonfiction writer, especially when dealing with a cultural topic like nuclear history. We’ve all lived the nuclear age. As Susan Griffin puts it in A Chorus of Stones, “For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.”
Update from Ragdale and A Nuclear Birthday February 11, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Einstein, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
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On Thursday evening, after dining on walnut burgers, chipotle sweet potatoes, and sautéed spinach, we built a fire in the fireplace and settled in for a long editing session. We spent more than four hours working our way aloud through the two chapters we’ve drafted since our writing residency began.
Yesterday, it snowed in big clumps. From our second-floor windows, we watched the snow fall. Anna went outside for a short walk and to take some photos. Then, we tried to outline the rest of the chapters, doling out our ideas to the remaining chunks of pages we imagine. We try to outline the next two in more detail, put the ideas in the order they should appear. We have an idea of how long the chapters will be so we move a few things to a later chapter. But because of our experience drafting this project over the last week, we aren’t estimating the number of words or pages we expect an idea to take.
We have a sense of what we want to accomplish before we leave, and we’re pretty sure that, even if everything goes well, we would need three more days than we have. That said, we’re appreciative of the time we do have remaining here at Ragdale.
Today, we also pause to consider Leo Szilard, who was born on this date in 1898. As a Manhattan Project physicist, perhaps the first one, he fits into our “In the Footsteps” series, and he’s someone who’s long interested us.
Born in Hungary, he attended the Institute of Technology in Berlin, where he hung out with the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Planck. With that kind of company, it’s no wonder he ended up thinking, by 1933, after fleeing the Nazis and landing in London, about how a sustained nuclear reaction might work. There are several stories, most told at one time or another by Szilard himself, about how his idea that fission might lead to a bomb came to Szilard, but it’s clear that he was at least partly inspired by reading H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free. By the late 1930s, he was teaching at Columbia University, thinking uranium would be the right element for such a nuclear reaction, and soliciting Einstein’s endorsement of a letter he wanted to send to President Roosevelt. The letter from Einstein to Roosevelt led to the development of the Manhattan Project, and hence the suggestion that Szilard was the first physicist on the project.
Szilard moved on to the University of Chicago, where he helped Enrico Fermi build the first controlled nuclear reaction and held the patent with Fermi for that first nuclear reactor, which they referred to as a “pile.” In this coming week’s regular Wednesday post, we offer a sneak-peek of Anna’s AWP presentation on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age, which mentions this historic event of December 2, 1942, an event that, in a real sense, marked the beginning of the nuclear age.
As the United States grew closer to having a useable nuclear weapon, Szilard became concerned about its use against Japan and pushed unsuccessfully for a test demonstration. He was also disturbed that the military would have control over nuclear weapons and that scientists were not being involved in policy.
Shortly after the war, Szilard gave his attention to biology and even fiction writing, with a collection of short stories related to his experiences and the Cold War and in which dolphins tell the story of our demise. He also met with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and suggested a hot line between the White House and the Kremlin and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rushed to Geneva in hopes of establishing a dialogue between the president and the premier. Only a few months after joining the Salk Institute in 1964, Leo Szilard died in his sleep from a heart attack.
Enrico Fermi, Szilard’s partner in the first nuclear reactor, died of stomach cancer at age 53. Szilard later developed bladder cancer. Szilard’s cancer didn’t kill him, though it might have if he hadn’t undergone radiation and then, much to his doctors’ chagrin and by his own treatment design, more radiation. He had radioactive silver implanted in the tumor. Such implantation radiation treatment was highly unusual then but has since become one common way to treat prostrate cancer.
Szilard’s unconventional thinking didn’t stop with his science. He was known for soaking in a hot bath in the mornings to think and to take breakfast. Taking a hot bath today, perhaps with a glass of wine, might be the most fitting way to celebrate Szilard’s birthday. In 1951, he married Dr. Trude Weiss after they had been pen pals and confidantes for more than twenty years. We like this part of the story especially, in large part because we, too, knew each other twenty years before running off and doing something foolish like that. Szilard and Weiss, though, would spend most of the marriage living apart, something with which we’re not unfamiliar.
Szilard’s legacy, then, as a nuclear scientist and a human being is, like so many of the people about which we are drawn to write, a complex one. He was the Humanist of the Year in 1960, mingling in the ranks of Margaret Sanger and, later, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Helen Caldicott, Margaret Atwood (who will be at AWP in a few weeks), and Bill Nye. Not a bad group overall and certainly eclectic.
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.
Guest Blog: Jeff Porter January 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Nuclear Weapons
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On March 2, Anna will be joined by four other writers at “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Panelist Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden, has already contributed a guest post to Lofty Ambitions (click HERE). Today, we a post by another panelist, Jeff Porter.
We’ve not yet met Jeff Porter, though Anna read Oppenheimer Is Watching Me, one of the books that inspired the panel. The book draws from Porter’s past: his father worked for a defense contractor, and young Jeff, like many of us, was born into the Cold War. His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, The Missouri Review, and Isotope (a journal of literary writing about nature and science that we are sad to say is no longer publishing). Jeff Porter teaches at the University of Iowa and focuses on media studies as well as creative nonfiction.
ON JOHN HERSEY, ATOMIC WRITER
I’m an atomic writer, though I wish I had a t-shirt to prove it. Any real evidence of what I am is kept secret in my mitochondria, and I’d rather not go there. A t-shirt would be much cooler.
The very first atomic writer, John Hersey, did not receive a t-shirt either. He did, however, get a personal issue of The New Yorker, the only time the entire magazine was turned over to one story. William Shawn had sent Hersey to Japan nine months after the bombing of Hiroshima, suggesting that he look into the lives of the survivors. In the countless words thus far printed about the bomb, rarely had the human side of the story been put before readers. That changed with the August 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker. For 15¢, you could read the stunning documentary tale of six people who lived through the nightmare of Hiroshima.
In all, Hersey had met with over fifty Japanese survivors. He narrowed that group down to six—a Jesuit priest, a clerk, a seamstress, a physician, a Methodist minister, and a surgeon—each of whom he interviewed for six weeks before returning to New York. A month later, Hersey turned in a 150-page manuscript. Initially, the editors planned to run the piece in four consecutive installments of the magazine, as they would later do with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but at the last moment Shawn decided to take the unprecedented step of devoting an entire issue to Hersey’s story.
The magazine’s editor in chief, Harold Ross, wasn’t sold on the idea of turning the genteel The New Yorker into a house of tragedy. Banishing the magazine’s signature cartoons in favor of gloom and doom seemed a bad idea. Nevertheless he signed on, but not before requesting hundreds of changes to the text. At 31,000 words, Hersey’s story took up all 68 pages of magazine space. Everything else was stripped away except for the cover art, which featured a lively park scene teeming with people at play that gave little indication as to what lay inside the magazine. For readers, this would be no picnic.
Here’s Mr. Tanimoto, the Methodist minister educated in the U.S., fleeing in confusion after the flash of the bomb:
Mr. Tanimoto, fearful for his family and church, at first ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city ; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing.
Though grim, a description like this is a far cry from later narratives of atomic disaster, such as The Day After (1983), television’s sensationalized account of American survivors of an imaginary nuclear war. In fact, Hersey’s text repeatedly understates the catastrophe, focusing instead on mundane details delivered in a deadpan voice. Hersey’s style is so flat as to be ironic, but the irony mostly serves to dignify the subjects of the piece at the expense of the spectacle.
By many accounts “the most famous magazine article every published,” Hersey’s story of Hiroshima found a way around the nuclear sublime (and the enchantment of a new technology) that would cast a spell over American writers for decades to come. He opened the door of atomic discourse to literature, and for that he deserved his very own magazine.
Guest Blog: Kristen Iversen December 19, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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Lofty Ambitions has been walking “In the Footsteps” of nuclear scientists (see our most recent posts in that series HERE and HERE). Our guest blogger today adds her personal story of growing up near and working at a nuclear weapons plant. If you’re in Seattle, you can find Kristen Iversen at the Modern Language Convention’s bookfair (booth #209) on January 5 at 4:00p.m. Kristen will also present with Anna on “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m. at the Hilton Chicago.
Kristen Iversen is Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The University of Memphis and also Editor-in-Chief of The Pinch, an award-winning literary journal. During the summers she serves on the faculty of the MFA Low-Residency Program at the University of New Orleans, held in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Edinburgh, Scotland. She is also the author of Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Biography and the Barbara Sudler Award for Nonfiction, and Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. You can follow Kristen on Twitter by clicking HERE.
A COLD-WAR HARRIET THE SPY
I grew up in Arvada, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. My house was roughly three miles from the Rocky Flats nuclear weaponry facility, which secretly produced more than seventy thousand plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs—the heart of every nuclear bomb manufactured in the United States since 1953. Unbeknownst to my family or anyone else in our neighborhood, Rocky Flats heavily contaminated the environment with toxic and radioactive materials. Arvada is near Boulder, Colorado, well known as one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Our house was next to Standley Lake, where many of the neighborhood families swam and waterskied against a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. My siblings and I played in our backyard, swam in Standley Lake, and rode our horses in the fields around Rocky Flats. No one knew the land and water were contaminated, and none of us understood what was happening just down the road. The Rocky Flats plant was owned by the Department of Energy and operated by Dow Chemical. We thought they made household cleaning products. There were rumors about nuclear bombs, but no one asked questions. Cold War Secrecy was the rule.
Later, when I grew up, like many of the kids in my neighborhood I went to work at Rocky Flats. I was a single parent with two kids putting myself through college, and with the high pay, good benefits, and flexible hours, Rocky Flats was the best job in town. Like everyone else—even many employees at the plant— I didn’t really know what was produced at Rocky Flats. I needed the job. But I was keen to learn what actually happened there. I thought of myself as a kind of Cold War Harriett the Spy. Everyone else in the country thought the Cold War was over. But here in Arvada, it was happening in my own backyard.
I avoided the higher-paying jobs in the “hot” areas and went to work in administration. The weekly reports that I typed as part of my job described problems with radioactive waste storage, leaking drums and containers, spray “irrigation” of radioactive waste, fires, and other environment problems or “incidents.” I learned odd acronyms like MUF, which stood for “Material Unaccounted For,” describing how many pounds of plutonium had been lost in the system and in the environment. One millionth of a gram of plutonium can cause cancer. Over the years, tons of plutonium were “lost” at Rocky Flats. In 1994 the DOE publicly admitted to 1.4 tons of MUF; other estimates, including those by the DOE, are substantially higher.
I began to learn the dramatic history and litany of problems at the plant, including details of the 1989 FBI raid, the only time in the history of our country that two government agencies—the FBI and the EPA—raided another government agency. I felt stunned by all I had not known about Rocky Flats over the years. The day I learned that I was working next to 14. 2 metric tons of plutonium—much of it unsafely stored—was the day I knew I had to quit. But I knew that someday I would write a book about Rocky Flats.
Twelve years of research and writing went into the book, and I met many fascinating people along the way. The story of attorney Peter Nordberg is especially poignant for me. Peter was one of the prosecuting attorneys for Cook v. Rockwell Int’l Corp, the class-action lawsuit by local residents against Rocky Flats. He devoted more than twenty years of his life to pursuing justice in this case, and he spent many hours in interviews with me. Sadly, he died unexpectedly of a heart condition not long after our last interview, and only days before his winning verdict was overturned on appeal. The Supreme Court is just now considering whether or not to address Cook v. Rockwell.
Several of the people I interviewed for this book have died within the last year or two. And yet, with a half-life of 24,000 years, plutonium on and near the Rocky Flats site will persist long after we—and our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, and the many generations beyond—are gone.
In the Footsteps (Part 10) December 7, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff, Science.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Music, Nuclear Weapons
Late on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we overpacked our suitcases and headed out on the highway. Five hours later, we had checked into our Las Vegas hotel and were in search of the food you can find at the wee hours in the city that really does never sleep. On Monday, we made our now-annual visit to the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo Road.
We’ve written about this museum before HERE. This time, the museum boasted a special exhibit called “Building Atomic Vegas” that fits perfectly with our ongoing series “In the Footsteps.” This week, we’ll walk you through some of the highlights of that exhibit by sharing some of our photos.
The exhibit “Building Atomic Vegas” runs through January 5, 2012. For the video of the press preview for this exhibit, click HERE. If you’re in Las Vegas this Friday, December 9, check out the lecture on “Salvador Dali and Nuclear Art.”
On This Date: Five Notable Events October 30, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Cognitive Science, Music, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
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On October 30, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a secret document mandating that the United States maintain and develop its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Just four years later, on this same date, the Soviet Union detonated the largest explosive device ever, Tsar Bomba. The estimated yield was 50 megatons, which is almost one-and-a-half times the power of the combined yield of the two bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For one brief moment, Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Yet Tsar Bomba was one of the cleanest—least fallout relative to yield—nuclear weapons tests. We wrote more about this nuclear test in “Measuring the Unthinkable” and included a video of the detonation there.
Today is also the anniversary of the launch of space shuttle Challenger’s last successful mission, STS-61A. The 1985 Spacelab mission was astronaut Guion Bluford’s second. His first mission two years earlier was the first time an African-American had been to space. The only woman on Challenger’s last successful crew, the first crew of eight, was Bonnie Dunbar. STS-61A was her first of five shuttle missions. In addition to performing science experiments, the crew launched the Global Low Orbiting Messaging Relay satellite, a proof-of-concept for military communications. Challenger’s last landing was at Edwards Air Force Base on November 6, 1985.
We have several other posts that talk about Challenger, including “Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia” and “25th Anniversary of the Challenger Accident.” In addition, we have guest posts by Roger Boisjoly, Allan McDonald, and Richard Cook, three engineers involved in the launch that day.
Today is also the fourth anniversary of the death of Washoe, a chimpanzee and the first non-human to communicate with American Sign Language. She was originally captured for use in the space program but ended up in Nevada, then the University of Oklahoma, and later Central Washington University She died at the age of 42. The New York Times obituary notes that not all scientists agree that Washoe and others like her were really communicating, not without signals and prompts from her trainers. But Washoe opened up a lot of questions and led to a great deal of additional research into learning and communication across species. See our birthday post for Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity HERE.
On a cheerier note and with a linguistic, if not exactly topical connection, to the usual subject matter of Lofty Ambitions, today is Grace Slick’s 72nd birthday. Born Grace Barnett Wing in Evanston, Illinois, where Anna’s mother grew up, Grace Slick joined Jefferson Airplane in 1966. After that band split up, Grace and some bandmates formed Jefferson Starship. In 2006, Virgin America Airlines named its first aircraft Jefferson Airplane.
Virgin Galactic, another entity in the Virgin conglomerate, is now booking seats. If you want to go to space, all you need is a $20,000 deposit and the full $200,000 when they’re ready to launch. Click HERE to reserve a spot. We wrote about one of their most recent hires, Mike Moses, the shuttle program’s Launch Integration Manager in “I Remember California: I Remember Mike Moses.”
Guest Blog: Kelly McMasters October 17, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
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We’ve written about various things nuclear at Lofty Ambitions. (Click HERE for a post on “Radioactivity and Risk” that includes additional links at the end.) In fact, we’re in the midst of a series called “In the Footsteps” (Part 9 HERE) and will talk about that work next month in the Past Tense series at the Huntington Library. Our last guest blogger who wrote about nuclear issues was Ann Ronald (see that HERE). For this week’s guest blogger, as in that earlier case, we’d read the book but never met the author.
Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley, a memoir that’s being made into a documentary film. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, River Teeth, Newsday, and Time Out New York, among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart nomination and teaches nonfiction writing at mediabistro.com and in the School of the Arts and Journalism Graduate School at Columbia University. We hope to meet Kelly, perhaps next February at the AWP Conference, where Anna has organized a panel about writing creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.
GROWING UP NUCLEAR
Down the highway from my childhood house on the south shore of Long Island, rows of tall, scrubby pitch pines stretch their gnarled branches up to the sky. Their rough, plated trunks stand close together, creating a thick wall along the William Floyd Parkway. If the traffic is moving slowly enough, drivers passing by can catch a glimpse of a tall, barbed-wire fence snugged a few feet into the forest. This fence surrounds hundreds of acres of the island’s Pine Barrens, and hidden in the center sits the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a nuclear facility run by the federal government.
I grew up in a reactor community, but because of these Pine Barrens and because of the secret nature of the laboratory, my family didn’t know until it was much too late. We moved there in 1981, drawn by cheap rent, the proximity to the ocean, and a job for my father. Other neighborhood fathers worked at the lab, mostly in support capacities like maintenance, cafeteria, post office, or IT, but the full nuclear reality of the place was never understood, even by those employed there. Everyone thought it was just a lab, full of white-coated scientists who poured things into beakers and scribbled into notebooks, certainly nothing more nefarious than a few animal experiments.
This changed in 1989 when, after years of hand-wringing and covert testing, the facility was listed as a Superfund site. Local newspapers devoted covers to the story, and the findings were bleak: Three nuclear reactors had been built at Brookhaven, and all three had leaked. Soil and drinking water was contaminated with Cesium 137, Plutonium 239, Radium 226, and Europium 154. Fish from the rivers whose headwaters started on the lab property tested high for heavy metals and local deer registered high levels of Cesium 137 in their bodies. Underground plumes of radioactive tritium stretched out towards Shirley. But my hometown was not the only place affected. Beneath the Pine Barrens is the recharge basin for one of the largest sole-source drinking water aquifers in the country, serving more than three million people on the island. The lab and its leaking reactors were located right in the center. It would take 300,000 years for the radioactive material released to reach levels safe enough for human interaction. That’s longer than Long Island itself has even existed.
Since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster six months ago, ghost names from the past have been shuffling up from the sands of our collective memories, like the soft bodies of silver-gray stingrays, invisible until a flap of their wings sends up swirls of sand, muddying the water and pulling them into focus. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Enola Gay. With these names, nuclear fears have jumped back into the spotlight: A string of earthquakes and wildfires across the United States have shuttered reactors, an explosion at a French nuclear power plant (the safest! the smartest!) injured four workers and left one person dead, and Iran’s first nuclear power plant powered up. All while the nuclear lobby continues to insist that reactors are clean and green, a friendly fix-it for our oil and coal gorged economy, ignoring the fact that they aren’t economically viable or insurable and that we still have no plans for the ever-accumulating waste.
But while the natural disaster scenarios and stories of radiation-laced milk, crops, and human bodies in Japan splash across the headlines, another string of names marches quietly in the background. Braidwood. Limerick. Indian Point. Vermont Yankee. Yucca Mountain. And Shirley. My hometown of Shirley has been struggling along with a class-action lawsuit brought against the lab for damages to health and property and the environment. Like Shirley, the reactor communities of Braidwood and Limerick complain of cancers, autoimmune diseases, high rates of miscarriages and birth defects, skin diseases, and other mysterious ailments. Like Shirley, reactors at Braidwood, Limerick, Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee have leaked tritium, Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and various other pollutants. In fact, a recent study showed that tritium leaks have been found at 48, or nearly three-quarters, of U.S. reactor sites.
Last year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was tasked by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a long-term epidemiological study on the health effects and risks in U.S. reactor communities. During the Fukushima emergency, U.S. officials recommended that Americans within a 50-mile radius of the compromised reactors evacuate. According to 2010 census data, one-third of all Americans, or 116 million of us, live within a 50-mile radius of a commercial nuclear reactor. Add in the national laboratory system, of which the Brookhaven National Lab is a part, and that number only increases.
Even though one in every three Americans is potentially effected, and even though reactor communities have been calling for such studies for decades, before the NAS study began, there had never been a large-scale study of low-level radiation from nuclear reactors and their effects on human health, making it convenient and easy for the nuclear lobby to discount any connection between unexplained cancer clusters and other health issues and proximity to nuclear reactors and all that they spew. There is moderate hope that in a few years this may change with the NAS results, though most understand that, these days, scientific studies have become nearly as political as tea. But those of us who have lived in reactor communities know enough.
So forget about the tsunamis. Forget about the earthquakes and the floods and the wildfires. The real danger isn’t in the natural disasters or the worst-case scenarios. Before we get to Blue Ribbon Panels about the unsolvable waste issue, the dirty fuel harvest cycle, and the insanely high and uninsurable costs to build, we need to address the human cost of the simple, everyday operation of the reactors themselves and the leaks, spills, accidents, and releases that come with each reactor. We need to do this before the names of Braidwood, Indian Point, Limerick, Shirley, and the other nearly one hundred reactor communities join the ranks of the ghost names of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima.