Irish Scientists March 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Beer, Chemistry, Computers, Math, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Physics, WWII
This coming Saturday marks St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday and general celebration of Ireland with which we grew up. In fact, more than 34 million (some say 41 million) Americans claim Irish heritage, which is roughly nine times the population of Ireland and, somehow, reason enough itself for a party. What better way for Lofty Ambitions to celebrate this week than to note some contributions to science by the Irish.
Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore back in 1627, may be the most famous of the Irish scientists. Boyle is, after all, considered the father of the field of chemistry. He considered chemistry’s goal to be investigating what substances are made of, and he claimed the then-popular field of alchemy was not science. In fact, though Francis Bacon advocated inductive reasoning and experimentation, Boyle worked out the particulars of the scientific method still in use today. If you remember your science classes, you probably have at least a vague recollection of Boyle’s Law and also an implicit trust that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related. If the volume of gas increases (more space), the pressure goes down.
William Rowan Hamilton is Ireland’s version of Leonardo DaVinci, for Hamilton knew 13 languages by the time he was nine years of age. Born in 1805, Hamilton started at Trinity College, Dublin when he was 18 and was awarded an honor in classics that first year, a recognition doled out only every two decades. As the story goes, his personal life was excruciating because, as a student, he couldn’t afford to marry the woman he loved, so she married an older, wealthier man, leading Hamilton to write some poetry, drink heavily, and consider ending his life. Luckily, he mustered on and rewrote Newton’s Laws of Motion with his own theory of dynamics. But his eventual marriage was riddled with strife, and his drinking caught up with him; he died at 60 years of age. You can find his papers, along with several other Irish scientists’ archives, at Trinity’s library and his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetary in Dublin.
Another father of a science that the Irish can claim is George Boole, who was actually born in London in 1815 on what would later become Doug’s birthday. Boole moved to Ireland in 1849 for a professorship and kicked off the field of computer science with Boolean algebra while at University College, Cork (then called, for various reasons we won’t go into, Queen’s College, Cork). He wasn’t the only one dabbling in such things, of course, for folks like Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Lovelace (poet Lord Byron’s daughter) were laying the groundwork for computer programs and software, but Boole’s the Irish one in the lot, and we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week. For Boole, differential equations, logic, and probability were passions, though he took time to father five daughters with Mary Everest, a mathematician and education reformer in her own right. Boole remains an Irishman, buried in Blackrock, outside of Cork City.
In the days of yore in which these three Irish scientists made their contributions, few women made inroads in fields like chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Kathleen Lonsdale, born in 1903 in Newbridge, was part of a changing world for women. Her family moved to England when she was young, and she attended Bedford College for Women there and was then offered a position in W. H. Bragg’s research laboratory at University College, London. She began studying molecular structure using X-rays, eventually demonstrated that the benzene ring is flat, and eventually was appointed to head the Department of Crystallography in 1949. Earlier, by the time World War II began, she opposed war altogether and spent a month in prison for refusing civil defense tasks and the fine for not registering, after which she worked on peace and prison-reform issues in addition to science. Lonsdale was the first woman to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society of London and the first woman to serve as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
More recently, Belfast native and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. She was the second author of five, behind Antony Hewish, her thesis director, on a paper documenting their discovery of pulsars. Since then, she’s been lauded with honors and academic posts, including becoming a Fellow in the Royal Society and serving as Dean of Science at the University of Bath. In 2008, she co-edited Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Of this project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell says, according to the Gulbenkian Foundation, “When I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme some twenty years ago, I kept very quiet about my hobby. It is only in the last few years that I have dared to ‘come out’ so it has been heartening that so many of my colleagues have been so willing to take part in this unusual exercise, as well as delightful to see the results of the collaborations.”
Readers may also be interested in our post about “Beer!” that was inspired by reminiscences of a visit to the Guinness factory.
Guest Blog: Tom Zoellner February 20, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Books, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
1 comment so far
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
add a comment
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
add a comment
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.
In the Footsteps (Part 11) January 11, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Chemistry, Einstein, In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Physics, Radioactivity
add a comment
We spent yesterday in Pasadena—at CalTech and Vroman’s Bookstore—because that’s how we chose to spend one of Doug’s vacation days. We had been planning to visit the CalTech archives for a while, but we chose yesterday because our colleague Tom Zoellner was reading at Vroman’s from his new book A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us about the Grand Canyon State and Life in America. (His op-ed appears in today’s L.A. Times HERE, and we hope to have a guest post from Tom in the weeks to come.)
Tom’s reading was great, and he answered a lot of questions from the audience, creating a real discussion. Lest you think Tom Zoellner has nothing to do with our “In the Footsteps” series, his last book is Uranium, a well-written investigation of this radioactive element and our relationship with it over time. Zoellner recounts some of what we’ve covered in this series—the train station in Lamy, New Mexico, and Dorothy McKibben in Santa Fe—when he writes of the Manhattan Project, “An office on the plaza in Santa Fe was a discreet welcome center for the professors who stepped off the Super Chief streamliner, blinking in the bright sunshine at the foot of the Sangre de Christo Mountains.”
Before the reading, we spent the afternoon in the archives located in the subbasement of the Beckman Institute at CalTech. It’s a small operation with a few staff and one main research room. We had requested to see the papers of Richard Chase Tolman and Robert F. Bacher. Loma Kilkins wheeled out a cart of familiar storage boxes, and we started with the Tolman papers because there were just two. In fact, we didn’t get through all six boxes of the Bacher papers and will have to return for more research. After all, 39 linear feet (more than six times that of Tolman’s collection) of Nobel Prize recipient Richard Feyman’s papers still await.
What we like about archival research is that we never know exactly what we are going to find. A lot of the materials in these two collections were official documents, but even those reveal the signatures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry S. Truman. In these collections, it’s also possible to start tracing connections to people with whom the public might be more familiar, such as Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Richard Feyman, or Linus Pauling. (All these men were Nobel Laureates, in fact, with Pauling awarded two prizes. CalTech alums, including our university’s economics professor Vernon Smith, have been awarded 17 Nobel Prizes, and CalTech’s non-alum faculty have been warded 14.)
Tolman, a physicist, was General Leslie Groves’s scientific advisor during the Manhattan Project. He had been a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent policy research center still working on the world’s complex problems. Some of Tolman’s papers reside in the CalTech archives because he joined the faculty there in 1922. Linus Pauling, who studied at Oregon State University (where Doug earned his PhD), shows up in the Tolman papers because he came to CalTech in 1927 and later declined an invitation to join the Manhattan Project.
There are also wonderfully personalized parts of letters that are otherwise largely about scientific notions or career moves: hello to a wife, a mention of a recent visit. Tolman seems to have sent his talk and article “A Survey of the Sciences” to almost everyone he knew, and many of them responded, all positively but often with a quibble over this or that statement. In the less formal comments, we can glean an individual voice, a relationship, and the idiom of the time.
And there are little surprises, mysteries, too. Who is Helen Evereth? And why did Richard Tolman send her flowers on several occasions? She mentions her advancing age, along with expressing socialist political stances. Was she a great aunt or a former teacher or, perhaps, a sweetheart before he met his wife? Is she the Helen Evereth that the U.S. Census lists as having been born in 1874 in Maine? Helen’s are the most personal correspondence in the folders, but it’s impossible to piece together from these documents the story of Helen Evereth and Richard Tolman.
Perhaps our favorite piece of paper was a response to Albert Einstein (another Nobel laureate), instigated but not written by Tolman. The translation reveals that Einstein had submitted an idea to solve a problem with flight dynamics. The response, to put it simply, tells Einstein that they’d already thought of his idea and it doesn’t work. It’s heartening somehow to see plainly that even Einstein came up with notions that didn’t pan out and that even he faced rejection.
When you read a book like Uranium, you get what feels like the whole story. The narrative is figured out, and you find pleasure in its arc and cohesiveness. When you thumb through archives, you get tidbits, some of which state the obvious and expected and some of which don’t seem to fit. You find bits and pieces that could fit together in any one of a variety of ways but that also stand on their own for what they are (and were).
Blue Sky Metropolis December 14, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Airshows, Museums & Archives, Physics, Space Shuttle, WWII
add a comment
Today’s post is going up a little later than usual because we spent part of today listening to Yakir Aharonov, our colleague at Chapman University, explain quantum mechanics and Alice in Wonderland. We’ll get back to Aharonov and the Aharonov-Bohm effect at some point at Lofty Ambitions.
Time is running out, though, on the Blue Sky Metropolis exhibition at the Huntington Library, so we wanted to share our recent viewing of that while there’s time for area residents and visitors to catch it before it closes on January 9, 2012. Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in California was one of our happy accidents. Our colleague Jana Remy invited us to present in the Past Tense series at the Huntington Library on November 18, and we hung out afterward to see some of what there was to see there, including this exhibit, which is tied to a forthcoming edited essay collection by the same title.
The first international air meet was held in Dominguez Hills, California, in 1910, thus beginning California’s aerospace history. Like air shows today, it was incredibly popular, attracting 226,000 watchers during its ten-day run. During the 1920s, commercial aviation took off, and Southern California became a hub for that industry with 28 aircraft manufacturing companies in 1928.
Word War II made aviation the largest industry in the world, and Southern California remained a go-go and a region for building aircraft. As the placard script noted, “Southern California aircraft factories employed 2 million people; some individual plants had 100,000 workers each, with shifts working around the clock.”
Of course, by 1957, with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I, the industry expanded its notions and helped put an American satellite into orbit in 1958. Though it was launched from Florida, Explorer I was built at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as part of the International Geophysical Year (see our photo of a geodetic in a previous post HERE). Of course, the recently retired space shuttle orbiters were born and took their first, albeit tentative, steps in Southern California (see the shuttle’s first flight video below).
The boom-and-bust cycle of space exploration and Cold War defense programs kept the California aerospace industry a dynamic, ever-changing part of the regional economy. Now, California’s aerospace industry is expanding into commercial space exploration.
Blue Sky Metropolis covers this aerospace history with a roomful of selected artifacts, including many photos, letters, and memos. In fact, though it’s no surprise at a library, this exhibit is one of the more text-heavy displays we’ve seen in our travels to archives and museums. That makes sense, of course, because these letters and memos articulated the decision-making throughout the growth of the industry.
Kelly Johnson, who grew up in Ishpeming, Michigan, where Anna’s grandfather was raised, is featured prominently. A course notebook from his Aeronautics course at the University of Michigan in 1931 documents an assignment to analyze a “performance problem” by calculating characteristics from an aircraft blueprint. He writes, “In general, the performance of this plane is good. The Clark Y wing is a speed wing, and the speed for this plane at sea level is probably from 120-125 m/p/h. All computations in this report are given at 5000 foot altitude and with empty tanks.” While still at the University of Michigan, Johnson performed wind tunnel tests on Lockheed’s Model 10 Electra. (See our Lofty post about the Electra Junior HERE.) Those early assignments led Kelly Johnson to a four-decade career in the aerospace industry, in which he contributed to the design of aircraft like the P-38 Lightning, the family of Constellations, the F-104 Starfighter, the C-130 Hercules, and the U-2 spy plane.
Also featured in the exhibit is Willis Hawkins, another engineer educated at the University of Michigan whose career at Lockheed spanned decades. Some of his more philosophical writings are included. He writes, “One group of men can be blamed however, if there is cause for blame, and that group goes by the name of engineers. An engineer is fundamentally a mechanic whose dexterity with the tools of physics has made it possible for him to create inanimate machines which propelled by some form of thinking pilot can produce material miracles of transportation or creation.”
A memo from D.A. Shields about “a satellite and space exploration program” asserts, “The feasibility of the proposed program is probably the most exciting part of the entire idea.” That’s dated 29 September 1959. Less than three years later, President John F. Kennedy thought going to the Moon was indeed feasible.
The tidbits mount up and are worth seeing: a wall-sized blueprint of the Spruce Goose HK-1 from 1944 (read Spruce Goose curator’s guest post HERE and our original HK-1 post HERE), a photo of Kelly Johnson and Amelia Earhart working together in ta Lockheed hangar during the 1930s, a letter from Willis Hawkins in 1992 replying to a middle-school student who asks how something can fly, and a one-way ticket for Transcontinental Air Transport dated October 19, 1929 (a year later, TAT would be bankrupt).
Blue Sky Metropolis is worth a flyby! And of course, there’s lots more at the Huntington Library, including the Beautiful Science exhibit in the same building.
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
add a comment
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: Kelly McMasters October 17, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
add a comment
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.
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 2) September 6, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Physics
add a comment
Today, Doug is traveling to the Space Coast, making that cross-country SNA–MCO trip yet once again, though he’s going it alone this time. Doug will be en route for about nine hours, and Anna is booked solid with student conferences and teaching for nine hours, though these nine-hour stretches overlap so that we’ll probably be out of touch with each other for at least twelve hours. We outlined the week’s posts on Saturday and drafted this one on Sunday. Working together this week started by working ahead. How collaboration will happen tomorrow, we’re not quite sure.
Meanwhile, what’s this trip all about? Why are we willing to cross the bridge yet another time on this quest for GRAIL?
GRAIL is the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, which is scheduled to be launched from pad 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during one of two one-second launch windows on Thursday (or sometime by October 19). GRAIL is actually two spacecraft, nearly identical twins that will travel toward the Moon for a few months, then begin orbiting. For a couple of months the two spacecraft will adjust their orbits until one is following the other in a low-altitude, near-circular path of formation flying.
Each washing-machine-sized craft contains a Gravity Ranging System that, according to NASA, keeps track of the distance between the two craft down to the diameter of a red blood cell. The laboratory aboard each craft is designed to map the Moon so that we can better understand the Moon’s history. GRAIL’s goal is to answer scientific questions about the Moon interior and thermal characteristics.
Each craft also contains MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle-school students as part of Sally Ride Science) cameras because part of the GRAIL mission is to take photos for educational and public outreach purposes. The mission is part science and part fun—uh, we mean educational.
NASA’s compares GRAIL to the five-year GRACE project, which launched in 2002 and mapped the Earth. By using geodetic-quality Global Positioning System technology, accurate measurements between the two GRACE spacecraft have produced measurements and images of the Earth’s gravity fields. We can now see variations and changes within land masses, interactions between land masses and bodies of water, and characteristics of the atmosphere. We think of the globe as uniformly spherical, but GRACE reveals that we live on a lumpy planet.
GRAIL is almost ready to go take a look at the Moon and determine its lumps, bumps, and past. On August 18, the spacecraft were moved from Astrotech in Titusville to the launch pad and encapsulated for the journey on August 23. The Delta II rocket is ready to roar. This morning review meeting gave a Go! for launch (click HERE for that press release).
So Doug and the rest of the space tweeple are making their ways to the Space Coast in hopes that GRAIL launches on Thursday (or maybe Friday). Among those invited to the Tweetup is Justine McKinnon, the sole Brit and a mother of four. Several of the participants are also bloggers, some have affiliations with Kennedy Space Center or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that built GRAIL, and one is a pastor. Others are teachers or students. Eight hundred people vied for 150 spots. Seven countries and 32 states are represented.
The Tweetup schedule looks pretty amazing, including events with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and GRAIL scientists. We’re interested to compare the experiences in social media coverage with those of news media coverage. In this world of almost instantaneous sharing of information, what exactly is the difference between news coverage and 150 tweeps relaying 140-character tidbits? Who among us asks questions, and whose answers do we heed? Who now makes the distinction between an African and European swallow when asked about a swallow’s airspeed?