On This Date: Lunar Eclipse & More! December 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: Airshows, Biology, Chemistry, Nobel Prize, Physics, Railroads, Wright Brothers
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Last night, we set our alarm for 5:30a.m. so that we could take a look at the total lunar eclipse. A total eclipse had occurred earlier this year, in June, but it wasn’t visible from North America.
The moon hung in our western sky, its face three-quarters in shadow. We watched the slow process, which takes several hours, for about ten minutes. Then set the alarm for 6:15a.m. to see how much it had changed. By then, the sun was rising over our backs, and the moon had sunk behind trees that line the street a couple of blocks away. Still, we could make out the reddish glow of the lunar orb.
If you remember your grade-school science lessons, you’ll recall that a lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth gets in between the Sun and the Moon and blocks the Sun’s rays from striking the Moon. Lunar eclipses are beautiful in part because the alignment necessary happens to occur when the Moon is full. In fact, even before the eclipse, last night’s Moon was striking.
We didn’t brush up on our how-to-photograph-the-Moon instructions, but Universe Today has some amazing photos and a video HERE. MSNBC also has a great collection of photos HERE. A Seattle blogger also has amazing shots from around the globe HERE.
If you missed this weekend’s eclipse, mark your calendar for April 15, 2014.
If you’re looking for other events to commemorate today, it’s the anniversary of the awarding of the first Nobel Prizes in 1901. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in Physics that year.
Jacobus van ‘t Hoff was awarded the chemistry prize for his work on dilute solutions and how they behaved, mathematically speaking, like gasses. In his address, he espoused the role of imagination in science.
The prize in physiology or medicine that year went to Emil von Behring, who came up with the diphtheria vaccine and also a serum to prevent tetanus. If you haven’t had a tetanus booster in more than ten years, you could commemorate this anniversary with the CDC-recommended tetanus shot to prevent the potentially deadly bacterial infection of the nervous system. Of course, consult your doctor because contraindications exist too.
There’s some controversy as to whether von Behring should have shared the financial rewards for the diphtheria serum and the Nobel Prize with Paul Ehrlich, who shared the prize in 1908 for work in immunity. A year later, Ehrlich developed a cure for syphilis, though even now, no vaccine is available.
Today is also the anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental flight across the United States and the first cross-country airmail, which began on September 17, 1911. Clearly, not a nonstop! In fact, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, great-grandson of Matthew Perry, stopped 70 times (not all planned), finally landing in Long Beach, California, on December 10. The last twenty miles from Pasadena had included two stops and a broken ankle. To celebrate and fully complete his transit, the pilot taxied his plane (the Vin Fizz, named to advertise a grape soda) into the Pacific Ocean. Only a few months later, on April 3, 1912, in a sad bit of irony, Rodgers, who had received about 90 minutes of flight instruction before his first solo in June 1911, perished when his exhibition flight over Long Beach ended in the ocean near where he had completed his transcontinental trek.
We end today’s post with an excerpt from a poem by Emily Dickinson, who was born on this date in 1830. Though the poem isn’t about a lunar eclipse (the full poem is available at The Academy of American Poets), it does resonate with our viewing early this morning:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
In the Footsteps (Part 2) June 15, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Railroads, WWII
To view more photographs (different photographs!) and Part 1 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.
Henry Cullen, Anna’s grandfather, was a Pullman conductor on The Chief, one of the Santa Fe Railway’s famous named trains, its route spanning two-thirds of the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles. During the last two years of World War II, Henry noticed something odd: a steady stream of men with foreign accents, voices inflected with the tones of middle and Eastern Europe, lots of German, were getting off the train in Lamy, New Mexico. The place was beautiful, with mountains rising in the distance no matter where you looked. But there wasn’t much there. Even the famed Harvey House El Ortiz, with its quaint hacienda-like atmosphere and its gorgeous Mary Colter-designed interior, was an open lot next to Lamy’s Santa Fe station, having been shuttered in 1933, burned in 1938, and razed in 1943.
It was only in the denouement of the war, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, when news about Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Manhattan Engineer District was released to the public, that it became clear to Conductor Henry Cullen what was going on in the high-desert near Lamy and who those mysterious men riding his train had been. Scientists like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and Niels Bohr, some traveling under assumed names (Enrico Fermi = Ed Farmer, Niels Bohr = Nicholas Baker), arrived in Lamy from their academic posts at the University of Chicago and the East Coast and also from Berkeley and the West Coast.
Lamy is an even quieter town now. The one-hundred-year-old Amtrak station is manned by Vince, who gave us the historical and cultural lay of the land when we visited to walk in the footsteps of the nation’s atomic scientists. Vince pointed out the geodetic marker placed into the outside wall of the depot by the National Geodetic Survey, which maintains a database of these reference points. Vince seemed especially pleased that someone thought the Lamy train station would be around for long enough to make it an appropriate reference point for the larger landscape.
When the Manhattan Project scientists arrived in Lamy, a specially designed car—a Plymouth sedan that had been extended limo-style—was waiting for them. The car is now at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque. We’ll write a separate post about that museum, but the car is especially intriguing because it was almost lost forever. Someone saw the beat-up vehicle in a local junkyard and thought he recognized it. The serial numbers matched the records from the Manhattan Project, and the limo was restored, using photographs to match even the upholstery to its WWII look.
From Lamy, the scientists were chauffered to Santa Fe, just under twenty miles away. They would drive past La Fonda, a destination hotel spot at the end of the Santa Fe Trail since 1607. The current building went up in 1921 and was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway three years later. The railway leased the hotel to Fred Harvey, and it remained a Harvey House until 1968. Once again, like she did for so many of the California, New Mexico, and Arizona Harvey Houses, Mary Colter designed the interior spaces to match her vision of the American West. We imagine scientists on their way to or from Los Alamos—or on a brief respite from The Hill—might sit at the bar or in the well-lighted dining room to talk about their ideas and enjoy the famous Harvey hospitality of that era. In fact, one day, a local widow was having lunch at La Fonda when a man in a porkpie hat approached her table and offered her a job to run an office just a couple of blocks away.
As a result of that conversation, instigated by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the initial destination of an atomic scientist in Santa Fe was 109 E. Palace Avenue, where Dorothy McKibbin, that local widow, welcomed every non-military individual associated with the Manhattan Engineer District to their new home in the middle of nowhere. McKibbin arranged for a scientist’s material goods to be delivered to Los Alamos, set up a bank account, gave each person an identification card, and informed every scientist that his new mailing address was P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sometimes, Oppenheimer would visit for martinis and a steak dinner. Occasionally, physicists would spend the night at her home on Old Pecos Road, leaving Dorothy’s son Kevin to sleep in the backyard.
Dorothy stayed on in her role for a couple of decades. Now, though, 109 E. Palace stands empty. We had been inside a few years earlier, when the place was a high-end linens shop. But when we were in Santa Fe at the end of May of this year, the property, once so crucial to the work at Los Alamos, was available for lease.
After being heavily processed and lightly acclimated by Dorothy McKibbin in Santa Fe, the scientist would get back into that limo and head to Los Alamos, another 36 miles into the Jemez Mountains. Depending upon the weather, those three dozen miles could take as long as four hours. The vistas are breathtaking. We imagine the scientists gasped most audibly as they realized they were crossing a one-lane wooden bridge and might meet a military truck rushing steeply downhill toward them. The bridge is still there, off to the side and beneath the current highway running over the Rio Grande River.
A military checkpoint greeted the scientists as they reached The Hill. Most scientists would then head to the assorted apartments, hutments, and barracks that had been hastily built for the rapid influx of personnel. Enrico Fermi lived in a nice stone building on 20th Street, Edward Teller lived in a smaller house with a shared driveway on 49th Street, and Richard Feynman took to bed in what was more like a dormitory for the men who didn’t bring wives with them. A few, including Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s leader, lived in a lovely cottage on Bathtub Row, so named because these were the only residences with bathtubs. The street remains officially named Bathtub Row. That’s where Richard Baker, the father of plutonium chemistry, lived from 1959-1995 and where the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum now stands.
The Lofty duo has spent a good deal of time traveling this past year. These trips are fleeting glimpses of the past, rapid images of someone famous running to a distant gate, or the two of us dashing to pick up a rental car. How different it must have been to be a physicist in 1944, boarding The Chief in Chicago for somewhere new. Henry Cullen’s train took 49 hours, 49 minutes to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles and 47 hours, 24 minutes for the return trip. Those travelers spent two days bumping into strangers, some of whom were preparing to change the course of history. To walk in the footsteps of atomic scientists is to try to understand that time and its relationship to our own.
To go on to Part 3 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.
In the Footsteps: Los Alamos (Part 1) June 1, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Physics, Radioactivity, Railroads, WWII
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We spent this past, very long weekend in New Mexico, doing research on our country’s nuclear history. In future posts, we’ll have more to say about the Manhattan Project and the three New Mexico museums we visited. For now, we’d like to share photos that demonstrate how we walked in the footsteps of those atomic scientists of the mid-1940s.
Once the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II ended, some scientists left Los Alamos for their former United States homes or for academic posts. Others, like Richard Baker, stayed on. The Manhattan Project had achieved its goal, but the Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose address is on Bikini Atoll Road, remains an active research institution. LANL is now charged with maintaining our nuclear weapons stockpile, “ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.” The juxtaposition between this goal and the natural beauty of Bandelier National Monument, which shares a border with the lab, left us relatively speechless. We were reminded that awe is a deeply mixed emotion, something that conjures up reverence and respect and profound wonder, but also dread.
Choo-choo! September 22, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Other Stuff.
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Aviation killed the railroad car. Flying came and broke your heart. Oh-ooh. And now we meet in an abandoned station. We hearing the chugging and it seems so long ago. And you remember the whistles used to go…
But aviation hasn’t usurped passenger train travel completely. In fact, last week, Rae Armantrout, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, took Amtrak from San Diego to Anaheim for her Tabula Poetica visit. Anaheim’s train station is nestled into the parking lot of Angel Stadium, and the trains ran on time. Rae found the rail travel far more enjoyable than driving because she spent her time reading.
In childhood, Doug had a bedroom window overlooking a small patch of Midwestern overgrowth, surrounded by homes and farmland. This space was known affectionately as The Gulley. Late at night, all manner of hue and cry issued from The Gulley. Despite parental assurances about cats, raccoons, and other small creatures, Doug remains convinced that the tree-lined area, complete with watering hole, was the actual home of Bigfoot. If Bigfoot exists, he lives in this gulley, not in the dark, old-growth woods as claimed by those in the Pacific Northwest—Doug has lived in both places, so he knows.
The nighttime sound that cuts through memory most sharply now is the powerful blare of the locomotive horn. Just north of Doug’s childhood home, a single railroad line sliced The Gulley in two. At regular intervals, laden freight trains hammered their way through town, rattling windows as a tangible reminder of their power, their heavy load. Doug’s first word was for the train; he called it frau-frau.
Anna grew up the granddaughter of a retired Pullman Conductor, who still dreamed of walking the aisles of the Santa Fe Chief. Her own father took Anna and her sister to the train station in Springfield with its great mural. The goal was sometimes to meet friends or family visiting from Chicago, but mostly the idea was to smash pennies on the track, something no longer done. Once the family moved “to the country,” there was a railroad track across Route 29. Whenever a train halted the ride home, Anna’s father counted the cars. He didn’t always count the cars on every train, but if he couldn’t see the end, he counted, just to know for sure when he’d seen the longest train of his life.
Back then, in the 1970s, trains and the railroad—the area belonged to Burlington Northern—were a vital part of the economic fabric of the towns in central Midwest. At that time, Abingdon, where Doug grew up, even had a new addition—imagine that, a small Midwestern town that was actually growing in size. Trains of that era were ad hoc and random seeming in their comportment: box cars in various colors, flat cars carrying all manner of machinery and materiel, different logos (like Chessie, the sleepy cat), even a caboose or two rushing by. In Galesburg, near the rail yards, a sign still announces how many days since the last injury on the job.
After our childhoods, trains played a more prosaic role in our lives: ordinary transport. In college, Amtrak meant a quick, cheap ride to Chicago from Champaign or Galesburg. A few years ago, train runs were added between the state’s university towns and its northern hub. Chicago’s Union station is a bustling, clean place, not the dark, dingy hall it was in the 1980s.
After college, when Anna was earning her MFA at the University of Maryland and Doug was an Abstractor/Indexer at a NASA CASI near Baltimore, DC’s ubiquitous and efficient Metro system meant cheap, unfettered access to the joys of the nation’s capitol without the flop sweat induced by negotiating the spoked street system and trying to find a parking spot near Dupont Circle. The Green Line station was behind our apartment complex, the Red Line got us to our favorite museums and restaurants, and the Blue or Yellow Line whisked us all the way to National Airport. Since then, our lives have taken us to Ohio, Missouri, and Oregon and back to Illinois—and now to California. Amtrak and the city’s commuter train systems have been there to handle those trips when driving was more nuisance than aid.
Los Angeles has a strange history with the railroads and a deeply rooted attachment to the car—and to the individual and autonomy that an automobile represents. Patt Morrison, an NPR commentator, writes, in an essay in My California: “Los Angeles is a city built by centrifugal forces, and what’s in the center of a centrifuge? Not much.” She explains that Southern California’s character has been suburban from the get-go. The center never held here, as it did in Chicago or New York, whose immigrants clung together in communities. Immigrants to SoCal tended to be middle-class, with money and skills, so their destination was not a community. “You think I traveled all this way by wagon/ship/train to reach this glorious sunshine to cram myself into some dark, little flat?” We get the sense that Californians don’t much like trains, that trains in California don’t often get you where you want to go, that the railroad just isn’t the same concept here. It’s no wonder, as Southern California, in fact, may be a home—if not the home—of aviation.
We miss the train, though we can hear the whistle of the occasional Amtrak and Metrolink—there’s a station a couple of blocks from Chapman University’s campus. We should hop a train to San Diego—we’d like to visit there. We’re hoping that the plan for high-speed to Las Vegas pans out, too. At least, we’ve been to Union Station in Los Angeles, the place Anna’s grandfather paused before turning around and heading home—that deserves its own blog post here someday.
Museum of Science & Industry (Part 1) August 10, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science.
Tags: Biology, Museums & Archives, Railroads
Just as Doug had a childhood of airshows (while Anna married into the experience), Anna’s childhood was steeped with Friday afternoon visits to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (MSI). Doug’s first visit—our first visit together—was over the December holidays in 1992. We went to see the “Christmas Around the World” exhibit, a display of evergreens, each decorated with ornaments representing a different country. Though not related to science or industry, the exhibit had started in 1942 as a tribute to the Allies in World War II. Likewise, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle has little connection with the museum’s main focuses. It’s a gorgeous, intricate simulacrum, but it’s not science. It demonstrates detail-oriented craftsmanship and industriousness, but it’s not about Chicago—or American—industry. Once a tradition takes hold at the Museum of Science and Industry, though, it tends to stay a long time. We like tradition; we appreciate the power of ritual.
What we especially enjoy about the MSI, and other museums like it, is that it’s a buffet for the mind, inviting us to stop and sample (the two of us have been known to overindulge). As children, we were interested in one thing one week, and another thing the next. Our tastes change inexplicably (even as adults, it turns out). Sometimes, it’s trains, but then it’s planets. And a museum like this one introduces interests we might not have thought to otherwise have. As a five-year-old, Anna didn’t know that a thing called a submarine existed, until she saw it nestled up to the museum—of course, then she was intrigued.
When Anna and her sister were young, their parents would sneak out of work in downtown Chicago on a Friday afternoon, head home to South Shore Drive, and haul the girls to the nearby museum for an hour (it was free in those days). Each girl could choose one exhibit to see. Brigid usually chose either the baby chicks hatching—their beaks cracking the shells from the inside until they could emerge wet and unable to stand under the heat lamps—or the Coal Mine, there since the museum opened in 1933, as opposite as could be from the feather clumps that become adorable, hopping chicks.
On our first visit together, we waited in the line up the stairs (there’s always a line) and finally entered the Coal Mine’s cage, its rickety, enclosed elevator. The ride is loud and dark, bodies packed together in a box descending with a racket into the mine. Doug’s claustrophobia only added to his sense of adventure, and even after we exited the cage, the mine shaft didn’t offer much more wiggle room. The lights went out, the lamp flame exploded with a pop, everyone jumped (even when you’re expecting it, you start), and the guide told us about methane gas build-up. This exhibit sucks you into believing—you can’t help but pay attention and, therefore, learn something new.
Though longtime visitors insisted the original ride not be altered, some updates to the Coal Mine—mostly to add modern-day technology (and probably safety)—occurred in 1997. That’s nostalgia, but it’s also evidence of the way we think about the world and our lives in it. As children, we take for granted that what is in a museum is true and always has been. We don’t have the perspective yet to know how much the world changes. We don’t really understand that time elapses over longer periods than we have lived. Pluto is another example of this phenomenon: it’s not really a planet, and we know there are objective rules about these categories, but don’t we wish, at some level, that Pluto still was a planet?
The nine-foot walk-through heart was a favorite, too, often added to a childhood visit when there was a little extra time. The plaster-of-Paris heart was like a playground ride—only it was something inside your body too! When we went to the museum together, Doug didn’t find it as impressive as Anna had led him to expect. She admitted that it seemed a little smaller than she remembered, but found it pretty amazing to see an organ from the inside. That heart was installed in 1950 and replaced (oh no!) last year with a 14-foot throbbing heart that matches its beats to a visitor’s pulse. We all grow up.
On the other hand, walking into the hall that’s housed “The Great Train Story” since 1941, we were struck by its enormity. That’s an odd sensation for a 1/48-scale model to evoke. Its scale is small, but the model spans from Chicago to Seattle, with 30 trains on 1400 feet of track running through all manner of terrain and industrial regions. Looking at Chicago, we recognize Sears (now Willis) Tower, but there are also beachgoers and Gene Kelly singing in the rain, a waterfall and a gas station, the American flag and pink flamingos. The detail is so accurate that the tiny figures waiting at the Red Line subway station are based on a photograph of people waiting for a train at that actual station in 2002, when the exhibit was expanded. Trains—we’ll have to come back to this topic in future posts.
Anna’s childhood memories of MSI remain so powerful that they drive the title poem of her poetry collection Constituents of Matter. Just as our childhood toys (see earlier post) created ways for us to see parts of the world we couldn’t otherwise imagine, the Museum of Science and Industry gives us ways to see the world and how it works. And to see a lot in a day. And to want to go back for more. Really, it’s delicious and nourishing!