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5 Years: A New Plan (at least for a while) September 2, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science, Space Exploration.
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AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

We began this blog five years ago, in July 2010 (HERE is the initial plan we laid out). Over the last five years, we have never missed a Wednesday post, and we’ve often posted beyond the regular Wednesday edition.

To celebrate this five-year mark for Lofty Ambitions and to shake things up a bit here, we’ve decided to post lists of five things, at least for a while (maybe five months). We’ll stick to our topical focuses: aviation and spaceflight, science of the 20th century and beyond, and writing as a couple. And we’ll continue to think broadly about those areas of interest. The lists of five are a different way to think about form and to look at topics anew. We have some ideas already, and we expect that we’ll come up with more ideas along the way.

So, to start this new tack, here are 5 things about 5:

  1. Five is divisible only by itself and 1; hence, it is a prime number.
  2. Five is the only prime number to end in 5 because, of course, other numbers that end in 5 are also divisible by 5.
  3. The Roman numeral for 5 is V, as in the Saturn V rocket.
  4. A polygon with 5 sides is called a pentagon, and a starfish exhibits appendage pentamerism. Pent- is the Greek prefix for five.
  5. Five is the atomic number for the element boron. Boron is not found naturally on Earth in its elemental form but is sometimes present in meteoroids.

Bonus: On the scales for measuring tornadoes and hurricanes, 5 is the highest or most powerful.

And don’t even get us started with popular culture references!

Countdown to The Cold War (sort of, with serendipity) August 26, 2015

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Longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know what tremendous fans we are of the seemingly random connections of things that push their way into our lives to give us delight in the form of serendipity

Bert2Over the weekend, we were co-editing a piece of writing that mentioned our parents’ exposure to duck-and-cover drills as schoolchildren. This prompted a question of when that famous film that featured Bert the Turtle first appeared. In tracking down the film’s release date, we wound up where many internet searches do: Wikipedia. Even though one of us is a librarian, we’re pretty fond of Wikipedia at least as a starting point. In this instance, we followed a chain of hyperlinks that had us arriving back in the place that we’d started, which is to say that we arrived back at our home in Orange, California. The whole sequence of events was reminiscent of the Connections 2 television show hosted by James Burke, which, when we started thinking about that, revealed a second whole set of connections.

Our first step was to track down the release date of the now infamous Cold War-era civil defense film, Duck-and-Cover. Bert the Turtle made his appearance before American schoolchildren in 1951. We’re notoriously curious here at Lofty Ambitions, and, despite a looming deadline, we couldn’t help but notice something interesting in the sidebox.

NectarCastleIn addition to a video clip of a thermonuclear weapon test—shot Nectar of Operation Castle—was a bit of accompanying text that mentioned the double flash in this type of explosion. The second flash is brighter than the sun.

This is the kind of information that gets our attention, so we followed the hyperlink for double flash, which actually led us to the entry for the bhangmeter. A bhangmeter is a device for detecting and measuring the strength of a nuclear explosion. What caught our attention next was the section that explained why it’s bHang- and not the infinitely more sensible bang-.

The name of the detector is a playful pun, which was bestowed upon it by Fred Reines, one of the scientists working on the project. The name is derived from the Hindi word bhang, a locally grown variety of cannabis which is smoked or drunk to induce intoxicating effects. The joke is that one would have to be on drugs to believe the bhangmeter detectors would work properly. This is in contrast to a bangmeter one might associate with detection of nuclear explosions.

Fred Reines

Fred Reines

The next thing that caught our collective eye was a name: Fred Reines. We know Fred Reines from our extensive research on Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. As it turns out, Reines, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the discovery of the neutrino, spent the last part of his career in our neck of the woods. Reines was the first Dean of the Physical Sciences at nearby University of California of Irvine. Reines was on the UCI faculty until his death on August 26, 1998, seventeen years ago today, in Orange, California. Altogether, it was an unusal chain of events that brought us back to the town we live in for a post on the anniversary of the day this man died.

What of the second set of connections—Burke’s Connections 2 show—that we mentioned at the beginning of this post? Recently, Doug had a new book come out. The book, Intertwingled: The Work and Influence of Ted Nelson, is a Festschrift, a lovely German word meaning festival (fest-) + writing (schrift). In this case, Intertwingled—which Doug co-edited with Daniele Struppa, a mathematician and Chapman University’s Chancellor—is a series of essays generated from the conference presentations given at a conference the university held in Nelson’s honor in April 2014. The book’s title comes from a phrase coined by Ted, intertwingularity.

Intertwingularity is Nelson’s attempt to describe the interrelatedness of information. In other words, it describes the connectedness of all of the knowledge in and about the world. Connectedness—seeing meaningful connections—is what this post is about.

With last month’s release of the book, Doug was now going back through his emails to make sure that people associated with the conference knew that the book had been published. Whose name should appear in a search of Doug’s inbox? James Burke. When the conference planning was going on, Burke, whom Ted Nelson has known for years, was a potential speaker. In the end, his schedule wouldn’t allow for him to appear, but how appropriate that a day of following seeming random connections would wind up with this one additional association. That’s serendipity.

Countdown to The Cold War: Jaws and the Atomic Bomb August 19, 2015

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Earlier this summer, we posted about seeing the film Jaws for its nationwide 40th-anniversary screening. One of the most memorable scenes in that film is when the three main characters—Brody, Hooper, and Quint—are sitting around on the boat drinking. Quint, the weathered captain, talks of his experience years earlier aboard the USS Indianapolis. He says:

We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte…just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb.

On July 16, 1945, shortly after the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert, the USS Indianapolis departed San Francisco for Tinian island in the Pacific Ocean. The ship carried crucial parts for the atomic bomb that would be dropped over Hiroshima Japan on August 6. Aboard was roughly half the enriched uranium in the world at the time. The ship delivered that cargo ten days after it had set sail.

Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)

Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)

The USS Indianapolis then stopped in Guam for crew changes before heading to Leyte for training on July 28. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Within twelve minutes, the ship rolled over and sank.

Three hundred men went down with the ship, and almost 900 were left bobbing in the ocean. The Navy assumed that, unless it was reported otherwise, a ship was where it was supposed to be. The Navy mistakenly recorded the USS Indianapolis as having arrived at Leyte, and distress calls made before sinking were ignored for various, ill-conceived reasons. Three-and-a-half days later, 321 men were pulled from the ocean still alive. The rest had died of starvation, dehydration, exposure, suicide, and, yes, as Quint says, shark attack.

Hiroshima after the bombing

Hiroshima after the bombing

The Navy’s mistakes were covered up, and the ship’s captain was blamed for not taking evasive zigzagging action in dangerous waters. Only later, in 1996, did a sixth-grader’s investigation eventually lead Congress to exonerate the captain. As an eleven-year-old, Hunter Scott saw the film Jaws and was captivated by Quint’s speech about the USS Indianapolis. He turned it into a history project for school, then contacted survivors of the sinking to answer some of his questions. All of the survivors told Scott that the captain was not to blame, and that’s what Scott told the Senate. Representative Joe Scarborough led an effort to exonerate Captain McVay, and President Bill Clinton signed the resolution in 2000.

When we posted about Jaws, we weren’t thinking about its connection to our series on The Countdown to The Cold War. And we didn’t yet know that a sixth-grader’s research would play a role in the story. Just like Hunter Scott, we’ve followed this series topic where it’s taken us. Today, just a few weeks belated, we commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

That sinking occurred only a few days after this ship delivered crucial components of the Little Boy atomic weapon to Tinian and only days before that bomb would be dropped over Japan. That sinking occurred only a week before the bomb was detonated, only two weeks before the war ended. We end with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s final novel, “The Marble Faun,” a story about guilt published under the title “Transformation” in the United Kingdom:

Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.

The Writing Residency: More Dorland August 12, 2015

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DorlandCabinWe spent almost three weeks at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony to write. We had some bumps in our residency road this time, but we always accomplish things and do good work in the isolation and beauty of Dorland. (For other posts about writing retreats, click HERE.)

Each residency we’ve done is somewhat different, even when we return to this place. But, when we think about it, the accomplishment emerges out of five basic life practices, perhaps because they are what’s essential to a writing life beyond the residency too.

Have something to write, and write it.

DorlandInsectThat’s more than saying, Go write. We can’t imagine taking full advantage of a residency without having something in mind to write or, even better for us, being in the midst of a larger project, either drafting or revising. Staring at a blank screen or page is one thing at home, but, with the limited time of a residency, it seems wise and exciting to know that you will hit the keyboard with fingers running each day. We’re sure some writers are more free-wheeling, but most writers we know are always working on something or about to start some project they’ve been pondering. As freeing as it can be to live for a few weeks outside of your regular day-to-day life, it’s good to have a focus or a plan. If you need or want a vacation instead, do that, but don’t take a spot at a writing colony for it. Writing something—leaving with something that didn’t exist before, that wouldn’t have existed otherwise in that timeframe—is the reason to spend time at a residency.


DorlandBookWe read pretty widely these past few weeks, though certainly some of it (especially for Doug) was research for the pieces we are writing. It’s good for us to read beyond that which is directly related to our own projects, though. Maybe it’s a way to clear our heads of the subject matter while remaining immersed in language. Or maybe it’s a way to make interesting, unexpected connections—that wonderful, mysterious meaning-making of serendipity when you’re deep into a piece of writing.

Anna read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. A novelist can learn a lot from this one, especially from its detail and description, the structure of short chapters and its sections out of chronological order, and its point of view alternations. (Erika Dreifus reviews it at Barnes & Noble.) Next, Anna read Jesse Browner’s How Did We Get Here? Having read Karen Karbo’s review, she still hoped for more from this turning-fifty reflection. Though labeled a memoir, it’s really essays trying to be philosophy that didn’t resonate. Anna moved on to a more compelling memoir, H Is for Hawk (a staff pick at Powells), finding it akin to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in premise—parent dies, daughter does something active to cope with grief, literature matters—but a very different and detailed approach.

Doug is making his way through the amazing Moby Dick! We both agree that it’s a great book, with marvelous, captivating writing on the sentence level, whether or not it’s actually a novel. When at Dorland, Doug also reads from a literature anthology that remains on the shelf at the cabin. He sometimes chooses to read poetry, though he’s working on a novel. The novel’s plot is laid out, so he’s thinking about language, tone, and pace, and poetry sheds light there.


At Dorland, you stock your own groceries and are on your own for meals. That means you can eat any time. We have pretty much the same thing for breakfast every day, in part to keep it simple and mindless. Though we tend to have dinner together after watching the sunset, we sometimes have lunch separately—different food, different times—if we aren’t at a breaking point in our writing at the same time. If we’re really wrapped up in our writing (especially if most of the few dishes are dirty), we snack on hummus, cheese, and crackers for dinner. We treat ourselves to Doritos; it’s our Dorland thing. We stock up on caffeine but not on desserts. We’re not tied to a schedule, but we don’t skip meals. We go out to dinner once a week.

The idea, it seems to us, is that eating at a residency is a pleasant break and, for us, a time to talk with each other. We’re sure some writers take the opportunity to expend creative energy in the kitchen because they enjoy cooking, and others enjoy the socializing over meals at places like Ragdale or the Vermont Studio Center. While we like cooking and socializing too, we’ve come to think of our residency meals as respites from and rewards for the intensity of writing yet also, somehow, part of the writing day’s flow.


Dorland1When we’re at Dorland, we walk the long steep hill almost every day. It’s a great physical workout, something more necessary if you’re sitting at a desk typing on a laptop six or eight or ten hours a day. It’s remarkable how much the eyes need a rest from the screen and how good they feel when you look out over the expanse of valley and mountains. These vigorous walks clear our heads, too. As much as focus helps a writer, taking an occasional mental breath of fresh air can change everything for the better. Other writers may prefer meandering walks in which they can continue to ponder the day’s writing, but we get re-energized from this heart-pumping (usually early-evening) trudge during which we’re alert for bears, mountain lions, and snakes. The activity is reminder of our physicality and the world around us.


At Dorland, we don’t set alarms for the morning wake-up, but we tend to wake up at about the same time every morning. We tend to get a good night’s sleep, often nine hours or so, despite the howling of coyotes in the distance, and we need that sleep. We’ve read several articles in the last couple of weeks about the importance of sleep and the effects the next day and over the long term of skimping on sleep (see The Washington Post and The Guardian). Creativity and productivity require rest. We’ve found that, without constraints of alarms and appointments, we fall into a natural pattern that sustains our day’s work.

What’s left out?

DorlandSunsetIt’s not that we didn’t check email at all. Let a thread evolve for a couple of days, and sometimes everything gets resolved. Put off a response, and the world doesn’t come crashing down. Maybe folks checking email all day, as we often do at home, get antsy that we aren’t interacting in near-real time. But immediacy isn’t really that important in most email, and we never catch up to empty inboxes, so Starbucks with wifi was a fifteen-minute drive for a much longer interruption once a week.

It’s not as if we planned our initial trip to the grocery store so well that we didn’t have to restock a few things. We learned that we go through a lot of bread (cracked whole wheat sourdough from Sprouts), peanut butter (Laura Scudder’s all natural), and club soda (we’ve discovered Perrier in grapefruit flavor).

DorlandDougIt’s not as if we didn’t go see a movie. Inside Out was fantastic. It’s not as if we didn’t go to Barnes & Noble. It’s not as if we didn’t pay our bills. It’s not as if we didn’t sit on the porch and stare for a while. It’s not as if we didn’t do more than write, read, exercise, eat, and sleep. Still, this residency reminded us that some ways we spend our time are more necessary and important to our lives and who we want to be and that other tasks and activities, even the compulsory ones, can and do fit into a day-to-day routine organized around the necessary ones. As we always do at Dorland, we gained some perspective on our lives. Now, to figure out how that matters anew at home, ever the quandary especially because it’s not as if we don’t have jobs—and like them.

Countdown to The Cold War: Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The end of the beginning. August 5, 2015

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Seventy years ago, atomic weapons were used for the first and only time in the prosecution of war. The final concerted military actions of World War II were the bombings of two cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hiroshima after the bombing

Hiroshima after the bombing

On August 6th, 1945, just before 9 a.m. local time, the Little Boy atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima. The bomb was detonated more than one-third of a mile above ground, and its explosive force of nearly 15,000 tons of TNT resulted in immediate and vast destruction. Nearly five square miles of Hiroshima obliterated. Estimates of death and injuries that resulted from the bombing range wildly, but the lower estimate is that 90,000 people died in that bombing.

On August 9th, 1945, at 11:08 a.m. local time, the Fat Man atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki. The Fat Man weapon was more powerful, its explosive force calculated to be 21,000 tons of TNT, but its destructiveness was tempered by a number of environmental factors. Nonetheless, the damage and loss of life was significant, with approximately two square miles of Nagasaki destroyed in an instant. It’s estimated that, minimally, 39,000 people were killed.

In the two B-29 aircraft on those days—the Hiroshima bomb was dropped by Enola Gay and the Nagasaki bomb was dropped by Bockscar—members of the aircrew had immediate reactions to what they’d witnessed. In his book, The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, author Bruce Cameron Reed relates these comments from Enola Gay’s co-pilot, Robert Lewis, “My God, what have we done?” and a later remark of “If I live a hundred years, I’ll never quite get these images out of my mind.”

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was followed within a week by the surrender of Japan. The end of World War II was announced on August 14th.

While the denizens of Los Alamos anticipated news of the Japanese surrender with every new day, the pragmatic aspects of life that accompanied their day-to-day existence on a government reservation were never far away. Eleanor Jette, a resident of Los Alamos and wife of one the scientists, reveals in her book Inside Box 1663 that life on the Hill between the dropping of the bombs and Japan’s surrender had an odd business as usual quality to it:

On Friday…he (her husband Eric) handed me the Bulletin: it carried a notice on its front page which gave us permission to say we lived at Los Alamos. The following paragraphs appeard on the back page of the same bulletin:


Conserver water—we are now in the most critical period in the history of our water supply system…

The primary public information that documented the Manhattan Project in the immediate aftermath of the war is commonly known as The Smyth Report. Written by physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth, the document goes by two other, more descriptive names as well: “A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes Under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945” and “Atomic Energy for Military Purposes.” This initial report was published almost immediately after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

The copy that we have doesn’t have any bibliographic information that indicates it’s a second edition, but the Preface, dated September 1, 1945, has this to say: “Minor changes have been made for this edition. These changes consist of the following variations from the report as issued August 12, 1945.” Given these dates, it would be easy to assume that some variations resulted from emerging information about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. However, the reality is that The Smyth Report contains almost no mention of Japan.

One report section, 12.18 Effectiveness, is specifically noted as having been updated post-Japan:

The bomb is detonated in combat at such a height above the ground as to give the maximum blast effect against structures, and to disseminate the radioactive products as a cloud. On account of the height of the explosion practically all the radioactive products are carried upward in the ascending column of hot air and dispersed harmlessly over a wide area.

Another mention of Japan comes later in the report, in section 13.3, which appraises the possibility of a German atomic bomb. The section ends with the following sentence: “By the same token, most of us are certain that the Japanese cannot develop and use this weapon effectively.”

Los Alamos resident, McAllister Hull, a member of the Army’s Special Engineering Detachment who would later go on to be a theoretical nuclear physicist, writes in his memoir, Rider of the Pale Horse:

Even had I known the consequences of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki beforehand, I would still have worked as hard as I did to make the weapons a success. The personal consequence is that I have a share of responsibility for the destruction of two cities and thousands of civilians living in them. That is a responsibility I shall carry with me for the rest of my life.

We leave the final words of this post to the person who ultimately made the decision to use atomic weapons for the first time in warfare, President Truman. In The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, Reed quotes an entry written prior to the atomic bombing (July 25, 1945) from the President’s personal diary:

We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark. Anyway we think we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling—to put it mildly. […] The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more.

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. […] It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered […].

Countdown to The Cold War: The Language of Trinity July 29, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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Two weeks ago, we wrote about the 70th anniversary of the Trinity test. This was the first detonation  of an atomic bomb. Being writers and lovers of words, we are following up by examining more closely the language and literature that surrounded the Trinity test and the birth of the atomic age. Here, we also take a look at some of the other intriguing facts, occurrences, and ideas associated with this landmark event.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Today, the event is simply known as Trinity. In 1945, Trinity was the name of both the test site—located nearly two hundred miles from Los Alamos in southern New Mexico—and the test itself. Locally, the site chosen for carrying out the Trinity test was known as the Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of Death.

Read Anna’s poem at Drunken Boat (with audio of her reading her words) at http://www.drunkenboat.com/db17/anna-leahy.

Trinity is possibly a reference to the poem “Batter My Heart” by the British metaphysical poet, John Donne. Or, given project director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s familiarity with Sanskrit and Hindu texts, Trinity might refer to a trio of Hindu gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

Witnessing the Trinity test brought out a remarkable level of eloquence in some of the eyewitnesses. Physicist and Nobel Prize winner I. I. Rabi described the event this way:

It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop…Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing.

Physicist Joan Hinton, one of the few female scientists at Los Alamos, had this to say:

It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up. We were still talking in whispers when the cloud reached the level where it was struck by the rising sunlight.

Trinity Explosion

Trinity Explosion

Hinton’s poetic description of the quality of the light associated with the atomic bomb belies the quantity of light produced in that moment. Like a too-curious child told not to stare at the Sun, future Nobel laureate Richard Feynman—despite having been given welder’s glass for viewing the explosion—was momentarily blinded when he stared directly into the blast. The converse of this experience, that a blind woman seemingly saw the Trinity explosion has long been repeated after appearing in a flawed Associated Press article. Another article that appeared in the press was actually a statement prepared on behalf of General Groves and the Manhattan Project by embedded New York Times journalist William L. Laurence. Laurence’s article reported “a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Air Base reservation this morning.” The article went on to blame the explosion on a mishap at the air base’s ammo dump.

The news of the success at Trinity made its way back to Los Alamos quickly. In her book Inside Box 1663, Eleanor Jette, who arrived at Los Alamos with her metallurgist husband in January 1944, describes the day after Trinity:

Monday, the sixteenth of July, was a flawless day. The adults who remained in town were jubilant. Women, whose husbands were at Trinity, shooed their children out of the house if they were of shooable age, and toured the town. Other such women, tied at home with tiny children, hung over porch railings or rushed out their back doors making the famous Churchillian V for Victory sign.

There were tears and laughter[…]. The fact that we didn’t know its exact nature nature didn’t dampen our enthusiasm in the least—IT WORKED!


One woman broke out a treasured bottle of whiskey at ten A.M. We toasted our men, the men and women of the Manhattan District and the end of war.

As Jette makes clear, the denizens of Los Alamos celebrated even if they couldn’t be quite specific about what it was that they were celebrating. Speculating about atomic bombs and their powerful effects had been going on for decades even while their development was top secret and confined to a relatively short period of time. In Los Alamos and the Development of the Atomic Bomb, author Robert W. Seidel notes:

Los Alamos had succeeded in producing a nuclear weapon only 2 years, 3 months and 16 days after it was formally opened.

British author H. G. Wells introduced the world to the term atomic bomb in his novel The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, when he wrote the following:

[T]hese atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.

Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)

Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)

Although it’s oft been noted that Wells was conceptually mistaken about how atomic bombs would function, this quote has a nice ring of uncertainty to it that played out early and often in the reality of the Manhattan Project. At one point early in the project, a group of scientists were briefly concerned that the heat from an atomic bomb might set Earth’s atmosphere on fire. As plans were being made for Trinity, the level of uncertainty surrounding the plutonium-based implosion device—the bomb type tested at Trinity—was high enough that a 200-ton steel vessel known as Jumbo was built as a container and test apparatus for the device. Jumbo was designed so that, in the event of a so-called fizzle—an incomplete detonation—the irreplaceable plutonium would remain inside Jumbo. Although how the thoroughly deconstructed plutonium would have been retrieved from Jumbo’s insides beggars the imagination.

In Applied Nuclear Physics, Ernest Pollard of Yale University and William Davidson Jr. of the B. F. Goodrich Company made this eerie prediction in 1942:

The separation of the uranium isotopes in quantity lots is now being attempted in several places. If the reader wakes some morning to read in his newspaper that half the United States was blown into the sea overnight he can rest assured that someone, somewhere, succeeded.

Fortunately, Laurence’s post-Trinity article only had to faux-report that an ammo dump had gone up in an unfortunate explosion, not that New Mexico, Arizona, and California disappeared in a conflagration. Although it isn’t about atomic bombs (it was published in 1937), the post-apocalyptic Stephen Vincent Benet short story “By the Waters of Babylon” echoes these doomsday possibilities that hung in the air in July 1945 and also haunted Doug during moments of his Cold War childhood.

It’s arguable that no other event in human history remade the reality of our existence as wholly or as swiftly. The conclusion of Rabi’s remarks speaks directly to what had been achieved:

A new thing had just been born; a new control; and new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature.

Years later, Oppenheimer’s familiarity with Sanskrit and Hindu scripture would lead him to claim that watching the first atomic bomb explosion would remind him of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita:

Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

HERE is a link to an interview with Oppenheimer during which he recollects this memory. Oppenheimer’s words serve as the final ones for our posts about Trinity and also as the introduction to next week’s post in The Countdown to The Cold War. August 1945, of course, brings us to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Apollo & Dorland July 22, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Writing.
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[The second part of our post on Trinity will run next week. It’s already queued up. The Nuclear Age began 70 years ago this summer, so we definitely have more to say.]

On this date in 1969, Apollo 11 was heading back to Earth. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the Moon on July 20. They, along with Michael Collins, were hurtling through space on the three-day return trip and would splash down into the ocean on July 24.

Doug/Armstrong HandsWatching Armstrong clamber off that ladder is Doug’s first conscious memory. HERE is one of our Apollo 11 posts (that’s also about Trinity), and you can click “Apollo” in the sidebar topics for more. A lot has been written about that day.

One of the most interesting new pieces we read this year about Apollo 11 is Time magazine’s article about Margaret Hamilton, a young MIT engineer who led the team that built the on-board software system for Apollo 11. She explains that, at the time, she was more relieved that the software worked than she was excited that men had landed on the Moon. It was especially important that the software could prioritize. Thank goodness it dropped unimportant information and tasks when it became overloaded and alarms went off just before landing. Charlie Duke recounts that folks on the ground were turning blue. The relief must have been palpable. We’re always interested in the language of space exploration and history, so it’s also interesting that Hamilton is credited with coining the term software engineer. Read more HERE.

DorlandJuly15We’d be thinking about these events no matter where we were right now. This year, we’re at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony for a few weeks focused on writing. Last summer (earlier in the summer), we made our own retreat in Santa Fe, and we’d like to do that again sometime. You can read about that one HERE and HERE. Still, there’s nothing quite like Dorland, and we’re glad we’re back.

In some ways, we’ve returned to the routine we established before here at Dorland: no alarm clock, sitting on the porch after breakfast, walking the steep hill in the afternoon, writing most of the day with classical music in the background. We’re in the Horton cabin, as we were last fall (during Doug’s full-time residency when Anna resided for weekends of writing). We’ve each returned to the desk we used last time. We’ve seen a lizard on the porch and a humming bird zipping by. As before, we’ve planned trips to town for wifi and for a meal out once a week. You can read more about our earlier Dorland experiences HERE and HERE.

Each visit to a writing retreat is different, of course, for any writer. Maybe it’s a different retreat—we’ve done Ragdale, Anna stayed at Vermont Studio Center, and Doug was at the Mailer Writer’s Colony. Maybe we have different projects or are at different stages on big projects. Perhaps, the job situation out of which we’re temporarily stepping has been differently demanding. The weather changes—it rained in Southern California like it’s never rained before in the history of weather records.


puzzle1Sometimes, we actively create a different experience. Last time we were at the California Science Center, we bought a puzzle that depicts the space shuttle cockpit. The pieces are spread out on the cabin’s piano, and we’ve separated out the edge pieces. The process of piecing together a physical puzzle will be good for our brains and our eyes, in between hours at our laptops. We’d like some of the many things we’ve set into motion as writers to fit together, so this puzzle carries some symbolic weight too.

This time, our residency is shorter than we’d hoped, as much because Dorland is drawing writers, visual artists, and composers as because of our job constraints. In fact, we know the writer who arrived shortly after we did to take up residency in the other cabin. We’d encouraged her to apply, and now we wonder how she’s settling in. But Dorland is a place where we leave each other alone, so we’ll undoubtedly meet up on one porch or another, but we’re in no rush to interrupt ourselves or someone else.

To extend our getaway, we’re bookending our residency at Dorland with brief stays at Ponte Vineyard Inn. Ponte is one of two vineyard hotels nestled in the cluster of wineries here in Temecula. Admittedly, it’s a splurge, but it was just the sort of debriefing we needed. Doug got to writing right away there, and Anna took the weekend off to read and rest. Our room had a balcony, though, between the heat and the downpour, we didn’t use it much. We did see, early one morning when we had both awakened unexpectedly, several hot air balloons drifting above our heads.

puzzle2We also had amazing meals: a late-night snack in The Cellar the night we arrived, a breakfast of salmon and eggs on cheddar biscuits the next morning, and an outdoor dinner of large salads, calamari, and buttery mashed potatoes. Of course, we sipped some delicious wine. Temecula is a place to taste varieties we’d never tried before, to determine how dry a wine can still be drinkable, to figure out whether we like fruit forward or oaky—or both.

Ponte was the distraction from our regular routines we wanted as transition into the writing residency routine. So we’ve booked a couple of nights after our residency ends. While it might be a welcome breather from the intensity of our writing days at that point, we’re likely to use it to eke out two more days with fingers to keyboard because a couple of weeks of steady writing shows us that there’s always one more scene to write or chapter to edit or poem to re-envision. Either way, we could do worse than a vineyard inn.

Countdown to The Cold War: Trinity July 15, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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Seventy years ago, at a site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, a new era in human history was birthed into existence. At approximately 5:30 a.m. Mountain War Time (MWT) on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated.

Trinity Explosion

Trinity Explosion

In the pre-dawn hours of that long-ago July morning, a rainstorm passed through the area of the impending test. Thunder and lightning filled the skies, and members of the test crew fretted that the test might be delayed or, worse, that lightning might strike the 100-foot tall tower atop which the bomb was perched, damaging the bomb. Perhaps, the bomb might be inadvertently set off.

The weather had long been a concern of the group of scientists, engineers, and military men responsible for conducting the test. In “The Test at Trinity,” a chapter of Critical Assembly by Lillian Hoddeson, et al., the authors say this of the weather:

The date of the Trinity test depended both on the readiness of the components and the weather. In the early months of 1945, gadget parts promised to be ready in June or July. The questions was, when would the weather conditions be appropriate? Haze, dust, and mirage effects would interfere with photographic measurements; overcast skies would make flying more difficult for the airplanes that would drop the instruments. Thunderstorms would wreak havoc with the barrage balloons. Winds had to be favorable to keep the radioactive cloud away from inhabited areas to the east and north.

This level of attention to the weather was, in part, made necessary by all of the various pieces of testing equipment that would be employed to monitor and analyze the explosion. To measure the strength of the atom bomb explosion, piezoelectric, aluminum diaphragm, and airborne condenser gauges were to be employed at the Trinity site. These gauges and other aspects of the test program were validated on May 7, 1945 in the so-called “100-ton test,” which actually used 108 tons of TNT. Radioactivity detection gear was calibrated by including a small amount of radioactive material—plutonium created in the Hanford reactor—in among the thousands of crates of TNT. The plutonium was dispersed by the explosion; it didn’t contribute to the explosion in any fashion. Among the more unique parts of the test protocol that were exercised during the 100-ton test was a lead-lined Sherman (M-4) tank. After the actual Trinity test, the tank was used to retrieve radioactive samples of earth from the blast area.

The storms on the night of the test made it obvious that the scientists had been right to be concerned about the weather. But, another passage in Critical Assembly makes it clear that there was little to be done:

Meeting the weather needs of all groups proved impossible. The pit assembly team’s request for humidity below 89 percent and Anderson’s for no rain after the shot were easy to meet in the desert. But the groups had to compromise on wind needs. Manley requested calm air for his blast gauges. Holloway and Morrison of the pit assembly group also wanted little or no wind, to avoid dust in the air at the base of the tower. In contrast, Bainbridge asked for 10- to 15-mph winds to carry the cloud away from Ground Zero and to help disperse it.

Around 450 personnel were present at the Trinity test. As the night wore on, the test was delayed in an attempt to wait for the weather to clear. It was rescheduled for 5:30 a.m. MWT. The scientists who were present busied themselves as best they could. Much to the discomfort of some of those present, physicist Edward Teller slathered sunblock on his face and arms and then offered it to others. Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi tore a piece of paper into shreds. He planned to use them in a simple experiment to test the size of the blast.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The bomb went off, and, as the blast wave passed through the viewing area, Fermi dropped the shreds of paper from his hand and watched as they fluttered along, carried the moving air. He calculated the blast’s size at approximately ten kilotons (ten thousand tons of TNT). He was quite close for a physicist making an estimate based on such a rough—yet, somehow, simultaneously elegant—measurement. Later analysis would put the bomb’s strength at about twenty to twenty-two kilotons.

In the moment, physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, Trinity’s test director, reportedly said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” That quote appears in a number of places, including a guest post written by Claire Robinson May, Bainbridge’s granddaughter.

Physicist Phil Morrison—who would later direct the dissertation of our Chapman University colleague, Menas Kafatos—once said in a documentary that he was taken aback when he realized that the light and heat on his face warmed it like the morning sun.

We will discuss some of the fallout, literal, figurative, and pun-intended in next week’s post. In the meantime, check out pour previous posts about Trinity; Trinity & Apollo and A Day with Two Suns.

On the Anniversary of the Last Shuttle Launch July 8, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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On July 8, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. And we were there. No U.S. manned spaceflight has occurred since.

If you’d like to see our photos from launch day, click HERE. Yes, we included photos of John Oliver and Anderson Cooper, too.

Atlantis was moved to the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Center on November 2, 2012. And we were there. The shuttle is now on permanent display there.

One of the people we met while we were following the end of the shuttle program was Margaret Lazarus Dean. She, too, was there for the last launch and for Atlantis’s museum installation. In her new book, Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, she writes, “Of all the orbiters, Atlantis was the one I could never quite get a handle on, the one that never really developed a personality for me, and so maybe it’s fitting that it should be the last, that it should be the one I should have to say good-bye to.”

AnnaDougAtlantisWe feel similarly about Atlantis, the newest and somehow least distinct shuttle. We cannot separate our attachment to Challenger and Columbia from the fatal accidents, those shuttles going to pieces. Discovery was the first shuttle we saw up-close and personal; the trip to see Discovery’s not-launch in 2010 changed our lives. Endeavour was our shuttle, the one we’d seen land in California only months after we’d moved there in 2008 and the one we followed most closely through not-launch, launch, and across the country and through Los Angeles streets to the California Science Center. Not being as attached to Atlantis may well have made that last launch easier for us and more easily thought of as emblematic of the shuttle program.

Press Briefing: Atlantis Launch

Press Briefing: Atlantis Launch

Waiting in the press briefing room after that last launch, Anna leaned over to Doug and whispered that she would start clapping when NASA’s launch managers walked in. She didn’t care that we were supposed to be objective journalists. We wanted the mainstream press, who’d shown up for the first time that morning, to see those of us who followed the end of the shuttle and the even smaller group who covered launches for years display a deep understanding of the story. We wanted the managers to know that those of us who weren’t insiders understood that the space program mattered and that individuals made it happen. We knew that, if we started clapping, it would catch on. This press core had just witnessed an event that moved them physically and emotionally. All they needed was a nudge. So when we started the applause, it rightly felt as if everyone had been overwhelmed with awe and gratitude at once. A standing ovation seemed an inevitable, spontaneous response to the moment.

AtlantisCloseUpAwe comes from words meaning terror, dread, grief, and depression. The current sense of awe connects the concept with the divine, but the word has not shed the shadow of those early meanings nor that depth of feeling. That the shuttle could inspire awe in the two of us and, undoubtedly, in anyone who witnessed a launch in person is a testament to ambition and desire, even when it falls short. We should be overwhelmed with awe and gratitude more often. These occasions are rare indeed.

Persistence & Writing July 1, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
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At the beginning of the summer, Anna usually takes a look at a few writing handbooks, in part to switch her mindset from the varied demands of the semester’s work a more writing-focused stretch of time and in part to keep an eye out for future textbooks she can use in the classroom. A few weeks ago, she read A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice by Jordan Rosenfeld.

DorlandDesk1Anna read this book cover to cover, in fact, because she’s written about perseverance herself (most recently in a chapter of the new book Creative Composition), and perseverance is really what Rosenfeld is talking about, too, throughout this new guide. We’ve written about perseverance and grit here at Lofty Ambitions as well. So, after Anna finished reading, she said, We should do a blog post about this book.

ScienceBooksWe’ve also written about writing and about writing guides before (Nonfiction HERE, Fiction HERE, Science Writing HERE), so it fits into the Lofty Ambitions project and our exploration of writing as a couple. Doug took one look at the book’s cover and said, I heard Jordan Rosenfeld talk at a Writer’s Digest conference. Doug remembered her as very smart and, in particular, that she recommended writers read poetry, regardless of whether they write poetry. We, of course, couldn’t agree more.

Another thing with which we agree wholeheartedly is Rosenfeld’s attitude toward what she calls synchronicity and what we’ve called here at Lofty Ambitions serendipity. Rosenfeld points to Carl Jung’s notion that life has a deeper order and suggests that recognizing such an order or framework is “a sign that you are moving into a place where you are welcome and that you are taking your writing life seriously and committing to your work.” We like serendipity a lot because it’s a level of awareness and an ability to make connections that might otherwise be missed. We welcome Rosenfeld’s idea that, whether or not you accept Jung’s notion, synchronicity might be a stage of increased focus and important for a sustained writing life.

You might also see synchronicity as the phenomenon in which events line up in your life in such a way as to look like coincidence but feel like something much more meaningful.

As we think ahead here to our writing residency at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony later this summer, we share some of Rosenfeld’s other notions that we’re keeping in mind.

Writers are the people who find a way, no matter what, to keep writing, polishing, and persisting. You are no different than all the other writers in the world.

No excuses. No one will do it for you. Your writing practice is in your hands.

The things that distract you from your writing often give you a form of pleasure or a rush of endorphins. But these distractions also fritter away both time and mental energy for the writing you hope to do.

If you don’t put your writing first, you inevitably put your energies elsewhere, and the ball starts rolling down one of a variety of slopes having nothing to do with your writing.

Your writing won’t threaten you with punishment for not doing it. Only you can hold you accountable.

Criticism takes issue with you or your style or subject in an unhelpful way; critique offers you strategies for improvement. Big difference.

You can see rejection as a message that encourages you to take action in one of two keys ways: Go deeper, or go elsewhere.

At Lofty Ambitions, we heed that last advice especially. We’re willing to revise, and we’re willing to move on to the next opportunity.


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