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Five French Scientists March 25, 2015

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We’re in Paris for a week. See last week’s post for information about the A380 we flew.

Here are five French scientists we’d like to meet while we’re in France, if only they were still alive. These scientists represent the kind of thinking we appreciate, thinking outside the box and searching for novel connections.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

MarieCurieAmHistOkay, she was a naturalized French citizen, but Marie Curie is at the top of our list of French scientists we’d like to meet. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two Nobels, one in physics in 1903, shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and the other in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium. Only she and Linus Pauling have won Nobels in two separate fields. To find out more about her, we recommend Marie Curie by Susan QuinnMarie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emlingand Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallouta graphic biography by Lauren Redniss. We’ve written about Curie several times before (here’s one post about Curie), and we’ll undoubtedly write about her again.

René Decartes (1596-1650)

Equal parts mathematician and philosopher, Decartes had just the sort of interdisciplinary approach to the world we appreciate. He made the crucial connections between algebra and geometry upon which much of mathematical thinking followed. He also studied refraction and gave the world a scientific understanding of rainbows. He’s the guy who uttered, Cogito ergo sum. Or, I think, therefore I am. He thought that doubt and mistakes were part of learning and innovation and that reading books was like having conversations across centuries. Because we like to have any excuse to celebrate, Decartes’s birthday is next Tuesday, March 31. In fact, the town where he was born remains so proud of Decartes that they renamed the locale for him.

Prosper Ménière (1799-1862)

alanshepard_1Prosper Ménière may have more adept and interested in the humanities than in science, but he became a physician. Initially, he planned to teach at a university, but then a cholera epidemic called, and he got hands-on experience. Eventually, he headed up an institute for deaf-mutes and studied hearing loss caused by lesions inside the ear. Prosper Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear was named for this physician and is what grounded astronaut Alan Shepard for several years after he became the first American in space. Shepard’s disorder was cured by surgery so that he did fly Apollo 14. Other sufferers include Marilyn Monroe and possibly Charles Darwin and Julius Caesar.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Louis Pasteur argued that microorganisms couldn’t appear out of nothing and asserted the idea of contamination that has guided thinking about the spread of disease ever since. We are especially impressed that some of his most important work can be traced back to his understanding of alcohol fermentation in the making of wine and beer; published his Studies on Wine in 1866 and his Studies of Beer ten years lateen. He was also an early investigator of immunization and developer of specific vaccines. For a more recent and beautifully written book about the subject of immunity, we recommend Eula Biss‘s On Immunity: An Inoculation. At his own request, Pasteur’s private notebooks were kept secret long after his death, but his request was breeched by a descendant, who donated them to France’s national library for use after the descendent’s death. Those notebooks have revealed that Pasteur may have been a less-than-amiable character generally and a problematic researcher.

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)

An epigraph from Henri Poincaré opens the first poem of Anna’s collection Constituents of Matter:

Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient man used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient.

Poincaré, as demonstrated by this statement, was a philosopher, in addition to being a mathematician and physicist. His work underpinned what would emerge as chaos theory and also laid the groundwork for topology, the geometrical study of space that focuses on connections and transformations. Poincaré worked with a team to establish international time zones, and this work led him to think about the relative speed of clocks, which, in turn, pointed to what would become Albert Einstein‘s theory of special relativity.

Interesting to Anna especially, Poincaré was a good decision-maker if he made a decision quickly, but the more he dwelled on a choice, the more difficult he had making it. A psychologist named Édouard Toulouse wrote about Poincaré‘s personality and work habits, and we think Poincaré has something to offer us as writers in this respect. For one thing, Poincaré worked on mathematics for four hours every day, one two-hour stretch in the late morning and another in the early evening, which strikes us as an ideal schedule for focusing on a large project. He would read later in the evening, a practice we like as well.

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

A380 March 18, 2015

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We will board a plane this Friday: our first flight on an Airbus A380!

Even though we have to make our way up I-5 to LAX, we’re pretty excited about the upcoming flight. In fact, we’re very excited. Very. Very. Excited. We’re headed to Paris. It’s a return trip for Anna, but this will be Doug’s first voyage to the City of Lights. While the destination is the obvious reason for our excitement, we’re also pretty jazzed about the flight itself because it’ll be on an A380.

A380 (Photo by Julian Herzog, Creative Commons)

A380 (Photo by Julian Herzog, Creative Commons)

Doug specifically booked us on Air France so that we could fly the world’s largest passenger airliner. We saw our first airborne A380 several years ago while we were waiting for the space shuttle Endeavour to arrive at the California Science Center. We spent the afternoon in the park-like space just west of the science center and south of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The A380, which was obviously leaving LAX, appeared enormous, even at a distance.

Diagram by Clem Tillier (Creative Commons)

Diagram by Clem Tillier (Creative Commons)

And it is. We’ve stood beneath of wings of Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose in the Evergreen Aviation Museum, and we’ve flown on Boeing 747s a number of times. We’ve been awed by both aircraft as symbols of what humans are capable of doing with technology. We’re anticipating a similar experience with the A380, but the big Airbus has a wingspan 50 feet wider than that of the Boeing big jet and is also a lot heavier, two facts that make sense together when you think about how lift works.

We fly a fair amount for people whose jobs don’t explicitly require travel. In fact, it’s rare for us to go more than a month or two without one of us flying to a conference, to see family, or to attend an event. Most of our flight routes are within the United States, and we seem to catch rides mostly on Boeing 737s or Airbus 319/320s. Very occasionally, we’ll set foot on a Boeing 757. We’re both aviation nerds, and though we don’t keep records of all of our flights, it’s nice to mix things up from time to time. A couple of years ago we flew a cross-country red-eye on an MD80, and we both realized that it had been several years since we’d last flown on any McDonnell-Douglas product.

Our trip on the A380 will be all the more meaningful because a good friend from Doug’s college days did significant engineering work on the thrust reverser control system. It’s always interesting to think about a friend’s hand in creating something that play a role in our lives.

We’ve caught nearly everything that flies commercially except the A380 and the B787. They are our white whales, the A380 moreso because of its resemblance. So we conclude with this line from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick:

It is not down any map; true places never are.

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Countdown to The Cold War: March 1945 March 11, 2015

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S-50 Plant

S-50 Plant

The Manhattan Project boiled down to two enormous manufacturing problems: explosive materials and explosive devices. Each of these problems was eventually resolved in its own binary fashion. The explosive material, or, more appropriately, fissile material, came in two flavors: uranium and plutonium. Owing to their different physical properties, it was necessary to create an individual explosive device, or bomb, for each of the two radioactive elements. The gun design, known as Little Boy, was designed for the uranium, and the implosion design, known as Fat Man, was designed for the plutonium weapon.

Although the creation of the bombs, particularly the implosion device, was a fiendishly complex exercise that required some of the greatest physics talent then in existence, the effort to create the processes for the separation of uranium 235 from uranium 238 was every bit the equal intellectual enterprise. As a manufacturing problem, the facilities devoted to the separation of uranium isotopes dwarfed the bomb-making project.

A 1951 AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) report entitled “Liquid Thermal Diffusion” reiterates what we describe:

The primary problem, other than finding circumstances under which a controlled chain reaction could be sustained, which faced scientists engaged in this country’s atomic energy program in early 1940 was the development of methods for separating uranium isotopes on a large scale. Time would not permit a gradual development of individual separation processes, followed by the full exploitation of the best method. Consequently it was necessary to launch a number of separation projects simultaneously.

One of those separation projects was Oak Ridge’s S-50 facility, and it went into full production seventy years ago this month on March 15, 1945. The S-50 uranium production plant used the separation technique known as liquid thermal diffusion.

A good overview of the liquid thermal diffusion technique can be found at the Atomic Archive:

Into the space between two concentric vertical pipes [Philip] Abelson placed pressurized liquid uranium hexafluoride. With the outer wall cooled by a circulating water jacket and the inner heated by high-pressure steam, the lighter isotope tended to concentrate near the hot wall and the heavier near the cold. Convection would in time carry the lighter isotope to the top of the column. Taller columns would produce more separation.

Phillip Abelson

Phillip Abelson

As a graduate student, Philip Abelson worked with Nobel Laureate Ernest Lawrence, himself the developer of another Oak Ridge-based uranium separation technique, electromagnetic separation. Abelson began his pioneering work on using liquid thermal diffusion to enrich uranium in July 1940, and he was one of the editors of the AEC report mentioned above. After several frustrating years of experimental work (part of the frustration resulted from Army vs. Navy squabbles over ownership of the technique), Abelson’s technique was sufficiently refined to build a production plant at Oak Ridge.

Liquid thermal diffusion had already been underway at a pilot plant at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, which was the site of what may have been the largest accidental release of radioactive materials during the Manhattan Project. That accident occurred in September 1944.

S-50 Columns

S-50 Columns

The S-50 plant, sited on the Clinch River in Tennessee, was essentially a copy of the Philadelphia Navy Yard pilot plant, which used 102 separation columns (the vertical pipes described in the quote above). S-50 replicated the Philadelphia plant 21 times. S-50 was built so that it could share the steam generated by the power plant that also fed the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant. It was to be completed in ninety days. The primary contractor, H. K. Ferguson Company, missed that deadline, but the plant started operation in October 1944 and, then, went into full production 70 years ago this month.

S-50 was the first step in the uranium enrichment process used during the Manhattan Project, and it took the uranium from 0.72% to 0.85% U-235.

March 1945 was an eventful month beyond the Manhattan Project, of course, with war raging on. Other wartime events that occurred then include a Japanese Fugo balloon that exploded at the Hanford Site for nuclear production, the B-29 firebombing of Japanese cities by the United States, and V-2 rocket attacks against London by the Germans. Though the end of the war was in sight, we shouldn’t forget that much of the world was still enmeshed in battle.

RIP Leonard Nimoy March 4, 2015

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Last Friday, actor Leonard Nimoy died. The New York Times reported, “the sonorous, gaunt-faced actor who won a worshipful global following as Mr. Spock, the resolutely logical human-alien first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie juggernaut ‘Star Trek,’ died on Friday morning at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83.”

As Anna drove around town that morning, KUSC played the Star Trek theme in Nimoy’s honor, for he was a long-time supporter of that classical music station and a musician himself. Long before Peter Jackson brought J. R. R. Tolkein’s hobbits to the screen, Nimoy performed “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” though that didn’t do justice to his talent. He was also a photographer, and The Independent has just pulled together and shared some of his striking work.

Four years ago this month, Lofty Ambitions wrote a happy-birthday post for Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. Read that tribute HERE.

Reportedly, Nimoy’s last tweet was “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

One of our favorite and nerdiest NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano spoke of Nimoy’s influence, as the character Spock, on space exploration, science, and their generation. And astronauts in space exchanged the Vulcan salute last week.

Rolling Stone gathered numerous tributes. President Obama wrote, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy. Leonard was a lifelong lover of the arts and humanities, a supporter of the sciences, generous with his talent and his time. And of course, Leonard was Spock. Cool, logical, big-eared and level-headed, the center of Star Trek‘s optimistic, inclusive vision of humanity’s future.”

Zachary Quinto, the new Spock, wrote, “My heart is broken. I love you profoundly my dear friend.”


Star Trek cast and crew with Enterprise Space Shuttle

George Takei remembered Nimoy at MSNBC. Takei called Nimoy “extraordinary” and explains why Nimoy deserves that adjective.

William Shatner kept his commitment to a Red Cross fundraiser in Florida instead of attending the funeral, according to CNN, but had good things to say about Nimoy.

In TIME, Martin Landau remembered Nimoy, writing, “Leonard Nimoy was a mensch! Mensch is a word which in Yiddish means ‘a particularly good person’ with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague.”

Canadians are Spocking their $5 bills. The Bank of Canada is not pleased. Fans will be fans, always.

As academics ourselves, we appreciate a good commencement speech. In his at Boston University in 2012, at the age of 81, Nimoy said, “I have three words for you. Persistence, persistence…persistence.” We write about that here at Lofty Ambitions, and Anna’s chapter in a forthcoming pedagogy book talks about the importance of perseverance. In that speech, Nimoy quotes President Kennedy, “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda. It is truth.” That’s sometimes difficult to remember these days, but it’s one of the principles that drives our own writing here and elsewhere. So we end with Nimoy’s wisdom and a video clip that may be familiar and newly meaningful:

You are the curators of your own lives.

You create your own life and work.

#Orion at JPL/Armstrong (Part 6) February 25, 2015

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JPL Building 180

Rover Model, JPL Building 180

The events of the December 2014 Orion/EFT-1 NASA Social were jointly sponsored or hosted by the NASA social media and outreach teams from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Armstrong Flight Research Center. To begin this final post about that event, the Lofty Duo would like to say a big Thank You to the wonderful folks who make these events happen.

Here’s are our live links to our previous posts about this day:

The afternoon session included a chance to tour the grounds and see some of the activities going on at JPL. We started our walk with a trip to Building 180, which serves as JPL’s primary administration building, or HQ. The purpose of the visit was two-fold: first, it allowed us to get out of the rain—it was a wet day that came at the end of the one of the wettest weeks we’d had in California in a long time—on our walk to the Space Flight Operations Facility (SFOF); and second, it was an excellent opportunity to see a life-size model of the Mars Size Laboratory, better known as Curiosity.

Although the descriptions of the Curiosity lander give a sense of the scale of the device—it’s often been described as landing a Mini Cooper on Mars—it isn’t until you’re standing next to a model of thing that you really appreciate the scope of the effort required to put this sizeable lander on Mars. The ChemCam (the laser-firing chemistry analytics instrument) and Mastcam (responsible for color images and video) devices sit on top of a telescoping mount at the front of the rover.

Curiosity-JPL-Morse-Code-WheelsIt was fascinating to get an up-close look at Curiosity’s wheels for the first time. The wheels, machined from solid blocks of aluminum, have been much in the space news lately. First, in late 2013, it was revealed that the wheels were suffering significant damage at the hands of the rocky Martian surface. Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society has a couple of posts about the problem; click HERE for one. (http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-lakdawalla/2014/08190630-curiosity-wheel-damage.html). The JPL folks seem to have worked out ways to manage the damage. The rover’s wheels were also intentionally designed with some holes in them. In fact, there is a sequence of three sets of three holes each that spell out J P L in Morse code as Curiosity rolls across the Martian surface (see HERE for more info).

Near the model of Curiosity was a fascinating data visualization display, a delightful blend of art and science. Comprised of a couple of dozen tubes containing light strings, the visualization was demonstrates the communication streams that occur between JPL and the deep space missions it manages. Each light string represents a communication path between Earth and a single deep spacecraft. As communications come in from the spacecraft, the string lights up in a manner that conveys the length of the communication and the amount of information being sent down from the spacecraft. It was mesmerizing, and Doug could have spent the entire afternoon watching the showers of light that were trickles of information.

Satellite Communication Visualization

Satellite Communication Visualization

After Building 180, the tour group headed for the SFOF. Lofty Ambitions has already covered the SFOF in another post, and so we’ll move on here.

Jennifer Trosper, MSL Deputy Project Director, welcomed the group into the In-Situ Instrument Laboratory. Located in JPL’s Building 317, this lab serves as a proving ground for Mars-bound instrumentation. Earlier in Trosper’s career, she served as the Mission Manager for another Mars rover, Spirit. She recounted that the oft-cited ninety-day mission life for Spirit and Opportunity was derived from calculations based on the Mars surface dust accumulation rate on the solar panels of the earlier Sojourner Mars rover. Arriving at Mars on U.S. Independence Day in 1997, Sojourner also had a very conservative mission length estimate: a seven-day mission that could be extended to thirty days. In the end, like Spirit and Opportunity, this turned out to be wildly conservative. Sojourner lasted for eighty-three sols (Mars solar days), or about eighty-five Earth days.

Two-way communication with Spirit ended on Sol 2210 (March 22, 2010). Opportunity continues its mission on Mars. Recently, on Sol 3934 (Feb. 16, 2015), Opportunity’s solar panels received an extra bit of cleaning from Martian surface breezes, and the little rover experienced a twelve-percent increase in solar power production. Opportunity knocks onward!

After recounting the remarkable successes of Spirit and Opportunity, Trosper talked about upcoming Mars missions including Mars Insight. Befitting the lab’s use as a test-environment for instruments headed for Mars, Trosper also mentioned the MOXIE instrument. MOXIE will fly to Mars on the planned 2020 mission. Once there, MOXIE will be used to test the feasibility of creating oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. MOXIE is often described as a fuel cell run in reverse. It will take in CO2 from the Martian atmosphere, where the compound makes up 96% of the atmosphere, and will output oxygen and carbon monoxide.

We finished our tour of the JPL campus with a stop at Spacecraft Assembly Facility and a visit with researcher Ian Clark. Clark is the Low-Density Supersonic Demonstrators (LDSD) principal investigator. We’ve already covered the LDSD program during our write-up of JPL’s 2014 Open House, but it was wonderful to be able to see these test articles in the flesh. They are being refurbished and reengineered in preparation for more testing.

The tension and excitement of the Orion EFT-1 pre-launch activities were palpable during the December 3rd NASA Social at JPL. As ever, the Lofty Duo came away impressed by the amazing array of activities that NASA Armstrong and JPL are carrying out in service to our nation’s space exploration programs. We hope that our six-part write-up of the day conveyed our sense of wonder at NASA’s far-reaching programs.

Countdown to The Cold War: February 1945 February 18, 2015

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The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

In February 1945, the end of war in the European theatre of operations was still a few months off in the future. Nonetheless, Allied leaders felt that the war’s end was close enough that they could begin to anticipate the post-war era. To that end, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met in Yalta—a city on the Crimean peninsula overlooking the Black Sea—on February 4-11 to discuss the shape of post-war Europe. Because of the tense relations between the United States and Britain on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other, which were reinforced during the meetings, the Yalta Conference is the oft-cited start of the Cold War.

In our “Countdown to the Cold War: October 1944” post, we detailed the struggles associated with the Hanford nuclear reactors, then known as atomic piles. In the last months of 1944 and in January 1945, engineers and scientists working on Hanford’s problems ironed out the kinks of the plutonium production process. Sometime between February 2th and 7th—sources vary on the exact date—the first weapons grade plutonium began making its way from Hanford to Los Alamos.

In the book, Hanford and the Bomb: An Oral History of World War II, author S. L. Sanger has this to say about the event:

[T]he first Hanford-produced plutonium was handed over by Du Pont to the Army. The next morning, Col. F.T. Matthias took it to Portland by car with a military intelligence escort. From there, Matthias and an agent went by train to Los Angeles where the package was given to an officer from Los Alamos. Matthias described the container as a wooden box wrapped in brown paper about 14 inches on a side and 18 inches high. It had a carrying handle and the syrupy plutonium, weighing about 100 grams, was carried in a flask suspended between shock absorbers.

The next time you’re about to board an airplane and TSA agents in the security area shout reminders of the restriction to 3-ounce containers of liquids and gels, think about how times have changed. During World War II, one of the most hazardous substances ever present on the face of the earth was carried on a regular passenger train. In a wooden box. Wrapped in brown paper.

Hanford 1960

Hanford 1960

Sanger’s book describes the meeting between Matthias and the officer from Los Alamos in what was almost certainly Los Angeles’s Union Passenger Terminal. Apparently, Matthias discovered that the officer was traveling back to Los Alamos in an upper berth, a means of rail travel that had privacy by means of curtains, but no real security, not even a door. Matthias discovered that the officer didn’t know what exactly he was being entrusted to carry back to Los Alamos. Matthias told the officer that it cost $350 million to produce the item and suggested to the man that he get a compartment with a locking door. The man did as Matthias instructed.

As revealed in to Critical Assembly by Lillian Hoddesson, et al., the Los Alamos contingent was very pessimistic about the quality and amount of the plutonium that they expected to receive from Hanford: “Oppenheimer was not optimistic about the ease of interacting with Hanford.” Ultimately, the quality and quantity of the Hanford plutonium was deemed sufficient to carry out the metallurgical research necessary so that plutonium could be used in the Fat Man weapon.

While the arrival of the Hanford plutonium in February 1945 was a huge event in the run-up to the Trinity test of a Fat Man type of atomic weapon, other activities related to Fat Man were taking place at Los Alamos at the time as well.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

In December 1944, several new advisory boards and standing committees were created at Los Alamos. Chaired by physicist Samuel K. Allison, the Technical and Scheduling Conference was responsible for oversight and coordination of the transition from research to implementation. On Saturday, February 17, the Technical and Scheduling Conference met for four hours to discuss competing designs for the Fat Man-type weapon.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s director, argued throughout the day for simpler, more conservative design decisions. As Bruce Cameron Reed describes it in his excellent book The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, the final outcome of that committee meeting wouldn’t be decided until an end-of-the-month visit by General Leslie Groves:

On February 28, just eleven days after the TSC meeting, Oppenheimer and Groves decided provisionally on the Christy-core design with explosive lenses made of Comp B and Baratol. Characteristic of so many decisions in the Manhattan Project, their choice was a gamble: few implosion lenses had by then been tested[…].

With this end-of-February meeting between Groves and Oppenheimer, the design for the Trinity test was effectively fixed, and the lab could then focus on fashioning the numerous technologies into the world’s first atomi

Lyon Air Museum (Photos!) February 11, 2015

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Lyon Air Museum, founded by Major General William Lyon and opened in 2009, is our local aviation museum. It’s located just across the runways from the terminals at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, and it’s open 10am-4pm every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. On March 9, at 10am, the museum will open the cockpit of their Douglas DC-3 flagship. On March 21, at 10:30am, Tuskegee Airmen will share their stories.

We finally made our first visit this past weekend. We’re sure to go back, and here’s why.

What’s there?

  • 7 aircraft
  • 8 automobiles (General Lyon is a long-time collector!)
  • lots of motorcycles

It’s small, incredibly well kept, and filled with surprising treasures. And planes are taking off and landing just outside the windows. Here’s a sampling of what we saw.

This C-47 saw D-Day. It was redone as a DC-3 after General Lyon sold his regional airline, AirCal, to American.

This C-47 saw D-Day. It was redone as a DC-3 after General Lyon sold his regional airline, AirCal, to American. That’s a yellow Buick next to it.

Here's the C-47.

Here’s the C-47.


B-17 with motorcycle in foreground. Note the three chairs and screen for viewing two short features, one on flying the B-17 and the other about the Memphis Belle.





Norden Bombsight

Norden Bombsight

Hot the red video "start" button, then look into the Norden bombsight to be the bombardier on a mission.

Hit the red video “start” button, then look into the Norden bombsight to be the bombardier on a mission.

One of actor Steve McQueen's former motorcycles.

One of actor Steve McQueen’s former motorcycles.

From a balcony, visitors can overlook the exhibit hall. Note the museum's proximity to the runway, with a Southwest Airlines flight taking off just outside. The noise of the active runway brings the static displays to life in the mind.

From a balcony, visitors can overlook the exhibit hall. Note the museum’s proximity to the runway, with a Southwest Airlines flight taking off just outside. The noise of the active runway brings the static displays to life in the mind.

SMAP: Gotta Like It! February 4, 2015

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SMAP didn’t launch last Thursday morning when we both were there to see it in person. Nor did it launch the next morning, even though Anna had stayed in hopes of seeing the launch. It launched on Saturday, January 31. See our preview SMAP post LAST WEEK.

We’re not too upset that we missed the launch. That’s the way it is with rockets and us. And we can’t help liking SMAP—JPL’s Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite. Here are five reasons why.

It looks great.

SMAP Model

SMAP Model

The 19-foot mesh antenna is an unfolding feat of engineering, somewhat like origami done backwards. After about three weeks in orbit to make sure all is well for SMAP, a wire snips, and the stored energy of the scrunched-up mesh allows the antenna to bloom like a flower. Once fully deployed, the antenna rotates, a bit like a lasso spinning once every four seconds above the moisture-mapping equipment. In simulations that NASA showed, it looks as if SMAP is waltzing through its orbit.

California, where we live, is in the midst of a drought.

We know you’ve heard the news about California’s drought, which is getting to be old news. NASA’s Randy Koster, from Goddard Space Flight Research Center, suggested that an end in sight any time soon for California’s drought would be akin to a miracle. SMAP can’t end a drought, but data from SMAP will help us learn how to predict droughts and the end of droughts in the future.

Soil moisture, he said, has an inherent memory. This status quo means that wetter soil tends to stay wetter the next day, and drier soil tends to stay pretty dry. Higher evaporation from wetter soil leads to greater chance of rain. SMAP’s information about soil moisture, based on measurement of the whole globe’s soil every two or three days, will help us understand this cycle and predict trends for each particular geographical area

The daily and weekly information we get about soil moisture and use all the time is based mostly on computer simulations, not on regular, comprehensive measurements.

SMAP visualization (NASA)

SMAP visualization (NASA)

Together, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the National Weather Service report soil moisture and use it, along with other data, to make predictions. These reports go out to weather forecasters all over the United States, and they make local predictions based on these reports. Farmers use this information, too, for instance, when planning when to plant crops. One reason that we need accurate, up-to-date soil moisture information is because, in areas where soil is more saturated, flooding can occur more quickly. Soil moisture reports are especially important when trying to predict flash floods.

These crucial reports are based on relatively few actual measurements by real sensors in the ground, which computers use to produce models for larger areas. If I measure the moisture of the soil in my yard, am I able to predict what’s going on to the west nearer the ocean or to the east nearer the mountains? In other words, there aren’t enough sensors in the ground measuring soil moisture, and outside the United States, the measurements are even fewer and farther between.

SMAP changes all this. It measures soil moisture everywhere. It measures the moisture in the soil of every given place every two or three days. For the first time, flood predictions will be based on accurate, place-specific, up-to-date information.

Ice matters.

As SMAP looks at the land masses, it will be able to tell where it’s frozen. Science Daily tells why that’s important:

In summer, plants in Earth’s northern boreal regions—the forests found in Earth’s high northern latitudes—take in carbon dioxide from the air and use it to grow, but lay dormant during the winter freeze period. All other factors being equal, the longer the growing season, the more carbon plants take in and the more effective forests are in removing carbon dioxide from the air. Since the start of the growing season is marked by the thawing and refreezing of water in soils, mapping the freeze/thaw state of soils with SMAP will help scientists more accurately account for how much carbon plants are removing from the atmosphere each year.

It’s predictable.

SMAP is in a Sun-synchronous polar orbit. It had to launch at about 6:20 a.m. so that it would measure soil moisture at about 6 a.m. every day, when those who plan to use the data thought it would be best. No matter where SMAP is as it circles north to south and south to north, the time on Earth under the satellite is about 6 a.m.

PeaSoupOh, and we had pea soup!

You find the fun and SMAP! January 28, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Today is the anniversary of the Challenger accident. Read our commemorative post HERE, and last year’s post commemorating that event, the Columbia accident, and the Apollo 1 fire HERE.

Tomorrow, on January 29, SMAP will LAUNCH from Vandenberg Air Force Base. And Lofty Ambitions WILL BE THERE, thanks to an invitation from Lia Halloran, our colleague in Chapman University’s Department of Art. That’s right, an art professor is taking her class to see a rocket launch.



SMAP stands for Soil Moisture Active Passive, and we’re fascinated by this project. Agriculture and fisheries depend on climate conditions, but we don’t fully understand how climate change is affecting those conditions. SMAP will help answer that question, and because it’s NASA, the data will be made widely available. You can read about Doug’s close encounter with SMAP more than a year ago HERE.

NASA isn’t only about exploring new worlds. This project and three others are about Earth, about looking at our own world. The main goal of SMAP is to produce global maps of soil moisture so that we can understand our environment and better manage water resources. SMAP will measure soil moisture every two or three days for three years. The orbiting observatory will be particularly helpful because it carries two different kinds of equipment: a radar instrument for the big picture and a radiometer for the detail work.

While water in the soil is only a small fraction of the Earth’s water, it has an enormous effect on human lives and on the relationship between the ground and the air. SMAP will monitor droughts and floods, help us predict weather more accurately, and provide information about water, energy, and carbon cycles.

SMAP visualization (NASA)

SMAP visualization (NASA)

SMAP looks great too, with a rotating mesh antenna that extends more than 19 feet in diameter. The antenna weighs just 128 pounds and is folded into a cylinder for launch. Once unfurled on orbit, it will be NASA’s largest antenna of its kind.

As this piece posts on Wednesday, we’ll be on the road, heading north in hopes of making it to the 2p.m. press briefing at the Marriott near Vandenberg. The launch is scheduled for 6:20a.m. on Thursday. That means a very early morning, with transportation to watch the launch at about 3:30a.m. It’s been quite a while since we had that kind of launch day. We’re looking forward to it and hope you’ll watch on NASA-TV.

As this piece posts on Wednesday, we’ll be on the road, heading north in hopes of making it to the 2p.m. press briefing at the Marriott near Vandenberg. The launch is scheduled for 6:20a.m. on Thursday. That means a very early morning, with transportation to watch the launch at about 3:30a.m. It’s been quite a while since we had that kind of launch day. We’re looking forward to it and hope you’ll watch on NASA-TV.

On the Shelf (First Lines) January 21, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
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A year ago, we were at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. One of the posts that stemmed from that writers’ residency involved pulling novels of the shelf at the cabin and looking at first lines.

BestAmScienceWe’ve been reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, and we thought it might be useful to look at the first lines of what’s been deemed not just good but best. This collection contains 26 essays representing work from 18 magazines. Some of the essays are short, just three or four pages, whereas others run fifteen or twenty pages. A number of the essays are by big-name writers with whose work we’re familiar, like Nicholas Carr, Barbara Kingsolver, Rebecca Solnit, and Carl Zimmer. The range of topics is wide, given the constraint of science and nature writing: genes, the human brain and reading, mourning among animals, end-of-life care for humans, space exploration, and so on.

In other words, we’re interested in whether, given the variety in this collection, we can learn anything as writers from their first sentences to apply to our first sentences. Here’s a sampling of the opening sentence from each of the first ten essays in the book.

“I love getting huge boxes of blood,” says the genetic ornithologist Rachel Vallender as she pulls open a drawer full of small plastic vials in her laboratory at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, where she’s a visiting scientist. (“Mixed Up” by Katherine Bagley

On the evening of February 12, 2009, a Continental Connection commuter flight made its way through blustery weather between Newark, New Jersey, and Buffalo, New York. (“The Great Forgetting” by Nicholas Carr)

A few years ago, Gene Robinson, of Urbana, Illinois, asked some associates in southern Mexico to help him kidnap some one thousand newborns. (“The Social Life of Genes” by David Dobbs)

To avoid light pollution and bad weather, professional astronomers have to be prepared to travel long distances to use telescopes on mountaintops far away from towns or cities. (“What Our Telescopes Couldn’t See” by Pippa Goldschmidt)

The call Rick Kress and every other citrus grower in Florida dreaded came while he was driving. (“A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” by Amy Harmon)

If Margaret Pabst Battin hadn’t had a cold that day, she would have joined her husband, Brooke Hopkins, on his bike ride. (“A Life-or-Death Situation” by Robin Marantz Henig) 

Cheryl Whittle tried her best to fall asleep, but her mind kept racing. (“23 and You” by Virginia Hughes)

One of the most provocative viral YouTube videos in the past two years begins mundanely enough: a one-year-old girl plays with an iPad, sweeping her fingers across its touch screen and shuffling groups of icons. (“Why the Brain Prefers Paper” by Ferris Jabr)

Beneath the blinding white sky, where glaciers calve and crash into the Red Sea and the land surface of Antarctica begins, there are two isolated huts, the Discovery and the Terra Nova. (“O-Rings” by Sarah Stewart Johnson)

On a research vessel in the waters off Greece’s Amvrakikos Gulf, Joan Gozalvo watched a female bottlenose dolphin in obvious distress. (“When Animals Mourn” by Barbara J. King)

What can we glean from this sampling?

People matter! All of these opening sentences in essays that are supposed to be about science or nature include people. In six, at least one specific person is named. But even when a person isn’t mentioned by name, there are people there: commuters are implied by the flight, astronomers travel to telescopes, a real one-year-old uses an iPad, and somebody built those huts and probably still hangs around.

The presence of people from the get-go in a science essay doesn’t surprise us. We’ve written a lot before about how people matter to science, to how science gets told. In one of our posts, we refer to Rebecca Skloot’s (she wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) claim, “People need stories in order to read science.” And stories need characters—in the case of nonfiction, real people.

ScienceBooksIn fact, these openings tend to establish scenes, as the authors are telling a story filled with characters, setting, and plot. We can see the scientist pulling open the drawer to look at her vials of blood. We can see that small aircraft bobbing in the turbulent air and perhaps remember the last time we were in a plane during bad weather, our seatbelts fastened. We can see the baby running her fingers across the latest electronic device. We can see that distressed dolphin swimming around, and we can see Joan watching, perhaps wondering what to do to help. There’s action and tension.

We want to know what happens next. Or at least we want to know what in the world this scene has to do with the topic we’re supposed to be reading about. Is it background? Is it an example? How does this scene help us puzzle through a complex topic like genetics?

Only a very few first lines don’t use these sorts of techniques. Notably, the most literary writer deviates the furthest from scene and into abstraction. Barbara Kingsolver’s “Where It Begins” starts with, “It all starts with the weather.” It’s a risky move to start with a pronoun that doesn’t really have an antecedent, to start with the generic, placeholder it. Of course, that’s what Charles Dickens did in A Tale of Two Cities—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of time”—but few writers should try to get away with that kind of opening. Kingsolver does a lot of risky things for a science writer in her essay, including leaving out grammatical subjects in the next sentences. The it becomes the crux of the essay, an overt technique. This essay isn’t your typical science writing but, rather, a lyric essay published by Orion, a magazine open to more literary approaches and overtly invested in shaping culture.

While it’s no surprise to us that, for the most part, people, setting, and scene carry the first line, we are surprised at how closely this approach mirrors what fiction writers advise. In an interview published in The Atlantic, Stephen King says:

An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this. […] This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do.

Of course, first lines are just the beginning, whether you’re writing a novel or an article about science. As King says:

Listen, you can’t live on love, and you can’t create a writing career based on first lines.

A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose—the story has got to be there, and that’s the real work.


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