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5 Visible Planets September 30, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Science, Space Exploration.
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EarthSky offers readers “updates on your cosmos and world.” Today, they posted a guide to viewing the five visible planets in October 2015. And which planets might these be?



Mercury (NASA)

Of the eight planets in our Solar System, Mercury is both smallest and closest to the Sun. This past April, the spacecraft MESSENGER crashed into Mercury after orbiting the planet for four years, twice as long as the mission was originally planned.


Venus (NASA)

Venus (NASA)

In our night sky, only the Moon is brighter than Venus, the second planet from the Sun. Venus has the slowest rotation of any planet; it completes an orbit of the Sun more quickly than it completes a full rotation on its axis. MESSENGER did two fly-bys of Venus on its way to Mercury, and NASA has a lander mission planned for the future. It’s a lot like Earth, but the surface is drier and much hotter, with an atmospheric pressure 92 times that of Earth.



Curiosity’s view of Mars (NASA)

On Monday, NASA made a huge announcement: chemical evidence of liquid water on Mars. The rovers Opportunity and Curiosity are currently exploring the surface of Mars, but they won’t be sipping that water any time soon, for fear of contaminating it with whatever they picked up on their trip through space.


Jupiter (NASA)

Jupiter (NASA)

Made of mostly hydrogen and orbited by dozens of moons, Jupiter is the largest and most massive (by a long shot!) planet and sits fifth from the Sun. NASA has done several fly-bys, and the spacecraft Galileo orbited Jupiter for seven years. Even before Galileo got there, it witnessed the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 up close. And what of that red spot on Jupiter’s surface? It’s a storm bigger than Earth, though Hubble Telescope observations suggest it’s shrinking.



Saturn (NASA)

If you’ve ever seen Saturn clearly through a telescope, as we did during the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for writers, you know those rings of ice, rock, and dust are as distinct as and more amazing than depicted in any book. Saturn is a gas giant like Jupiter but 318 less massive; still, it’s 95 more massive than Earth. Several spacecraft have done fly-bys, and Cassini entered orbit around Saturn in 2004, and it’s still doing its work after more than a decade, even though the primary mission ended in 2008.


5 Reasons You Should Know Ruth Patrick September 23, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Science.
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    1. Ruth Patrick earned a PhD in 1934, when very few women pursued careers in science. Maybe that’s no surprise, since she’d received her first microscope when she was seven years old; microscopes weren’t the usual fare for girls in 1914.
    2. She wrote more than 200 articles and several books. She used her maiden name when publishing her research, in part because her father encouraged her. A boldly feminist move from one perspective, it may have also been a selfish suggestion on his part, since her maiden name was her father’s last name.
    3. The Limnology Department she founded at the Academy of Natural Sciences studied water pollution in the 1950s, before many scientists were bothering with environmental studies and activism. In an innovative move, that department used a multidisciplinary approach with scoentists from across fields studying waterways.
    4. For her first eight years at the Academy of Natural Sciences, from 1933-1945, she was an unpaid volunteer.
    5. Patrick died three years ago today—at the age of 105!


5 Graphic (Nonfiction) Books September 16, 2015

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What It Is: the formless thing which gives things form (2008)

By Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry’s What It Is is a book like none other we’ve seen. It’s part stories, part memoir about her life, and part creativity workbook for the reader. It’s nonlinear; it poses questions; it’s fun. One of our favorite bits of wisdom:

To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape!

Fallout: J. Robert Oppenehimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb (2001)

By Jim Ottaviani, Janine Johnston, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, Jeff Parker

oppy-pork-pieThe other four books in today’s list circle around nuclear history. A wee bit is fabricated, so Fallout isn’t really nonfiction, but a lot of what happens and what is said in this book really did happen and was said. For instance, early on in the book, Leo Szilard takes a bath and reads H.G. Wells’s The World Is Set Free. Szilard is thought to have enjoyed taking baths and credited that book as one of the two that shaped his thinking.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie—A Tale of Love and Fallout (2010)

By Lauren Redniss

This book is gorgeous. The other three nuclear history books are told in panels of comic strips, but Radioactive plays with images in different ways, with maps, diagrams, drawings, photographs, lots of shapes and colors. The author even created her own typeface and named it after the spiritualist medium the Curies visited. This book is especially interested in Marie Curie’s relationships, with Pierre, of course, but also with others, including her lover Paul Langevin. The personal story, though, is always woven into history and science, as we see in the early passage that introduces Marie Curie:

Three times before her death, Marya Sklodowska would find, then swiftly lose, a cherished lover. The gray-eyed girl was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, the year chemist and orchid cultivator Alfred Nobel patented dynamite. She would become famous as Marie Curie, twice winning the prize Nobel established with his explosive fortune.

Feynman (2011)

By Jim Ottaviani, Leland Myrick, Hilary Sycamore

Bert2This book is fun. Well, it’s Richard Feynman, and he was a character, and it’s in color. Feynman gives readers Los Alamos, his later lectures, and his role in the Challenger accident investigation, and it also tells of Feynman’s eye for the ladies and his illness. It’s a sweeping biography of a charismatic scientist. One of the most captivating aspects of this book is that Feynman narrates in first person, using boxed voiceovers. In the section about Arline and her diagnosis with tuberculosis, for instance, Feynman reveals his unspoken responses and emotions, eventually concluding:

So we knew we could face things together, and after going through that we had no difficulty facing other problems.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (2012)

By Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Trinity is in the same vein as Fallout, though it uses more whole-page and double-page spreads that are visually striking and allow for explanation of concepts, such as everything you need to know about uranium. In the end, this book looks beyond the Trinity test to Mutually Assured Destruction and “Duck and Cover,” to the risks with which we’ve lived since 1945. The afterword concludes:

We would see that the secret of atomic power was stolen not from the gods, but simply from the earth.

And we would remember that this atomic force is a force of nature.

As innocent as an earthquake.

As oblivious as the sun.

It will outlast our dreams.

5 Space Shuttles September 9, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Space Exploration.
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This week officially launches our series of 5. Last week, we outlined our plan.




Columbia was the Space Shuttle program’s first functional orbiter. It launched on April 12, 1981, and flew for 22 years and 27 missions. This first shuttle was thousands of pounds heavier than the others. It flew a lot of science-oriented missions, and its last completed mission was to service the Hubble Space Telescope. On February 1, 2003, Columbia broke apart on re-entry. You can read one of our posts that commemorates that accident, along with the Apollo 1 and Challenger accidents, HERE.


Challenger‘s maiden flight was in April of 1983, and it’s last, fatal launch occurred on January 28, 1986. You can read more of what we’ve written about Challenger at Lofty Ambitions HERE.



First launched in 1984, Discovery is the first fully functional space shuttle we saw in person and up close. This orbiter can now be seen at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum. In this photo, Anna helps with mating process in preparation for Discovery to fly from Florida to DC after its final orbital mission.



First launched in 1985, Atlantis concluded the Space Shuttle program with its final flight in 2011. We were there to see this shuttle on the launchpad and see the program’s final launch. This shuttle can now be viewed in person at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where we saw it installed in 2012.



We think of Endeavour as our shuttle, for it was the first orbiter we saw launch in person, and we followed its journey to our backyard at the California Science Center in 2012. Endeavour was the only replacement shuttle and the last shuttle to be built; it was commissioned after the Challenger accident and made from spare parts. It flew 25 missions between 1992 and 2011.


Bonus: Enterprise

Enterprise was never designed to go to space, but we give it a lot of credit as a test vehicle. And who doesn’t like a space vehicle that gets (re)named by Star Trek fans? Anna saw this (non)orbiter when Udvar-Hazy first opened, and it’s now on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Complex in New York.


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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, 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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
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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.


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