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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Jaws! (and Airport 1975) June 24, 2015

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jawsForty years ago, Jaws hit the theaters. The opening weekend box figure was more than $7 million, which almost covered the film’s estimated budget of $8 million. By the Independence Day weekend in 1975, just a few weeks after its launch, Jaws was holding steady at the box office. It would go on to gross more than $470 million worldwide.

Forty years ago, Anna saw Jaws at the theater. That was the summer between fourth and fifth grade. Anna was just nine years old, when her great aunt Ro took her to see the film. Her sister, Brigid, remembers not being allowed to go because it would be too scary. Their mother had stayed up all night reading the book several months earlier. Anna hadn’t read the book yet (the two differ in some significant ways) but thoroughly enjoyed the film, and we both can’t help but watch it if we’re flipping through the channels and come across Jaws.

In honor of its 40th anniversary, Turner Classic Movies has brought Jaws back to the big screen. Jaws showed again in theaters this past Sunday (we saw it! it was amazing!) and is showing again TODAY, probably at 2pm and 7pm. If you read this post early enough, check your local listings and get yourself to the theatre.

Lest you think that sharks are old news, the beach-goers in Huntington Beach, California, near where we live have sighted a group of roughly a dozen 6- to 10-foot sharks feeding on stingrays about fifty feet offshore lately. Several of those sharks have now been tagged so that researchers can follow their movements and post warning signs on beaches. And then there’s the shark stories out of North Carolina.

SharkSharks have been around long before vertebrates started traipsing around on land. Even white sharks—the shark in Jaws is a great white—have been around for more than 60 million years. One of the fascinating characteristics about sharks is, of course, their teeth, which are implanted in the gums rather than in the jaw itself and are continuously replaced so that one shark may have tens of thousands of teeth over a lifetime.

Not all sharks need to swim almost constantly, but many species lack enough buoyancy to take even a short nap without sinking. Their buoyancy is aided by their cartilage, which is half as dense as bone, and by a large liver filled with an oily substance called squalene. Some sharks also keep moving in order to keep breathing because they must keep water flowing over their gills, whereas other sharks have the ability to pump water over the gills.

Sharks have a keen sense of hearing, far superior to humans. Sharks also have an adept sense of smell and can detect the direction of something they smell because it hits each nostril at a different time. Like cats, some sharks have a nictating membrane that covers their eyes when extra protection is needed, as when they attack. Great whites, like the one in Jaws, however, lack this membrane and, instead, roll their eyes back during attack.

(photo NOAA)

(photo NOAA)

When you read Jaws or watch the film, you may come away with the idea that sharks are dumb, single minded, and aggressive. Sharks actually have a brain-to-body mass ratio akin to our own, suggesting that they aren’t as dumb as Peter Benchley, who wrote the book, led us to believe. Moreover, recent studies have shown that they exhibit curiosity, memory, and recognition.

In the 2013 Ballantine paperback re-issue of Jaws, Benchley provides an introduction that recounts how Jaws came to be. The most interesting aspect of that introduction, though, is Benchley’s reflection on the difference between what he knew about sharks when he wrote the book and what he has come to know and appreciate about sharks and the need for conservation.

I prided my self on knowing more about sharks than the general populace, but I succumbed nevertheless to anecdotal evidence and accepted it—or them, for the anecdotes were legion—as truth. […] Time and again, I confidently assured interviewers that every single incident of shark behavior described in Jaws (the book, remember, not the movie) had actually happened—not all at once, not by the same shark, but over the years and in some sea somewhere in the world. I was correct, too; every episode described in the book had happened…just not for the reasons I had posited, nor with the results I had imagined.

I learned about them slowly, firsthand, often in company with scientists or fishermen or divers, and each discovery was fascinating, albeit humbling. One of the first lessons I learned was that sharks not only don’t seek out and attack human beings, they avoid humans whever possible—we are, after all, large, noisy, ugly aliens that, for all a shark knows, may pose mortal danger—and bite them very rarely. They don’t even like the taste of us, and great whites often spit humans out because they’re too bony and fat-free (compared to seals, that is).

I could never write Jaws today. I could never demonize an animal, especially not and animal that is much older and much more successful in its habitat than man is, has been, or ever will be, an animal that is vitally necessary for the balance of nature in the sea, and an animal that we may—if we don’t change our destructive behaviors—extingush from the face of the earth.

Jaws has also given me a second career. For the past decade or so, I’ve been working in marine conservation pretty much fulltime, though I still find diving with big critters in remote locales irresistible and I’ll abandon almost anything for the chance to visit with great white sharks under water. I don’t know how much I can accomplish—I don’t know how much anyone can accomplish—but I do know that after all I’ve received from sharks, I’d feel like an ingrate if I didn’t give something back.

Though the movie Airport 1975 was released the previous year. That film’s star was Karen Black, a native Illinoisan who plays flight attendant Nancy Pryor. Today is Karen Black’s birthday; she would have been 76 years old.

We also want to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of the fictional events it depicts. The jumbo jet on a cross-country flight is damaged in a midair collision after being diverted to Salt Lake City because of West Coast weather. The co-pilot is propelled out of the plane, the flight engineer is killed, and the blinded captain engages the autopilot before passing out.

747-100 like in Airport 1975 (photo Arpingstone)

747-100 like in Airport 1975 (photo Arpingstone)

Nancy, with help from folks on the ground, must fly the plane herself so that it won’t crash into the mountains. Finally, another pilot, who is Nancy’s former lover and is played by Charlton Heston, is lowered safely into the cockpit from a helicopter and lands the plane.

Airport 1975 cost $3 million dollars and grossed more than $47 million. It wasn’t, however, the top-grossing film of 1974. The top two spots were held by The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. Helen Reddy, who plated a singing nun in Airport 1975, was nominated for the Globe Globe for most promising female newcomer, but the award went to Susan Flannery, who was in The Towering Inferno and went on to soap opera fame. And so go the seventies.

Countdown to The Cold War: Inside the B-24 (Photos!) June 17, 2015

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On May 10, Anna flew in a B-24, and Doug flew in a B-17. Both aircraft are part of the Collings Foundation’s tour and stopped at Lyon Air Museum. Last week, we shared the view from inside the B-17 Nine-O-Nine during a flight along the California coast. This week, we share photos taken from inside the B-24 during flight.









Countdown to The Cold War: June 1945 June 10, 2015

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Within 4 months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.

These words began a memo that was drafted by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and presented on April 25, 1945, to President Truman. Truman had been president less than two weeks, and, with the help of General Leslie Groves, Stimson provided Truman’s first, in-depth introduction to the Manhattan Project on that day.

Stimson-memo-FranckReport-p1On May 8, 1945, Germany, its war machine defeated and many of its cities in ruins, had surrendered. Even in the face of Germany’s defeat, the pace of development of the atomic bomb intensified at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford. Looming in the near future was the test of the implosion-based gadget, the so-called Fat Man atomic bomb. In late February, the date for the test had been set; named Trinity, the test would occur in early July.

Fear of a German atomic bomb, which, given Germany’s deep reservoir of scientific talent, seemed likely for the first few years of the war initially drove the scientists of the Manhattan Project. But like many science and engineering projects, once it got going, the Manhattan Project moved with the inertia of discovery. Years later, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the work at Los Alamos said:

When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.

He wasn’t the only Manhattan Project scientist and engineer to feel that way, but it wasn’t a universally shared position.

Stimson-memo-FranckReport-p2At the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory, known informally as the Met Lab, the pace of research and development had slowed enough to allow the scientists to catch their collective breath. Met Lab scientists were had responsible for ground-breaking work on the chemistry of plutonium and the physics of nuclear chain reactions, but both of those programs were foundational, early-days items. As the spring of 1945 made way for the summer, Met Lab scientists, particularly Leo Szilard, began to think about the future. As ever, the future concerned Szilard.

As Richard Rhodes says in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Szilard was “the man who had thought longer and harder than anyone else about the consequences of the chain reaction.”

The government, too, was finally beginning to wrestle with the nuclear genie threatening to escape its bottle. On May 9, 1945, the Interim Committee met for first time. The Interim Committee, composed of academics, military leaders, and politicians, was created to provide guidance and develop policy on nuclear affairs as the United States ventured into an uncertain nuclear future. The committee was chaired by Stimson and advised by a Scientific Panel comprised of Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi. The scientists on the panel were told to report any issues to the committee in a blunt and open manner. Compton, a Nobel Prize winner, was the leader of the Met Lab, and he took it upon himself to gather and convey the concerns of the researchers under his leadership.

Compton decided to convene yet another committee; this one consisted of Met Lab senior scientists. This sub-sub-committee was led by yet another Nobel Prize winner, James Franck, and its members included Szilard and future Nobel Prize awardee Glenn Seaborg. Bruce Cameron Reed’s book, The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, has this to say:

Franck’s committee […] was to prepare a report on “Political and Social Problems” associated with the bomb. Working over the week of June 4-11, they drafted a document known as the Franck Report, which is now acknowledged to be a founding manifesto of the nuclear non-proliferation movement.

One of the more provocative recommendations made in the Franck Report was the call for the atomic bomb to NOT be used against Japan. Instead, the Franck Report called for a “technical demonstration” of the weapon. Numerous concerns generated this suggestion, but they all centered on the reality that the United States couldn’t hope to maintain a monopoly on nucleonics, which was then the favored Met Lab term for all things related to atomic science.

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 Franck Report was given to the Interim Committee on or about this date in 1945 (some sources say June 10, others say June 11, whereas others refer to mid-June). The committee passed it on to the Science Panel for their thoughts. The Science Panel wasn’t of one mind, and their thoughts ranged from support for technical demonstration—in a remote part of the desert or perhaps on an island—to the outright use of the weapon against Japan. On June 21, 1945, the Interim Committee recommended the military use of the atomic bomb.

The Trinity test went ahead as planned in July, and the first two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. World War II came to a close shortly afterwards.

For more in the series Countdown to The Cold War, click Countdown to The Cold War.

Anniversary of First American Spacewalk and more June 3, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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Fifty years ago on this date, two astronauts crawled into a Gemini spacecraft atop a Titan rocket and were shot into space. Over four days, Jim McDivitt and Ed White circled Earth 66 times. That first day, White opened the hatch and left the spacecraft.

This first spacewalk lasted about 20 minutes. White, connected to the capsule by a tether, wanted to stay out in that great expanse a lot longer. He exclaimed, “This is fun!” He didn’t seem to care that communications with the ground might be compromised as they switched tracking stations, nor that they were heading into darkness of night on the other side of the solar terminator. Ed White called his return to Gemini IV “the saddest moment of my life.”

Anna & Gene Cernan!

Anna & Gene Cernan!

One year later, on June 3, 1966, two different astronauts crawled into a Gemini spacecraft atop a Titan rocket and were shot into space. Over three days, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan circled Earth 47 times. On June 5, Cernan left the spacecraft for two hours.

All in all, Gemini IX was a meager success. The planned rendezvous with the Agena, an unmanned target practice spacecraft, didn’t happen because of a problem with the Agena that left its nose cone pieces hanging open, still attached. Then, Cernan struggled through his spacewalk, with no hand or foot folds to help him make his way to the maneuvering system he had to put on. All his movements were exhausting, his heart rate soared to 180 beats per minute, and he started sweating profusely, which fogged his visor, which he couldn’t wipe off to see. Stafford called a halt to the spacewalk, and NASA started rethinking the spacesuit for the Apollo program.

The original crew for Gemini IX had been Elliot See and Charles Bassett, but they had died that February when their T-38 crashed on approach to St. Louis to take a look at their spacecraft in person. McDivitt and Cernan moved from backup to prime crew.


Buzz Aldrin

Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin became the new backup crew for Gemini IX, which also moved them to the prime crew position on Gemini XII. This switch likely changed Aldrin’s life. While Cernan had struggled physically as a spacewalker on Gemini IX, Aldrin used underwater training to prepare for his spacewalks. Aldrin completed three spacewalks on Gemini XII in November 1966, two of which lasted more than two hours. Only then was NASA convinced that extravehicular activity was safe and doable. The crew rotation and this EVA success set Aldrin up to be on Apollo 11 and to walk on the Moon.

This rotation also put Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan on the Apollo 10 crew, along with John Young. All three had flown before, and all three would fly to space again after Apollo 10.

Roughly 46 years ago, at the end of May 1969, three men crawled into an Apollo spacecraft atop at Saturn V rocket and were shot into space. Apollo 10 went all the way to the Moon without actually landing on its surface. The Lunar Module came within 16 kilometers of the surface but wasn’t given enough fuel to land and ascend back to the Command Module, probably because NASA feared Stafford and Cernan would try such a move. The success of Apollo 10 set up the Apollo 11 mission to land on the Moon in July 1969.


Jim Lovell

History is made in the moment. As we’ve written before (Mark & Scott Kelly HERE, Shuttle Firsts HERE), timing and sequence matter in space exploration history. Sequences of small decisions accumulate to give us the whole. Certainly, the deaths of Bassett and See altered the trajectory of both the Gemini and Apollo programs in small ways. But it isn’t always tragic events that have effects. Mike Collins’s back problems likely put him in the Command Module pilot’s seat as opposed to another astronaut. In the larger scheme of things, we’ve also written about how all the Apollo astronauts, our Moon men, were born into a thin slice of history. Collins, Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong were all born in the same year, 1930.

The Gemini IV spacecraft is on display at the National Air and Space Museum. The Gemini IX spacecraft is on display at Kennedy Space Center. The Apollo 10 Command Module is at the Science Museum in London.

Countdown to The Cold War: Inside the B-17 (Photos!) May 27, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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On May 10, Anna flew in a B-24, and Doug flew in a B-17. Both aircraft are part of the Collings Foundation’s tour and stopped at Lyon Air Museum. This week, we share the view from inside the B-17 Nine-O-Nine during a flight along the California coast.












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