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In the Footsteps (Part 4) June 29, 2011

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Cross Street at LANL

Last week, we wrote about our visit to the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum. This week, fires have been threatening Los Alamos. Its 12,000 residents have evacuated, and the federal laboratory is closed, with only essential employees still working in the fire zone. But the Historical Society says all the artifacts we wrote about last week are safe. The Environmental Protection Agency is measuring radioactivity in the air there (no elevated levels), and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) officials say that, though the fire has slithered within fifty yards of the laboratory grounds, the 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste stored above ground are not at risk. The area burned in 2000, with no detected elevation in radioactivity.

So today, we meander down the street past the post office to the Bradbury Science Museum, a version of public outreach for LANL.

We’ve long been interested in the missions of museums and have published a couple of articles that explore, in part, the ways aviation museums articulate their goals. The Bradbury Science Museum has a multifaceted, rather aggressive mission: to interpret what LANL does, to promote understanding of LANL’s role in national security, to assist the public in making decisions about national security matters, and to expand knowledge and education in what are known as the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). Museums don’t merely document history, and this museum doesn’t shy away from the political context of the nuclear science it represents. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine that any museum that addresses the role of nuclear science and technology in our lives could avoid entering the political arena.

The first iteration of the museum opened near Fuller Lodge in 1954, mostly to store artifacts that folks thought might be important not to lose. In 1963, some unclassified items were transferred to a space that could be opened to the public, and within two years that stash of artifacts was large enough to demand more space. A few years after that move, in 1970, the museum took its name from Norris Bradbury, the scientist who succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer and served as the director of LANL 1945-1970. In 1981, the museum was overhauled with a snazzy new professional look. In part because it was popular and needed more parking spaces, the Bradbury Science Museum moved to its current location in 1993 and now draws almost 100,000 visitors every year. This year, we were among those visitors.

Though we had a visit to the Bradbury as a primary reason for our return to Los Alamos, the museums, the city, Bandelier National Monument, and the town’s visitors inhabit a peculiar space where awe-inspiring nature abuts cutting-edge technology. We took in a lengthy hike at Bandelier in the morning and spent the afternoon at the Bradbury. We weren’t the only other visitors with this same itinerary, as we saw half dozen others at the Bradbury that afternoon with whom we’d earlier exchanged hello on the Long Trail.

Camera used at Trinity atomic bomb test

We spent the bulk of our time at the Bradbury in the three main galleries. As the name would suggest, the History Gallery covers the early years of the laboratory at Los Alamos. In addition to standard displays of film footage and newspaper clippings from the era, the gallery also holds some intriguing pieces from the Trinity Test, which exploded the implosion-style, or Fat Man, atomic bomb on July 16th, 1945. Given that photos and film clips of expanding mushroom clouds are among the iconic imagery of the Cold War, it is appropriate that the Bradbury, a museum in the cradle of the atom bomb development, displays a camera used to record the early-morning event at Trinity, the birth of the atomic age.

Cups used by President Kennedy and V.P. Johnson

The History Gallery also contains the Bradbury’s newest exhibit, “Kennedy’s Visit to Los Alamos.” On December 7th, 1962, President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson paid a visit to LANL as guests of the lab’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research. One of LANL’s burgeoning research areas in that era was a joint program with NASA entitled Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application, or NERVA. Kennedy’s visit coincided with the height of the NERVA program, while the lab was in the midst of developing Project Rover and the Kiwi nuclear rocket engines. Several photos depict President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chair Glenn Seaborg looking at models developed for Project Rover. While the directors of LANL and the AEC must have enjoyed showing off the lab’s latest wares with the press snapping photos, many photos depict ordinary aspects of the day, including drinking a cup of coffee. Some thoughtful lab worker at the event had the foresight to retain and preserve the coffee cups. They are marked on their bottoms to indicate which was used by Kennedy and which by Johnson and are on display at the Bradbury.

The Research Gallery offers displays and narratives about the most important of LANL’s current research areas. Among the more engaging exhibits are those on earth and environmental sciences, genomics, and computational biology. We spent less time in this gallery, though, because, while it was rich in information (lots of big placards with photos and text), it had changed the least since our last visit and housed fewer artifacts. That said, the display about how various parts of the lab use particle accelerators piqued Doug’s interest as a former denizen of Fermilab.

Anna attempts to lift 70 tons of plutonium

The Defense Gallery exhibits, as you might expect, replicas of the first two atomic bombs, which were designed and put together at Los Alamos. Not far from replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs is a giant, inverted yellow cone. The display script indicates that the cone is the approximate size of all of the plutonium that has been created since the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Plutonium isn’t found in nature, at least not in appreciable amounts, and to see its volume equivalent in the gallery makes it seem as if we didn’t produce much with all that money and effort. But if the cone were actually made of plutonium, it would weigh 70 tons. A smaller exhibit nearby hammers home that plutonium is an unusually hefty material. Lifting the first few fist-sized blocks of other materials comes easily (or relatively easy after a five-mile hike in the mountains). The final, plutonium-weight block is heavy—very heavy. We were utterly convinced of plutonium’s most obvious physical characteristic.

First Cray Supercomputer

Also in the Defense Gallery, though it might just as readily fit into the concepts of history or research, is the exhibit detailing LANL’s role in the development of computing, from humans (mostly young women) punching/keying Marchant calculators to the lab’s first homegrown computer (MANIAC—Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator And Computer) to an alphanumeric soup of machines (IBM 701, IBM 704, IBM 7030, CDC 6600, CDC 7600, CM-2, CM-5, SGI, HP, etc.) and concluding with the lab’s current supercomputer, Roadrunner. In 2008, Roadrunner, built by IBM and taking six years for full functionality, became the world’s fastest supercomputer and the first to break the petaflop—one thousand-trillion operations per second—barrier. By way of comparison, the computer sitting on your desktop would need approximately 100 years to execute as many operations as Roadrunner can accomplish in a day. Three years later, Roadrunner is now the tenth fastest computer in the world. Or it would be, if it is turned on; reports say that LANL has shut down two supercomputers because of the fire.

We’ll have more in our “In the Footsteps” series later this summer (there’s a nuclear museum in Albuquerque too). Next week, however, we turn our attention back to the space shuttle, with a guest post from author Margaret Lazarus Dean on Monday. Then, we are off on our trip to the Space Coast for the last launch, scheduled for July 8. Cross your fingers for an on-schedule launch, then look for photos, videos, and commentary right here at Lofty Ambitions.

Interview: Rhea Seddon June 27, 2011

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Margaret Rhea Seddon is a medical doctor who became an astronaut in 1979, even before the first space shuttle flight in 1981. We met this three-time space shuttle astronaut when we visited Kennedy Space Center in November (click HERE to read how that happened). Like fellow doctor-turned-astronaut Michael Barratt (see his interview HERE), Rhea Seddon is especially interested in the human body and how it functions, and her missions in space involved medical experiments.

Rhea Seddon’s husband is also a former astronaut. We’ll post Hoot Gibson’s interview next time around.

In the Footsteps (Part 3) June 22, 2011

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To read Part 1, click HERE.

To read Part 2, click HERE.

In Changing Light, Nora  Gallagher’s sparse novel of love and loss in New Mexico during the Manhattan Project, the author describes a chance encounter with a raven:

“She heard a deep croaking sound and looked up. When she had walked out on this land for the first time, she had heard that sound and looked at her feet for a frog—midwestern girl. But then she realized the croaking came from a tree. A frog caught in a tree? She imagined a frog tethered to the trunk of a pinion, drying out in the sun. Then she saw the raven sitting on a branch; he pumped his chest and sounded like a bullfrog.”

Fuller Lodge

We visited the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum for the first time in the summer of 2007. Doug was attending the Particle Accelerator Conference in Albuquerque, and we tacked on a few days to the end of the trip to visit Santa Fe and Los Alamos. We were grateful for the cool air of the high desert, an easy twenty-degree drop in temperature from the deep baking of Albuquerque. As soon as we got out of our rental car, we heard that bullfrog-like croak. We’d both finished reading Changing Light in the weeks before the trip, and we somehow knew to look up into the tall pine to locate an ink-black raven, large and only too proud to claim responsibility for the guttural sound.

When we made our way to Los Alamos at the end of last month, we returned for another visit of the Historical Society Museum.  Like the raven in Changing Light, Los Alamos and its role in the Manhattan Project is a topic about which we’d read and watched documentaries. The Historical Society is located on Los Alamos’ famous Bathtub Row, the street so named during the early days of the Manhattan Project because its houses were the only ones in town (in the very beginning, Los Alamos wasn’t even a town, just a smattering of buildings) with bathtubs.

Pueblo Dwelling, Bandelier National Monument

The earliest residents of the Pajarito Plateau inhabited the region long before the exigencies of war brought the Manhattan Project’s eclectic collection of scientists, engineers, and soldiers to the area. Between 1175 and 1250, the Pueblo peoples began to settle the area. The Tewa and Keres from what’s now Arizona were the first in the area, and other groups arrived later. A vast array of cliff dwellings can be seen at Bandelier National Monument, where we hiked on two separate occasions during last month’s visit to New Mexico. One of our hikes, to the kiva nestled in the natural stone cutout of the Alcove House, required firm grip and steady foot to negotiate the system of ladders and narrow pathways. In the end, the breathtaking vista of the canyon from atop the kiva made any qualms about the climb seem silly, insignificant.

Nearer in time to the establishment of the Manhattan Project, by 1887, the railroad was close enough that homesteaders began to dot the region. Only two of the homesteading cabins remain. One has been moved to the Historical Society, which restored the cabin for its grand opening last year.

The boys and men of the Ranch School

The Los Alamos Historical Society Museum itself sits next to Fuller Lodge, a large, wooden building that predates the nuclear weapons laboratory work of the 1940s. In fact, the museum chronicles the Los Alamos Ranch School, started by Ashley Pond in 1917 to offer boys with health problems a lifestyle that would make them stronger adults. In those years, Fuller Lodge was the Big House, where asthmatic and otherwise peaked boys attended classes, ate together, and slept on the open-air, wrap-around porch even in winter. As students, the boys all belonged to the Boy Scouts, Los Alamos Troop 22, and learned horseback riding along with academic subjects. Among its graduates was author Gore Vidal, John S. Reed (president of the Santa Fe railroad), Frederick Pullman (President of Northern Trust), and Bill Veeck (owner of the Chicago White Sox, perhaps most famous for Disco Demolition Night at Comisky Park). Beat Generation figure William S. Burroughs attended the school as well, but he left without graduating.

The museum’s inclusion of the location’s pre-atomic eras—and the Native Americans, homesteaders, and boys at the Ranch School—reminded us that when one walks in the footsteps of others, they, too, have walked in others’ footsteps.

In 1942, General Leslie Groves decided the Manhattan Engineer District needed a central laboratory, and the project’s scientific director J. Robert Oppenhiemer suggested Los Alamos after having spent considerable time in the remote, mountainous desert area of New Mexico. The Ranch School was told to hurry up the schoolyear (the school graduated its final class in February, 1943, after an abbreviated calendar) and was paid $225 per acre for their property. The homesteaders, on the other hand, were paid only $7-15 per acre, a fact that came out later and, in 2004, led to a Congressional fund set up to more fairly compensate those former residents.

Original chair from the Manhattan Project

The museum puts its emphasis squarely on the lived experiences of the lab’s inhabitants in the war years, leaving the technical side of the development of the atomic bomb to the nearby Bradbury Museum. The Historical Society is filled with photos of Manhattan Project denizens going through their frenetic paces. Leisure activities are a favorite subject in photos: dances, ballgames, and mealtimes. Artifacts that fulfilled useful purposes in their lives—a jukebox and chairs from the PX—fill one exhibit. Surviving pieces of one of the original guardhouses, the gatekeeper’s portal to a place that was sometimes known as Shangri-La, serves as a useful reminder that The Hill (another nickname for the laboratory) was a military outpost with all of the secrecy and regimentation that that entails.

Los Alamos Security Badges

The guardhouse exhibit, replete with numerous security badges from the Manhattan Project, also functions as a useful locus for anecdotes about how the civilians bridled under military routine. One famous scientist replaced the photo on his badge with that of dog; the switch went undetected for sometime. A young woman who worked in the Tech Area took to placing her badge on the back pocket of her jeans. When stopped by a guard and admonished, she’s reputed to have told the guard that was where he was looking anyway when she walked by, so she was just trying to make his job easier.

Artifacts from the Tech Area

Eventually, the Los Alamos Historical Society will open the Oppenheimer House, labeled T-111, to the public. It’s a cottage built in the late 1920s with a living room, study, kitchen, and sleeping porch. The original kitchen was turned into a dining room, which the Oppenheimers considered a must-have, and a new kitchen was added. Much of the original detail—the furnace, the kitchen counters and cabinets, the fireplaces—remains. The house already belongs to the Historical Society, but its current residents, who arrived in Los Alamos in 1945 and moved into the Oppenheimer House in 1956, can live there indefinitely.

As we think about what it means to walk in the footsteps of atomic scientists, we wonder how the addition of the Oppenheimer House will add to and shift the story. Historic landmarks offer us a way to understand a time by attaching it to a place. The objects in the places suggest the past lives lived, as if they are traces of actual people now gone. These places of historical significance become ways of interpreting history and of understanding how we came to be who we are as a community.

Guest Blog: Debora Rindge June 20, 2011

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Debora Rindge, Mirari Fine Art Consulting

A few weeks ago, we noticed a print called Trust Zone in a temporary exhibition of Chapman University art at Leatherby Libraries, where Doug works. The blue outline of a space suit caught our eye, and then we noticed the map of Kennedy Space Center, a place we had recently visited. The print was of a Robert Rauschenberg lithograph, so we contacted our art historian friend to see what she had to say about it.

Debora Rindge is an art historian specializing in American art in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, College Park (where Anna earned her M.F.A., though they didn’t know each other at the time). After a career in academia, Debora founded the fine art consulting firm, Mirari.


Trust Zone, 1969. Lithograph in colors, on Rives Special, ed. 65.

One of the best-known artists in a remarkable NASA program created in 1962 to celebrate American art and space exploration was Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), who is considered one of the founders of American Pop Art. In July of 1969 he, Jamie Wyeth, and other artists were invited to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the launch of Apollo 11, the first to allow humans (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) to walk on the moon. Rauschenberg recalled the frosting of the Saturn rocket as it took on liquid nitrogen: “It turned into the most beautiful icicle. The incredibly bright lights, the moon coming up, seeing the rocket turn into pure ice, its stripes and U.S.A. markings disappearing…The whole project seemed one of the only things at that time that was not concerned with war and destruction. What really impressed me in that space shot was the attitude of the people involved, the trust, the teamwork.” (The quote is from Calvin Tomkins’s book Off the Wall:  A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg.) Rauschenberg was delighted with the free access NASA granted to photographic archives, charts, maps, and other data and to technicians and astronauts.

Immediately after the launch, Rauschenberg was inspired to create the Stoned Moon series of 34 lithographs. The series title puns the medium itself. Lithography is a printmaking process involving a fine-grained stone that is inked, then run through a press and printed on paper in a limited edition. Each color requires a separate stone. This series includes both hand lithography, where the mark of the artist is evident in brushstrokes, and photolithography, where selected images are transferred mechanically to the stone.

Rauschenberg traveled to Los Angeles to work in collaboration with the important print workshop, Gemini G.E.L., a team effort not unlike what he observed at the space launch. The result included some of the largest hand-printed lithographs made at the time, an astounding technical achievement that also echoed the scale of NASA’s Apollo 11 launch.

Trust Zone, close-up of launch pads

Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas. He discovered his interest in drawing while serving in the Marines, then studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute, the Academie Julian in Paris, and Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He worked in a variety of media, inventing the term combine for his pieces that combined painting with assemblages of found objects, and created early interdisciplinary performance work with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. In the 1960s he began to make visionary silkscreen prints with images appropriated from media, referencing bits of ordinary life in collage-like compositions. His appropriation of random photographic material mimics the transparency and occasionally grainy quality of a flickering television screen. If you close your eyes at the end of the day and imagine all the visual information you’d absorbed, it might look something like a Rauschenberg print.

Robert Rauschenberg, Stoned Moon Series: Sky Garden, 1969. Lithograph, 89 x 42 inches. Collection Stephen Dull, Greensboro.

The Stoned Moon series features a rich range of imagery. Sky Garden, the largest in the series at nearly 7.5 feet high, is the most literal record of the launch, taking the viewer from rocket construction to take-off in one breathtaking multi-layered view.

A more abstract rendition of figure (a space suit) and ground (the Kennedy Space Center landscape) is presented in the diagrammatic Trust Zone, an image that seems at first technically impenetrable, until the large space suit rises to the surface from the web of technical documentation.

For more on the NASA Art Program, click HERE. And if you’ll be in Washington, D.C., be sure to visit the exhibit, “NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration,” on view from May 28 to October 9, 2011, at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

In the Footsteps (Part 2) June 15, 2011

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To view more photographs (different photographs!) and Part 1 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.

Inside the Lamy Train Station

Henry Cullen, Anna’s grandfather, was a Pullman conductor on The Chief, one of the Santa Fe Railway’s famous named trains, its route spanning two-thirds of the country, from Chicago to Los Angeles. During the last two years of World War II, Henry noticed something odd: a steady stream of men with foreign accents, voices inflected with the tones of middle and Eastern Europe, lots of German, were getting off the train in Lamy, New Mexico. The place was beautiful, with mountains rising in the distance no matter where you looked. But there wasn’t much there. Even the famed Harvey House El Ortiz, with its quaint hacienda-like atmosphere and its gorgeous Mary Colter-designed interior, was an open lot next to Lamy’s Santa Fe station, having been shuttered in 1933, burned in 1938, and razed in 1943.

It was only in the denouement of the war, the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, when news about Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Manhattan Engineer District was released to the public, that it became clear to Conductor Henry Cullen what was going on in the high-desert near Lamy and who those mysterious men riding his train had been. Scientists like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and Niels Bohr, some traveling under assumed names (Enrico Fermi = Ed Farmer, Niels Bohr = Nicholas Baker), arrived in Lamy from their academic posts at the University of Chicago and the East Coast and also from Berkeley and the West Coast.

Geodetic Marker, Lamy, NM

Lamy is an even quieter town now. The one-hundred-year-old Amtrak station is manned by Vince, who gave us the historical and cultural lay of the land when we visited to walk in the footsteps of the nation’s atomic scientists. Vince pointed out the geodetic marker placed into the outside wall of the depot by the National Geodetic Survey, which maintains a database of these reference points. Vince seemed especially pleased that someone thought the Lamy train station would be around for long enough to make it an appropriate reference point for the larger landscape.

When the Manhattan Project scientists arrived in Lamy, a specially designed car—a Plymouth sedan that had been extended limo-style—was waiting for them. The car is now at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque. We’ll write a separate post about that museum, but the car is especially intriguing because it was almost lost forever. Someone saw the beat-up vehicle in a local junkyard and thought he recognized it. The serial numbers matched the records from the Manhattan Project, and the limo was restored, using photographs to match even the upholstery to its WWII look.

La Fonda Dining Room from above

From Lamy, the scientists were chauffered to Santa Fe, just under twenty miles away. They would drive past La Fonda, a destination hotel spot at the end of the Santa Fe Trail since 1607. The current building went up in 1921 and was purchased by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway three years later. The railway leased the hotel to Fred Harvey, and it remained a Harvey House until 1968. Once again, like she did for so many of the California, New Mexico, and Arizona Harvey Houses, Mary Colter designed the interior spaces to match her vision of the American West. We imagine scientists on their way to or from Los Alamos—or on a brief respite from The Hill—might sit at the bar or in the well-lighted dining room to talk about their ideas and enjoy the famous Harvey hospitality of that era. In fact, one day, a local widow was having lunch at La Fonda when a man in a porkpie hat approached her table and offered her a job to run an office just a couple of blocks away.

At the door of 109 E. Palace, 2008

As a result of that conversation, instigated by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the initial destination of an atomic scientist in Santa Fe was 109 E. Palace Avenue, where Dorothy McKibbin, that local widow, welcomed every non-military individual associated with the Manhattan Engineer District to their new home in the middle of nowhere. McKibbin arranged for a scientist’s material goods to be delivered to Los Alamos, set up a bank account, gave each person an identification card, and informed every scientist that his new mailing address was P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sometimes, Oppenheimer would visit for martinis and a steak dinner. Occasionally, physicists would spend the night at her home on Old Pecos Road, leaving Dorothy’s son Kevin to sleep in the backyard.

A view into 109 E. Palace, 2011

Dorothy stayed on in her role for a couple of decades. Now, though, 109 E. Palace stands empty. We had been inside a few years earlier, when the place was a high-end linens shop. But when we were in Santa Fe at the end of May of this year, the property, once so crucial to the work at Los Alamos, was available for lease.

V.I.P. Limo for The Hill

After being heavily processed and lightly acclimated by Dorothy McKibbin in Santa Fe, the scientist would get back into that limo and head to Los Alamos, another 36 miles into the Jemez Mountains. Depending upon the weather, those three dozen miles could take as long as four hours. The vistas are breathtaking. We imagine the scientists gasped most audibly as they realized they were crossing a one-lane wooden bridge and might meet a military truck rushing steeply downhill toward them. The bridge is still there, off to the side and beneath the current highway running over the Rio Grande River.

Old One-lane Bridge over the Rio Grande

A military checkpoint greeted the scientists as they reached The Hill. Most scientists would then head to the assorted apartments, hutments, and barracks that had been hastily built for the rapid influx of personnel. Enrico Fermi lived in a nice stone building on 20th Street, Edward Teller lived in a smaller house with a shared driveway on 49th Street, and Richard Feynman took to bed in what was more like a dormitory for the men who didn’t bring wives with them. A few, including Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s leader, lived in a lovely cottage on Bathtub Row, so named because these were the only residences with bathtubs. The street remains officially named Bathtub Row. That’s where Richard Baker, the father of plutonium chemistry, lived from 1959-1995 and where the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum now stands.

Henry Cullen (wearing his Pullman conductor uniform) with his daughter

The Lofty duo has spent a good deal of time traveling this past year. These trips are fleeting glimpses of the past, rapid images of someone famous running to a distant gate, or the two of us dashing to pick up a rental car. How different it must have been to be a physicist in 1944, boarding The Chief in Chicago for somewhere new. Henry Cullen’s train took 49 hours, 49 minutes to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles and 47 hours, 24 minutes for the return trip. Those travelers spent two days bumping into strangers, some of whom were preparing to change the course of history. To walk in the footsteps of atomic scientists is to try to understand that time and its relationship to our own.

To go on to Part 3 of our series “In the Footsteps,” click HERE.

Interview: Michael Barratt June 13, 2011

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Lofty Ambitions interviewed Astronaut Michael Barratt when we visited Kennedy Space Center for the not-launch of Endeavour this year. Barratt had recently retured from space himself, as he was part of the crew on STS-133, Discovery‘s last mission. The News Center was so crowded and noisy that Barratt suggested we slip into the closet off the the employee break room for a cozy conversation.

Michael Barratt is an especially engaging person; we would have been happy to hang out with him all afternoon, and he seemed happy to keep chatting with us. Here, he talks about his varied interests, how he followed his sweetheart to medical school, and issues of radioactivity and his own book on the subject. The radioactivity conversation is about seven minutes in and is very much related to our recent posts.

Writing Time & Timeliness June 8, 2011

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Two weeks ago, in what might be characterized as a frenzy—a state of barely controlled activity, agitation, and emotion—we finished a short article that we pitched to Air & Space Magazine just before we headed to the airport for our research trip in New Mexico. The editor responded positively the next day—the very next day. There existed a few matters to work out, including explaining the timeliness of our topic because what’s interesting to us regardless of when it happened needs to be both interesting and timely to magazine readers. Also, it’s too long, so the editor is going to shorten the piece. But there we were, fretting about the several projects we were juggling together and individually. Then, suddenly, we have an article scheduled for the August issue of Air & Space Magazine, which has a circulation of more than 200,000.

Pico Iyer

Earlier this year, we saw Pico Iyer at Chapman University. Iyer has written novels like Video Night in Kathmandu and is a regular contributor to Time, Harper’s, and the New York Review of Books. After his formal talk, Anna asked about his writing life and work across genres. He responded that he’s always juggling four to six projects of different sizes and at different stages. That way, he can work on book projects when he has long stretches of time to focus and on individual articles or revision when he’s traveling. Earlier that day, in a separate campus event, Doug Cooney, author of a children’s book about an entrepreneurial kid who starts a pet funeral business, had told a room overflowing with creative writing students that he always had thirteen ideas ready to go. Iyer and Cooney made it clear that they don’t do just one thing at a time.

Last month, Julianna Baggott posted a piece on her blog called, “When do you sleep? The truth.” Baggott has published 17 books, has four children, and holds a position at Florida State University. One of her secrets is genre-hopping, so she works on multiple projects, including her blog, seemingly simultaneously. It’s clear that she’s always writing or thinking about writing, that she works on her writing in her head while she’s doing other things, and that she’s open to opportunities and looking for writing triggers. She also talks about fuel—timing her caffeine, grazing and exercising to maintain energy, staving off an evening glass of wine until the day’s writing is done—and about her daily writing practice, even when she’s tired. She works hard and works hard consistently.

Trinity Gadget

Lately, we’ve been talking between ourselves about how busy we’ve been. We moved to California three years ago, in part, to reorient our lives and focus on those novel projects we each already had underway. Doug is working on The Chief and the Gadget and recently revised the chapter outline in a way that clears a path for revising and filling in. Anna has planned to revise The Undone Years since receiving good suggestions from an agent last fall; she knows what she wants to do but hasn’t looked at the manuscript in three months. Lately, it’s been difficult to keep our hands on our individual projects as we’ve expanded the research and writing we do together.

Last summer, we launched Lofty Ambitions Blog and committed to a regular post every Wednesday. We also agreed that we’d take it seriously and see where these topics could lead us. We didn’t make plans, but we had ideas. At the end of this April, just over a month ago, we flew across the country to see space shuttle Endeavour not launch, then went back to Florida less than two weeks later to see the actual launch  (see our photos and video). A week after that trip, we headed to New Mexico to walk in the footsteps of Manhattan Project scientists. (We posted photos of that trip last Wednesday, and we’ll have more on that amazing trip in future posts.) Had we not already had those plans for this past week, we likely would have returned to Florida to see Endeavour land and Atlantis roll out to the launch pad. Right now, we’re in Victoria learning about digital humanities. We like doing research together, and we’ve learned new ways to write as a couple through these experiences.

Juianna Baggott

In another post, Julianna Baggott writes, “For me it came to this: If I didn’t write, I would resent my children. And if I didn’t have children in order to have more time to write, I’d resent my writing. I had to do both.” At those times when we feel rather frenzied, maybe that’s the type of balance we should keep in mind, when other things compete for our novel-writing time. If we didn’t follow the end of the space shuttle program, we might resent our novels—or regret what finishing the novels sooner rather than later had cost us. Any resentment we feel over not focusing consistently enough on our individual projects can’t be directed anywhere in particular.

Someone else has set the schedule for the end of the space shuttle program, so this year is our only chance at that. Last week, we were awarded media credentials for the last launch, scheduled for July 8, just one month from now. We want to be there, even though it’s an expense for which we hadn’t planned and even though we recently set end-of-summer goals for our novel manuscripts. These trips to Kennedy Space Center are intense, with unpredictable hours and opportunities. But we don’t have the option of getting around to it later. Though we’re not exactly sure how this research is adding up, we feel we need to stick with it.

We need to stick with our novels too. And so we tell ourselves that our pace will slow in August, that we’ll rethink our priorities at the end of the summer, and that we’ll re-establish our daily writing practice and our weekly writing nights together in the fall. In the meantime, we’ll do the best we can to keep talking through and revising our novels. If we hadn’t had our article picked up by Air & Space Magazine, maybe these things we tell ourselves wouldn’t be enough and we’d switch gears. But for us—for us right now—we’re figuring out the best balance we can manage between our writing as a couple and our writing projects as individuals. We have to do both.

Guest Blog: Ann Ronald June 6, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
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When we were doing research at the end of last year on the nuclear testing program in the American West, we came across a new book of short stories about the that subject. Having read through newspapers of 1953 ourselves at the Atomic Testing Museum and Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, we were interested in Ann Ronald’s use of historical fact and details as she created fictional accounts for her book Friendly Fallout 1953. Ann Ronald is a professor emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno, so we looked her up there. She has published nine books and countless articles about sense of place in fiction and literary nonfiction.   Beginning with The New West of Edward Abbey and continuing with Earthtones: A Nevada Album, GhostWest, Oh, Give Me a Home, and Reader of the Purple Sage, most of her work has focused on the American West.  We’re happy to welcome her to Lofty Ambitions and see the ways she connects our nuclear testing past to our nuclear power present.


Guest Blogger Ann Ronald

A few months ago, I published a book about above-ground atomic testing in Nevada in the 1950s. Friendly Fallout 1953 gives a factual account of what happened but shows the events through the eyes of imagined characters, composites of the men, women, and children actually affected by the government’s tests and the fallout that followed. A reporter eyeballing a detonation in person, a radiation specialist, a secretary, a bartender, a Las Vegas showgirl, a young Paiute boy, a Mormon housewife whose family is caught downwind, a meteorologist, an animal custodian, a curious teenage girl, a soldier watching from a nearby trench, a physicist—altogether they reveal the complexities that accompanied the Cold War urgencies of the mid-twentieth century.

As I was writing Friendly Fallout 1953, I was struck by the cyclical nature of history. The 1950s seemed to be repeating themselves. For example, Americans then feared a vaguely defined enemy called the “red menace”; we now are afraid of terrorists, an enemy equally abstract. Then, somewhat unclear about their objectives, other than to defeat the red tide, people fought on foreign soil in Korea. Just as obliquely, we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Senator McCarthy turned the early 1950s’ political scene upside down, so that a patriotic American dared not question anything about the fight against Communism. So, too, questions about the rationale for invading Iraq were deemed inappropriate. To protect its citizens from harm, first under Truman’s lead and then Eisenhower’s, the American government developed a massive atomic testing program. Its intricacies and inefficiencies and occasional ineptitudes remind me of Homeland Security. No cost spared.

Another common characteristic: the focus on New York City. “Collateral damage” was a term not commonly used in the 1950s, but Civil Defense authorities then were far more concerned about the large East Coast population than about the inconsequential few who happened to live downwind from the Nevada Proving Ground. Several quotes in Friendly Fallout 1953, taken directly from government documents, express a cavalier attitude toward denizens of the American West. As one commissioner firmly states, “Gentlemen, we must not let anything interfere with this series of tests—nothing.” Even when cancer ran rampant and ruined countless lives, the government acknowledged little culpability. In the patriotic urgency to protect everyone else, innocent people were irrevocably harmed.

Friendly Fallout 1953 Book Cover

Physicists and mathematicians and engineers at the test site meant well. Most of them were honestly patriotic, took their jobs seriously, and participated eagerly. In Friendly Fallout 1953, I look at above-ground atomic testing from multiple points of view. The gung-ho types get almost as many pages as the victims. I took great care, in fact, not to overlay a twenty-first century political sensibility on characters of a generation ago. Those times were complicated, and any modern value judgments are up to the reader. We might, however, enlarge the discussion and talk about today’s nuclear power industry and all those who would store nuclear waste in Nevada. No different than their predecessors, today’s advocates believe in the efficacy of nuclear power. They trust its efficiency, its cost-effectiveness, its safety.

Shortly after my book was published, an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, with tragic consequences. Listening to the news, I saw even more parallels between my research and current events. At first, the government downplayed problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. So, too, did government officials downplay complications that followed 1953 detonations like Nancy, Simon, and Harry. Updates then and now admitted that potential problems were developing, but no one seemed to be divulging the whole story. Innocent bystanders were left to guess whether they were safe or not, if they should—or could—take precautions. On the one hand, they were told that radioactive plumes were nothing to worry about; on the other, the fallout seemed to be increasing in size and scope. Stay inside; evacuate now. Food was safe; food was contaminated. The details, predictions, and predications changed day by day.

We’re told that with proper precautions nuclear power is safe. Simultaneously we learn that nuclear plants are not always regularly inspected and that certain safeguards are just too costly to implement. 1953:2011. Not to worry, not at all. As Yogi Berra would say, déjà vu all over again.

In the Footsteps: Los Alamos (Part 1) June 1, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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We spent this past, very long weekend in New Mexico, doing research on our country’s nuclear history. In future posts, we’ll have more to say about the Manhattan Project and the three New Mexico museums we visited. For now, we’d like to share photos that demonstrate how we walked in the footsteps of those atomic scientists of the mid-1940s.

Manhattan Project scientists rode The Chief from Chicago and Los Angeles to Lamy, New Mexico

Train Station at Lamy, NM

109 E. Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, where Dorothy McKibbin welcomed each Manhattan Project scientist and processed them on the way to The Hill

La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, for respite in transit or some R&R away from The Hill

In the era of the Manhattan Project, this was the one-lane, wooden bridge across the Rio Grande in the mountains to get to and from Los Alamos.

The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Los Alamos Fashion

ID cards from the Manhattan Project

Fuller Lodge: dance hall, cafeteria, meeting rooms

Here's where the residents on The Hill would eat, dance, and be merry.

Richard D. Baker, the father of plutonium chemistry, came to Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project. He lived in this house 1959-1995.

Original chair from the P.X. during the Manhattan Project

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Lofty Anna, Gen. Leslie Groves in Los Alamos

To get away from The Hill for a respite, Manhattan Project scientists would take a short drive to Bandelier National Monument to hike in the Jemez Mountains.

On Sunday, Lofty Ambitions hiked five miles in the mountains and enjoyed the trek.

The Jemez Mountains were home to three Native American peoples, and some of their lodgings and ceremonials structures are accessible on a visit to Bandelier National Monument.

The Rio Grande in Bandelier National Monument. Bandelier shares its northern border with Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Once the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and World War II ended, some scientists left Los Alamos for their former United States homes or for academic posts. Others, like Richard Baker, stayed on. The Manhattan Project had achieved its goal, but the Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose address is on Bikini Atoll Road, remains an active research institution. LANL is now charged with maintaining our nuclear weapons stockpile, “ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.” The juxtaposition between this goal and the natural beauty of Bandelier National Monument, which shares a border with the lab, left us relatively speechless. We were reminded that awe is a deeply mixed emotion, something that conjures up reverence and respect and profound wonder, but also dread.


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