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

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.

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