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Santa Fe Retreat (2) July 16, 2014

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Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Recently, we spent eleven days in Santa Fe on our very own self-made writing retreat. Writing was our goal, but we also recommend Santa Fe as a great getaway even if getting away from your routine is your only goal. You can read about lodging, food, and shopping in our first Santa Fe Retreat post. But wait, there’s more!


Santa Fe is a hub of galleries and has several good art and history museums. When we took a loop around the Plaza, many of the passers-by were chatting about their own art practices or exhibits they had seen. Santa Fe’s Society of Artists features 44 artists, and the city boasts several art schools.

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

When Anna discovered that the David Richard Gallery was hosting an opening for Judy Chicago’s newest work and that she and art historian Kathy Battista would be giving a gallery talk, she rushed over to the Railyard. During that talk, Anna learned that an exhibit of Judy Chicago’s work since The Dinner Party was on display at the New Mexico Museum of Art. A lovely docent named Miriom Kastner offered an overview of the exhibit, the progression of Chicago’s themes, and the various media Chicago has learned and used in her work over the last several decades.

Some of Judy Chicago’s work fits the subject matter we cover at Lofty Ambitions, and she had some great things to say about the creative process, so we’ll have a separate post focusing on her work and ideas.


BathtubRowDoug’s writing time in Santa Fe was devoted to his novel-in-progress, The Chief and the Gadget. The Chief is the passenger train between Chicago and Los Angeles, and The Gadget refers to the first atomic weapon, which was developed in Los Alamos. Of course, though we’d been there before, we had to spend a day on The Hill, at Los Alamos. Our two destinations were The Los Alamos Historical Museum and the Bradbury Science Museum, both of which are free.

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

We hung out at Fuller Lodge, where scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Neils Bohr, and Enrico Fermi socialized. We drove by Oppenheimer’s house on Bathtub Row, now a private residence. The property used for the Manhattan Project had been a boys’ boarding school when the government bought it in 1942, so Fuller Lodge is also where William S. Burroughs and Gore Vidal ate meals as teenagers.

The Bradbury Science Museum is run by the Los Alamos National Laboratory so it covers the history of the Manhattan Project and also the lab’s research projects since then. We watched a short version of the documentary The Town That Never Was and perused the exhibit about some of the individuals who had lived on The Hill as part of the Manhattan Project.

Please take a look at our Photo Essay based on our trip to Los Alamos three years ago and our whole “In the Footsteps” series!

Yerkes Observatory (Photos!) July 9, 2014

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George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

This past weekend, we visited Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, near where we each vacationed as children, long before we knew each other. This University of Chicago observatory was funded by Charles Tyson Yerkes, but the 40-inch refracting telescope and the building that houses it are the result of George Ellery Hale’s first grand vision to build the largest telescope in the world. If you haven’t read our posts about Hale that emerged from our visit to Palomar Observatory, you might want to browse that series after this post.

Richard and Dan were the docents on Saturday, and they ran extra tours, back to back for several hours because hundreds of people opted for a trip to the observatory after a round of golf or before an afternoon on the lake during this beautiful holiday weekend. In fact, we were impressed by the level of interest in the observatory and the range of ages of visitors, which reminded us that people think space is cool.

Yerkes Observatory was dedicated in October 1897. The telescope was designed especially to use the spectroheliograph, an instrument Hale had invented himself to study gases in the Sun. He used this instrument to detect carbon in an outer layer of the Sun even before the observatory was officially dedicated. Some of the glass plates from observations of days of yore are now displayed as window panes. Gerard Kuiper, who would go on in his career to discover atmosphere on Titan as well as moons circling outer planets, started his work as an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory.

Though Hale went on to best this once-largest telescope and though subsequent advances, including the Hubble Space Telescope, now reveal parts of the universe farther than this 40-incher can see, Yerkes Observatory remains an active research center. Researchers here are building the HAWC—High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera—for NASA’s SOFIA project, a Boeing 747 modified to be an airborne observatory. The observatory hosts several educational outreach programs too, in which students can visit the grounds for observations or can operate smaller telescopes by remote control over the internet to conduct observations.

Even if you’re not particularly interested in space, Yerkes Observatory is an architectural marvel, boasting gothic images of satyrs that might be Yerkes himself and three domes. Take a look here at Yerkes Observatory through Lofty Ambitions’ eyes.











Writing Process Blog Hop (Anna) April 23, 2014

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NOTE: Anna also has a recent piece at The Huffington Post about writers’ schedules. Read that by clicking HERE.

We’ve participated in a blog hop before, and we were happy to be tagged for a new one—twice. Because we’ve been tagged by two different writers, we’re doing two different posts as part of My Writing Process, one today and the other, next Wednesday. While we write together a lot, we also each have individual writing projects. So two posts allows us, for a change, to each to have our separate say at Lofty Ambitions.

Patricia Grace King tagged us. She is the author of two award-winning fiction chapbooks, The Death of Carrie Bradshaw and Rubia, both of which we saw in draft as part of our writing group. You can find Patricia’s post about her writing process on her Facebook page or at Paulette Livers‘s website HERE.

Emily Gray Tedrowe also tagged us. She’s the author of the novel Commuters and the forthcoming Blue Stars. We met Emily during our Ragdale residency, and we’re represented by the same literary agent, Alice Tasman. Emily’s blog hop post is at Tumblr HERE.

Anna’s up first, with her thoughts on her poetry writing process.

What am I working on?

DeskWorkSince we started this blog in 2010, we’ve spent a lot of time on weekly posts and on nonfiction related to Lofty Ambitions. That slowed down my work on poems for a while, but I never stopped writing poetry. After a couple years of not paying attention to how many or few poems I was drafting and revising, I ended up with a bunch, some of which drew from subject matter we’ve also covered on the blog, including astronomy, space exploration, cancer, and nuclear weapons development.

Over the past year, we’ve had two residencies at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. While there, I carved out substantial time for poetry and focused on writing and revising poems at least loosely related to science. Since returning home in January, I’ve been honing a new poetry book manuscript.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’ve been pegged as a science poet since Constituents of Matter was published. The science content in that book is not nearly as driving a force as the autobiographical content, but scientific terms and metaphors work as a frame—and maybe a deflection—that I found important. Readers find that layer distinctive and unifying, too.

Allison Hawthorne Deming wrote about the relationship of science to poetry in a way that meant a lot to me when I was thinking about these issues several years ago. My new book manuscript feels as if it does an even better job—more integral, more sweeping, more mature—than my first book in blending science, history, and personal experience.  I’ve had a lot of fun figuring it out all over again.

Why do I write what I do?

In fourth grade, I wrote a haiku about a hamburger that was read on the radio. Maybe that first external validation nudged me toward poetry, but I continue to write in different genres and am delighted that my essay in The Pinch was a Notable in The Best American Essays 2013. That external validation makes me want to write more creative nonfiction, though that essay also does some blending of science, history, and memoir that I see in my newer poems.

When we first started writing Lofty Ambitions, I wanted to double-dip, to write blog posts and poems about the same stuff. I wanted a short cut or two-for-the-price-of-one, even though I know connections take time. It took me a couple of years and a couple of workshops—SciWrite and Launch Pad—for me to figure out which language, concepts, and metaphors from astronomy and nuclear science could help me say what I wanted to say as a poet.

How does my writing process work?

DorlandDesk2That question makes it seem as if a person’s writing process is akin to a recipe that can be followed exactly and come out pretty much the same every time. Instead, my process feels as if I’ve been craving asparagus all day, but I go to the kitchen and there’s none there. Or more likely, it’s become soft and smells, probably gone bad by just a day, because I had a late class last night and sustained myself with peanut butter on crackers between tasks. Will I savor the asparagus more if I have to wait and plan for it, or will I be craving something else tomorrow?

I write poem by poem, knowing that I’m often really interested in a few subject areas for a given stretch of time. Then, once I have a somewhat coherent critical mass—and numerous other poems that don’t belong—I focus and play off what I’ve accumulated. Once I’ve generated more than enough pages for a book (or chapbook) manuscript, I revise and order the poems, pushing some out of the way. The edited collection Ordering the Storm is a good reference for ways to order a poetry manuscript. Several weeks ago, I exchanged manuscripts with Nancy Kuhl; we’re good readers for each other at the manuscript stage. Shearsman has since accepted Nancy’s manuscript for publication, and I’m ready to test the waters myself.

Who’s next in My Writing Process blog hop?

Doug will be up next Wednesday right here at Lofty Ambitions! Then, the following week…

Amanda Niehaus at www.easypeasyorganic.com

Amanda Niehaus is a science writer, blogger, and mother. In 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer when her daughter was eight months old. She began “researching all the ways to make my family’s life healthier and happier” and began her blog as a result. She also contributes to magazines and other blogs.

Leslie Pietrzyk at www.workinprogressinprogress.com

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels (Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day) and has published short stories in many journals, including Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, and The Sun. She teaches fiction in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University and is on the core faculty at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program. You can read recent short fiction by her at http://rkvryquarterly.com/i-am-the-widow/.

Stephanie Vanderslice at wordamour.wordpress.com

Stephanie Vanderslice, M.F.A., Ph.D., most recently published Rethinking Creative Writing. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction and directs the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas. She also writes “The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life” column at The Huffington Post.  Stephanie is represented by Anne Bohner at Pen and Ink Literary.

The Lunar Eclipse, Apollo 11, & Apollo 16 April 16, 2014

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On Monday evening, we stayed up a little late to catch the lunar eclipse. We popped outside, watched for a few minutes as it began. We went outside again twenty or thirty minutes later to watch it again. And then again, and so on.

Moon from Earth

Anna looked up the word umbra, which comes from a Latin word that means shadow or to be in the shade. Initially, to take umbrage was merely to go sit under a tree, in the shade and out of the sunshine, just as the Moon sits in the shade of the Earth during an eclipse. As we watched the shadow slip well past the midpoint of the Moon, Doug said, “No wonder people were afraid when they saw an eclipse.”

We have one Moon in our heads, the one we look up at. But we thought about the men who walked on the Moon’s surface, those who, as astronaut Michael Collins said in In the Shadow of the MoonI

have two moons in my head. […E] every once in a while, I do think of a second moon, you know, the one that I recall from up close. And yeah, it is kind of hard to believe that I was actually up there.

We thought of the men who walked on the Moon and those who circled it alone, especially of Collins, who remained in the Apollo 11 capsule while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked across the orb’s surface and who has spoken and written about his adventures incredibly eloquently. Of his experience, Collins wrote:

Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two. I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life.

Collins’s wife, Pat, died last Wednesday in Florida. They had married almost 57 years ago; their anniversary is April 28, Anna’s mother’s birthday. He is certainly alone in a new and unwelcome way, and we extend our sympathy to him and his children.

Today, we’re still thinking about the Moon, but we’re celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of the Apollo 16 mission that sent John Young and Charlie Duke to walk upon the lunar surface. Ken Mattingly was the third member of that crew, assigned to Apollo 16 only after being booted from the Apollo 13 crew when he was exposed to measles by one of Duke’s children.


Anna, Charlie, Doug in 2012

Young had flown on Gemini 3 and Gemini 10 and also on Apollo 10. He would also go on to fly the first space shuttle mission and also STS-9. Mattingly would also go on to fly two space shuttle missions, STS-4 and STS-51-C. For Duke, Apollo 16 was his only spaceflight, and he remains grateful for the sole experience beyond Earth’s atmosphere. This disparate experience probably explains why Duke recounts that his heart was beating twice as fast as Young’s, though, from what we know about Young, no calmer, more collected astronaut ever flew.

In the film In the Shadow of the Moon, Duke recounts the following about his adventure through space:

I was able to look out the window to see this incredible sight of the whole circle of the Earth. Oceans were crystal blue, the land was brown, and the clouds and the snow were pure white. And that jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space.

When Duke stepped out of the Lunar Module (LM) and onto the Moon, he was 36 years old, the youngest man to walk on another celestial body. He and Young gathered more than 200 pounds of lunar dust and rocks during their more than 20 hours outside the LM. The men returned to the capsule on April 24 and to Earth three days later.

We’ve talked with Charlie Duke twice. As we’ve said before, he’s smart and charming. We’ll end our words at this point and offer you Duke’s own words about his life, career, and hopes for our collective future.

Space Probes March 5, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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While the word probe is used conversationally to mean to examine physically or refers to an instrument designed for that sort of physical examination, the word probe comes from a Latin word meaning to test or the result of such a test, proof. Today, we celebrate both senses of this word and the spacecraft that embody both meanings, that carry out our examination and testing of the universe that surrounds us.

Landsat 3 in Clean Room (NASA/JPL)

Landsat 3 in Clean Room (NASA/JPL)

On this date in 1978, NASA launched a satellite called Landsat 3, part of the ongoing Landsat program. Rather than studying the far reaches of space, Landsat is designed to study Earth, to give us a comprehensive view of our own planet. Technically, because Landsat orbits Earth, maybe it’s not a space probe, but the dates align, and the mission echoes the term’s underlying meaning. And NASA doesn’t make that distinction by location in the universe; it calls Sputnik 1 the first space probe and defines a space probe as an unmanned spacecraft designed for scientific research.

The Landsat 3 spacecraft gave a thorrough study of Earth—a variety of images covering the planet’s entire surface—in 18 days. It was designed to orbit and send back data for about a year; more than five years after launch, Landsat 3 was finally decommissioned.

Landsat 8 launched just over a year ago, and we wrote about the amazing program then. Landsat satellites continue to provide data about the Earth’s surface to scientists and many others. The information from Landsat helps aircraft avoid bird strikes and helps wine growers and farmers manage their crops for maximum yield and deliciousness. Landsat 7 allowed scientists to count and track penguins in the Antarctic. The images and data from Landsat are available to anyone who wants to use it.

The Golden Record (NASA)

The Golden Record (NASA)

On this date in 1979, Voyager 1 made its closest pass of Jupiter, sending back information about the planet’s climate, surface, and moons. The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft were launched in 1977 and continue to travel farther and farther from Earth. In fact, Voyager 1 left our Solar System and entered interstellar space in 2012, with Voyager 2 set to follow its twin in a few years.

Not only is Voyager 1 giving us information from the farther than any manmade object has ever travelled, but it is also carrying information from Earth. We wrote about this Golden Record in an article called “Voices Carry” for The Huffington Post, as part of their TED Weekends series. There, we explained:

In 1977, NASA, with a committee headed by astrophysicist Carl Sagan, designed two phonograph records, then put each aboard a Voyager spacecraft. The record contains greetings in 56 languages, natural sounds like thunder and crickets chirping, and music from around the world, all of which are in audio. The disc also includes, in analog form, 115 images, from planets to fetuses.

Perhaps the most interesting information to be included in our official, communal voice is an hour-long recording of the brainwaves and heartbeats of Ann Druyan. Hooked up to machines, she was given a list of things to ponder, starting with the history of the Earth. This woman went on to marry Sagan, with whom she would work on the television series Cosmos. When we saw Druyan at PlanetFest in 2012, she described her contribution to the Golden Record as the heartbeat of a young woman in love.

On this date in 1982, the Soviet spacecraft Venera 14 landed on Venus. The identical Venera 13 and Venera 14 spacecraft—each flying a combination mission that included flyby-and-landers—launched five days apart and landed within six-hundred miles of each other. The temperature was well about 800ºF. After travelling for three months to get to the planet between Earth and Mercury, each probe was designed to take photographs and perform soil tests for 32 minutes; Venera 14 held up for almost an hour, and its twin lasted more than two hours. Venera 13 sent back to Earth the first color images of Venus.

Odyssey (NASA/JPL)

Odyssey (NASA/JPL)

Landsat 8 continues to orbit Earth, and the two Voyagers continue to travel ever farther from Earth. Less than a month ago, NASA began an adjustment of the orbit of Odyssey around Mars, in hopes of getting a better look at that planet’s morning fog by the end of next year. In January, Rosetta, the European Space Agency’s comet-chasing spacecraft, started sending back signals to Earth, after a planned 31-month nap. A host of space probes are out there doing what space probes do. Today, we take a few minutes to ponder what that might mean about who we are and how we know our universe.

Happy Birthday Copernicus & Kerwin! And Belated to Galileo! February 19, 2014

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Copernicus (Getty)

Copernicus (Getty)

On this date in 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland. Just before his death more than seventy years later, his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (also called On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies) changed the trajectory of science. Copernicus asserted that Earth is not the center of our Solar System and, instead, that the planets orbit around the relatively stationary Sun.

As he began to think about how the Solar System worked, Copernicus also translated Greek poems into Latin and worked for his uncle, which gave him opportunities for travel and interactions with a variety of people. His initial version of his revolutionary model was a bit sketchy in terms of the mathematics and geometry, but he stuck with it and eventually made dozens of astronomical observations that helped him refine and support his ideas. One of his important discoveries based on these observations was that Earth moved in an eccentric, or elliptical, orbit, rather than in a perfect circle with the Sun in the dead center.

Copernicus's Heliocentric Model

Copernicus’s Heliocentric Model

The heliocentric—helio means Sun—model was further delineated by Johannes Kepler, who established the laws of planetary motion based on elliptical orbits around the Sun, and by Galileo Galilei, who made confirming observations with his telescope. (This past Saturday marked Galileo’s 450th birthday!) Almost two-hundred years after Copernicus presented the theory we now take for granted, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Catholic Church for his heretical and correct view of Earth and the Sun. In 1992, more than five-hundred years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model, Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged Galileo’s accomplishments and the Church’s errors and also admitted that the planets circle a “stationary” Sun and, thereby, agreed with Copernicus. The official apology to Galileo came in 2000.

Sixty years before the pope forgave Galileo and affirmed Copernicus’s heliocentric model, Joseph P. Kerwin was born on February 19, 1932, in Oak Park, Illinois. Oak Park is one of the oldest suburbs of Chicago, a place where we lived for a few years and a place where Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright lived long before we were there.

Joseph Kerwin (NASA)

Joseph Kerwin (NASA)

Eventually, Kerwin earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, another of Chicago’s oldest suburbs and where Anna was born. The summer befor Anna’s birth, in the midst of the Gemini space program and as Apollo was ramping up to put men on the Moon, Kerwin became an astronaut. In fact, he served as a CAPCOM—capsule communicator—during the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission in 1970 and, later, was part of the broadcasting team for the first launch of the space shuttle.

Kerwin flew to space himself in 1973 as the science pilot on the Skylab 2 crew, which also included Charles Conrad, Jr., and Paul J. Weitz. The first Skylab mission was unmanned, so Kerwin’s mission was the first manned trip to Skylab and established, at the time, the new duration record for human spaceflight: 28 days. Their mission was crucial to the survival of Skylab, which had been damaged during launch. The repairs included deploying a sort of umbrella to shade the spacecraft from the Sun so that it didn’t overheat. The spacewalks were grueling, and repairs were not always accomplished on the first attempt. Their work gave Skylab a good six-year run, until its orbit decayed and it blazed through Earth’s atmosphere in a spectacle that attracted worldwide attention.

Today’s two birthdays—those of Copernicus and Kerwin—give us more than ample reason to ponder how we see our place and trajectory in the universe. We leave you with some words from the preface of his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies:

For I am not so enamoured of my own opinions that I disregard what others may think of them. […T]he scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken. […] Astronomy is written for astronomers. To them my work too will seem, unless I am mistaken, to make some contribution.

Apollo 8: The 45th Anniversary December 25, 2013

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EarthriseForty-five years ago, a spacecraft with human beings in it was circling the Moon for the first time. In December 1968, for the first time, people on Earth saw a view their own planet in its entirety from space.

Forty-five years before that, sound barrier-breaking test pilot Chuck Yeager, Mercury-Gemini-Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra, and first American in space Alan Shepard were born. Just ten years before that–one hundred years ago–the United States had finished the first transcontinental roadway for automobiles that October, and Henry Ford was pioneering assembly-line production of cars. Stainless steel had been invented only that summer by Harry Brearly. That same year, Igor Sikorsky had built the first four-engine airplane, and Aldophe Pegoud had become the first person to bail out of an airplane safely. Powered, manned flight was still new but changing rapidly.

Apollo8PatchBy 1968, cross-country road trips were common, and the United States had plans to land men on the Moon before the end of the decade. 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered on April 2, and Planet of the Apes was released the next day. France hosted the Winter Olympics in February and exploded its first hydrogen bomb in August. The turbulent year was filled with news from Vietnam and protests on the homefront. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in June. Apollo 8 became a crucial step in NASA’s plans for space exploration (and Cold War superiority) and the nation’s sense of hope.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968. Its crew included Frank Borman, the only astronaut who served on the accident investigation board after the Apollo 1 fire; Jim Lovell, who would go on to fly on the near-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission; and Bill Anders on his only spaceflight. They weren’t actually supposed to fly this mission until the lunar module was ready, and the lunar module wasn’t ready. But NASA boldly decided to test the flight without the lunar module aboard so as not to delay the whole Apollo program.

At first, Lovell had trouble sighting the stars for navigation. Borman had trouble sleeping, then became quite ill. The quick-thinking crew devised a round-about way to let Mission Control know about the astronaut’s intestinal distress. They used a back-channel—through a data storage system—instead of the usual communication channel, thereby avoiding letting the entire world in on the secret. In hindsight, it’s clear that Borman was probably suffering from space sickness, though at the time, it was thought to be the 24-hour flu and cleared up.

Apollo8CrewFifty-five hours into the mission, the crew broadcast images of Earth from space. Of those images, Anders remarked, “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” Shortly after their broadcast, these three men became the first people to experience the gravitational pull of another celestial body, the Moon.

Lovell described the Moon in detail, noting that its surface looked “like plaster of Paris or sort of a grayish beach sand.” Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to circle around the Moon, and the crew, therefore, were the first people to see the backside, the unlit side, of the Moon. As the spacecraft orbited, Anders shot the amazing “Earthrise” photograph.

By the ninth orbit, it was Christmas Eve on Earth. After Borman described the Moon as “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing,” each of the three astronauts read an excerpt from Genesis in the Bible. Shortly after their moving broadcast and some unexpected manual alignment with the stars, they headed back toward their home planet.

Fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, who’d been grounded with a heart rhythm problem and who was in charge of astronaut selection, had left a solider-style turkey dinner in the food locker, which the crew ate happily. The brandy from Slayton supposedly remains unopened.

On December 27, the Apollo 8 mission ended. Re-entry and splashdown went smoothly, though Borman was again ill as the command module bobbed in the water. That module is now on display the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where we’ve seen it up close and where Apollo 8’s Jim Lovell reenacted his Christmas Eve reading from Genesis this Monday.

After returning to Earth, the Apollo 8 crew was lauded, with a Super Bowl appearance for the Pledge of Allegiance and a postage stamp featuring the Earthrise photograph. The crew’s television broadcasts garnered an Emmy Award. Perhaps no accolade sums up the mission’s success better, however, than one particular telegram to the crew: “Congratulations to the crew of Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 December 18, 2013

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BestAmBookWe have perused science writing handbooks and anthologies before, and we’re at it again for the recently published anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. It’s the time of year for “best of” lists, and this book is chockfull of great articles on a wide array of subject matter from the past year.

This year’s iteration is edited by Siddhartha Mukerjee, who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies and is also a cancer physician and researcher. (Take a look at his appearance on The Colbert Report.) His introduction is itself a bonus contribution to the collection of essays.

Gregor_MendelIn “Introduction: On Tenderness,” Mukherjee writes of his visit to the Augustinian monastery in Brno, Czech Republic, where Gregor Mendel performed “the laborious cross-pollination of seedlings, the meticulous tabulation of the colors of cotyledons and the markings of wrinkles on seeds” and, as a result, had “revolutionized biology.” Mukherjee extrapolates from this “tending” of the garden that Mendel did to the “tenderness” that he sees as the quintessential quality of the scientist and used as his selection criteria for this anthology. In this way, The Best American Science and Nature Writing represents the art of science and science writing as art.

While we had not yet made our way through every essay in the collection, several of the pieces we’ve read have us thinking about subjects and issues that are near and dear to the Lofty duo.

Because Anna’s mother died a year ago from pancreatic cancer, Anna turned first to “The Patient Scientist” by Katherine Harmon. This essay tells the story of Ralph M. Steinman, who died of pancreatic cancer a few days before he was announced as a Nobel Prize recipient for his discovery of dendritic cells and their ability to “snag interlopers with their arms, ingest them, and carry them back to other types of immune cells.” Readers may recall that this situation caused quite a tizzy for the folks in Stockholm because a Nobel Prizes are awarded to people who are still living.

The prize rules state that it cannot be given posthumously, but if a laureate dies between the October announcement and the award ceremony in December, he or she can remain on the list. This odd timing [that Steinman had died before the announcement, though the committee didn’t know it] threw the committee into a closely followed deliberation before it announced, late in the day, that he would remain a prize recipient.

The essay, however, focuses on Steinman’s cancer treatment, including his own expertise in the immune system, which allowed him to be an especially active participant in treatment decisions, have unprecedented access to individualized experimental treatment, and even spearhead IRB approval for his own participation in medical trials. He had the Whipple surgery and chemotherapy that is standard treatment, but Steinman was able to participate in several research trials that seem to have extended his life for several years and also provided research teams with additional data that may, in the long run, be difficult to sort out. In one treatment, an individualized vaccine was developed from the pancreatic tissue removed during surgery, and, in another treatment, a melanoma vaccine was repurposed for pancreatic cancer.

The essay poses this process of Steinman’s treatment as a community helping one of its own in a spirit of respect and generosity and as an individual further devoting himself to the scientific research he has practiced all of his adult life. Reading the essay, we could not help but think about who has access to what kind of treatment as well.

hs-2013-51-a-webThe Lofty duo are longtime fans of Alan Lightman, who is a novelist and physicist as well as an essayist, so we turned to “Our Place in the Universe.” Lightman frames this essay with his “most vivid encounter with the vastness of nature” on a sailing excursion with his wife on the Aegean Sea. The real subject of this piece, however, is the great distance of space and how we have come to measure it.

From the first relatively accurate measurement of Earth by the geographer Eratosthenes in the third century B.C to Newton’s estimates of the distance to Earth’s nearest stars to Henrietta Leavitt’s measurements that were used to pin down the size of the Milky Way, we must ponder what distance and numbers mean and how our ability to measure greater distances accurately changes our place in the universe. In the last few years, as a result of data from the Kepler spacecraft, scientists have been able to estimate the percentage of living matter—or the likelihood of it—in the universe.

If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if life emerges by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life. Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.

One of the great things about this annual anthology is that, while many pieces are from the usual big magazines like Scientific American, The New Yorker, and Orion, anyone can submit published work for consideration. Series Editor Tim Folger says in his introduction:

I hope too that readers, writers, and editors will nominate their favorite articles for next year’s anthology at http://timfolger.net/forums. The criteria for submissions and deadlines, and the address to which entries should be sent, can be found in the ‘news and announcements’ forum on my website. Once again this year I’m offering an incentive to enlist readers to scour the nation in search of good science and nature writing; send me an article that I haven’t found, and if the article makes it into the anthology, I’ll mail you a free copy of next year’s edition.

Palomar Observatory September 4, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Palomar1Serendipity: A few weeks ago, we were at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and Doug looked at Google Maps to get a sense of exactly where we were in this world. While dragging the map around on the screen of the iPad, he noticed that Dorland was located on the side of Palomar Mountain. Palomar, we soon learned, means pigeon house, though we noticed no pigeons among the rabbits, lizards, deer, and tarantulas. What Doug already knew was that Palomar means observatory.

As Anna’s aunt is fond of saying, what are the odds? How did two space nerd writers happen to end up at a writing residency on the same mountain as an observatory only a few weeks after attending Launch Pad, an astronomy workshop for writers?

Palomar3On the map, Palomar Observatory looked to be very close to our mountainside cabin. We are still not used to mountains and did not fully understand that the proximity was as the pigeon flies. So we decided to reallocate some of our residency time to visit one of the world’s greatest astronomical observatories. It turned out that the very next Saturday and Sunday coincided with the very last days of public access before some maintenance. When serendipity knocks, we answer. Timing matters.

We agreed on Sunday for our field trip, since that would space our breaks three days apart. When we pinned down driving directions, we understood the actual distance by road around the mountain. Public tours were at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. so we set our alarm, the only time we did that during our two-week residency.

Doug drove, and Anna navigated, a division of labor upon which we’d relied for going new places since our days of living in Maryland and negotiating the crazy DC spoke system of streets. When we arrived at in the Palomar Observatory parking lot, Doug wasn’t the only woozy traveler emerging from a car. We’d inadvertently taken the less curvy, less twisty road up the mountain, but it was plenty winding for our sensibility.

Palomar2We bought our tickets. The ticket office, which is also a gift shop, has posted instructions on what to do if you’re bitten by a rattlesnake. We headed to the dome. On the sides of the path, rattlesnake warning signs are posted roughly every 25 yards. Happily, we saw no slithering creatures.

The tour began outside the dome. Our guide directed our attention to an enormous concrete disc near the employee parking lot. Our docents assured us that, despite common lore, the 21-ton disc was not a mooring spot for alien spacecraft. The circular concrete slab had stood in for the telescope’s primary mirror—replicating its shape, size, and weight—to test the telescope during its construction, before the actual mirror had been completed.

Palomar4Before entering the dome, our docent told us about Russell Porter, a Renaissance man who had sailed with arctic explorers, first as an artist and then as an astronomical observer. This architect and engineer designed the Palomar Observatory building as well as the Hale Telescope and Schmidt camera telescope that are housed inside. Porter loathed the architectural design of the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Pasadena and chose, instead, a gleaming white, art deco structure.

The dome went up in 1935-1936. It rises 135 feet into the air, and its diameter spans 137 feet. The rotating top of the dome weighs 1000 tons. Each of two shutters, which pull back so that the telescope can view the night sky, weighs 125 tons. Big. Beautiful.

Then, we went inside.

Continue reading about the rest of our field trip to Palomar Observatory HERE.

Space Telescopes: Herschel → Hubble → Webb June 26, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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A Lotta-Lotta Stars: Globular Cluster M22 (Hubble/NASA)

Just over a week ago, the Herschel Space Observatory was turned off for good. Built and operated by the European Space Agency, Herschel launched on May 14, 2009, and hung out at a Lagrangian Point—at L2 or 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the opposite direction of the Sun. It did its job—and a really good job at that—for almost four years.

Herschel sent thousands of images back to Earth, allowed scientists to better understand star formation, and sought evidence of water vapor, oxygen, and deuterium in our Solar System and beyond. In fact, scientists couldn’t keep up with the data coming back from Herschel, so even though the telescope is now silent, the analysis of what Herschel saw will continue for years to come.

Within a couple of years, the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990 and orbits Earth at about 560 kilometers above us, will face a similar fate. The possibility of maintenance and servicing missions for Hubble ended when the space shuttle stopped flying two years ago.

Sombrero Galaxy (Hubble/NASA)

Over the last few weeks—in part because we’ll be attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in July—we’ve been catching up with Hubble by watching Experiencing Hubble: Understanding the Greatest Images of the Universe. This series of lectures about astronomy is organized around a Top 10 list of Hubble images from David M. Meyer, a professor at Northwestern University. The lectures are loosely hung on the spectacular composite photographs, so that, for instance, a Hubble view of the Sombrero Galaxy offers entre into a wider discussion of galaxy shapes and distances generally and, by route of explanation of galaxy distances, to the work of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. In other words, each lecture is triggered by a particular Hubble image and unfolds in a way that invites the non-scientist to learn about astronomy related to what that image displays.

One of Hubble’s major achievements was to allow scientists to narrow their estimate of the universe’s rate of expansion and thereby better estimate the age of the universe. As scientists sorted through the information that Hubble provided, they surmised that the expansion may well be accelerating and that dark energy—a phenomenon scientists surmise indirectly—might be the cause of this speeding up of the universe’s expansion.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hitting Jupiter (Hubble/NASA)

In addition, Hubble sends back remarkable images that continue to allow astronomers to better understand how stars are formed and die. Images and data also suggest that black holes really are likely at the centers of many galaxies. Closer to home, Hubble allowed scientists to watch Comet Shoemaker-Leavitt 9 collide with Jupiter in almost real time. And though Pluto was demoted from planet status, Hubble saw that it has a fifth moon.

What’s on the horizon, so to speak, in the lineage of space telescopes? If all goes well—it was canceled, then un-canceled a couple of years ago—the James Webb Space Telescope is set to head toward L2 in 2018. Like the International Space Station, this set of instruments is a collaborative project among many countries.

Eagle Nebula (M16): Pillars of Creation in Star-Forming Region (Hubble/NASA)

The plan is for Webb to use infrared observation to see through the so-called dust in space and show us objects that have been especially difficult to see, even with Herschel and Hubble, because they are very-very far away, dim, or cold. The hope is that, as a result, we will better understand even earlier history of the universe and the formation of stars, planets, and perhaps even life.


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