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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

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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

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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.

Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013

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Also see Part 1 of “Science Writing at AWP 2013.”

We like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions, but attending an AWP panel that is comprised of Pireeni Sundaralingam, Alan Lightman, C. Dale Young, and Sandra Alcosser tends to make one pause, get a little introspective, and ask, “Could I be working just a tad bit harder?”

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

Three of the four panelists are writers who happen to moonlight as accomplished scientists (Sundaralingam and Lightman) and a physician (Young). The fourth panelist (Alcosser) is a poet who has collaborated deeply with scientists, particularly in the area of the environment. When we originally saw the panel “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction” in the program, we were hoping for a craft panel. Our initial disappointment at finding out that the event was a reading was short-lived, disappearing completely once the artists began sharing their work.

Light BulbsThe first reading was from poet Sandra Alcosser. Alcosser is the author of seven books including Except by Nature, Sleeping Inside the Glacier (for which she collaborated with the artist Michele Burgess), and A Fish to Feed All Hunger and is co-director of the MFA program at San Diego State University. She was also Montana’s first poet laureate and has called Big Sky Country her home for more than thirty years. Alcosser began her reading by defining a word that was new to the Lofty Duo: Zugunruhe. Alcosser told us that scientists had appropriated the word from German—its literal meaning is “move” + “restlessness”—in their attempts to explain the human desire for travel. And travel she did. Drawn from her newest book, Alcosser read a sequence of poems that ranged over human experience: Serbian myth in The Winged Hussars, a widowed cellist’s musical elegy for his dead wife in The Blue Vein, and a scientist’s work on a blood ranch—raising lambs whose blood would be used to feed a zoo’s vampire bats—in Lamb of God. Alcosser also mentioned her recent tenure as a poet-in-residence at the Brookfield Zoo. This work was a part of a larger project, The Language of Conservation, sponsored by Poets House. A pdf of the book that resulted can be found here.

The panel was heavy on poets and poetry. This happy occurrence dovetailed neatly with Robert Fredericks’ comment in the previous science writing panel; he said something to the effect that scientists are the second heaviest user of metaphors after poets.

The second panelist to read was poet C. Dale Young. Young balances his writing career with a career as a physician. As a part of his writing life, Young is the poetry editor for New England Review and teaches at Warren Wilson College. Interestingly, Young’s MFA preceded his MD, which is contrary to the way we often think of artists whom are also scientists. Each of the poems in Young’s reading–“Influence,” “Sigma,” “The Ether Dome,” and “Sepsis”–were directly concerned with medicine and science. Young preceded his reading of “Sigma” with a touch of irony by relating how he loathed mathematics, particularly statistics, as an undergrad. Naturally, in his career as a physician, he wound up in the one field in medicine that makes use of math on a daily basis, radiation oncology.

This particular comment resonated deeply with Doug. Once, as an undergrad, Doug swore that the last thing he would do with his life was to write software. This, of course, is a perversely un-prescient act by someone who would go on to spend much of his career in IT and writing software. Observing events like this in his life and the lives of others has led us to occasionally posit to friends that, perhaps, irony is the most powerful force in the universe. This semester Doug is teaching programming to a classroom largely comprised of Creative Writing majors. Oh, the circular irony of it all.

Anatomical Dissection HeadThe Lofty duo have been fans of the next panelist since we encountered Einstein’s Dreams. Alan Lightman was the first person at MIT to hold appointments in both the humanities and the sciences. Lightman’s books Einstein’s Dreams and Good Benito have been praised for their seamless blend of spare, lyrical prose and physics, specifically general relativity. For the panel, he read from his novel Reunion. Lightman’s reading elicited enormous laughter as he shared the second chapter from the novel. The chapter relates the curious fictional story of German astronomer/lothario Carl Schmeken. Schmeken is fond of naming the asteroids that he discovers for his lovers: Asteroid Catrina 1894, Asteroid Eva 1894, Asteroid Ilsa 1895, and Asteroid Winifried 1895. The chapter takes a humorous turn when Schmeken meets the woman he surely hopes will result in the discovery and naming of Asteroid Lena 1898. Instead, after being rebuffed by the young Lena Hammans, Schmeken falls apart, and 1898 is the end of the astronomer’s career. As longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know, we never pass up a chance to mention serendipity. Here’s a sentence that describes Lena’s realization after observing Schmeken’s reaction to being rebuffed by her: “She was shocked that a man of science could act in such a way, until she understood sometime later that sex is the most powerful force in the universe.” While we appreciate Lightman’s use of his character to proffer an alternative theory, until we see more evidence, we’re sticking with irony and serendipity as the most powerful forces in the universe.

The panel’s final reading came from the moderator, Pireeni Sundaralingam. Sundaralingam was the third poet on the panel, and she is also trained as a cognitive scientist. In fact, she has managed to make the intersection of art and science the focus of her scientific work. Her dissertation was on metaphor and the brain, and she is currently writing a book about poetry, the brain, and perception. Sundaralingam’s selection of poems intimately stitched together art and science. In particular, her poem “Vermont, 1885” rendered the story of W. A. Bentley, the first person to photograph a snowflake, into compelling verse.

We founded Lofty Ambitions together, a poet and a computer scientist, as a way for the two of us to combine some of our lifelong interests by writing about aviation and science. And we like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions. We emerged from the two science writing panels that we attended at this year’s AWP invigorated and focused in a way that we know will allow us to continuing doing this thing that we call Lofty Ambitions.

Science Writing at AWP 2013 March 20, 2013

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We’ve written about our fondness for attending science-oriented panels at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference on a number of occasions (see HERE and HERE and the links in these posts). This year—earlier this month—we were able to attend two science-writing panels at AWP, “Science Writing for All” and “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction.”

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

The moderator for “Science Writing for All,” science journalist Robert Frederick, opened the panel with a nerdy science—GPS—quip: “According to something in space, it’s 1:30p.m.” That set the tone for the panel and for trying to live up to the panel’s title, namely that science and science writing is everywhere and for everyone.

A constant reference point for the panel was the forthcoming book Science Writer’s Handbook, edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Each panel member was a contributor to this text, and each made at least one reference to it. Though we haven’t seen a copy of it yet, Doug will be ordering one for the university’s library. The panelists made it seem like a lively collection chock-full of practical, pragmatic advice for the aspiring science writer.

Frederick used the book as a launching point for his presentation. “Is this science writing?” Frederick asked while waving a hand towards a slide displaying an image of the gang from The Big Bang Theory.  We’re huge fans of TBBT—though we watch it on DVD, several episodes in an evening, as opposed to in real time, so, please, no Season Six spoilers (we’re looking at you Brigid Leahy)—and when it became apparent that Frederick wasn’t just posing a rhetorical question for the panel to contemplate, Doug happily shouted, “Absolutely.” Other voices in the crowded conference room piped up in agreement. One image at a time, Frederick’s slides added NCIS, Sherlock, and Grey’s Anatomy to the conversation. Each time, he re-invoked his question and received affirmation from the rest of us. The audience hesitated only at the last image rendered, a Downton Abbey still. Frederick indicated that Downton Abbey, a favorite among writerly and literary types we know, probably wasn’t science writing, but, as a good scientist, he considered the series an unfinished experiment and was going to continue to collect data until he was certain one way or the other.

Frederick continued his effort to paint a portrait of the everywhereness of science and science writing by asserting that humans are always experimenting. While we are not all scientists, we are all experimenters. Even as children we try things out. Frederick experimented with playing in the dirt and with swimming, noting that the former was done in isolation but the latter encouraged others’ participation. He extended the experiment by combining dirt and water, leading to a clear response from his mother; she shrieked.

This panel covered a lot of ground, touching upon the role of craft for any science writer and the importance of metaphor and how scientists and science writers use language. Green houses, for instance, are good things, whereas greenhouse gas is insidious. Or the term genetic blueprint implies a designer; it works as a metaphor. While science writing can be about big ideas, the details—the words chosen—matter a great deal.

The other three panelists were Jill U. Adams, Jenny Cutraro, and Douglas Starr, which allowed the session to cover even more ground.

Entrance to the California Science Center

Entrance to the California Science Center

Adams is a scientist who runs a science fair for kids and who has written a lot of articles. One of her pieces in the Los Angeles Times examined the controversy of more than a year ago about whether schools could count pizza as a vegetable in the lunches they provide students. Who knew that tomato paste got special treatment that other purees don’t get? Who knew that tomato paste may actually earn its special treatment with more of vitamins A and C than green beans and more calcium and iron than applesauce? The point, for Adams, is that, in science writing, science is about people and policy.

Most of Cutraro’s recent work is science writing for kids and teachers, but she also brought up her previous job as a science writer at Purdue University, where she summarized—and thereby translated—science that was being done there. She pointed out how many places science writing happens, from hospitals to museums to television shows like NOVA to publications like National Geographic to The Learning Network website.

Cutraro had some specific pointers for those of us interested in writing for a young audience: use direct leads, define terms early on, limit each sentence to one scientific concept, use analogies that make sense to the audience, and don’t assume prior knowledge. These suggestions, of course, can be adapted for an adult, lay readership as well.

After hearing about all these places to publish science writing and tips for getting one’s work published, Starr gave sobering news: it’s difficult to make a living as a science writer. His suggestion—and his books Blood and The Killer of Little Shepherds bear this out—is to find areas where science overlaps with some other aspect of the world, such as science and the legal system or, as with Adams’ article, science and the school system. He also pointed out that, while the internet has undercut the importance of newspapers, the shift has opened a channel through which institutions directly connect with their constituencies or readers.

Lofty Editing

Lofty Editing

So, do you need a graduate program to teach you how to be a science writer? Starr says no but talked about what Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism teaches: how to think, how to dig into a story, how to interview, and how to structure a story. He recommend reading John McPhee’s recent article in The New Yorker called “Structure.” He also recommend Jeanne Fahnestock’s book Rhetorical Figures in Science.

We’ll end this week’s post with that little snippet of serendipity, for Fahnestock was one of the faculty who trained and supervised graduate teaching assistants in English at the University of Maryland when Anna earned her MFA there. But return next week to read more about science writing at AWP.

Lofty Ambitions at The Huffington Post February 25, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Roughly ten days ago, The Huffington Post asked us to write an article for their next TED Weekends feature. They chose a popular Ted Talk–Honor Harger’s “A History of the Universe in Sound”–and asked some of their bloggers to write responses and riffs that would be posted over several days. We are pleased that HuffPost noticed our work and happy to contribute to a section that gets front-page coverage.

The Golden Record (NASA)

The Golden Record (NASA)

Our post is called Voices Carry,” after the ‘Til Tuesday song (see video below). Among the voices to which that title refers is the Golden Record, now carried toward the edge of our universe by two Voyager spacecraft. We also discuss poet Robert Frost, President John F. Kennedy, and sferics. Read (and then “like” or maybe share) the whole post by clicking HERE.

Today, Honor Harger responded to the group os posts. You can find the amazing collection of TED Weekends HERE and find Harger’s responses to this particular TED Weekend HERE.

This year’s TED Conference begins on Tuesday–’til Tuesday, then. It runs through Friday in Long Beach, California, but the $7500 tickets are sold out. The conference moves to Vancouver next year.

“Voices Carry” is not our first article at The Huffington Post. Anna’s recently published post there is “5 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Chemo.” We’ve also published the following articles together there:

“Want to Be an Author? 5 Insider Tips”

“Neil Armstrong and the Space Generation”

“5 Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do” & “5 More Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do”

“Space Shuttle: On the Anniversary of the Last-Ever Mission” (PHOTOS)

“SpaceX: Giving Berth, Hatching, Making a Splash”

“Endeavour Slideshow: On the First Anniversary of Its Last Flight” (PHOTOS)

“SpaceX: Future or Failure?”

On This Date January 9, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
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Today is the birthday—first flight day—of two aircraft that share some background but also differ significantly. A good portion of the world was at war in the 1940s, and that gave rise to these two aircraft in different places. The AVRO Lancaster first took to the war-torn skies of England seventy-two years ago, in 1941, when test pilot Bill Thorn coaxed prototype BT308 to off of the tarmac and into the air at Manchester’s Ringway Airport. Two years later, in 1943, the prototype L-049 Constellation made its first flight, a short hop really, from Burbank, CA, to Muroc Air Force Base (later to become Edwards Air Force Base and also current home to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center).

Constellation, Galesburg, IL (photo by White Aero Restorations)

Large, four-engined, and born during World War II are among the very limited set of characteristics that the Lancaster and the Constellation had in common. That said, both aircraft followed architect’s Louis Sullivan’s “form ever follows function” dictum to a tee and turned out very differently.

The Lancaster was designed as a bomber. Utilitarian, slab sided, and broad winged, the Lancaster is not easily mistaken for anything but a military aircraft. The Lancaster began military service in February 1942, and more than 7,000 would be built before the last “Lanc” was retired in 1963. During WWII, Lancaster’s flew nearly 160,000 missions. The Lancaster gained particular fame during the war for its use of bouncing bombs in mission against dams.

While the Lanc was decidedly of its time, the Lockheed Constellation—affectionately known as the “Connie”—had an art deco design, a blend of organic shapes and machine grace, that was ahead of its time. Much larger than the Lanc—early Connies had a takeoff weight of 137,500 lb versus the Lanc’s 68,000 lb—the Lockheed design was curved and sinous. Many mid-twentieth-century trains, planes, and automobiles were shaped to cheat the wind, and a designer’s eyeball of that era served as a wind-tunnel test. The Connie looks like it’s going fast even when it is sitting still.

Constellation (photo USAF)

Much is often made of Howard Hughes’s involvement in the design of the Connie. In reality, Hughes’ TWA simply issued the specification for the Connie, and Lockheed engineered an aircraft to satisfy that spec. Once the Connie was flying though, Hughes, ever the promoter and master showman, made headlines with the aircraft. Because of his close relationship to Lockheed, Hughes managed to finagle the use of an early Constellation. Once he had it, he repainted it in TWA colors and promptly set a speed record while flying it across the country. Passengers on that trip included Hughes’s gal-pal Ava Gardner and Lockheed engineer (and Upper Peninsula native) Kelly Johnson. On his return trip, Hughes garnered more press by giving Orville Wright what would be the aviation pioneer’s last flight.

Despite its obvious style and speed—the Connie was faster than a number of WWII fighter aircraft—the Connie had a short and somewhat difficult career. Its Wright 3350 engines had a reputation for inflight fires, leading to uncomfortable jokes about the Connie, which had four engines, being the world’s faster trimotor. On top of that, the first generation of jet airliners arrived just as the Connie began to hit its stride. Although Connies survived for a number of years in the military and in passenger service outside of the United States, this aircraft made its final domestic revenue flight in 1967.


Lancasters, RAF, 1942 (photo U.K. Govt)

As we’ve written elsewhere, we have a fondness for visiting small airports just to see what’s sitting on the ramp. We developed this ritual while we were both professors at our alma mater, Knox College, in the late-1990s. Years later, on a return trip to Galesburg, we visited the local airport—call sign KGBG—for old-time’s sake. Sitting there in all of its shapely, aluminum glory was a Constellation.

The first Constellation that we saw in the metal was the so-called MATS Connie, one of the handful still flying and once owned by John Travolta. We’ve also seen the military variant at Chanute-Rantoul, just outside of Champaign, IL, where our colleague Richard Bausch once served. President Eisenhower flew on a Constellation; he had two in service at the time.

Only two Lancasters remain airworthy, one in the United Kingdom and one at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. There’s a Lanc near us, though, in Chico, CA, that folks are planning to restore to flying condition. A reminder that we haven’t yet thoroughly investigated the aviation history that’s right in our own back yard here in Southern California.


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