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Reasons to Celebrate This Weekend June 8, 2016

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Here’s Lofty Ambitions giving you an excuse to party on Friday!


June 10, 1929: Gemini 4 and Apollo 9 astronaut Jim McDivitt was born in Chicago. He commanded his first spaceflight, something only a handful of astronauts have done. (As an aside, The Cure are playing in Chicago on Friday–just saying.)

June 10, 1929: Biologist and author E.O. Wilson was also born on this date. He has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice, for On Human Nature and The Ants.

June 10, 2003: The Mars rover Spirit launched from Kennedy Space Center. It landed on January 4, 2004, performed admirably even after it got stuck in soil in 2009, and sent its last signal back to Earth on March 22, 2010.

June 11, 2008: The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was launched into low-Earth orbit to perform astronomical observation. In September, it observed the most energetic gamma-ray burst that humans have recorded, and that’s just one of its numerous discoveries. It may have recorded the same black hole collision that LIGO observed last year and which was announced this February.

June 12, 1967: Venera 4 was launched toward Venus by the Soviet Union. It became the first probe to send data back to Earth from another planet’s atmosphere, and it confirmed that Venus was indeed very hot and surprised scientists by reporting a denser atmosphere than expected.

5 Reasons You Should Know Ruth Patrick September 23, 2015

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    1. Ruth Patrick earned a PhD in 1934, when very few women pursued careers in science. Maybe that’s no surprise, since she’d received her first microscope when she was seven years old; microscopes weren’t the usual fare for girls in 1914.
    2. She wrote more than 200 articles and several books. She used her maiden name when publishing her research, in part because her father encouraged her. A boldly feminist move from one perspective, it may have also been a selfish suggestion on his part, since her maiden name was her father’s last name.
    3. The Limnology Department she founded at the Academy of Natural Sciences studied water pollution in the 1950s, before many scientists were bothering with environmental studies and activism. In an innovative move, that department used a multidisciplinary approach with scoentists from across fields studying waterways.
    4. For her first eight years at the Academy of Natural Sciences, from 1933-1945, she was an unpaid volunteer.
    5. Patrick died three years ago today—at the age of 105!


Jaws! (and Airport 1975) June 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo NOAA)

(photo NOAA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

747-100 like in Airport 1975 (photo Arpingstone)

747-100 like in Airport 1975 (photo Arpingstone)

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

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

Five French Scientists March 25, 2015

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We’re in Paris for a week. See last week’s post for information about the A380 we flew.

Here are five French scientists we’d like to meet while we’re in France, if only they were still alive. These scientists represent the kind of thinking we appreciate, thinking outside the box and searching for novel connections.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

MarieCurieAmHistOkay, she was a naturalized French citizen, but Marie Curie is at the top of our list of French scientists we’d like to meet. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two Nobels, one in physics in 1903, shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and the other in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium. Only she and Linus Pauling have won Nobels in two separate fields. To find out more about her, we recommend Marie Curie by Susan QuinnMarie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emlingand Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallouta graphic biography by Lauren Redniss. We’ve written about Curie several times before (here’s one post about Curie), and we’ll undoubtedly write about her again.

René Decartes (1596-1650)

Equal parts mathematician and philosopher, Decartes had just the sort of interdisciplinary approach to the world we appreciate. He made the crucial connections between algebra and geometry upon which much of mathematical thinking followed. He also studied refraction and gave the world a scientific understanding of rainbows. He’s the guy who uttered, Cogito ergo sum. Or, I think, therefore I am. He thought that doubt and mistakes were part of learning and innovation and that reading books was like having conversations across centuries. Because we like to have any excuse to celebrate, Decartes’s birthday is next Tuesday, March 31. In fact, the town where he was born remains so proud of Decartes that they renamed the locale for him.

Prosper Ménière (1799-1862)

alanshepard_1Prosper Ménière may have more adept and interested in the humanities than in science, but he became a physician. Initially, he planned to teach at a university, but then a cholera epidemic called, and he got hands-on experience. Eventually, he headed up an institute for deaf-mutes and studied hearing loss caused by lesions inside the ear. Prosper Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear was named for this physician and is what grounded astronaut Alan Shepard for several years after he became the first American in space. Shepard’s disorder was cured by surgery so that he did fly Apollo 14. Other sufferers include Marilyn Monroe and possibly Charles Darwin and Julius Caesar.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Louis Pasteur argued that microorganisms couldn’t appear out of nothing and asserted the idea of contamination that has guided thinking about the spread of disease ever since. We are especially impressed that some of his most important work can be traced back to his understanding of alcohol fermentation in the making of wine and beer; published his Studies on Wine in 1866 and his Studies of Beer ten years lateen. He was also an early investigator of immunization and developer of specific vaccines. For a more recent and beautifully written book about the subject of immunity, we recommend Eula Biss‘s On Immunity: An Inoculation. At his own request, Pasteur’s private notebooks were kept secret long after his death, but his request was breeched by a descendant, who donated them to France’s national library for use after the descendent’s death. Those notebooks have revealed that Pasteur may have been a less-than-amiable character generally and a problematic researcher.

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)

An epigraph from Henri Poincaré opens the first poem of Anna’s collection Constituents of Matter:

Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient man used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient.

Poincaré, as demonstrated by this statement, was a philosopher, in addition to being a mathematician and physicist. His work underpinned what would emerge as chaos theory and also laid the groundwork for topology, the geometrical study of space that focuses on connections and transformations. Poincaré worked with a team to establish international time zones, and this work led him to think about the relative speed of clocks, which, in turn, pointed to what would become Albert Einstein‘s theory of special relativity.

Interesting to Anna especially, Poincaré was a good decision-maker if he made a decision quickly, but the more he dwelled on a choice, the more difficult he had making it. A psychologist named Édouard Toulouse wrote about Poincaré‘s personality and work habits, and we think Poincaré has something to offer us as writers in this respect. For one thing, Poincaré worked on mathematics for four hours every day, one two-hour stretch in the late morning and another in the early evening, which strikes us as an ideal schedule for focusing on a large project. He would read later in the evening, a practice we like as well.

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

On This (Holiday) Date: Celebrating Science & Space (Part 2) December 31, 2014

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HolidayBeerLast, week, we wrote an “on this date” post, and we decided to share a few reasons to celebrate science or space this week too. The holidays seems a great time to toast to some perhaps hidden historical gems for nerds. See Part 1, which covers some exciting science and space exploration tidbits from December 24-26, HERE.

(And yes, that’s the Anchor holiday beer in the photo, a different flavor brewed each year. We also recommend Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, which seems to be a little more hoppy this year.)

December 30


Rosalinde Hurley was born. We’ve written about women and science before, and we figure that our readers have never heard of this British woman who studied perinatal candida infections, or yeast infections in newborns. Hurley was educated as both a lawyer and a physician. Though she pursued medicine over law as a career, she was an effective administrator and grew increasingly involved in medical ethics. She was knighted in 1998 and died in 2004. You can read a good write-up in The Guardian HERE and note that her interests were varied and intertwined, something we admire in a person.


We’ve written about time before at Lofty Ambitions and about the arbitrary and standardized ways we measure things. When Samoa and Tokelau switched time zones a few years ago, they skipped December 30 to sync up with their new situation. The islands of the Independent State of Samoa jumped over the International Date Line in a quick instant, leaping 24 (or 25 in summer) hours ahead of American Samoa.

December 31


GRAIL launch, September 2011

GRAIL launch, September 2011

The two GRAIL spacecraft established their orbits around the Moon. Lofty Ambitions is especially fond of the GRAIL mission to map the Moon because Doug was at Kennedy Space Center for the launch on September 11. You can see launch photos HERE and read more about the mission’s goal’s HERE. That was also the trip that led to knowing Kim Guodace, who’d been so affected by the Challenger accident as a kid that she vowed to work for NASA to help prevent it from ever happening again.

January 1



Earth (big), Moon (medium), Ceres (small) to scale (but not in relative position)

The dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, was discovered by Giuseppi Piazzi, a Catholic priest who studied and catalogued the literal heavens around us. Piazzi was pretty sure Ceres was a planet but announced it as a comet, just in case he was wrong. The minor planet’s orbit lies between Mars and Jupiter, and it seems to be made mostly of rock and frozen water. In fact, earlier this year, Ceres seems to have emitted water vapor, something unexpected. The first close look we’ll get of Ceres will be when the spacecraft Dawn, launched in 2007, begins to orbit Ceres this coming spring. That’s what’s fascinating about science and space exploration—the story keeps unfolding. Oh, if Giuseppi Piazzi could only see Ceres now!


Harriet Brooks, the first female Canadian nuclear physicist, was born. Her graduate advisor, the esteemed Ernest Rutherford who was the first to understand radioactive half-life, deemed Brooks on par with Marie Curie, under whom she also worked briefly. Brooks was one of the first scientists to study radon, the gas emitted when radium decays (it’s being emitted from the soil all over Earth all the time). In 1907, she left her faculty position after just three years because she got married. Married women were not allowed, at the time, to be faculty at Barnard College, even though it’s a liberal arts college for women. Virginia Gildersleeve, one of Barnard College’s presidents, was a fierce advocate for women in the sciences, and she allowed not only married women but also mothers to serve as faculty and, eventually, established maternity leave. Oh, if only Gildersleeve had reigned a little earlier and Brooks had kept up her research!

And so Lofty Ambitions enters a new year with hopes for a great future.

Santa Fe Retreat: Judy Chicago July 23, 2014

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We spent eleven days in Santa Fe on our self-designed writing retreat. Take a look at PART 1 and PART 2.

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Shortly after we arrived in Santa Fe, Anna leafed through a free tabloid and discovered that the visual artist Judy Chicago was giving a gallery talk at the opening of her new show at the David Richard Gallery. Anna had first come across Chicago’s work in a women’s studies class taught by Penny Gold at Knox College.

We don’t usually write about art at Lofty Ambitions, but we do when there’s a connection to science or to aviation and space exploration. The new work at the gallery demonstrates Chicago’s recent interests in the human body and especially the surface and underlying bones and muscles of the head and face. She became interested in the tradition of anatomical drawings, like those by Leonardo DaVinci. This focus rose earlier in Chicago’s work, when she made three-dimensional cast sculptures of a woman undergoing cancer treatment—that series is casually referred to as the Toby heads. The more recent work, including paintings on glass, explores the relationship of the anatomy and physiology of the face to the expression or emotion that is presented or feigned. As she put it, “I’m interested in what’s under the skin.”

Toby Head, 2010

Grand Toby Head with Copper Eye, 2010

The gallery talk between Chicago and art historian Kathy Battista can be viewed HERE–definitely worth the time!

This exhibit and event are part of the year-long celebration of Judy Chicago’s 75th birthday, which also includes exhibits around the country. So a few days after seeing Judy Chicago in the flesh, Anna visited the New Mexico Museum of Art to see the exhibit there and get an overview from docent Meriom Kastner. That exhibit included Grand Toby Head with Copper Eye, 2010 and also several pieces that addressed nuclear science and industry. One of the pieces in the Holocaust Project, which was part of a series that could be viewed from different angles to different effects, offered commentary on the Apollo Moon landings (see the end of this post for photographs of that piece).

So, if all you’ve seen of Judy Chicago’s work are photographs of The Dinner Party, we suggest you look again. Her range of subject matter and artistic media is amazing. When she needed to do watercolors for a project, she learned how to do watercolors. When she became interested in glass and translucency in painting–or when the watercolor medium and techniques couldn’t support her vision for a piece–she took a workshop in glasswork. She even worked with a foundry to figure out how to cast paper as a large three-dimensional sculpture.

Tasting the Mortal Coil (Watercolor, David Richard Gallery)

Tasting the Mortal Coil (Watercolor, David Richard Gallery)

Her new book, Institutional Time, is now on Anna’s reading list in hopes that Chicago’s critique of visual art education in universities might shed some light on creative writing education as well. In fact, Anna published a conversation essay with graphic designer Claudine Jaenichen and visual artist Lia Halloran in New Writing and is very interested in connections across different artistic fields.

Of course, we were in Santa Fe to write. And several of our recent posts have offered ways to turn our attention toward writing. Though Judy Chicago talked about visual art and her own artistic practices, much of what she said in her gallery talk applies to writing and to collaboration. Her attitude is one of adventure, of trying new things, of pushing yourself beyond what you can already do comfortably.

We share some of her words of wisdom here:

What isn’t imaged can’t become part of the cultural discourse.

New forms allow new content.

Every failure is an important success—a step in success.

I was interested in how a gesture could mean a variety of things.

I do like to play with details.

For me, art is about discovery. It’s about discovering what different techniques allow me to express.

Judy Chicago explained that Disappointed Head was inspired by a disappointed artist she knew who, in his fifties, thought getting into a particular gallery would change his life. He went into debt, got into that gallery, and nothing changed. 

Finally, Judy Chicago’s comment about tattoos (and her use of tattoo-like techniques on porcelain heads) because who doesn’t wonder: I’m not doing that on my ass, I can tell you that!

From Holocaust Project, with Donald Woodman, 1993

From Holocaust Project, with Donald Woodman, 1993


viewed from the right

viewed from the right


viewed from the left

The Six Million Dollar Man and NASA in the 1970s (Part 2) March 19, 2014

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To start with Part one of our series on The Six Million Dollar Man, click HERE.

A few weeks ago we wrote about our recent opportunity to relive our childhood memories of all that is The Six Million Dollar Man (TSMDM). Our chance reminiscence was enforced by the brutality of the Polar Vortex and the vagaries of any travel that involves Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Wintertime travel through O’Hare is particularly dicey, with O’Hare recently finishing dead last among the nation’s twenty-nine largest airports in on-time percentage (nearby Midway airport finished next-to-last at twenty-eighth, which should tell you how bad the weather has been in Chicago this year). Winter, though, may not be the most crucial of the Chicago-Aviation-Winter interaction, for Midwestern weather seems to snarl Chicago air traffic pretty much year-round.

Our extended holiday stay in Chicago allowed us to watch a two-part episode of TSMDM, and that stimulated our desire to throw a few more episodes into our trusty Netflix queue. The first one that we watched was “Athena 1,” and we couldn’t have been more pleased.

While “Athena 1” didn’t have the space age verisimilitude that shooting scenes at Kennedy Space Center provided for “Deadly Countdown,”  “Athena 1” is notable for being the first television appearance together as newlyweds of Lee Majors and Farah Fawcett-Majors. Their union was recent enough that she’s still credited as Farah Fawcett.

This also brings us to the moment of Jenny Agutter-related serendipity with our previous post on the bionic man’s exploits. Astute observers of 1970’s sci-fi culture will realize that Farah Fawcett-Majors of “Athena 1” and Jenny Agutter of “Deadly Countdown” both appeared in Logan’s Run. Full disclosure: After seeing both blonds in TSMDM, one of us recently watched Logan’s Run again—probably for the first time in thirty-years (while the other of us was helping her sister move).

“Athena 1” has a very similar plot to “Deadly Countdown” in that both episodes were thin exercises in getting Col. Steve Austin back into space via rescue missions. In “Athena 1,” Steve saves the day by leading a rescue mission—Athena Rescue—but does so at great personal peril for our hero.

Bionic Ear (NIH)

Bionic Ear (NIH)


This episode came mid-way through the first year of TSMDM, and it was an opportunity for some reflection (momentary though it was) on Steve’s plight as half-man, half-better-than-man making his way through weak plots. Ironically, its that half that’s better-than-man that breaks down in outer space. The cause of his physical breakdown, space radiation, is as implausible as the solution, a new radiation-resistant layer of skin for his bionics. We point out that the premise that space radiation would do Steve in is implausible—yes, the entire show is implausible, but we always hope for consistency in the world they created—because Steve’s bionics are nuclear powered. One would hope that Rudy Wells had figured out the utility of radiation shielding before inserting nuclear-powered bionics into this astronaut. As Steve often points out, he still has a fair amount of his “original equipment.” Without shielding in his new parts, Steve’s original equipment would have cooked.

Through the years it ran, TSMDM had a fair number of connections to Star Trek via actors, writers, and production staff. “Athena 1” was written by DC Fontana, an extremely successful woman in the then man’s world of television, and it feels as if some of those gendered experiences shaped the dialog that Farah Fawcett’s character spoke as a rookie female astronaut in the male realm of American space exploration. Fontana’s Star Trek roots show when she actually has Steve close out the episode by saying, “Space. It really is the final frontier.”

We’re cherry-picking TSMDM episodes about space as we re-watch. We have fond memories of William Shatner as an astronaut who came back with a little extra. Doug was particularly fond of the episodes about the Russian Venus probes that somehow missed Venus and came back to Earth quite upset about it. Also high on the list to watch again is “Danny’s Inferno,” an episode featuring a teenage space prodigy who inadvertently invents a powerful new chemical fuel source while playing with model rockets. Of course, in any relationship there’s negotiation to be done, and Doug’s aware that a deep dive in TSMDM is an invitation for Anna to put episodes of The Bionic Woman in the queue. Of course, Jaime Sommers is a teacher, not an astronaut—as are we.

For more on Lee Majors as Steve Austin, click HERE.

Cancer, Risk, & Otherwise November 13, 2013

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Anna&MLLWhen Anna’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2012, we were upset. But we weren’t shocked. Age increases a person’s risk of cancer. Though in otherwise good health, she was in her seventies. She lived pretty much exactly as long as Centers for Disease Control statistics estimate for someone born when she was.

Statistics are tricky, though. At birth, a white woman born in the United States in 1950 has a life expectancy of 72.2 years. But if she survives to reach the age of 65 in 2005, her life expectancy is 19.6 years. In other words, the numbers suggest that the longer you live, the longer you’re likely to live.

c3KxKJM0QYShfxdXhUDM6AWhen our college friend Adam was diagnosed with brain cancer less than two years ago, we were upset and shocked. A white man born in 1970 (the closest year to his birth listed) has a life expectancy of 71.7 years. Our friend has a wife and two kids in school and should have more than twenty more years ahead of him. And if he were to survive those twenty more years, nearing seventy, he’d likely live another twenty after that. But he probably won’t survive to the end of this year because these seemingly objective numbers grow out of heartbreaking stories of being felled too early as well as those of longevity.

Why does a person get cancer? We like to think that such a devastating change in the body has a direct cause or, at least, that it’s a matter of some critical mass of risk factors. In his new book The Cancer Chronicles, George Johnson (with whom Doug worked at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop) points out, “Everyone has risk factors for almost every cancer, and they take on significance only in retrospect.” We understand that one friend’s mother developed lung cancer as a result of decades of smoking, even though we know smokers who didn’t develop lung cancer and a non-smoker friend-of-a-friend who did.

From The Cancer Chronicles:

With so many checks and balances, a person must be extraordinarily unlucky to get cancer. Then again, with so many things that can go wrong, it is amazing that cancer doesn’t happen all the time.

Given a large enough group of people, we can predict what percentage of them will be stricken but we cannot know who they will be. […] With enough information—demographic, geographic, behavioral, dietary—we can narrow the pool of those at risk for certain cancers. […] But there is only so far we can go. Whether any one person gets cancer or does not will always remain mostly random.

Glioblastoma, the relatively rare type of cancer our friend has, comes with an incredibly discouraging prognosis. The American Brain Tumor Association—and our friend’s doctor—suggests that a patient who undergoes standard treatment of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can live two years after diagnosis. Without treatment, the prognosis is just a few months. But as many as 30% of glioblastoma patients beat that two-year mark, and perhaps 4% make it to that arbitrary, seemingly important five-year hurdle. (We’ve written about the similar low incidence but lousy prognosis for pancreatic cancer.)

National Cancer Institute

National Cancer Institute

What makes the difference in survival? Youth helps. A younger person is less likely to develop glioblastoma in the first place. A younger person is more likely to survive longer once diagnosed. Successful surgery helps too. If at least 98% of the brain tumor is removed, that person is more likely to live longer. Still, just as we cannot predict exactly who will develop which cancer, we cannot predict who will be that one-in-twenty-five so-called miracle.

In addition, glioblastoma, like pancreatic cancer, is rarely caught early. Symptoms often don’t emerge until the tumor is large, and the size of the tumor is an important factor in determining the stage of the cancer and, by extension, the prognosis. For the deadliest cancers, early diagnosis may matter most in surviving even a few years, but early diagnosis in these cancers may also be less likely. Symptoms like nausea and headache may be racked up to other health problems, or by the time glioblastoma causes a seizure, the cancer may be well advanced. The five-year survival rate for someone diagnosed with the later stages of glioblastoma is pretty much zero.

That’s what our friend and his family face now, the otherwise that they consciously held off for the past couple of years.

From “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia at age of 47:

I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

If you would like to make a donation to help with the expenses that our friend and his family are facing, you can go to his Give Forward page.

Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Annual Anthologies (2) May 29, 2013

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FOR ALL POSTS ON SCIENCE WRITING, click HERE or use the tag cloud in the right sidebar.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012, Series Editor Tim Folger

BestAmScience&NatureThis anthology is divided into six sections, each representing a different area, a different subject matter. Of the 23 essays, five are written by women. That low percentage is at odds with our experience at the Santa Fe Science Writers Workshop, where women participants outnumbered men. But it’s in keeping with what VIDA (and Anna) found when that organization looked at the literary publication rates by gender in some major magazines and in the Best American series.

Six essays in this anthology are reprinted from The New Yorker, and two are from The Atlantic. National Geographic, Scientific American, and Wired are represented by three essays each. Rivka Galchen’s “Dream Machine” appears in this collection as well as in The Best American Science Writing, 2012.

Carl Zimmer is a familiar name if you read a lot of science writing, and his work appears in this collection. In a short essay called “The Long, Curious, Extravagant Evolution of Feathers,” he writes, “Birds are so common, even in the most paved-over places on Earth, that it’s easy to take for granted both their dinosaur heritage and the ingenious plumage that keeps them aloft.”

We’ve written a lot about risk here at Lofty Ambitions (see a sample HERE), so we are intrigued by “What You Don’t Know Can Kill You” by Joshua Daley. “We like to think that humans are supremely logical, making decisions on the basis of hard data and not on a whim,” Daley writes. But any of us who watched Star Trek know that it’s Vulcans, not humans, who make decisions that way. Shortly after the first television foray of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, researchers also found what Mr. Spock had often asserted. Whether it’s fear of flying versus lack of fear of driving to the grocery store, or iodide in the wake of nuclear disaster versus radon testing, our biases and shortcut thinking, which work well in many ways, skew our perception of risk. Now that we understand this skewing, Daley asserts, risk communication can adapt

GlobeBrian Christian investigates artificial and human intelligence in “Mind vs. Machine.” concludes, “As computers have mastered rarefied domains once thought to be uniquely human, they simultaneously have failed to master the ground-floor basics of the human experience—spatial orientation, object recognition, natural language, adaptive goal-setting—and in doing so, have shown us how impressive, computationally and otherwise, such minute-to-minute fundamentals really are.”

There’s something for everyone in these annual anthologies. Brendon Buhler gives an overview of the microbes for which our bodies are home in “The Teeming Metropolis of You.” Sandra Blakeslee, one of the leaders at the Santa Fe workshop, is currently working on a book about our microbiome and the threat that antibiotics pose.

Sy Montgomery hangs out with an octopus and learns about intelligence in “Deep Intellect.” You can read this article online at Orion HERE.

Michael Specter investigates the future of meat and meat-eating in “Test-Tube Burgers.” This piece connects well to a talk we heard at SciWrite by Alex Blanchette, who has investigated the U.S. hog farm industry.

Joshua Davis covers the bitcoin—invented currency that is “all bit and no coin”—phenomenon in “The Crypto-Currency.” Bitcoin is a hot story right now—just Google bitcoin and narrow to news, and you’ll see recent stories in Forbes, Business Week, and PCWorld.

We suggest that you pick up a copy at your local independent bookstore, or consider ordering a copy from Collected Works HERE.

Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Annual Anthologies (1) May 27, 2013

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The Best American Science Writing 2012, Series Editor Jesse Cohen

BestAmScienceThis collection is a wonderful mish-mosh of essays, from novelist and physicist Alan Lightman’s explanation of the multiverse in “The Accidental Universe” to Charles C. Mann’s investigation of “The Birth of Religion.” If you have the least bit of interest in science writing—and definitely if you’re trying to break into the field of science writing—this anthology is worth reading cover to cover. If you don’t want to read the collection in its entirety, be sure to browse the abstract at the beginning of each piece to make your selections.

The collection opens with “Mending the Youngest Hearts” by Gretchen Vogel. The piece runs less than five pages but gives a good update on the use of stem cells through one example of blood vessels. “The lab-made blood vessels are meant for children whose severely malformed hearts are unable to supply their bodies with enough oxygen.” The research isn’t finished yet, as is often the case wit important research, in which investigation leads to new information and questions. Also, there exist risks to implanting lab-generated tissues and organs, but successful lab-grown livers and tracheas have paved the way for new studies.

The first piece we read in The Best American Science Writing, however, was P.J. O’Rourke’s brief take on “The Last Shuttle Launch” because the end of the space shuttle program has captured our attention these last few years. O’Rourke’s piece has a nice intergenerational angle—he takes his seven-year-old son to Kennedy Space Center for the shuttle’s last launch. We wish “the end of an era” hadn’t become a cliché long before that last launch, and we wish O’Rourke had been listening long enough to the conversation surrounding the end of the shuttle program to avoid that phrase in his piece. We wish he hadn’t unabashedly stuck up for the concept of Manifest Destiny; though it can’t be dismissed as part of our cultural tradition, it’s a complicated analogy that doesn’t easily fit the shuttle program. That said, O’Rourke touches on some of the issues we’ve been contemplating as members of what we have dubbed Generation Space. And his son’s enthusiasm and expectations give us hope that the next generation will get their feet off the ground too.

ReadingSpaceIn between the beginning and the end of this anthology, there’s plenty for space nerds to read: “The Early Adopter’s Guide to Space Travel” by Erik Sofge, “”Stellar Oddballs” by Charles Petit, and “Symmetry: A ‘Key to Nature’s Secrets’” by Steven Weinberg.

The anthology also offers plenty about the brain and mind: “Beautiful Brains” by David Dobbs, “Criminal Minds” by Josh Fischman, “The Limits of Intelligence” by Douglas Fox, and “It’s Not a Game” by Jaron Lanier.

The collection ends with a heart-wrenching story by Rachel Aviv called “God Knows Where I Am.” This essay chronicles the last few years of Linda Bishop’s life as a psychiatric patient who lacks what the field calls “insight”; Bishop never agreed with the diagnosis psychiatrists made and hoped to prove that she was not mentally ill. Bishop was released from psychiatric care: “[S]he left the hospital with only pocket change, no access to a bank account, and not a single person aware of where she was going.” She thought she might crochet and sell mittens to get by. Readers will need to read the whole essay to get the rest of the story.

We suggest that you pick up a copy at your local independent bookstore, or consider ordering a copy from Powell’s HERE.

For all the Lofty Ambitions posts about science writing, click HERE.


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