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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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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.

Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: The New York Times May 10, 2013

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We’re having a great time at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop this week. The days are jam-packed with talks about writing, lectures from academics about their research, meetings with our workshop groups, and socializing over meals.

David Corcoran, the editor of the Science Times section of The New York Times, has given two talks. We mentioned the importance of editing—of being edited—in our most recent post about Good Prose, a book by author Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. Corcoran showed us the story behind the story—the story of the editing process—for this week’s lead story in Tuesday’s Science Times.

David Corcoran reading poems in Santa Fe

David Corcoran reading poems in Santa Fe

A story idea can come from a staff writer, a regular contributor (who sometimes looks like a staff writer to readers), a freelancer who has a history with the newspaper, or a new freelancer. In the case of “In Pursuit of an Underwater Menagerie,” the writer is a scientist and curator at Cornell University who had contributed to NYT’s Scientist at Work blog.

The editors at the newspaper liked her writing. Corcoran and our peers at the Santa Fe workshop found her sentences full of intimacy, specificity, and sensory detail. In particular, Corcoran surmised that she’s comfortable with language like a person who reads a lot. “It’s a gift to be able to write that beautifully,” he said. The editors at NYT also liked her project: her quest with a filmmaker to find and film the real-life sea creatures represented in a nineteenth-century glass collection.

Corcoran initially discussed the possibility for this story with the author, C. Drew Harvell, three or four months ago. It’s timely because she’s doing the project right now, but it wasn’t a news story that had to be written quickly. He asked for 1400 words. For more timely stories, the writing happens as few as the day before the Monday deadline for Tuesday’s Science Times section.


Lofty Ambitions on our way to lectures in Santa Fe

Every writer in the Science Times section gets close editing. Corcoran is first-line editor for all the stories that appear in that section. He weaves streaks and chunks of red and blue text into the tracked-changes version of article drafts. In particular, he wants a strong nut graph—the in-a-nutshell paragraph early on that conveys the gist of the story, why the author is writing it, and why a reader needs to read it now. In the end, editor and writer are collaborators of sorts.

Though Harvell’s story was requested, Corcoran is the person a freelancer contacts with a pitch. If he’s interested, he’ll discuss with the writer the timeframe and length and possibilities for add-ons, like the 360-degree photographs that accompany Harvell’s story and were shot by a NYT photographer using a contraption involving a hamster wheel.

Freelancers shouldn’t get too excited, though, about their pitches to NYT. Over the past six months, staff writers and regular contributors wrote 86% of the articles that appear in the Science Times section. That makes sense; these folks are paid to fill those pages. Established freelancers contribute another 10% of the articles. That leaves only 4% of stories by new freelancers. Corcoran added that new freelancers usually have significant experience writing for other venues.

The New York Times is a tough market to crack. But it is open to new ideas and new writers. And other venues can help a freelancer build clips while forming the amazingly cool story idea for Science Times.

PREVIOUS POSTS IN “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular”:

Good Prose

Elie Wiesel

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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
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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.

Happy Birthday, Skylab May 14, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Skylab on Launch Pad (NASA)

On this date in 1973, when we were in elementary school, NASA launched Skylab from Kennedy Space Center. As with other projects, like the Hubble Telescope, not everything was right with the first American space station at the beginning. But in-space repairs made real science in space—and living there—a reality for our generation.

Apollo astronauts like Pete Conrad and Alan Bean spent time on Skylab, as did space shuttle astronaut Jack Lousma. Fellow Illinoisan Joseph Kerwin became the first physician to be invited to train to go to space and spent 28 days in space. The 84 days of Skylab’s last mission now pales in comparison with stints on the International Space Station, and the percentage of days that Skylab was inhabited makes it looked little used. But at the time, this space station was pretty amazing and certainly paved the way for future low-Earth orbit projects.

Skylab, as seen by departing Skylab 2 crew (NASA)

What we remember most about Skylab is the anticipation of reentry in the summer of 1979. The space shuttle hadn’t been completed in time to save Skylab, to push it higher in orbit and extend its life for a few more years. Bets on the date of its demise were wagered, t-shirts were printed up, and rewards for pieces of the space station were offered by news organizations. We hoped its demise would come on the weekend and on our side of the globe, though all along NASA was shooting for the pieces to fall in the largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean, far from land and people who could be hit by burning bits of debris. On July 11, a Wednesday, Skylab fell to Earth, and we didn’t see it. NASA miscalculated the process and angles slightly, the spacecraft didn’t burn up fast enough, and some debris landed in Australia.

Apollo Capsule Docked with Skylab (NASA)

In many ways, as we look back on Skylab, it seems as if it, like Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man, had been a television show we watched as kids, a bit of popular culture. The real science of it hadn’t made its way into our textbooks then. But it was real, and there’s proof at the National Air and Space Museum, where the second orbital workshop is on display. NASA had planned to send a second Skylab to space, so two complete space stations were manufactured. NASA doesn’t build spare spacecraft so that museum visitors can walk through them, imagining what it would be like to look down on the earth from 250 miles up. But that’s exactly what happened with Skylab, and it gave regular folks the rare opportunity to inhabit—to physically invest themselves in—the idea of living on a space station.

PurpleStride Chicago 2012: Research on Pancreatic Cancer April 27, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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Tomorrow, we’re walking in PurpleStride Chicago 2012 to raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Click HERE for our team page. That’s an opportunity for us to focus this post on a health sciences topic and consider some of the science related to our own bodies.

Image from National Institutes of Health (NIH)

If you remember back to high school anatomy class, the pancreas, an organ about six inches long, sits horizontally behind the stomach. The head of the pancreas connects to the small intestine, where its secretions do their work on the food you eat. The job of the pancreas is to produce enzymes for the digestion process and hormones used for metabolism.

Pancreatic cancer has been in the news in recent years because Apple founder Steve Jobs, actor Patrick Swayze, and professor and author of The Last Lecture Randy Pausch died from this cancer. (Watch Jobs’s 2005 speech at the end of a previous post HERE. Watch Pausch’s CMU “Last Lecture” HERE.) Jobs was 56, Swayze was 57, and Pausch was just 48, which might lead a person to believe that successful white men in their late forties and fifties are particularly at risk. But one of the things we’ve learned from talking with nurses these past few weeks is that pancreatic cancer can strike at almost any age—one nurse knew a 30-year-old nurse and the 89-year-old grandfather of another friend who’d been diagnosed in the last couple of weeks—and that the risk factors are poorly understood. Smokers, diabetics, and those with chronic pancreatitis are at greater risk, and more women than men contract this cancer.

Image by Department of Health and Human Services

As cancers go, pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, with a lifetime risk of about 1.4%, meaning that fewer than 3 in 200 people are ever diagnosed with this type of cancer. Compare that with the commonly cited lifetime risk of breast cancer: 1 in 8 women, or 12.5%. Or consider the overall lifetime risk of being diagnosed with any cancer: 45% for men, 38% for women, according to the American Cancer Society (click HERE for more info). The overall risk of dying from cancer, though, is better: 23% (1 in 4) for men, and 19.5% (1 in 5) for women. Statistics are tricky, of course, and tell us nothing about a particular individual and only some things about everybody else. Those numbers indicate many things, including that we are living long enough to develop cancer, which is more likely as we age, and that we are, in many cases, surviving cancer long enough to die of something else.

What’s especially disconcerting about pancreatic cancer, though, is that more than half of pancreatic cancers are diagnosed after they’ve metastasized, when there exists no cure. The NIH reports even worse numbers than most resources, stating, “in more than 80% of patients the tumor has already spread and cannot be completely removed at the time of diagnosis.” Often, the first symptom is jaundice, which occurs after the cancer has spread to the liver. That late diagnosis contributes to a very discouraging survival rate, with roughly 6% of patients hitting that magical five-year goal, according to the American Cancer Society (click HERE for Cancer Facts & Figures 2011). Even if the tumor is localized and operable, the five-year surrvial rate is just 23%. In fact, just 26%—one in four—of patients are alive a mere one year after diagnosis. The numbers vary slightly from resource to resource, and these statistics capture information about the past (the 2011 report is based on numbers no later than 2007).

Mary Lee & Anna Leahy

Statistically, several patients out of every hundred do stick around for years to come. If caught before the cancer spreads, the tumor is sometimes operable, which is the key to a potential cure. Research shows that surgery is much more successful if done at a hospital where the Whipple procedure—abdominal surgery almost as complicated as organ transplant—is performed regularly and if the surgeon is very experienced with the Whipple. Jobs, who had the slower-growing, more treatable of the two kinds of pancreatic cancer, waited nine months after diagnosis to have the Whipple surgery and still survived eight years. Even those who aren’t candidates for surgery can live several years; Swayze held out 20 months. For inoperable tumors, chemotherapy, radiation, and newer NanoKnife technology can sometimes shrink the tumor and, thereby, improve quality of life. In some cases, these treatments make the tumor operable and the cancer possibly curable.

Pancreatic cancer is relatively slow growing, with tumors taking years to develop and even longer to metastasize. That long timeframe—before deadly metastasis—during which pancreatic cancer could be diagnosed and cured is excellent reason for research because a screening test or even a better understanding of risk factors that leads to early detection could drastically improve survival rates. Immunotherapy treatment is another area of worthwhile investigation for pancreatic cancer and for cancers more generally. In other words, pancreatic cancer seems an especially good target for medical research because answers could make big differences in outcomes and possibly could be adapted for screening techniques and treatment options for other cancers.

In addition, the American Cancer Society reports, “Since 1998, incidence rates of pancreatic cancer have been increasing by 0.8% per year in men and by 1.0% per year in women.” Pancreatic cancer is on the rise, as are death rates from this disease, and research needs to catch up. So tomorrow, we’re walking in PurpleStride Chicago 2012 because scientific research matters can make big differences in our health and quality of life.

On This Date: Marlin Perkins March 28, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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When we were just little kids, Sunday night meant kids television: The Wonderful World of Disney and, before it, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We’d rush through dinner in anticipation of flying over a herd of antelope or sneaking up on a tiger, all before discovering that Kurt Russell was the strongest man in the world and an absent-minded professor had invented flubber.

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Marlin Perkins, host of Wild Kingdom. He was born in Carthage, Missouri, in 1905, and his first zoo job was as a groundskeeper at the St. Louis Zoological Park, for which he was paid $3.75 per week in 1926. He ran Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago for eighteen years before returning as Director to the St. Louis Zoo.

While at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago area’s smaller, urban zoo, Perkins developed a television show called Zoo Parade. This show featured Perkins interacting with the zoo’s animals, just as Jim Fowler and Joan Embery later did on The Tonight Show. Chicago is no stranger to television production, from Kukla, Fran and Ollie to Oprah, and this locally based series made both the zoo and Perkins well known. We are no strangers to Chicago, and Lincoln Park Zoo, which has free admission and is open every day, was Anna’s childhood zoo. In fact, her poem “At the Sea Lion Pool” appears in the new anthology City of the Big ShouldersAll photos in this post were taken at Lincoln Park Zoo in 2010.

While many viewers of Wild Kingdom mistakenly remember Perkins being bitten by a poisonous snake on camera, the real story stems from Zoo Parade, when Perkins was bitten by a rattlesnake during rehearsal. But the event wasn’t mentioned in the episode. That said, Perkins didn’t mind non-venomous snakes taking a chomp, if only to prove to Wild Kingdom viewers how harmless most snakes are.

Jim Fowler, the zoo director who had monkeys hugging Johnny Carson, got his start as Marlin Perkins’ sidekick on Wild Kingdom. Jim, in fact, is remembered fondly for doing much of the hard work, while Perkins narrated calmly. Eventually, in 1985, Perkins retired, and Jim hosted the show himself. Perkins died of cancer a year later.

As kids, we didn’t realize that most of the episodes we saw were reruns, though new episodes were filmed through 1987. We wouldn’t have cared anyway. Mister Rogers, I Dream of Jeannie, and Star Trek were reruns too. It’s not as if we thought Perkins and Fowler were running away from a lumbering bull seal or that a mother elephant was charging Jim’s jeep at that very moment.

Wild Kingdom has been criticized, of course, for the way it created neat thirty-minute stories and for the human-centered way it talked about animals. Admittedly, the show was filmed and edited to provide viewers like us with some Sunday evening drama. But as opposed to much of today’s reality television, Wild Kingdom claimed that nothing was staged to tell a preconceived story and that they didn’t do things that would put animals in danger. That’s a slippery argument, of course, because driving a jeep toward a mother elephant or lassoing an alligator for relocation could be considered staging, and, to anthropomorphize for a second, that alligator might have defined harm differently. But for the 1970s, Wild Kingdom was relatively progressive in its portrayal of and interaction with animals in the their natural habitats.

Now, the show seems dated. In the episode “Lion Country” (see the video below), we may question the opening sequence that ends with a lion standing over a zebra carcass, a bloody chunk eaten from the prey’s buttocks. Was that really what parents wanted their little tykes to see before the magical stories of Disney? For its time, Wild Kingdom was pretty honest about the ups and downs of life as we—animals—know it.

We may question the next segment of “Lion Country” too, as we spend some time with Marlin Perkins in his office for a brief background lecture on lions. Perkins holds W. K., the well-dressed, affectionate chimp named after the show’s title. On Perkins’ desk, Lester, a young lion, is snacking on some ground meat. W. K. pats Lester on the head. It’s a cheesy, everyone-gets-along if we all play by the rules situation.

Perkins’ lecture, though, goes on to talk about how a young lion must learn to be king of the jungle, that he’s not born with the skills and behaviors he will need to survive as a lion. While an oversimplified explanation of the importance of nurture (but at least posed in addition to, not versus, nature), where else on television was an American kid in the the early 1970s going to see images of Africa or hear about how animals learn? Perkins goes on to talk about hunting as an art and about lions having their own culture, though he doesn’t use the word culture. (For a  related post on animals and empathy, click HERE.) Is he anthropomorphizing, or presaging current investigation into animal intelligence?


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