Five French Scientists March 25, 2015Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Beer, Biology, Books, Chemistry, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Math, Nobel Prize, Physics, Radioactivity
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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)
Okay, 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 Quinn, Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling, and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, a 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)
Prosper 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)
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.
On This (Holiday) Date: Celebrating Science & Space (Part 2) December 31, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Beer, Biology, GRAIL Quest, Radioactivity
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Last, 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.)
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.
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.
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, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Apollo, Art & Science, Biology, Books, Cancer, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons
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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.”
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.
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!
The Six Million Dollar Man and NASA in the 1970s (Part 2) March 19, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Biology, Movies & TV, Radioactivity
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.
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, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Cancer, Science Writing
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When 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.
When 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.)
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.
Tags: Biology, Books, Cognitive Science, Science Writing
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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012, Series Editor Tim Folger
This 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
Brian 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.
Tags: Biology, Books, Cognitive Science, Science Writing, Space Shuttle
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The Best American Science Writing 2012, Series Editor Jesse Cohen
This 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.
In 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.
Tags: Biology, Science Writing
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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.
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.
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.
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Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Science Writing, Serendipity
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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?”
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.
The 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.
The 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, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Books, Science Writing, Serendipity
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.”
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.
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.
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.