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Last Chance to See (Part 19) July 27, 2011

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There is one reason for caring, and I believe no other is necessary. […] And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them. ~ Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See

Okay, you’re wondering now, what to do, now you know this is the end. And you know this because Lofty Ambitions can’t pass up the chance to end this series on a prime number, something divisible by only itself and one.

We named this series “Last Chance to See” after the book by the same name by Douglas Adams (also author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy et al.) and zoologist Mark Carwardine. That book “is about a series of journeys [that team took] to look for some of the world’s rarest and endangered animals.”

Of course, the space shuttle has always been among the rarest of machines. Only six shuttles were built, and one of those was never intended to reach space. Instead, Enterprise was destined to spend its useful life as a test article, repeatedly dropping through the clear, blue California desert sky. While shuttle missions might have seemed, at times over the last three decades, mundane, 135 missions, two of which were not completed successfully, really isn’t that many journeys. By comparison, O’Hare airport can land 112 aircraft in a single hour.  If the shuttle had been merely a workhorse, that number of journeys would be the equivalent of commuting to work every day for less than four months. Unless, obviously, you measure the shuttle’s commute in miles instead of roundtrips. Then, it’s a very long way.

 Only three orbiters—Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis—remain. They are, in fact, all but extinct, no longer fit for their intended purpose and soon to be placed on display at museums. Even as we write this, Endeavour is having its Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods, those bulbous protrusions near the shuttle’s empennage, removed. We saw Endeavour already undergoing such refitting (or unfitting).

Each chapter of the book Last Chance to See, though, is as much about the travels and travails as it is about the animal itself. Likewise, our series about the end of the space shuttle program is as much about the ideas and people (including us) as it is about the machine.

Of course, the book Last Chance to See is about endangered species. We do not want to create a false equivalence between a host of endangered animals and the thirty-year shuttle program. Rather, we wanted that work and Adams’s other tomes to serve as touchstones for ideas and the way we talk about things. We started each post in our series with a quote from Adams as a trigger for some of the things we wanted to say about a different subject than they had tackled.

Adams and Carwardine point out, “Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate.” Our most recent guest blogger, Omar Izquierdo, says something similar: “Good things start and good things end, and the shuttle isn’t an exception.” But what has changed for him and for others on the Space Coast is that the now-indefinite waiting is a new state of affairs; the time between shuttle launches can no longer be “simply prep time.”

Alligator at KSC, just swimming around with the tourists

But endangered species are not completely beside the point on the Space Coast. Across the river from Titusville, where we stayed during our trips to Florida, lies both Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. From the pristine stretch of beach, where languorous cranes and pelicans and the occasional eagle drift overhead, and children bend and peer at the wire grids that protect recently lain sea turtle eggs, you can see launch pad 39A, the spot that launched the Apollo and space shuttle missions. At the launch pad, two alligators, their snouts poking through brackish marsh water and leading to vigilant eyes, live in the very small roadside pond.

One day, we drove across Titusville’s sweeping new bridge to catch a peek at the manatees from the observation deck. Manatees are difficult to see, huge dark blobs rolling occasionally to the water’s surface. The skin on our arms and legs, a blood-dappled, welted welter of mosquito success evinced that the suddenly obvious eighty species of mosquitoes, with genus names like Aedes, Anopheles, Culex, Deinocerities, and many more, are perhaps the least endangered species in Florida. (One wide-spread Florida mosquito has the apt genus species name of Aedes vexans—vexed us indeed!). Another day, we drove over to the beach, pausing for turtle after turtle crossing the road.

Bird in nest outside the KSC Press Center

Some people might argue that space exploration is important enough to overrun the natural landscape in the name of progress. Others might argue that technology should get out of that natural habitat entirely. Neither seems plausible or, at this point, necessary. In fact, after observing the beach town development sprawl of Cocoa Beach, it strikes us that the presence of NASA and the federal government likely had a direct influence on preserving the flora and fauna of Merritt Island. The Space Coast is a place where nature and technology abut each other and have discovered how to coexist.

Interview: Rhea Seddon June 27, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
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Margaret Rhea Seddon is a medical doctor who became an astronaut in 1979, even before the first space shuttle flight in 1981. We met this three-time space shuttle astronaut when we visited Kennedy Space Center in November (click HERE to read how that happened). Like fellow doctor-turned-astronaut Michael Barratt (see his interview HERE), Rhea Seddon is especially interested in the human body and how it functions, and her missions in space involved medical experiments.

Rhea Seddon’s husband is also a former astronaut. We’ll post Hoot Gibson’s interview next time around.

Radioactivity and Other Risks (Part 2) May 6, 2011

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If you want to start with Part 1 of “Radioactivity and Risk,” click HERE. This post is part of a loose series, most of which were regular Wednesday posts that unfolded in the wake of the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi. We include the whole list at the end of this post. Here is “Radioactivity and Risk (Part 2)”:

Doug and STS-133 Astronaut Michael Barratt

One of the risks every astronaut faces in orbit and beyond is the exposure to radioactivity. Last Friday, when we were in Florida for the not-launch of Endeavour (which as of today is delayed at least until May 16), we spoke with astronaut Michael Barratt about this particular risk. He’s interested in this topic not only because he spent almost 200 days on the International Space Station, which exposed him to a lot of radiation (from which the rest of us on the ground are better protected by Earth’s atmosphere), but also because he is a medical doctor who has studied the exposures and effects of radiation and written about it in his book Principles of Clinical Medicine for Space Flight. One of the problems he pointed out in understanding the risk astronauts face from radiation is that astronauts are a relatively small population for medical study. Even so, he said that recommended radiation exposure guidelines for astronauts have become more conservative in recent years and now are also weighted for gender, weight, age, and other health criteria.

That’s the tricky thing about exposure to radioactivity: it’s difficult to predict its effect on any specific individual. In fact, most current assessment of the risk of exposure is based on the atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a much larger population than the astronaut corps, but problematic for extrapolating to ourselves today. Excepting Chernobyl workers, most of us are not exposed to very large blasts of radioactivity. That said, the radiation to which we are exposed today has increased since the late 1940s.

(photo by rosiescancerfund.com)

We have seen a dramatic rise in exposure to radioactivity used in medicine, such as CT scans, though also mammograms, dental x-rays, and other diagnostic and treatment procedures. Last year, at ScienceWatch.com, Director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University David Brenner said, “In the US, the average radiation dose to which we are exposed has doubled in the past 30 years. The average dose from natural background sources has not changed, but what has changed is a more than six-fold increase in the average radiation dose from medical imaging.” In 2008, Time noted of CT, or CAT, scans, “some physicians are raising concerns about the safety of such procedures—most notably, an increase in cancer risk. A CT scan packs a mega-dose of radiation—as much as 500 times that of a conventional X-ray.” One study in the article raised additional concern about the 41% of patients undergoing CT scans who had already undergone two or more scans. While the benefit of having a CT scan may more than offset the risk of radiation exposure, Brenner also points out that “at the doses corresponding to a few CT scans there are direct epidemiological data from about 30,000 A-bomb survivors who were on the peripheries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who were exposed in this low-dose range. This low-dose subpopulation has been followed for more than 50 years, and shows a small but statistically-significant increased cancer risk.”

In addition to having more medical tests than in previous decades, we’ve increased air travel. The more you fly—and the higher you fly—the more radiation to which you’re exposed. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “For a typical cross-country flight in a commercial airplane, you are likely to receive 2 to 5 millirem (mrem) of radiation, less than half the radiation dose you receive from a chest x-ray.”

First X-ray (Roentgen)

Of course that doesn’t include that extra, scattered smattering if you fly out of an airport with the new body scanners. Wired reported in March that the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) “mandated [backscatter X-ray machines] as the preferred airport screening method in February 2009” but is reevaluating the more than 500 scanners in at least 78 or so airports “after testing produced dramatically higher-than-expected results.” An earlier article in the Wired series about the backscatter X-ray machines discussed a group of scientists raising concerns and quoted one of them as especially concerned with the increased risk when exposed to x-rays as we get older. In a CNN piece last year, David Brenner said, “If you think of the entire population of, shall we say a billion people per year going through these scanners, it’s very likely that some number of those will develop cancer from the radiation from these scanners[.]”

When it comes to risk, we’re talking probabilities. The risk that one airport scan poses to one person is very, very small. Almost no one will develop cancer just because they take a few jaunts to Europe. But the risk is not zero. And once the group exposed is large enough, then statistics indicate that someone will develop cancer as a result of exposure to radioactivity that is, for each individual, not very risky at all. In addition, as Michael Barratt pointed out in our interview with him, we’re not each equally vulnerable or hearty. What if you’re a weekly business traveler from Denver (the higher above sea level you live, the greater the exposure to cosmic radiation) who has undergone radiation treatment for cancer, whose father died of cancer, and who had a couple of CT scans after a car accident several months ago?

Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (most common form of breast cancer)

Even for those workers who know they may be exposed to ionizing radiation, the risk is not always clear to them. The average nuclear power plant worker in the United States is exposed to 300 mrem whole body equivalent, in addition to the presumed average of 300 or 360 mrem background radiation to which the average American is exposed, depending on which source you read. According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, “In the United States, regulatory standards allow workers to be exposed to ionizing radiation that can cause 1 additional cancer fatality per 400 workers per year. Because radiation-dose limits cover only single sources (e.g., a nuclear plant) or exposure classes (workplace, medical, or public) and are defined for average occupational exposure, workers typically do not know their precise cumulative, individual, and relative risks from radiation.” In other words, no individual seems to know how much exposure to radioactivity he or she faces, nor the risk of cancer that exposure poses long term.

Representation of Risk Board Game (image by Orthuberra)

If we don’t understand the risk, we can’t manage it very well. If the level of risk is unknown or unclear, it’s difficult to weigh a given risk against the benefits. Clearly, many people don’t think twice about taking a cross-country flight. Maybe that’s because we’ve heard that the average American is more likely to die in a car accident than in a plane crash. In fact, according to NOVA in 2006, the chance of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million, whereas the chance of dying in a car accident is 1 in 5000. But does knowing that keep you from getting into a car? Our perception of risk doesn’t always line up with the facts. And who is this average American anyway? As NOVA states, “[Y]ou are not the average American. Nobody is.”

In addition to today’s post, check out our previous posts in our Radioactivity Series as follows (CLICK on the title):

March 16: Measurement and Scale

March 28: Three Mile Island Anniversary

March 30: Radiation vs. Radioactivity

April 6: Uranium & Plutonium & Fission

April 13: Fission Products & Half-Lives

April 20: Radioactivity Units of Measure

April 26: The Anniversary of Chernobyl

April 27: Nuclear Secrecy

May 4: Radioactivity and Risk (Part 1)

A Launch to Remember (Part 7) May 1, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Sunday Morning: We headed to the Press Center at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) this morning to see what’s what. No press briefing has been scheduled, but we’re expecting one after the launch team makes a determination. The buzz around KSC is that the launch will be no earlier than May 8 or maybe May 10. The simple thermostat swap-out, for which we were hoping, isn’t the planned fix; it’s a much bigger problem.

In the meantime, we’ve kept ourselves busy, and Lofty Ambitions isn’t just about the space shuttle. KSC, in addition to being an active launch facility for both NASA and the Air Force, is a wildlife refuge. Alligators are protected here, and the area hosts 350 species of birds. As native Midwesterners, we’re used to seeing squirrels and bunnies, not reptiles and long-legged birds. Here are some photos of the creatures we’ve seen during our visit to the east coast of Florida.

Wild Boars at KSC

Bird in nest outside the KSC Press Center

Alligator at KSC, just swimming around with the tourists

Bird at KSC Visitor Complex


Another turtle!

Bird at the Saturn V rocket center

Yes, we were that close to an alligator!

Overview of a gator at KSC

Bird in flight over KSC

We’ll have another update later today. We’ll likely be heading home well before Endeavour launches. While that’s disappointing, this trip has been utterly worthwhile, and we have more to share than we’ve been able to keep up with. Stay tuned.

Guest Blog: Ken Kremer April 18, 2011

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Today, we feature a guest blogger who will catch us up with two of the space program’s greatest accomplishments, the Mars rovers. Anna met Ken Kremer as part of the press core for STS-133 back in November and was especially impressed by his range of knowledge about NASA and his enthusiasm.

Ken Kremer is a freelance science writer and scientist who regularly publishes writing and photography in online and print venues, including New Scientist, Science News, Aviation Weekand Spaceflight Now. For more of Ken Kremer’s work at Universe Today, click HEREHe does lectures around the country at museums, universities and schools, and clubs. He’s served as a Solar System Ambassador since 2005.

Photo credit for the three panoramic photographs here: NASA/JPL/Cornell, Marco Di Lorenzo, Kenneth Kremer.


Ken Kremer, STS-133 Discovery

NASA’s twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity surely rank as one of the greatest triumphs in the history of space exploration.

Seven years ago, the dynamic duo landed on opposite sides of the Red planet on January 3 and January 24, 2004. They were originally designed to operate for just 90 Martian days, or sols, with an outside possibility they might last a few months longer. In actuality—during the extended mission phase—they have endured light years beyond the mere three-month warranty proclaimed by NASA as the mission began with high hopes following the nail-biting so-called six minutes of terror as the twins plunged through the Martian atmosphere with no certainty as to the outcome of the landing.

Since 2004, the rovers’ longevity has far exceeded all expectations, and no one on the science and engineering teams that built and operate the twins can believe they lasted so long and produced so much.

Spirit and Opportunity have accomplished a remarkable series of scientific breakthroughs, far surpassing the wildest dreams of all the researchers and NASA officials. Indeed, both rovers are positioned at scientific goldmines on the red planet’s surface. Opportunity is still alive and trekking across the Martian plains, now 84 months into the three-month mission. By the time of her last dispatch from Gusev crater, Spirit had lasted for nearly six years of bonus mission time.

New images taken by the rovers appear at NASA’s Mars Rover websites on a continuing basis. The raw images have inspired myself and others to assemble panoramic mosaics from the individual snapshots to illustrate the broader context of what Spirit and Opportunity see. This blog post includes a few photomosaics created by Marco Di Lorenzo and myself to show the current environments explored by both rovers.

Spirit’s panoramic mosaic was taken on Sol 2175 in February 2010, a few weeks before entering hibernation mode in March 2010 just prior to the onset of her fourth winter on Mars. The Columbia Hills serve as a backdrop in this image.

Spirit last communicated with mission controllers back on Earth on March 22, 2010. The rover had entered hibernation mode as the autumn sunlight available to power her life giving solar arrays was diminishing. NASA hopes to reawaken Spirit from a long slumber and reignite her illustrious campaign of exploration and discovery. No one is giving up hope for Spirit, and NASA is stepping up operational efforts to contact the plucky rover since the amount of springtime Martian sunlight is now increasing over the next few months.

Although Spirit has been stalled at a place called Troy since April 2009, the rover made a significant science discovery at that exact spot. Spirit examined the soil in great detail and found key evidence that water, perhaps as snow melt, trickled into the subsurface fairly recently and on a continuing basis. While driving on the western edge of an eroded over volcanic feature named Home Plate, Spirit unknowingly broke through a hard surface crust (perhaps 1 cm thick) and sank into hidden soft sand beneath. At Troy, the rover discovered that the crust was comprised of water related sulfate materials and therefore found further evidence for the past flow of liquid water on the surface of Mars – a great science discovery! Our photomosaic shows the very last panoramic view taken by Spirit at Troy.

This collage of two maps and a new close up panorama of Santa Maria crater (bottom right) shows the route traversed by the Opportunity Mars rover during the seven-year overland expedition across the Meridiani Planum region of Mars.

Meanwhile, Opportunity is blazing a trail of discovery in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars. This rover completed exploration of the stadium-sized Santa Maria Crater which holds deposits of water bearing minerals that will further elucidate the potential for habitability on the red planet. The rover arrived at the western edge of the relatively fresh impact crater on December 16, 2010 (Sol 2451). This intermediate stop on the rover’s 19-kilometer journey from Victoria Crater to giant 14-kilometer-wide Endeavour Crater provides important ground truth observations to compare with the orbital detection of exposures of hydrated sulfate minerals.

Opportunity is driving to different vantage points around the steep walled crater and snapping a series of gorgeous Martian vistas. The rock-strewn crater is a Martian geologist’s dream. As our photomosaics show, the robot was imaged on New Year’s Eve in exquisite high resolution from Mars orbit while parked at the sharp edge as she was simultaneously snapping a multitude of awesome views peering inside the stunning and scientifically interesting crater.

Opportunity’s surface view of Santa Maria on New Years Eve Dec 31 while being photographed overhead from Mars Orbit. Opportunity took this panoramic mosaic just meters from the crater rim on Dec. 29, 2010 (Sol 2464). Note rover tracks near rim at left, relatively clean solar panel at right and numerous ejecta rocks.

Santa Maria is just six kilomters from the western rim of Endeavour which shows spectral signatures of phyllosilicates, or clay bearing minerals, which formed in water about four billion years ago and have never before been directly analyzed on the Martian surface.  Phyllosilicates form in neutral aqueous conditions that could have been more habitable and conducive to the formation of life than the later Martian episodes of more harshly acidic conditions in which the sulfates formed that Opportunity has already been exploring during her seven-year overland expedition. See the Astronomy Picture of the Day featuring Opportunity HERE.

Opportunity remains healthy and has abundant solar power for the final leg of the long eastward march to Endeavour, with arrival later in 2011. See the rover’s progress HERE. And click HERE for Google Mars.

Guest Blog: Leslie Adrienne Miller April 4, 2011

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April is National Poetry Month, so Lofty Ambitions welcomes poet Leslie Adrienne Miller to the Guest Blog spot today.

We met Leslie when she was on a panel about research and writing across the genres that Doug organized for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Anna had read and appreciated The Resurrection Trade and, though she and Leslie had never met, encouraged Doug to contact her because there was clearly a lot of research behind the poems in that book. We were especially interested because the research blurred the distinction between science and art. The anatomical images were fascinating and the way Leslie talked about their role in her research and writing made for a good conference talk, which she’s adapted for our blog.

Leslie Adrienne Miller is the author of six poetry collections, including Y, which is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2012. She teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Many of the poems in my collection The Resurrection Trade are ekphrastic pieces on anatomical images of women gleaned from archival materials. Initially inspired by my reading of Natalie Angier’s Woman, An Intimate Geography, where I first encountered the history of medical constructions and images of the female body (for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical works and the Hippocratic corpus), I became interested in the way misunderstandings about female anatomy persist long after science has presumably corrected them. These misunderstandings offered paradoxes that poetry could reframe in interesting ways.

Angier’s book led me to other, more detailed histories of art, anatomy and midwifery in Europe from the medieval period through the 19th century, historical depictions of pregnancy and the female body in art and science of the periods, advancements (so to speak) in female anatomy, and fascinating works on “the Resurrection Trade,” the business of grave robbing and its impact on the lives of women and families in 18th century Europe. I also made use of online image collections at libraries of medical history: the Bibliothèque de L’Académie Nationale de Médecine in Paris (which allowed me to spend valuable time with an original edition of Gautier D’Agoty’s amazing Anatomie des parties de la generation, 1773, from which portions of my title poem are drawn); the Wellcome Library in London, the National Library of Medicine’s “Dream Anatomy” Exhibition (from which the cover image comes), the Clendening Library in Kansas City, the Anatomia Collection at Fisher Medical Library in Toronto, the Delmas-Orfila-Rouvière Museum at the Paris Institut d’Anatomie, and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, to name a few.

Ludmilla Jordanova in her book Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries writes that “medicine bears an especially ambivalent relationship to the public/private dichotomy, in being rooted in the latter yet making claims in the former, a situation that explains the predisposition in medical writings and representations to the breaching of taboos” (52). When I read this passage, I understood clearly why this subject is so potent for poetry: poetry too has to navigate that odd dichotomy of public and private: forged in the intimacy of an individual’s mind, a poem, like an anatomical illustration, is a private act destined for a public audience, at once shockingly intimate and deliberately public.

Anatomie des parties de la génération de l’homme et de la femme by Jacques Fabien Gautier D’Agoty

The Resurrection Trade evolved with a focus in the 18th century where I found the real crux of the issues to reside in medical constructions of sexuality. It is the period of the enlightenment in Europe that brings anatomical studies completely into the same frame, historically, with issues of gender that interested me. It is also during the 18th century that the medical care of women passed largely from midwives, women themselves, into the hands (literally) of male doctors. Gross misunderstandings of female anatomy (comical and tragic) persisted well into the 20th century, and the seeds of these misunderstandings still reside in contemporary cultural constructions of women, as I hope the poems demonstrate via my juxtaposition of 20th century notions and ideas with those of earlier periods. I chose very specific stories and details to get at larger interdisciplinary issues: namely the intercourse, and/or lack thereof, between art and science, medical practice and science, and the history of gender construction as we find it written on the collective body of women.

In addition to Angier’s and Jordanova’s books, others that led very directly to poems in this collection included Elmer Belt’s Leonardo the Anatomist; Bynum and Porter’s William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World; Robert Dickinson’s (delightfully odd) Human Sex Anatomy: A Topographical Hand Atlas; Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany; and Nina Rattner Gelbart’s The King’s Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. The poems borrow freely from these sources and, I hope, serve as invitations to the reader to seek out these authors.

Antique medical drawings offer interest at so many levels: as the productions of working fine artists, they say something about art; as the tools of medical professionals, they say something about how we came to understand the physicality of the female body; as images which necessarily were almost always accompanied by text, they also have much to say about language[s]: hence my deliberate (mis)translations of notes in French accompanying the drawings, notes which seemed to say much more than the authors intended and, in combination with the images, allow us to look again at how science, art, and language itself have been co-conspirators in the construction of gender in the West. I’m certain there is more to learn and say and see in this area of study, but I intend the poems to offer a way in, to invite readers to indulge their own curiosity and collect their own idiosyncratic bodies of knowledge.

To view Dream Anatomy at the National Library of Medicine, click HERE.

Pie with Einstein March 14, 2011

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We’re working on our regular post for Wednesday, thinking about scale in the wake of the earthquake in Japan, and wishing things were better than they are there.

For now, we’ve distracted ourselves because today is Pi Day. The shorthand for today’s date is 3/14, and that’s the start of the numerical representation of the mathematical constant pi: 3.14. A circle’s circumference is always its diameter multiplied by pi. Because homonyms matter, celebrate today with a piece of your favorite kind of pie! In fact, it’s Pie Week at the Olde Ship, one of the places where we meet for our weekly writing night.

March 14 is also Albert Einstein’s birthday; he was born in 1879. When we created tags and a tag cloud for Lofty Ambitions just more than a week ago, we discovered that beer was somehow weightier than Uncle Albert. Today, we try to rebalance our attention.

Einstein Cartoon circa 1933

Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for discovery of the photoelectric effect and not for his special theory of relativity, though articles on both ideas were published in 1905. Sure, the photoelectric effect is important, but the slight of his work on relativity was a snubbing of his heritage, his pacifism, and his preference for thought experiments over the laboratory.

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson and J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life by Abraham Pais and Robert Crease both point to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s description of Albert Einstein’s character: “There was always in him a powerful purity at once childlike and stubborn.” Pais and Crease also quote Oppenheimer’s eulogy of Albert Einstein: “His presence among us stayed us from the worst folly, and touched those who knew him with the light of magnanimity.”

Albert Einstein 1921

For another take on Albert Einstein, click HERE to read what our Guest Blogger Brain Foster, a physicist and daily practitioner of the violin has to say. For the post in which we mention Einstein’s brain, click HERE.

Of course, Einstein—his life, his work—is enough fodder for a blog post—for many posts. But since this post is one of our on-this-date pieces in which we see how much we can reasonably cover, we turn to Gervais Raoul Lufbery, the French-American World War I pilot who was born on this date in 1885. Eddie Rickenbacker, another WWI ace, a native of Colmubus, Ohio, and CEO of Eastern Air Lines, credited Lufbery with the modern airport pattern—downwind-base-final—for visual flight rules. The Lufbery circle, however, which Lufbery may or may not have invented, is a defensive tactic in which planes, especially the slower bombers, fly in a horizontal circle when they come under attack. A circling of wagons, knowing that no one would take a wagon out without packing a rifle.

Frank Borman

Gene Cernan

March 14 is also the birthday of two other men who took to the air—and beyond. Apollo 8 and Gemini 7 astronaut Frank Borman was born on this date in 1928. Lest you think this post is a little weak on connections, Borman, like Rickenbacker, served as CEO of Eastern Air Lines. Eugene Cernan is the other astronaut born on March 14, in this case in Chicago in 1934. Cernan went to space on Gemini 9A, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17, when he became the last man to walk on the Moon. According to Rocket Men author Craig Nelson, who was in the OC last week, NASA conned the astronaut crew of Apollo 10 into believing they didn’t have enough fuel for a Moon landing, when they actually did.

Lucy Hobbs Taylor

But everyone talks about Einstein, and we spend a lot of blog space on astronauts. So here’s something new: Lucy Hobbs Taylor was born on March 14, 1833. Taylor was the first American female dentist. She studied and practiced in Ohio, Iowa, and Chicago—all places we’ve lived. Celebrate her birthday with Anna by going to the dentist this week!

Science Writing across Genres March 2, 2011

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Recently, we wrote about the Literary Science Writing panel at this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference (click here to read that post). Now, we’re recounting another AWP panel on science writing from last year’s conference in Denver: “Black Holes No More: The Importance of Science Storytelling Across All Genres.”

The panel was chockfull of well-published writers: M.G. Lord, Rebecca Skloot, Leslie Adrienne Miller, and Carol Muske-Dukes,.  M.G. Lord, author of Astro Turf, moderated the discussion. Latecomers who poked their noses in to decide if they were in the right place were provocatively inveighed to come in and sit down: “You’re in the right place. Science publishing is the last part of publishing still making money.” She then encouraged attendees who were already seated to pat themselves on the back for choosing to witness this panel, citing again the correlation that science publishing was the healthy part of a publishing industry hit hard by the economy and struggling to figure out the future of the book. The presence of new rock star Rebecca Skloot was the emphatic punctuation on Lord’s statements.

HeLa Cells

Rebecca Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Sixty critics called it one of the best books of 2010, and Oprah wants to make it into an HBO movie. Henrietta Lacks, a descendant of slaves, was a Southern tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge and used in a variety of scientific research. Her grave didn’t have a headstone until 2010, and her family didn’t know of HeLa cells until twenty years after her death. The story of HeLa cells—and of the development of the polio vaccine, cancer research, atomic effects testing, and more—is the story of science, ethics, and this woman. As Rebecca Skloot put it during the panel, “People need stories in order to read the science.”

Leslie Adrienne Miller, who was also on the panel about writing and research across genres that Doug organized for AWP 2010, is the author of five poetry collections. The most recent is The Resurrection Trade. That term—the resurrection trade—refers to the commerce involving corpses used for, among other things, anatomical study and the artwork that documents this study. Miller’s interest was in the women whose bodies are depicted in these drawings and paintings as well as in the bodies themselves. The poems explore how the female body—and its related stories—has been understood and misunderstood. She adds to the story of the science of anatomy by imagining the lives these women led and what happened to their physical selves.

Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)

In her talk, Leslie Adrienne Miller invoked a scientist who wrote poetry. We met Miroslav Holub while Anna was working on her MFA at the University of Maryland. After Holub’s reading, Michael Collier invited the passel of hangers-on out to the local watering hole to spend a few hours leaning in to hear the avuncular poet speak. When Doug asked why he thought more Americans weren’t writing poetry as well as having a career in science or another field, Miroslav Holub lamented that Americans worked too much, that we were putting our souls at risk because we focused on one thing—our job—intensely and left little room for complementary pursuits.

Holub is known for using scientific metaphors in his poems, which is a topic Carol Muske-Dukes discussed during the panel. Muske-Dukes, the author of seven poetry collections and four novels and California’s Poet Laureate, teaches just up the road from us at the University of Southern California, where she has occasion to converse with scientists. As soon as a theoretical physicist discovered she wasn’t conversant in math, he quickly switched to employing metaphor to talk about science. When she spoke with a molecular biologist, that scientist took longer to figure out she didn’t have the scientific language, but the metaphors ended up being much richer: “think molecular scissors.”

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

M. G. Lord’s book is the most autobiographical story in this particular mix (click here for an article Lord wrote about her writing). Astro Turf recounts the pain of growing up with a distant scientist father. The gap between daughter and father widens when her mother dies and her father retreats into his Cold War-era job as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.  Other gaps that Lord plugs include the gender gap in the sciences and the possible prevalence of Asperger’s syndrome among scientists and engineers. The story of the individual people offers insight about the larger field and the larger culture, too. As Lord writes in her book’s introduction, “Never mind the differences in age, ethnicity, and background, every engineer I spoke to is, in a psychological sense a stand-in for him [my father].”

The panel abstract contained a focus around which all the authors’ points coalesced: “the importance of filling gaps in history of science by recovering lost figures and dramatizing their stories.” All four panelists use their writing to recover stories that had been misplaced or forgotten. Most good science writing fills in gaps and dramatizes stories. Of course, the story doesn’t need to be lost to make for an important piece of science writing. Scientists talk with each other about HeLa cells and Mars rovers. But science writing isn’t about scientists writing for other scientists. Much of the story and history of science is obscured—perhaps hidden from daily view, perhaps made murky with unfamiliar jargon. Science writing translates science so that those of us who aren’t scientists can understand it too.

Literary Science Writing February 16, 2011

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Given that two-thirds of the mandate we set for ourselves here at Lofty Ambitions is Science and Writing (as a couple), it will come as little surprise that we hold science writing in particularly high esteem. In each of our lives, books about science have either confirmed that we were doing the right things with our lives—in our educations and our careers—or these books have spurred us on to investigate new or adjacent paths.

For Doug, reading Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb as an undergraduate proved to be a foundational experience. The first third of the book provided a compelling narrative of the development of early twentieth-century physics, a story that both confirmed his choice of physics as an undergraduate major and shifted his interest from artifacts to personalities so that he began to understand history as interwoven narratives. As Doug has worked on his novel about the Manhattan Project, Richard Rhodes’s book has been one of his go-to references.

Later, while Doug was employed at the NASA Center for AeroSpace Information, he read James Gleick’s Chaos and Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. These texts played an important part in persuading him to examine computers and computer science. While he was in graduate school, reading Matt Ridley’s Genome nearly convinced Doug to switch to computational biology and genomics.

Steven Johnson

Anna, too, has latched onto several books about science, some of which have shifted her thinking about what she does as a poet and as a teacher. Recently, as we’ve written at Lofty Ambitions, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From captured our imaginations—and offered some ways to explain how imagination and creative thinking work. That book made for interesting connections with other books that Anna had read on cognitive science, including Nancy Andreasen’s The Creating Brain, Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, and Lennard Davis’s Obsession.

Both of us also read Steven Johnson’s earlier book Emergence. It’s a fascinating exploration of collaboration, complexity, and the whole becoming more than the sum of its parts. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked gives a different take on the same subject; it offers more of the nitty-gritty explanation, but doesn’t get as swept up with the story. There exist a dozen other good books on this broad topic of networks. And Malcolm Gladwell tackles somewhat related subjects in Blink and Outliers, mixing science with its cultural context. We rather like those books that have the feel of storytelling, without sacrificing the science—and as writers ourselves, we admire such an achievement.

As we mentioned in last week’s post, at the most recent Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, Doug attended a panel on science writing, “Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared,” moderated by David Everett (also a colleague of our novel-writing friend Leslie Pietrzyk) and featuring Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, and Christopher Joyce. Because of our own reading preferences, we latched onto one of the panel’s takeaway ideas: the best science writing isn’t as much about science as it is about people.

The first panelist to speak was James Shreeve, author of The Genome War, The Neandertal Enigma, and (with Donald Johanson, discoverer of the first Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy) Lucy’s Child. Shreeve’s experience in researching and writing Lucy’s Child and The Neandertal Enigma likely led to the panel’s best literature-themed one-liner: “In science, paleoanthropology is as close as you can get to FICTION [writing].” He followed up with a quip to amplify his point about how a detail becomes a story: “Look, a tooth! Must have been a tool-user.”

Creative Commons

James Watson, 2003

Shreeve talked of his own reading preferences and influences at the begging of his career as a science writer: James Watson’s Double Helix and Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation. Even now, he holds David Quammen’s “Strawberries under Ice” in particularly high regard. Along with reading, what jump-started Shreeve’s career was his willingness to knock on doors and say, “What are you doing?” The answers to that question led to much of his own writing over the years. No wonder that he emphasized that great science writing is focused on people and that, in his words, “Science writing’s great advantage over literary fiction: there’s always something to write about.”

Nancy Shute, president of the National Association of Science Writers and a blogger for U.S. News and World Report, spoke next. Shute thought enough of Jonathon Weiner’s Time, Love, Memory—which discusses the life of Seymour Benzer, a physicist who became a molecular biologist, and his work on Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly)—to make special mention of it. Shute also offered the following perspective on writing about science: “Science gives us a way to grapple with how the world works—and how the world works on US.”

Charles Darwin

The final panelist was Christopher Joyce, a science correspondent for National Public Radio and author of Witnesses from the Grave. A touchstone for which people often reach when discussing the intersection of Literature (with a capital “L”) and science writing is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Joyce indicated that, as an exemplar of literary writing, Darwin doesn’t make the cut, but that E. O. Wilson does a better job.  (Anna quibbles with Wilson’s overarching approach in Consilience, because it privileges science over the arts, but we do appreciate his style.) Joyce described that his own goal as a radio correspondent was to make “a little movie in your head.”

Writing and doing science, as distinct endeavors, have much in common; both activities seek to make sense of some aspect of the world: observed, experienced directly, or imagined. As the “Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared” panel made clear (and as our own reading experiences have shown us), when the activities merge in the form of writing about doing science, the outcome spans the gamut from turgid recitations of facts and figures to narratives that speak deeply to the human condition. One of the happiest outcomes of attending the recent panel was coming away with a reinvigorated reading list. We always welcome suggestions of good science books to read.

Happy Birthday, Colo! December 22, 2010

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Wikipedia Public Domain

Colo, the Gorilla

On this date in 1956, Colo was born. Her birth marked the first time a gorilla was born in captivity. And she’s thrived better than most. At 54 years of age today, Colo is the oldest captive gorilla living in the world. She shares today as her birthday with her grandson J.J.

Colo’s mother rejected her at birth. This rejection is a relatively common but not fully understood occurrence for captive-born gorillas. This lack of understanding isn’t particularly surprising, as researchers don’t know much about gorilla births in the wild. Her early human caretakers, who hand-reared the baby gorilla, briefly referred to her as Cuddles. Her name was chosen through a contest and is short for her birthplace: COLumbus, Ohio. Those caretakers bottle-fed Colo and dressed her in clothes. Colo would go on to bear three children of her own, with her mate Bongo. She did not raise those gorillas, though Colo did care for twin grandchildren.

On the one hand, anthropomorphizing this gorilla—dressing her in clothes, referring to second-generation offspring as grandchildren—is evidence of our own self-centeredness. It’s awfully presumptive to think that Colo shares our emotions and ways of thinking about the world. When we project our thoughts and feelings onto an animal—or another human, for the matter—to explain their behavior, we may miss the opportunity to understand that individual more deeply.

Empathy is a tricky thing; it depends on our ability to understand and project our own emotions, but ultimately requires the broader ability to understand another’s perspective in addition to our own. In the issue of American Scholar out this week, Richard Restak explains that the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain “is concerned with representing our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well as providing us with representations of the mental states of other people.” When we anthropomorphize gorillas without understanding their mental states, though, we may jump to conclusions and miss other interesting and relevant possibilities.

On the other hand, it’s no wonder we think of these great apes as very much like humans. Depending on how one parses it, since some genes vary more than others, gorillas share about their 95% of DNA with human beings. The chimpanzee and bonobo are our only closer genetic relatives, with 98% similarity. We remember first coming across this fact, at the Columbus Zoo, where Colo has lived all her life. We read the fact on a placard as we watched a woman bottle-feed a bonobo behind the glass.

Wikipedia Creative Commons

Gorillia Habitats (image by Zoologist/Creative Commons)

Gorilla gestation is about 8½ months, nearly identical to that of humans. Baby gorillas stay with their mothers for three or four years, a timeframe reminiscent of human children, who generally, in the United States, go off to kindergarten at age five. Females mature at about age 11, often earlier in captivity. Human girls reach menarche at about age 12, often earlier if heavier. Gorillas have even been seen having sex face to face.

We’ve long known apes are social animals, living in troops with one or a few mature males, several females, and their young. Recent studies indicate that gorillas may be empathetic, too, which makes sense for social creatures. Richard Restak, in his discussion of empathy in humans, links our social nature with our ability to empathize: “The research finding that out thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others are processed in the same brain areas confirms what sages and religious thinkers have been saying throughout the ages: we’re not isolated components in an impersonal social network but, rather, deeply social creatures capable of imagining each other’s internal experiences.”

What if apes, being social creatures, are also empathizers? One researcher points out that both humans and apes console each other after, say, a defeat, whereas monkeys do not. In 2008, a gorilla in a German zoo clutched her dead baby, the second offspring she had rejected, and the zookeeper there said that mothers in the wild sometimes carry around their dead babies for weeks. Researchers in Scotland observed chimpanzees dealing with an impending death through increased grooming of the sick chimp. The chimps suffered fitful sleep in the immediate wake of the death and avoided the spot where the chimp had died. Another researcher found that orangutans share the phenomenon of contagious laughing with humans. Still other research shows that ape babies make pouting faces to get their mothers’ attention and, in one experiment, tried to make the experimenter smile.

Wikipedia Public DomainWe know, too, that gorillas use tools, turning sticks into digging implements or weapons. And there’s Koko, the gorilla who has been taught sign language to communicate with humans (see video below). Koko is the subject of a long-term research project. Because gorillas don’t have the physical capacity for human speech, the researchers use sign language with Koko to study interspecies communication and its possibilities. The thinking is that each species has its own communication system; gorillas use gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations to communicate with each other. And some species are sufficiently intelligent and aware to be taught ways, like American Sign Language, to communicate with humans; Koko scored in the 80s and 90s on IQ tests. One wonders whether her researchers would do as well on a test designed and administered by Koko.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the Western Gorilla—Colo’s species—as critically endangered. IUCN uses this classification based on projections, as of 2008, that the gorilla is likely to face an 80% population reduction over three generations (66 years, from 1980 to 2046). Hunting—poaching—and disease, particularly Ebola, have devastated the wild gorilla population in Africa over the last two decades. Mining, the timber industry, farming, and climate change threaten the gorillas’ habitat. The Eastern Gorilla—the Mountain and Eastern Lowland gorillas—is considered endangered, but not yet critically endangered. Twenty years ago, the Western Gorilla—the Western Lowlad and Cross River gorillas—was considered vulnerable; ten years ago, this gorilla was endangered. Now, this gorilla is critically endangered, and the next step on this trajectory is to become extinct in the wild.

This morning, Nancy Roe Pimm was on hand at the Columbus Zoo to sign her book Colo’s Story. The zoo celebrated Colo’s birthday with cake for the apes, and special cake for the zoo’s visitors too. More than a year ago, Colo was anesthetized for a series of medical tests, because her keepers worried about her bouts of fasting and lethargy. She seemed to be depressed, perhaps showing signs of aging. But the tests showed nothing wrong physically, and her heart was strong. Undoubtedly, Colo didn’t think of her lethargy, medical tests, or her birthday party today the same way the humans do. Yet this celebration offers Lofty Ambitions an opportunity to ponder how animals are studied and considered.


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