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Beautiful Science December 21, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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Last week, we wrote about a temporary exhibit at the Huntington Library. Today is the anniversary of Kelly Johnson’s death. We mentioned several of Kelly Johnson’s written pieces in last week’s blog because he was a central figure in Southern California’s aviation history. Read about “Blue Sky Metropolis” HERE.

Past that exhibit is an ongoing display called “Beautiful Science.” Most science museums, while relatively aesthetically inviting as spaces, especially in the sense of being navigable, don’t emphasize the aesthetics of science itself and the artistic representation of science. The Huntington Library uses its texts and artifacts to show the art in science as well as science as art.

Yesterday, after she submitted her grades, Anna traipsed off to a physical bookstore, a reminder that we are writers and have specific writing tasks we want to accomplish over the holiday break. Among her purchases was the annual anthology of The Best American Science Writing. In their introduction, the editors Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Floyd Skloot, Rebecca’s father and author of In the Shadow of Memory, write the following:

“[I]n our experiences, the arts and sciences are more alike than not: both involve following hunches, lingering questions, and passions; perfecting the art of productive daydreaming without getting lost in it; being flexible enough to follow the research wherever it leads you, but focused enough to never lose sight of your larger direction and goals. There’s an alchemy that occurs when art and science come together, when the tools of narrative, voice, imagery, setting, dialog, are brought to bear on biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and their various combinations.”

That overview echoes the impetus behind and experience of “Beautiful Science.” In fact, an early placard in the exhibition says of observation, “Our desire to understand and organize the living world has been a story of wonder, curiosity, and discovery. Observation has led to text and imagery that have matched our changing perceptions of nature’s order.” In other words, the way we write about and represent science tells us a lot about ourselves as well as about the world around us.

And the Huntington Library’s exhibit runs the gamut of the sciences, from illustrations of flora and fauna to anatomical dissection drawings to displays of dozens of light bulbs. Of course, the exhibit includes texts, notably numerous mathematical texts with varying amounts of formulas and illustration, but also a letter from Albert Einstein. Perhaps the most interesting display is of edition after edition of Origin of the Species, sweeping in linear feet along two walls.

Like any good science writing, “Beautiful Science” asks you to read, to look closely at the universe around you, and to keep thinking about the ideas it offers up.

Letter from Albert Einstein, 1913

Edwin Hubble’s Logbook, 1923

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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
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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.

The Original Renaissance Man April 15, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration, Writing.
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Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci

Last night, we wandered over to the Leatherby Libraries balcony to watch a rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base off to the west, on the coast of Southern California. The payload was super-secret, launched for the National Reconnaissance Office at 9:24p.m. At first, we weren’t sure that the red dot in the distance was the Atlas 5 rocket. But as it rose, the flame became more discernable. Within five minutes, the rocket arced overhead toward the southeast, into the mission’s news blackout, and into the ink-black sky, an apt metaphor for the people who will control the satellite’s function, whatever that may be.

Today, we woke to Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday. He’s a favorite of ours because he was exceptionally curious about many things. He invented a bobbin winder that was useful in his own lifetime and composed plans for a helicopter that couldn’t possibly have been built in the days of yore. He thought solar power was a good idea and developed a basic understanding of earthquakes and plate tectonics. He liked to collaborate, he made accurate maps, and he played the lyre pretty well. Of course, he’s best known as a painter and regarded especially for his ability to render the human figure and also the draping of clothes. He was born on April 15, 1492—more than 500 years ago!

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Here are our five suggestions for celebrating da Vinci’s birthday through the weekend:

  • Make an appointment for your annual physical. Da Vinci drew the human skeleton, the vascular system, and other internal organs.
  • Book an airline flight. United Airlines has a deal for Chicagoans to fly to Tulsa this weekend for $140. Southwest Airlines has sale fares to Newark. Leonardo drew many concept flying machines, some of which have since been built, a few of which actually work.
  • Paint that room you’ve been meaning to paint all winter. Leonardo’s painting accomplishments include Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
  • If you can’t paint, smirk like Mona Lisa. Or pluck your eyebrows.
  • Write left-handed, for that’s what da Vinci did. In fact, write left-handed and backwards, because that’s the way he seems to have written in his journals. One codex of scientific materials was purchased in 2007 for more than $30 million by Bill Gates. To see a page from another of his notebooks, visit the British Museum HERE.

Lest you think Leonardo da Vinci’s is the only birthday to celebrate, tomorrow is the anniversary of Wilbur Wright’s natal day. Whenever there’s a reason to celebrate the Wright brothers, we recommend a punny homage: going out to drink a flight of beer.

Dorothy Wordsworth

And here’s today’s bonus for National Poetry Month and to celebrate the science of botany (though unfortunately, without recoding for stanza breaks). On April 15, 1802, poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, who kept copious notes from which he drew material for his poems, came upon some gorgeous yellow daffodils.

I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD

William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

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