jump to navigation

Five French Scientists March 25, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
add a comment

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

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

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

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

René Decartes (1596-1650)

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

Prosper Ménière (1799-1862)

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

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

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

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Annual Anthologies (3) June 3, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

[Keep reading about science writing at Lofty Ambitions HERE or use the tag cloud in the right sidebar.]

The Best American Essays 2012, Series Editor Robert Atwan

Even those nonfiction writers who focus on science are often interested in the essay form regardless of the topic covered. And science writing makes its way into this annual collection of the best nonfiction from periodicals, which was edited by commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks this past year.

ScienceBooksSix of the 24 essays were first published in The New Yorker or some iteration of The New York Times, and Harper’s and Granta each have two bests in this collection. So, readers can expect to find familiar publications and familiar authors represented. Blink and The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell contributes “Creation Myth,” and Einstein’s Dreams and The Discoveries author Alan Lightman contributes “The Accidental Universe” (which also appears in The Best American Science Writing 2012).

One of the most relevant science-writing pieces in this collection is Ken Murray’s “How Doctors Die,” originally published at Zócalo Public Square. This essay fits into a conversation of several recent articles, including Jonathan Rausch’s “How Not To Die” and David Goldhill’s “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” both published in The Atlantic. “Almost all medical professionals,” Murray writes, “have seen what we call ‘futile care’ being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life.” A physician himself, he claims that medical professionals “don’t overtreat themselves” in the ways they overtreat the rest of us.

Six of the anthology’s contributions are written by women, and two of these can be considered science writing. Both discuss the state of mental health and treatment options.

GlobeMarcia Angell’s “The Crazy State of Psychiatry” uses the book review approach to challenge common assumptions about mental illness and illuminate “the ‘frenzy’ of diagnosis, the overuse of drugs with sometimes devastating side effects, and widespread conflicts of interest.” In addition to asking readers to ponder the current state of mental illness treatment, it’s an essay that fits into recent the conversation about the rise of the pharmaceutical industry, including Harriet Washington’s “Flacking for Big Pharma” in The American Scholar.

Lauren Slater’s in “Killing My Body to Save My Mind” uses a very different, autobiographical approach. She writes of switching to an atypical antipsychotic after her antidepressants stopped working, “At the time I was given Zyprexa, I was so desperate I couldn’t have cared less about diabetes, and my doctor’s warning that I might plump up as a side effect of the drug fell on deaf ears.” She sees this drug as something that saved her life but one that has left her with a likely shortened life because of the physical side effects.

That two writers can tackle similar subject matter in very different ways is reason for writers to read around in a particular area of interest but also beyond one’s comfort zone of subject matter. That’s one reason why annual anthologies are appealing to us at Lofty Ambitions. As writers, we read selfishly, honing the tools we can use to do our own thing on the page and screen. Of course, as readers, we learn about the world around us as we read science writing, and the nonfiction pieces in this and other anthologies are brimming with information we can use as we decide how to live our lives.

We suggest you purchase a copy of The Best American Essays 2012 at your local physical bookstore, or consider ordering a copy from Tattered Cover HERE.

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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

The Best American Science Writing 2012, Series Editor Jesse Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

Also see Part 1 of “Science Writing at AWP 2013.”

We like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions, but attending an AWP panel that is comprised of Pireeni Sundaralingam, Alan Lightman, C. Dale Young, and Sandra Alcosser tends to make one pause, get a little introspective, and ask, “Could I be working just a tad bit harder?”

AWP 2012: Lofty Ambitions bundled up in Chicago

Three of the four panelists are writers who happen to moonlight as accomplished scientists (Sundaralingam and Lightman) and a physician (Young). The fourth panelist (Alcosser) is a poet who has collaborated deeply with scientists, particularly in the area of the environment. When we originally saw the panel “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction” in the program, we were hoping for a craft panel. Our initial disappointment at finding out that the event was a reading was short-lived, disappearing completely once the artists began sharing their work.

Light BulbsThe first reading was from poet Sandra Alcosser. Alcosser is the author of seven books including Except by Nature, Sleeping Inside the Glacier (for which she collaborated with the artist Michele Burgess), and A Fish to Feed All Hunger and is co-director of the MFA program at San Diego State University. She was also Montana’s first poet laureate and has called Big Sky Country her home for more than thirty years. Alcosser began her reading by defining a word that was new to the Lofty Duo: Zugunruhe. Alcosser told us that scientists had appropriated the word from German—its literal meaning is “move” + “restlessness”—in their attempts to explain the human desire for travel. And travel she did. Drawn from her newest book, Alcosser read a sequence of poems that ranged over human experience: Serbian myth in The Winged Hussars, a widowed cellist’s musical elegy for his dead wife in The Blue Vein, and a scientist’s work on a blood ranch—raising lambs whose blood would be used to feed a zoo’s vampire bats—in Lamb of God. Alcosser also mentioned her recent tenure as a poet-in-residence at the Brookfield Zoo. This work was a part of a larger project, The Language of Conservation, sponsored by Poets House. A pdf of the book that resulted can be found here.

The panel was heavy on poets and poetry. This happy occurrence dovetailed neatly with Robert Fredericks’ comment in the previous science writing panel; he said something to the effect that scientists are the second heaviest user of metaphors after poets.

The second panelist to read was poet C. Dale Young. Young balances his writing career with a career as a physician. As a part of his writing life, Young is the poetry editor for New England Review and teaches at Warren Wilson College. Interestingly, Young’s MFA preceded his MD, which is contrary to the way we often think of artists whom are also scientists. Each of the poems in Young’s reading–“Influence,” “Sigma,” “The Ether Dome,” and “Sepsis”–were directly concerned with medicine and science. Young preceded his reading of “Sigma” with a touch of irony by relating how he loathed mathematics, particularly statistics, as an undergrad. Naturally, in his career as a physician, he wound up in the one field in medicine that makes use of math on a daily basis, radiation oncology.

This particular comment resonated deeply with Doug. Once, as an undergrad, Doug swore that the last thing he would do with his life was to write software. This, of course, is a perversely un-prescient act by someone who would go on to spend much of his career in IT and writing software. Observing events like this in his life and the lives of others has led us to occasionally posit to friends that, perhaps, irony is the most powerful force in the universe. This semester Doug is teaching programming to a classroom largely comprised of Creative Writing majors. Oh, the circular irony of it all.

Anatomical Dissection HeadThe Lofty duo have been fans of the next panelist since we encountered Einstein’s Dreams. Alan Lightman was the first person at MIT to hold appointments in both the humanities and the sciences. Lightman’s books Einstein’s Dreams and Good Benito have been praised for their seamless blend of spare, lyrical prose and physics, specifically general relativity. For the panel, he read from his novel Reunion. Lightman’s reading elicited enormous laughter as he shared the second chapter from the novel. The chapter relates the curious fictional story of German astronomer/lothario Carl Schmeken. Schmeken is fond of naming the asteroids that he discovers for his lovers: Asteroid Catrina 1894, Asteroid Eva 1894, Asteroid Ilsa 1895, and Asteroid Winifried 1895. The chapter takes a humorous turn when Schmeken meets the woman he surely hopes will result in the discovery and naming of Asteroid Lena 1898. Instead, after being rebuffed by the young Lena Hammans, Schmeken falls apart, and 1898 is the end of the astronomer’s career. As longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know, we never pass up a chance to mention serendipity. Here’s a sentence that describes Lena’s realization after observing Schmeken’s reaction to being rebuffed by her: “She was shocked that a man of science could act in such a way, until she understood sometime later that sex is the most powerful force in the universe.” While we appreciate Lightman’s use of his character to proffer an alternative theory, until we see more evidence, we’re sticking with irony and serendipity as the most powerful forces in the universe.

The panel’s final reading came from the moderator, Pireeni Sundaralingam. Sundaralingam was the third poet on the panel, and she is also trained as a cognitive scientist. In fact, she has managed to make the intersection of art and science the focus of her scientific work. Her dissertation was on metaphor and the brain, and she is currently writing a book about poetry, the brain, and perception. Sundaralingam’s selection of poems intimately stitched together art and science. In particular, her poem “Vermont, 1885” rendered the story of W. A. Bentley, the first person to photograph a snowflake, into compelling verse.

We founded Lofty Ambitions together, a poet and a computer scientist, as a way for the two of us to combine some of our lifelong interests by writing about aviation and science. And we like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions. We emerged from the two science writing panels that we attended at this year’s AWP invigorated and focused in a way that we know will allow us to continuing doing this thing that we call Lofty Ambitions.

Guest Blog: M. G. Lord February 6, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Guest Blogs, Writing.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

M. G. Lord  is a cultural critic, journalist, and the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, and The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.  Since 1995, she has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the Arts & Leisure section. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the  New Yorker, Vogue, The Wall Street JournalLos Angeles Times, Travel + Leisure, and Artforum. She teaches at the University of Southern California and will anchor the nonfiction division at the first annual Yale Writers Conference in New Haven this summer.

Photo by Collin Thalken

We became interested in M. G. Lord’s work after Doug saw her present on a panel about science writing at the Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference. You can read our post about that panel HERE. After that, Anna read Lord’s book Astro Turf (lots of good Jet Propulsion Laboratory stuff) and, when the opportunity arose, invited Lord to participate in the upcoming AWP panel on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that Lofty Ambitions is featuring each of the presenters on that creative nonfiction panel. Click HERE for the post by Kristen Iversen, author of the forthcoming Full Body Burden. Click HERE for the post by Jeff Porter, author of Oppenheimer is Watching Me. Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium and A Safeway in Arizona, will be our next guest blogger. And if you’re in Chicago on March 2, join us at 1:30p.m. in the Hilton, Continental B.

We’re especially interested in what she’s doing now, namely collaborating on her next book project, which has to do with neuroscience, and, in the process, exploring the technology of drawing.


On February first, Bloomsbury USA published my new book, The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. As you may glean from the title, this is a departure from my previous book, Astro Turf, a family memoir of aerospace culture during the Cold War and an informal history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both books, however, have a common attribute—one that, I suspect has blighted books since Gutenberg invented moveable type: Publication is hell. Or, in any event, publication taxes an author’s nerves.

My strategy for dealing with such stress is to avoid anything written about my work, whether it’s positive or negative. Instead, I immerse myself in a fresh project, ideally one that has little in common with the book under scrutiny. This means not only a different subject but also a new medium. That brings me to my latest endeavor. In collaboration with Dr. Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist who also happens to be an opera singer, I am working on a graphic novel that has to do with the brain.

By working, I mean both writing and drawing, the latter of which today seems more like engineering than art. Two decades ago, when I retired from a 12-year run as a political cartoonist for Newsday, all a caricaturist needed to excel was hand-eye coordination and a mean spirit. I drew malicious pictures with a crow quill pen on Bristol board. But in 2012, the best graphic artists are also software virtuosos. They render some or all of their cartoons digitally, either scanning pen-and-ink drawings into the computer or executing an entire image in a program such as Adobe Illustrator.

To say I lack an aptitude for engineering would be a gross understatement. Never mind that I developed great admiration for engineers while writing Astro Turf. Initially, I was so intimidated by the drawing software that I hired a tutor to help me with it—or, more accurately, to help me decide whether mastery was a realistic possibility. Our first session—on my tutor’s equipment—was psychologically brutal. After two hours of scanning existing drawings and manipulating them in Adobe Photoshop, we moved to the true baptism of fire: drawing directly on a tablet connected to the computer.

Aerial View of JPL (NASA)

All political cartoonists of my vintage—I was in college in the late 1970s—can draw Richard Nixon in their sleep. During Watergate, I taught myself to render the disgraced President on an Etch-a-Sketch, which back then was an eye-popping parlor trick. Compared with a tablet, however, the Etch-a-Sketch is an inexpensive, effortless drawing tool. Now, I faced a pricy, counterintuitive torture device. After another hour of tutoring, I managed to scratch out a digital approximation of Nixon’s flapping jowls and ski-jump beak. And I decided to commit both time and money to embracing the digital future.

Tablets come in two main styles: one on which you draw but your marks appear on a separate monitor; the other that is itself a monitor, so that you see what you have drawn beneath your stylus rather than feet away. As you can imagine, the latter iteration is pricier than the former. I was planning to go the cheap route until the universe sent me a message not to. Last month, a lifestyle magazine asked me to interview Rodolphe Guenoden, a DreamWorks animation supervisor. I expected we would talk about animated movies. But Guenoden’s great passion is graphic novels, and he showed me how he used hardware and software to render them digitally. He made drawing on a Wacom Cintiq—a tablet that also functions as a monitor—seem almost intuitive. I watched him change the way his lines appeared, simulating brushstrokes, pen lines, pencil marks. And I bought the Cintiq.

True, it took me three hours with a tutor to set it up. And another 45 minutes to figure out how to define the margins on a page. In the old days, with a T-square, I could pencil in margins while blindfolded. My hand still reaches for the pens and brushes on my desk. But I allow it to—even Guenoden does his initial storyboarding on paper.

A steep learning curve awaits. But that is exactly what I want. It is guaranteed to distract me from the vicissitudes of publication.

On This Date: Five Notable Events October 30, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

On October 30, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a secret document mandating that the United States maintain and develop its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Just four years later, on this same date, the Soviet Union detonated the largest explosive device ever, Tsar Bomba. The estimated yield was 50 megatons, which is almost one-and-a-half times the power of the combined yield of the two bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For one brief moment, Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Yet Tsar Bomba was one of the cleanest—least fallout relative to yield—nuclear weapons tests. We wrote more about this nuclear test in “Measuring the Unthinkable” and included a video of the detonation there.

Today is also the anniversary of the launch of space shuttle Challenger’s last successful mission, STS-61A. The 1985 Spacelab mission was astronaut Guion Bluford’s second. His first mission two years earlier was the first time an African-American had been to space. The only woman on Challenger’s last successful crew, the first crew of eight, was Bonnie Dunbar. STS-61A was her first of five shuttle missions. In addition to performing science experiments, the crew launched the Global Low Orbiting Messaging Relay satellite, a proof-of-concept for military communications. Challenger’s last landing was at Edwards Air Force Base on November 6, 1985.

We have several other posts that talk about Challenger, including “Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia” and “25th Anniversary of the Challenger Accident.” In addition, we have guest posts by Roger Boisjoly, Allan McDonald, and Richard Cook, three engineers involved in the launch that day.

Today is also the fourth anniversary of the death of Washoe, a chimpanzee and the first non-human to communicate with American Sign Language. She was originally captured for use in the space program but ended up in Nevada, then the University of Oklahoma, and later Central Washington University She died at the age of 42. The New York Times obituary notes that not all scientists agree that Washoe and others like her were really communicating, not without signals and prompts from her trainers. But Washoe opened up a lot of questions and led to a great deal of additional research into learning and communication across species. See our birthday post for Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity HERE.

On a cheerier note and with a linguistic, if not exactly topical connection, to the usual subject matter of Lofty Ambitions, today is Grace Slick’s 72nd birthday. Born Grace Barnett Wing in Evanston, Illinois, where Anna’s mother grew up, Grace Slick joined Jefferson Airplane in 1966. After that band split up, Grace and some bandmates formed Jefferson Starship. In 2006, Virgin America Airlines named its first aircraft Jefferson Airplane.

Virgin Galactic, another entity in the Virgin conglomerate, is now booking seats. If you want to go to space, all you need is a $20,000 deposit and the full $200,000 when they’re ready to launch. Click HERE to reserve a spot. We wrote about one of their most recent hires, Mike Moses, the shuttle program’s Launch Integration Manager in “I Remember California: I Remember Mike Moses.”





GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1) September 4, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the bridgekeeper asks three questions, much like the security questions now used for credit card accounts. What is your name? Lofty Ambitions. What is your quest? GRAIL. What is your favorite colour? According to Crayola, America’s favorite color is blue. We suppose this bridgekeeper’s question calls for a separate post on color and the light spectrum.

In just a few days, Doug will head off to an event that feels like a mixture of old and new, familiar and strange, routine and unexpected. He’ll return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for another lofty quest: GRAIL, or the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory. The two GRAIL spacecraft, identical twins, are scheduled to launch on Thursday, September 8, and Doug is covering the days surrounding the launch as part of the GRAIL Tweetup.

FOLLOW DOUG’S TWITTER FEED: http://twitter.com/#!/dougdechow

In addition to tagging this series with its title, we’ll also use the tag GRAILTweetup to make it easier to follow on Twitter.

We didn’t expect to head back to the Space Coast. At least, we didn’t expect to return this year, soon after witnessing the last-ever space shuttle launch. We are somewhat stunned that NASA finds itself unable to launch human beings into space and remains unprepared to articulate a consistent, achievable future for human space exploration. Our rational, logical selves understand how much simpler and more effective lifeless, robotic space probes are. The Voyager twins may be among humankind’s greatest achievements, whizzing out of the earth’s ecliptic plane and on to whatever cold, dark fate awaits them. They have traveled farther from the sun than Pluto, which was classified as a planet when they left Earth in 1977. But few people take notice of them. Few will mourn the passing of lifeless, robotic space probes, no matter their accomplishments.

We owe a lot to NASA. Maybe that’s why our thoughts about the space program are not always completely rational and logical. Doug’s first memory in and of life is watching Apollo on television as a tyke. His first job out of college was as an abstractor and indexer at NASA’s Center for AeroSpace Information, a job that helped keep us fed, clothed, and adequately lodged for three of the most invigorating years of our lives together. Doug’s job at NASA coincided with us striking out alone together, far from our families and homes and into the cultural-political fray that is the metropolitan D.C. area.

Over the past whirlwind year, NASA employees have guided us to understand and interact with the world in new ways. News Center flacks like Allard Beutel, security guards like Omar Izquierdo, volunteers like Matthew Baker, and engineers like Stephanie Stilson (see our interview with Stilson HERE) have been some of the most competent and conscientious professionals with which we’ve ever dealt. They’ve helped us become more eager journalists (two posts on that subject are HERE and HERE), more informed bloggers, and more interesting people.

We’ve traveled enough in the past year that we now think of airport codes—MCO—instead of stopover and destination cities. Three years ago, when we were just settling into our new life in Southern California, if a soothsayer had foretold of our year cycling between SNA and MCO, we might have stared at each other blankly, wondering how and why we’d end up working for The Mouse. After three years, when we mention that we haven’t yet been to either Disney theme park, others stare blankly or get embarrassed for us. Even Mike Coats, the Director of Johnson Space Center, chastised Anna for never having experienced the pixie dust (see that interview HERE). But it hasn’t yet made our list of things to do. It can wait.

Six weeks ago, GRAIL wasn’t on our list of things to do. Then, NASA sent out a call to Twitter users, and Doug was chosen to participate in the meet-and-greet that is the next NASA Tweetup. NASA has become avid about social media. The Tweetup tents for the last three launches were air-conditioned and had separate high-speed wireless that worked better in the hour after launch than that for the press. Two NASA websites won Webby Awards this year, and Astronaut Doug Wheelock won a Shorty Award for an image of the Moon he tweeted. If you don’t follow Astro_Mike, you’re not getting the most space geek out of your social networking. Mike Massimino has more than 1.2 million followers on Twitter.

For a while, people lamented that the rise of video games and personal computers would make us all more isolated from each other. Each of us would be holed up in our offices and our homes, interacting only with an individual machine. While Nicholas Carr in The Shallows and others point to cognitive changes that remain disconcerting, Facebook and Twiiter and all the rest of social media have connected us in ways we couldn’t imagine ten years ago. Social networking allows us to stay in touch with friends we haven’t seen in years, and it invites people who might otherwise never encounter one another into larger social networks—perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but far from isolated. Fears that technology would further distance people from each other physically and emotionally seem to have been unfounded.

Plenty of people go about their days without Facebook or Twitter. Some people don’t bother with the internet at all and get along just fine, though they’re missing a chance to read this post. When Anna’s mom invested in an iPad, scrolled through photos right away (this weekend, she’s reliving the national Elvis impersonator semi-finals), played virtual solitaire for hours, and even started sending email messages, we knew her world had changed. NASA is all in too, and space geeks are using Facebook pages, a wiki, Google docs, and a variety of social media to share information about GRAIL instantly. And the virtual interaction supports the in-person gathering, including a barbeque, that will be this coming week’s Tweetup.

This trip to the Space Coast, therefore, will be different because Doug will view the events through the lens of the Tweetup. He’ll be busy looking for Nichelle Nichols and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This trip will also be different because Anna is staying home, working with her graduate and undergraduate students to create together a (private) cross-course blog about poetry. Together, we will negotiate, for the first time, how to co-write posts while separated by 3000 miles. We plan to post every day this week! Check back to see how we manage.

GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 2)

Last Chance to See (Part 12) July 15, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: , , ,

“Jet lag,” muttered one of his friends, “long trip from California. Really mucks you up for a couple of days.”

“I don’t think he’s been there at all,” muttered another. “I wonder where he has been. And what’s happened to him.”

~Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Countdown to Atlantis

In our blog anniversary post (click HERE for that one), we tried to make a sort of sense of what we’ve been doing over the past year. That was on July 1, before we headed off to the Space Coast for the last-ever space shuttle launch. This past week has been an intense physical and emotional experience in which we’ve lost track of time. We’re settling back into our regular routines; Anna went to the dry cleaner and the grocery store; Doug returned to his daily job at the library. But our attention remains on STS-135 too.

Atlantis and the International Space Station are now orbiting our planet at roughly 17,500 miles an hour. That means the astronauts experience a sunrise and sunset every hour-and-a-half or so, making for more than 15 shuttle space days for every Earth day, if we define a day by sunrise. But shuttle astronauts in space don’t mark time that way. Instead, their clock (and that big countdown clock you saw on NASA-TV and CNN last Friday) ticks off mission elapsed time (MET). At twenty-four hours MET, Flight Day 2 begins.

At the beginning of each flight day, the astronauts are awakened with a song from Earth. Music marks time for them in a less precise, more culturally inflected way than MET. On Flight Day 2, that wake-up song was “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay, picked by Pilot Doug Hurley. Coldplay has awakened shuttle astronauts three times before.

For Flight Day 3, Commander Chris Ferguson chose “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. It’s the fourth time E.L.O. has awakened a shuttle crew.

Countdown to Endeavour

And what did Mission Specialist and native Illinoisan Sandy Magnus choose for Flight Day 4? “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down. Not a bad message for NASA right now.

Flight Day 5 started with “More” by Matthew West, chosen by Mission Specialist Rex Walheim.

On Flight Day 6, Elton John offered a special message for the STS-135 crew. “Rocket Man” woke up this crew and the crews of four previous shuttle crews.

As part of his message to STS-135 on Flight Day 7, Michael Stipe said, “I recorded ‘Man on The Moon’ for NASA in Venice, Italy, where Galileo first presented to the Venetian government his eight-power telescope, and in 1610 wrote ‘The Starry Messenger’ (Sidereus Nuncius), an account of his early astronomical discoveries that altered forever our view of our place in the universe.” R.E.M.’s “Happy Shiny People” has awakened two previous shuttle crews.

“Good Day Sunshine” by Paul McCartney, with a cheery message from the former Beatle, roused the crew on Flight Day 8 at 12:59a.m. EDT today, on Friday, July 15. They had a bit of a computer problem at the beginning of their sleep shift, so NASA let the astronauts sleep a half-hour later than the planned schedule. They are in the midst of transferring the payload to the ISS, and they talked with President Obama and reporters today.

Countdown to Endeavour (not-launch)

These last few days back home in California, we wish that our time was as organized as that of astronauts in orbit. The odd hours we’ve kept this last week in Florida and the day of travel on Tuesday, with the three-hour time change, have left our heads spinning. We’re coming off that odd mix of exhaustion and adrenaline, feeling sleepy and alert simultaneously, but starting to get back on track with things we’d put aside and shored up.

What might it mean to measure time according to our missions, with a version of MET? The mission clock would begin at zero and elapse as we (presumably) made progress on the project over time. Blog elapsed time: +379 days. Novel elapsed time: +5 years, if we include research and breaks for moving and other writing projects. Or perhaps, the clock should stop when we are working on another project, like a hold in the countdown clock before launch. Though they have a multitude of tasks, the astronauts are focused on a single mission; they can’t stop the MET clock while they draft a short story because they can’t interrupt the mission tasks for other ideas that come to mind. If something is scheduled for +4 days, it must occur on the fourth day of the mission whether the shuttle’s mission begins on its originally scheduled launch date or, after a delay, two days or two months later.

Countdown to Discovery (not-launch)

On the Earth’s surface, we move among several projects at a time. We write a blog while holding down day jobs. We write articles together and separately and have larger writing projects too. Just as it would quickly become silly for orbiting astronauts to count days by each sunrise they view, those of us under the great influence of gravity cannot keep accurate track using mission elapsed time. The way a person measures time must fit the circumstances, while also making sense with the way the larger world works.

It turns out that the shuttle astronauts are not beholden only to MET. They are moving between MET and the coordinated universal time (UTC) of the International Space Station (ISS). UTC is a carefully devised standard time, a more precise replacement for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), with even leap seconds added to sync up UTC with the Earth’s rotation. The second (and millisecond) are constant, but larger units can vary in order to keep universal time accurate. Computers also use UTC. Because the ISS is an ongoing project, a destination for many individual shuttle missions over the years, using an MET clock would run up days into meaningless numbers. Elapsed time isn’t that important to know on the ISS. The unload the shuttle payload when it gets there, not according to some schedule the ISS itself has. So that the STS-135 crew can move between the shuttle and ISS time zones without getting too confused, the space shuttle has a UTC clock too.

Final Shuttle Countdown EVER

Music provides yet another way to mark time, both as a daily wake-up demarcation and in a larger sense. Songs stick with us. Admit it, you thumped to Chumbawamba in the fall of 1997. How old were you when E.L.O. was churning out the hits in the 1970s? Ah, “Rocket Man” and 1972: the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, The Price is Right begins and Bewitched ends. Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 conclude U.S. manned spaceflight (or so it seemed at the time).

As Daniel Levitin puts it in This Is Your Brain on Music, “The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.”

He goes on to explain why you may have a particular affinity for “Rocket Man” or “Tubthumping.” “Researchers point to the teen years as the turning point for musical preferences. It is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest, even those children who didn’t express such an interest in music earlier. As adults, the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is ‘our’ music, corresponds to the music we heard during these years. […] Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert [hah, a pun!] to ‘tag’ the memories as something important.”

+ means Mission Elapsed Time

Chris Ferguson was 16 years old, that emotionally charged time of self-discovery, when “Mr. Blue Sky” was released in 1978. In 1997, when Chumbawamba hit the charts, Sandy Magnus had recently been selected for astronaut training and began her work at Johnson Space Center that led to her first shuttle mission in 2002. Nothing in Rex Walheim’s official NASA biography indicates why 2004, when “More” was released, might have been a particularly emotionally charged time for him, but that song was the most-played song on Christian radio that year. In 2008, when Coldplay released “Viva la Vida,” Doug Hurley was training for his first space shuttle mission.

At breakfast at the Village Inn in Titusville, this past week, we heard “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb, a song we hadn’t heard in years, a song that was on the K-tel record that Anna received at her boy–girl birthday party in eighth grade.

On one of our previous trips to the Space Coast, the radio in our rental car had been left set to FM 96.5 when we picked it up. This station plays a mix of classic rock that we don’t listen to much anymore, but it replicates the playlist of 97X, the radio station from Moline, Illinois, of Doug’s teen years. (As a curious aside, Doug’s high school locker number was 97. Each fall for the four years that Doug attended AHS, an “X” mysteriously appeared next to the locker number, making his locker 97X.) The Orlando station’s signal is strong, the songs familiar fodder for our NASA-visit mode.

Great White’s “Once Bitten Twice Shy,” the 1989 cover of a 1975 Ian Hunter song (Ian was a founding member of Mott the Hoople, a name that has the feel of a Douglas Adams novel), was in heavy rotation this past week. After not hearing that song for more than two decades, we probably heard the ode to groupies and casual sex every day last week. For Doug, “Once Bitten Twice Shy” calls to mind the summer of 1989, when he studied Russian at Beloit College. The song and that moment in time that it recalls link together several of the themes that we’ve been exploring. Who’d have predicted from the vantage of that late-1980s summer, still several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and more than two years before the end of the Soviet Union, that today Russian would be an official language on the space station (all U.S. astronauts who serve extended periods on the ISS speak Russian) and that the United States will require Soyuz rockets to carry astronauts into low-earth orbit?

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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: , , , , , ,
add a comment

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)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 237 other followers