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Apollo Guidance Computer (#StateOfNASA | #NASASocial April 13, 2016

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in 5 Things, Space Exploration.
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In February, Doug spent a day at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) attending a #NASASocial event dubbed #StateOfNASA.

One of the day’s highlights occurred when Dr. Chrisitian Gelzer (Armstrong’s Historian) brought a tiny, shiny box with black keys on its front face into the room. Doug immediately recognized the device as an object from an earlier age: an Apollo Guidance Computer. Here’s what we learned about this computer in particular and the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) generally.

#1. Apollo 15

DOUG-DSKYWhen he first saw the computer, Doug assumed that it was a model, and then Gelzer said, “This is the Apollo 15 Command module guidance computer.” At that point, Doug said, “Can you repeat that?” And Gelzer did. Channeling his inner twelve-year-old, Doug then said, “May I touch it?” And he did. After regaining his senses, Doug realized that what Gelzer had brought out that day was actually the DSKY, the user interface that astronauts used to control the AGC. The actual AGC was a much larger object than the DSKY (roughly three times longer and two times wider and weighing seventy pounds), but it was still quite small for computers of that day-gone-by.

The story that Gelzer told of how the computer that guided astronauts Dave Scott, Al Worden, and James Irwin to the moon and back is charming and serendipitous.

Basically, an AGC was requested by a Dryden (now Armstrong) lead test engineer to use in a new flight-test program. One of the 48 back-up computers for Apollo was sent from Houston, and it was summarily destroyed (Oh, no, blue smoke…) when it was installed into the test plane (see #4 below). A second AGC was requested and received. It was only after it arrived at Armstrong (then Dryden) did anyone there realize that it was the Apollo 15 AGC—the actual, used-in-space Apollo 15 AGC. Of course, NASA HQ wanted it back. Dryden said, No take backs. NASA HQ said, Well, OK. But try not to destroy this one.

#2. Alarm!


Charlie Duke in Houston: not alarmed? (NASA)

Each Apollo mission—save Apollo 8—required two AGCs: one for the Command Module and one for the Lunar Module. One moment of highest tension during the Apollo 11 moon landing occurred when the AGC issued alarms. As the lunar module descended, the AGC issued two types of alarms (1201 and 1202) that resulted from the real-time computer system being overloaded by information it was receiving from the rendezvous radar. After quickly checking the books, Houston decided these alarms were not too alarming and gave Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the go ahead to land on the Moon.


lunar module landing (NASA)



#3. Rope Core Memory

rope core memory (not from the AGC). (Johann H. Addicks - Eigenes Werk)

rope core memory (not from the AGC). (Johann H. Addicks – Eigenes Werk)

The AGC has several interesting design features, including the first extensive use of Integrated Circuits (ICs) in a general-purpose computer. Another feature was use of rope core technology for the AGC’s Read Only Memory (ROM). ROM is often referred to as nonvolatile memory, meaning that contents of the memory cannot be changed. In rope core memory, this means that the programs were actually woven into the memory.


#4. Fly-by-Wire

F-8 Crusader that flew the Apollo 15 AGC and DSKY (Doug)

F-8 Crusader that flew the Apollo 15 AGC and DSKY (Doug)

The AGC was brought to the California desert (see #1 above) to be a part of a flight test program for digital fly-by-wire aircraft. The program was highly successful and influence most fly-by-wire systems that came after it.



#5. Avalon

In addition, a variant of the AGC was used as the navigation computer on the Navy’s Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle. That’s a pretty cool example of reuse.


Countdown to The Cold War (sort of, with serendipity) August 26, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
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Longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know what tremendous fans we are of the seemingly random connections of things that push their way into our lives to give us delight in the form of serendipity

Bert2Over the weekend, we were co-editing a piece of writing that mentioned our parents’ exposure to duck-and-cover drills as schoolchildren. This prompted a question of when that famous film that featured Bert the Turtle first appeared. In tracking down the film’s release date, we wound up where many internet searches do: Wikipedia. Even though one of us is a librarian, we’re pretty fond of Wikipedia at least as a starting point. In this instance, we followed a chain of hyperlinks that had us arriving back in the place that we’d started, which is to say that we arrived back at our home in Orange, California. The whole sequence of events was reminiscent of the Connections 2 television show hosted by James Burke, which, when we started thinking about that, revealed a second whole set of connections.

Our first step was to track down the release date of the now infamous Cold War-era civil defense film, Duck-and-Cover. Bert the Turtle made his appearance before American schoolchildren in 1951. We’re notoriously curious here at Lofty Ambitions, and, despite a looming deadline, we couldn’t help but notice something interesting in the sidebox.

NectarCastleIn addition to a video clip of a thermonuclear weapon test—shot Nectar of Operation Castle—was a bit of accompanying text that mentioned the double flash in this type of explosion. The second flash is brighter than the sun.

This is the kind of information that gets our attention, so we followed the hyperlink for double flash, which actually led us to the entry for the bhangmeter. A bhangmeter is a device for detecting and measuring the strength of a nuclear explosion. What caught our attention next was the section that explained why it’s bHang- and not the infinitely more sensible bang-.

The name of the detector is a playful pun, which was bestowed upon it by Fred Reines, one of the scientists working on the project. The name is derived from the Hindi word bhang, a locally grown variety of cannabis which is smoked or drunk to induce intoxicating effects. The joke is that one would have to be on drugs to believe the bhangmeter detectors would work properly. This is in contrast to a bangmeter one might associate with detection of nuclear explosions.

Fred Reines

Fred Reines

The next thing that caught our collective eye was a name: Fred Reines. We know Fred Reines from our extensive research on Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. As it turns out, Reines, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the discovery of the neutrino, spent the last part of his career in our neck of the woods. Reines was the first Dean of the Physical Sciences at nearby University of California of Irvine. Reines was on the UCI faculty until his death on August 26, 1998, seventeen years ago today, in Orange, California. Altogether, it was an unusal chain of events that brought us back to the town we live in for a post on the anniversary of the day this man died.

What of the second set of connections—Burke’s Connections 2 show—that we mentioned at the beginning of this post? Recently, Doug had a new book come out. The book, Intertwingled: The Work and Influence of Ted Nelson, is a Festschrift, a lovely German word meaning festival (fest-) + writing (schrift). In this case, Intertwingled—which Doug co-edited with Daniele Struppa, a mathematician and Chapman University’s Chancellor—is a series of essays generated from the conference presentations given at a conference the university held in Nelson’s honor in April 2014. The book’s title comes from a phrase coined by Ted, intertwingularity.

Intertwingularity is Nelson’s attempt to describe the interrelatedness of information. In other words, it describes the connectedness of all of the knowledge in and about the world. Connectedness—seeing meaningful connections—is what this post is about.

With last month’s release of the book, Doug was now going back through his emails to make sure that people associated with the conference knew that the book had been published. Whose name should appear in a search of Doug’s inbox? James Burke. When the conference planning was going on, Burke, whom Ted Nelson has known for years, was a potential speaker. In the end, his schedule wouldn’t allow for him to appear, but how appropriate that a day of following seeming random connections would wind up with this one additional association. That’s serendipity.

Irish Scientists March 14, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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This coming Saturday marks St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday and general celebration of Ireland with which we grew up. In fact, more than 34 million (some say 41 million) Americans claim Irish heritage, which is roughly nine times the population of Ireland and, somehow, reason enough itself for a party. What better way for Lofty Ambitions to celebrate this week than to note some contributions to science by the Irish.

Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore back in 1627, may be the most famous of the Irish scientists. Boyle is, after all, considered the father of the field of chemistry. He considered chemistry’s goal to be investigating what substances are made of, and he claimed the then-popular field of alchemy was not science. In fact, though Francis Bacon advocated inductive reasoning and experimentation, Boyle worked out the particulars of the scientific method still in use today. If you remember your science classes, you probably have at least a vague recollection of Boyle’s Law and also an implicit trust that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related. If the volume of gas increases (more space), the pressure goes down.

William Rowan Hamilton (TCD)

William Rowan Hamilton is Ireland’s version of Leonardo DaVinci, for Hamilton knew 13 languages by the time he was nine years of age. Born in 1805, Hamilton started at Trinity College, Dublin when he was 18 and was awarded an honor in classics that first year, a recognition doled out only every two decades. As the story goes, his personal life was excruciating because, as a student, he couldn’t afford to marry the woman he loved, so she married an older, wealthier man, leading Hamilton to write some poetry, drink heavily, and consider ending his life. Luckily, he mustered on and rewrote Newton’s Laws of Motion with his own theory of dynamics. But his eventual marriage was riddled with strife, and his drinking caught up with him; he died at 60 years of age. You can find his papers, along with several other Irish scientists’ archives, at Trinity’s library and his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetary in Dublin.

George Boole (UCC)

Another father of a science that the Irish can claim is George Boole, who was actually born in London in 1815 on what would later become Doug’s birthday. Boole moved to Ireland in 1849 for a professorship and kicked off the field of computer science with Boolean algebra while at University College, Cork (then called, for various reasons we won’t go into, Queen’s College, Cork). He wasn’t the only one dabbling in such things, of course, for folks like Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Lovelace (poet Lord Byron’s daughter) were laying the groundwork for computer programs and software, but Boole’s the Irish one in the lot, and we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week. For Boole, differential equations, logic, and probability were passions, though he took time to father five daughters with Mary Everest, a mathematician and education reformer in her own right. Boole remains an Irishman, buried in Blackrock, outside of Cork City.

Kathleen Lonsdale (UCC)

In the days of yore in which these three Irish scientists made their contributions, few women made inroads in fields like chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Kathleen Lonsdale, born in 1903 in Newbridge, was part of a changing world for women. Her family moved to England when she was young, and she attended Bedford College for Women there and was then offered a position in W. H. Bragg’s research laboratory at University College, London. She began studying molecular structure using X-rays, eventually demonstrated that the benzene ring is flat, and eventually was appointed to head the Department of Crystallography in 1949. Earlier, by the time World War II began, she opposed war altogether and spent a month in prison for refusing civil defense tasks and the fine for not registering, after which she worked on peace and prison-reform issues in addition to science. Lonsdale was the first woman to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society of London and the first woman to serve as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (NASA)

More recently, Belfast native and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. She was the second author of five, behind Antony Hewish, her thesis director, on a paper documenting their discovery of pulsars. Since then, she’s been lauded with honors and academic posts, including becoming a Fellow in the Royal Society and serving as Dean of Science at the University of Bath. In 2008, she co-edited Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Of this project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell says, according to the Gulbenkian Foundation, “When I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme some twenty years ago, I kept very quiet about my hobby. It is only in the last few years that I have dared to ‘come out’ so it has been heartening that so many of my colleagues have been so willing to take part in this unusual exercise, as well as delightful to see the results of the collaborations.”

Collaborations. Innovations. Art and science. Sláinte!

Readers may also be interested in our post about “Beer!” that was inspired by reminiscences of a visit to the Guinness factory.

Guest Blog: Bryson Thill November 21, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Space Exploration.
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Today’s guest blogger is Bryson Thill, a computer science major at Chapman University who recently interned at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. We lived in Maryland for three years and occasionally visited Goddard, several times for their model rocket days when kids and adults gathered for dozens of little launches. Because we’re educators, we’re especially proud to share Bryson’s story, and we think his concluding advice is important for students and the generally curious.

Also, take a look at the guest blog from another NASA intern, David Stack, by clicking HERE.


NASA intern day trip to Washington, DC

It’s funny how seemingly simple decisions can have a tremendous impact on one’s future down the line. I was just looking to earn some extra cash in my junior year when I took a job that would very quickly lead to an incredible summer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on the opposite side of the country. Through the internship, I learned more than I ever would have imagined I could in a single summer, explored a very different part of the country, and met many incredibly talented students and researchers.

In October 2010, my professor of Physics 101, Dr. Eyal Amitai, informed me and several friends of mine that he was looking for a computer science student to assist with a NASA-related research project. I was the only one with enough time to take on such a task, and I had been actively, but unsuccessfully, looking for a job. It sounded perfect right from the start. For the rest of the academic year, I worked with Dr. Amitai developing software to help evaluate satellite precipitation estimates. In February, he suggested that I apply to the summer internship program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he has worked for more than 15 years. I agreed, and one month later, I received an email informing me that I had been accepted into the SIES (Summer Institute in the Earth Sciences) to further explore the research that I had begun during the academic year as a student research assistant.

In early June, following the end of the spring semester at Chapman University, I got on a plane headed for Maryland, where I spent the next two and a half months being completely immersed in the world of research. My task was to write several imaging and analysis applications to evaluate data retrieved from several precipitation-observing satellites. This data was compared with observations of the same rainy events taken by ground-based radar instruments. Discrepancies between the two data sets would indicate an issue in the satellites, the radar systems, or both. Such discrepancies are relatively frequent, and their sources must be pinpointed so that the software used to analyze signals received from the satellites may be improved for future missions, like the GPM (Global Precipitation Measurement) Mission set to be launched in 2013.

Bryson Thill and Eyal Amitai

The software that I wrote has helped identify particular conditions under which satellite observations and ground-based observations show significant incongruity. This information can be taken into account during the development of algorithms used for future missions. But despite these accomplishments, I’d had no experience in the earth sciences prior to my work with Dr. Amitai. His tremendous assistance as a mentor throughout my work with him allowed me to gain insight into a world of research to which I had never been exposed. During my time at Goddard, I was free to attend a huge variety of seminars regarding the earth sciences, and climate change in particular, by leading experts in the field. The opportunity given to interns to learn and to get accustomed to the field of research was remarkable.

Outside of the work itself, the internship was a priceless life experience. I made friends from all over the country, had a “real Maryland crab feast” by the water in Annapolis, and went hiking along the Potomac River. I attended lectures by astronauts and Nobel Prize-winning physicists and watched a live broadcast of the final shuttle launch with hundreds of passionate NASA researchers, some of whom had worked for years on instruments aboard that very mission. Having lived in California for my entire life, the decision to spend three months thousands of miles away at a prestigious research facility was a little nerve-wracking. But it was easily one of the most rewarding experiences in my life.

College is the time to take those kinds of chances. If you’re a student considering applying to a job or internship that’s a bit outside your comfort zone, I whole-heartedly recommend that you give it a shot. The worst that could happen is you will discover that you are not interested in pursing a career in a particular field. On the other hand, you might have the time of your life discovering new places, meeting new people, and learning more about yourself.

Writing Apart, Writing Together October 19, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
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Recently, we wrote about the relationship between our collaborative writing projects (writing together) and our individual writing projects (writing apart) as well as what happens when we have written together while being physically apart. You can read “Writing Together, Writing Apart” HERE.

Lofty at the Launch Pad

We’re learning some lessons as we make our way into our second year of blogging, lessons that apply to the other big projects we write together and especially separately. One thing we’ve come to recognize is the importance of daily writing, or at least putting a hand on the project every day. On the busiest days, that may mean merely sharing a link to Lofty Ambitions on Facebook, grasping for the least little connection to a daily practice.

Part of what explains why we’ve been able to write this blog is that we committed to a regular weekly schedule that established habits to support that schedule. At first, that meant a collaborative post every Wednesday. Then, we started doing occasional additional posts, usually when the news or an event anniversary triggered an idea. Later, we added guest bogs and, more recently, video interviews. The regularity and the schedule’s predictability keep our minds on the project. We discuss the blog when we take an evening walk, we pitch and outline new topics over beers at a local watering hole, and we dissect previous posts, especially our series posts, looking for something important we might have missed or something worth expanding. Our blog writing is on our minds every day, and we’re planning, drafting, or revising more days than not.

This summer posed particular problems for our regular pace and the way we like to collaborate. Anna was away at Sewanee Writers’ Conference for two weeks, then Doug traveled to the Space Coast for almost a week to see the GRAIL launch. No evening walks, no brainstorming together over beers. Particularly disconcerting was the time change, so that when we talked on the phone, we each were in a different part of the day. When Anna called home before bed from Sewanee, Doug was heading out for a run. When Doug called home from Titusville after drafting a post, Anna was eating dinner. Not only did writing apart mean we were physically separated, but also that our mindsets were not synced up in the day’s arc.

Lofty at Bandelier National Monument

All our previous trips to the Space Coast had been together. This time, Doug had been chosen for the official GRAIL Tweetup, and Anna couldn’t miss the second week of the semester. This Florida trip was different than merely writing while apart, as we’d done when Anna was at Sewanee. At the Space Coast, we’d already established routines together. We had shared memories there. We’d used our four trips to Florida to learn how to be better collaborators, to be in sync and productive. But this time, we had to write together on a specific, unfolding topic far from each other: the GRAIL launch.

Before Doug left, we had outlined a plan for our series, “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest,” but that outline changed daily as news developed and we thought of additional content. The outline made us feel better and served as a necessary safety net, but the end result doesn’t match the initial plan for the series.

Doug had to gather the bulk of the content by himself for several posts. Anna had to trust that a post would show up for her to revise and that she wouldn’t have questions about what something meant. Doug had to trust that whatever he sent would be revised and posted while he slept. We gritted our teeth and believed that it would all make sense in the end, and we’re pretty sure it did.

Lofty at THATCamp Vancouver

While Doug was attending the GRAIL launch by himself, it wasn’t as if he was working alone. Doug relied on range of social media tools (after all, he was attending a Tweetup) in a greater capacity than ever before, so he drew from a virtual community. For our previous trips to the Space Coast, we attended the shuttle launches as members of the media, and we relied heavily on face-to-face interactions with our colleagues in the News Center and Annex. Although many members of the press are also social media mavens, some are still catching up or even ignoring social media technologies (in one memorable exchange, Doug tutored a press corps member on the relationship between Twitter, Tweetups, and NASA’s social media strategy). Given the nature of a NASA Tweetup, with its 150 actual attendees and hundreds of other interested observers tweeting about the GRAIL launch and related activities, Doug was able to stay current with Space Coast information and events. And we were able to keep up with each other day to day, each of us leaving virtual crumbs for the other to follow.

Doug’s GRAIL work also was heavily influenced by our new iPad. Our previous divide-and-conquer methodology gave us the flexibility to send one of us out to an event or to sniff out news tidbits while the other stayed with the laptops and continued working. We finally took the plunge on iPad for this go-it-alone trip, and it worked well. Now we find ourselves using the iPad for research and writing every day. The iPad isn’t a substitute for our paper notebooks or our Mac laptops, but it makes it easier to keep our hands on our writing projects every day. A daily writing practice is difficult to maintain, so if a device makes it feel a bit easier or a bit closer to one’s fingertips, that’s good.

Lofty after Atlantis's Last Launch

Mostly importantly, though, Doug’s work habits were shaped by years of being a researcher and a student: show up, pay attention, and take damned good notes. That’s really what a daily writing practice means: show up, stay focused, and get some words on the page.

Since Doug’s return from the Space Coast, we’ve returned to our more usual patterns for writing the blog. We’ve learned, though, that one of us can sometimes take the lead and run with an idea without brainstorming together first. This method offers a certain kind of collaboration and conversation, but we don’t want to take turns post by post. We don’t want to take a break or lose momentum. We don’t write any blog posts completely separately, in part because we have our own individual projects outside of the blog for writing separately (we’ll write more soon about working on our individual projects). But it’s good to know we could take turns in a pinch.

Our blogger habits—talking things through with each other, sharing outlines and drafts, writing very much together through the process—keep the blog on our minds day to day and make this large, ongoing project easier. That’s a lesson for our individual projects as well. Habits of daily attention make large projects easier.

In the Footsteps (Part 4) June 29, 2011

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Cross Street at LANL

Last week, we wrote about our visit to the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum. This week, fires have been threatening Los Alamos. Its 12,000 residents have evacuated, and the federal laboratory is closed, with only essential employees still working in the fire zone. But the Historical Society says all the artifacts we wrote about last week are safe. The Environmental Protection Agency is measuring radioactivity in the air there (no elevated levels), and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) officials say that, though the fire has slithered within fifty yards of the laboratory grounds, the 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste stored above ground are not at risk. The area burned in 2000, with no detected elevation in radioactivity.

So today, we meander down the street past the post office to the Bradbury Science Museum, a version of public outreach for LANL.

We’ve long been interested in the missions of museums and have published a couple of articles that explore, in part, the ways aviation museums articulate their goals. The Bradbury Science Museum has a multifaceted, rather aggressive mission: to interpret what LANL does, to promote understanding of LANL’s role in national security, to assist the public in making decisions about national security matters, and to expand knowledge and education in what are known as the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). Museums don’t merely document history, and this museum doesn’t shy away from the political context of the nuclear science it represents. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine that any museum that addresses the role of nuclear science and technology in our lives could avoid entering the political arena.

The first iteration of the museum opened near Fuller Lodge in 1954, mostly to store artifacts that folks thought might be important not to lose. In 1963, some unclassified items were transferred to a space that could be opened to the public, and within two years that stash of artifacts was large enough to demand more space. A few years after that move, in 1970, the museum took its name from Norris Bradbury, the scientist who succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer and served as the director of LANL 1945-1970. In 1981, the museum was overhauled with a snazzy new professional look. In part because it was popular and needed more parking spaces, the Bradbury Science Museum moved to its current location in 1993 and now draws almost 100,000 visitors every year. This year, we were among those visitors.

Though we had a visit to the Bradbury as a primary reason for our return to Los Alamos, the museums, the city, Bandelier National Monument, and the town’s visitors inhabit a peculiar space where awe-inspiring nature abuts cutting-edge technology. We took in a lengthy hike at Bandelier in the morning and spent the afternoon at the Bradbury. We weren’t the only other visitors with this same itinerary, as we saw half dozen others at the Bradbury that afternoon with whom we’d earlier exchanged hello on the Long Trail.

Camera used at Trinity atomic bomb test

We spent the bulk of our time at the Bradbury in the three main galleries. As the name would suggest, the History Gallery covers the early years of the laboratory at Los Alamos. In addition to standard displays of film footage and newspaper clippings from the era, the gallery also holds some intriguing pieces from the Trinity Test, which exploded the implosion-style, or Fat Man, atomic bomb on July 16th, 1945. Given that photos and film clips of expanding mushroom clouds are among the iconic imagery of the Cold War, it is appropriate that the Bradbury, a museum in the cradle of the atom bomb development, displays a camera used to record the early-morning event at Trinity, the birth of the atomic age.

Cups used by President Kennedy and V.P. Johnson

The History Gallery also contains the Bradbury’s newest exhibit, “Kennedy’s Visit to Los Alamos.” On December 7th, 1962, President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson paid a visit to LANL as guests of the lab’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research. One of LANL’s burgeoning research areas in that era was a joint program with NASA entitled Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application, or NERVA. Kennedy’s visit coincided with the height of the NERVA program, while the lab was in the midst of developing Project Rover and the Kiwi nuclear rocket engines. Several photos depict President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chair Glenn Seaborg looking at models developed for Project Rover. While the directors of LANL and the AEC must have enjoyed showing off the lab’s latest wares with the press snapping photos, many photos depict ordinary aspects of the day, including drinking a cup of coffee. Some thoughtful lab worker at the event had the foresight to retain and preserve the coffee cups. They are marked on their bottoms to indicate which was used by Kennedy and which by Johnson and are on display at the Bradbury.

The Research Gallery offers displays and narratives about the most important of LANL’s current research areas. Among the more engaging exhibits are those on earth and environmental sciences, genomics, and computational biology. We spent less time in this gallery, though, because, while it was rich in information (lots of big placards with photos and text), it had changed the least since our last visit and housed fewer artifacts. That said, the display about how various parts of the lab use particle accelerators piqued Doug’s interest as a former denizen of Fermilab.

Anna attempts to lift 70 tons of plutonium

The Defense Gallery exhibits, as you might expect, replicas of the first two atomic bombs, which were designed and put together at Los Alamos. Not far from replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs is a giant, inverted yellow cone. The display script indicates that the cone is the approximate size of all of the plutonium that has been created since the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Plutonium isn’t found in nature, at least not in appreciable amounts, and to see its volume equivalent in the gallery makes it seem as if we didn’t produce much with all that money and effort. But if the cone were actually made of plutonium, it would weigh 70 tons. A smaller exhibit nearby hammers home that plutonium is an unusually hefty material. Lifting the first few fist-sized blocks of other materials comes easily (or relatively easy after a five-mile hike in the mountains). The final, plutonium-weight block is heavy—very heavy. We were utterly convinced of plutonium’s most obvious physical characteristic.

First Cray Supercomputer

Also in the Defense Gallery, though it might just as readily fit into the concepts of history or research, is the exhibit detailing LANL’s role in the development of computing, from humans (mostly young women) punching/keying Marchant calculators to the lab’s first homegrown computer (MANIAC—Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator And Computer) to an alphanumeric soup of machines (IBM 701, IBM 704, IBM 7030, CDC 6600, CDC 7600, CM-2, CM-5, SGI, HP, etc.) and concluding with the lab’s current supercomputer, Roadrunner. In 2008, Roadrunner, built by IBM and taking six years for full functionality, became the world’s fastest supercomputer and the first to break the petaflop—one thousand-trillion operations per second—barrier. By way of comparison, the computer sitting on your desktop would need approximately 100 years to execute as many operations as Roadrunner can accomplish in a day. Three years later, Roadrunner is now the tenth fastest computer in the world. Or it would be, if it is turned on; reports say that LANL has shut down two supercomputers because of the fire.

We’ll have more in our “In the Footsteps” series later this summer (there’s a nuclear museum in Albuquerque too). Next week, however, we turn our attention back to the space shuttle, with a guest post from author Margaret Lazarus Dean on Monday. Then, we are off on our trip to the Space Coast for the last launch, scheduled for July 8. Cross your fingers for an on-schedule launch, then look for photos, videos, and commentary right here at Lofty Ambitions.

Guest Blog: Patricia Sobczak March 21, 2011

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This week, we welcome Patricia Dillon Soczak to Lofty Ambitions for a new twist. Pattie is the Director of Development for the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University, where we work too. But we asked her to write for us because she’s currently a student at Fielding Graduate University in Southern California where she is earning her Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems.  Her area of research is understanding how playing video games prepares players to become effective contributors in the workplace, and we’re interested in how the cognitive skills might translate.  Patricia has a background in higher education (as a librarian, instructor, academic advisor, and administrator), manufacturing and industrial engineering, project and program management, and technical and educational sales.  She holds an MBA from Pepperdine University and a Masters of Library Science from San Jose State University. Pattie and Doug are collaborating on a presentation about the notion of play for an interdisciplinary series hosted by Chancellor Daniele Struppa to which Anna contributed earlier this academic year.


As a baby boomer, I grew up playing all sorts of games: card games, sports, and board games.  As a child, it was acceptable for me to pass the time away in the endless pursuit of having fun. Fast forward a few decades, and I still play games, only these games are on a computer and this pursuit isn’t something I talk about without some type of qualification. Why? So that the person I am talking to doesn’t think that I’m lazy, crazy, or both.

I like to play and I believe that most adults do as well, though many will not admit to it. I’ve taken my love of play to the next level. In less than a year, I will complete a doctoral program in human and organizational systems. My dissertation topic stems from my belief that video games, specifically the massively multiplayer online games (MMOG), are fertile training grounds for workers in the twenty-first century.

My entrance into the world of video games came at me from two distinctly different, though related, events. First was an assignment to create a program in video game design. As a complete newcomer (or newbie) to this subject matter, I nonetheless became part of a vital team of educators and professionals who, over the period of a year, developed a viable program. This experience sparked my interest to learn more about video gaming in general. Secondly, as part of the process of building this program, I had the opportunity to travel to some of the most notable video game design shows and conferences.  On one of my trips, I had the chance to watch a colleague prepare and lead a twenty-five-player quest (or instance) in the video game World of Warcraft (WoW), the most popular MMOG, with over twelve million subscribers located all over the world.

I watched her and her fellow gamers play for hours and was absolutely amazed at what I witnessed.  Twenty-five unique characters (avatars) with different yet complementary skills, assembled, set out some basic ground rules, shared strategies, and subsequently forged ahead as a cohesive team to beat the so-called boss and reap the rewards. It reminded me of going into organizations to run team-building sessions. The same dynamics are in place: a group of people with mixed yet complementary skills, focused on achieving a group goal. Yet this group of gamers seemed more cohesive and capable than most work groups. I wondered why.

From this simple observation, I started to play WoW and for the last three years, barring illness and work commitments, I have continued to play. I am currently a level 62 Blood Elf Hunter and I play for the Horde. I play with my son, my nephew in the army, and other players I meet in game. And I started my Ph.D. program with the idea to use the research for my dissertation to test my belief that high-level players of WoW are gaining competencies that are relevant for the twenty-first-century work place.

As I begin my pilot study, I am starting to interview players for my research. I’m continually impressed by the players with whom I talk. Contrary to the media hype, these players are responsible, capable, and accomplished people from all walks of life. They tell me they play because it is fun, exciting, empowering, and exhilarating. They play because they feel better about themselves when they accomplish a quest, mentor another player, or learn new skills. As I continue my research, there is much I still need to know about the game, about the players, and about what is happening to these players as they play.  I still need to know, can adults play?


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