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

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

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

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.

The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics & a Poem August 22, 2012

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Last week, we posted “You say, Festschriften; I say, that’s a funny word.” The next evening, we attended a public discussion among Yakir Aharonov, Sir Michael Berry, Paul Davies, François Englert, and Nobel Laureate Sir Anthony Leggett; that discussion was called “The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics: Achievements and Opportunities.” We were impressed by how well these physicists made their own specialized fields accessible to the lay audience. What also impressed us, as another colleague reiterated that night, was the enthusiasm these scientists conveyed for their work. Even those in the audience who don’t know a neutron from a gluon must have been excited to see these men still curious, still fascinated, still questioning.

That public event opened what was a working conference that extended through Saturday, concluding with the dedication of the Yakir Aharonov Alcove in Leatherby Libraries, donated by Kathleen M. Gardarian to honor the physicist’s 80th birthday. Charlene Baldwin, the Dean of Leatherby Libraries, is a fan of our work at Lofty Ambitions and also a great appreciator of poetry and literature. She, of course, provided the welcome for the dedication event and included excerpts from one of Anna’s poems in her remarks.

We post here the entirety of that prose poem “Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists,” which is available the collection Constituents of Matter:

Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists

It is the light she longs to find,

            When she delights in learning more.

            Her world is learning: it defines

            The destiny she’s reaching for.

                                    —Marie Curie

 

I.

At nineteen, Albert Einstein picks up an apple and an orange in the market. Today, this is two, but there are many ways of counting, and, of course, he knows apples and oranges should never be compared. He wants both but does not buy either. His wife may not be strong enough to endure this kind of resistance.

II.

At the evening garden party, Marie Curie lifts a glowing test tube out of her pocket to show her colleagues what she has discovered. Everyone stares at her husband’s hands in the strange light. Later, she smooths ointment on his hands and bandages them. She knows it is too late for anything more.

III.

Werner Heisenberg hikes all day at a steady pace to clear his head. It is too cold to swim, even for him. When he gets home, he remembers only one particular tree, the way its limbs arched as if growing. Or was that his wife lifting herself up from her garden, waving to him even? Or, he thinks, that may have been a different hike altogether.

IV.

Enrico Fermi listens to Neils Bohr carefully. Who wouldn’t? He knows that later he will not remember if he was surprised at the question. He straightens his jacket as if that is answer enough. To accept a Nobel Prize is rarely such a difficult choice. His wife will be pleased, he will have to write a speech, and they will leave Italy.

V.

Just as the water begins to boil, Richard Feynman and his colleague realize that spaghetti, when snapped, breaks into three pieces. Always. They break all the spaghetti they have. He is sure there is a great theory involved. His first wife has been dead many years, and he misses their dinners. He knows he will be dead soon, too.

Update from Ragdale and A Nuclear Birthday February 11, 2012

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On Thursday evening, after dining on walnut burgers, chipotle sweet potatoes, and sautéed spinach, we built a fire in the fireplace and settled in for a long editing session. We spent more than four hours working our way aloud through the two chapters we’ve drafted since our writing residency began.

Yesterday, it snowed in big clumps. From our second-floor windows, we watched the snow fall. Anna went outside for a short walk and to take some photos. Then, we tried to outline the rest of the chapters, doling out our ideas to the remaining chunks of pages we imagine. We try to outline the next two in more detail, put the ideas in the order they should appear. We have an idea of how long the chapters will be so we move a few things to a later chapter. But because of our experience drafting this project over the last week, we aren’t estimating the number of words or pages we expect an idea to take.

We have a sense of what we want to accomplish before we leave, and we’re pretty sure that, even if everything goes well, we would need three more days than we have. That said, we’re appreciative of the time we do have remaining here at Ragdale.

Today, we also pause to consider Leo Szilard, who was born on this date in 1898. As a Manhattan Project physicist, perhaps the first one, he fits into our “In the Footsteps” series, and he’s someone who’s long interested us.

Born in Hungary, he attended the Institute of Technology in Berlin, where he hung out with the likes of Albert Einstein and Max Planck. With that kind of company, it’s no wonder he ended up thinking, by 1933, after fleeing the Nazis and landing in London, about how a sustained nuclear reaction might work. There are several stories, most told at one time or another by Szilard himself, about how his idea that fission might lead to a bomb came to Szilard, but it’s clear that he was at least partly inspired by reading H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free. By the late 1930s, he was teaching at Columbia University, thinking uranium would be the right element for such a nuclear reaction, and soliciting Einstein’s endorsement of a letter he wanted to send to President Roosevelt. The letter from Einstein to Roosevelt led to the development of the Manhattan Project, and hence the suggestion that Szilard was the first physicist on the project.

Szilard moved on to the University of Chicago, where he helped Enrico Fermi build the first controlled nuclear reaction and held the patent with Fermi for that first nuclear reactor, which they referred to as a “pile.” In this coming week’s regular Wednesday post, we offer a sneak-peek of Anna’s AWP presentation on creative nonfiction in the nuclear age, which mentions this historic event of December 2, 1942, an event that, in a real sense, marked the beginning of the nuclear age.

Metallurgical Lab (Fermi on left in first row, Szilard in light coat second from right)

As the United States grew closer to having a useable nuclear weapon, Szilard became concerned about its use against Japan and pushed unsuccessfully for a test demonstration. He was also disturbed that the military would have control over nuclear weapons and that scientists were not being involved in policy.

Shortly after the war, Szilard gave his attention to biology and even fiction writing, with a collection of short stories related to his experiences and the Cold War and in which dolphins tell the story of our demise. He also met with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and suggested a hot line between the White House and the Kremlin and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rushed to Geneva in hopes of establishing a dialogue between the president and the premier. Only a few months after joining the Salk Institute in 1964, Leo Szilard died in his sleep from a heart attack.

Enrico Fermi, Szilard’s partner in the first nuclear reactor, died of stomach cancer at age 53. Szilard later developed bladder cancer. Szilard’s cancer didn’t kill him, though it might have if he hadn’t undergone radiation and then, much to his doctors’ chagrin and by his own treatment design, more radiation. He had radioactive silver implanted in the tumor. Such implantation radiation treatment was highly unusual then but has since become one common way to treat prostrate cancer.

Szilard’s unconventional thinking didn’t stop with his science. He was known for soaking in a hot bath in the mornings to think and to take breakfast. Taking a hot bath today, perhaps with a glass of wine, might be the most fitting way to celebrate Szilard’s birthday. In 1951, he married Dr. Trude Weiss after they had been pen pals and confidantes for more than twenty years. We like this part of the story especially, in large part because we, too, knew each other twenty years before running off and doing something foolish like that. Szilard and Weiss, though, would spend most of the marriage living apart, something with which we’re not unfamiliar.

Szilard’s legacy, then, as a nuclear scientist and a human being is, like so many of the people about which we are drawn to write, a complex one. He was the Humanist of the Year in 1960, mingling in the ranks of Margaret Sanger and, later, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Helen Caldicott, Margaret Atwood (who will be at AWP in a few weeks), and Bill Nye. Not a bad group overall and certainly eclectic.

In the Footsteps (Part 11) January 11, 2012

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We spent yesterday in Pasadena—at CalTech and Vroman’s Bookstore—because that’s how we chose to spend one of Doug’s vacation days. We had been planning to visit the CalTech archives for a while, but we chose yesterday because our colleague Tom Zoellner was reading at Vroman’s from his new book A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us about the Grand Canyon State and Life in America. (His op-ed appears in today’s L.A. Times HERE, and we hope to have a guest post from Tom in the weeks to come.)

Tom’s reading was great, and he answered a lot of questions from the audience, creating a real discussion. Lest you think Tom Zoellner has nothing to do with our “In the Footsteps” series, his last book is Uranium, a well-written investigation of this radioactive element and our relationship with it over time. Zoellner recounts some of what we’ve covered in this series—the train station in Lamy, New Mexico, and Dorothy McKibben in Santa Fe—when he writes of the Manhattan Project, “An office on the plaza in Santa Fe was a discreet welcome center for the professors who stepped off the Super Chief streamliner, blinking in the bright sunshine at the foot of the Sangre de Christo Mountains.”

Before the reading, we spent the afternoon in the archives located in the subbasement of the Beckman Institute at CalTech. It’s a small operation with a few staff and one main research room. We had requested to see the papers of Richard Chase Tolman and Robert F. Bacher. Loma Kilkins wheeled out a cart of familiar storage boxes, and we started with the Tolman papers because there were just two. In fact, we didn’t get through all six boxes of the Bacher papers and will have to return for more research. After all, 39 linear feet (more than six times that of Tolman’s collection) of Nobel Prize recipient Richard Feyman’s papers still await.

Richard C. Tolman and Albert Einstein

What we like about archival research is that we never know exactly what we are going to find. A lot of the materials in these two collections were official documents, but even those reveal the signatures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry S. Truman. In these collections, it’s also possible to start tracing connections to people with whom the public might be more familiar, such as Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Richard Feyman, or Linus Pauling. (All these men were Nobel Laureates, in fact, with Pauling awarded two prizes. CalTech alums, including our university’s economics professor Vernon Smith, have been awarded 17 Nobel Prizes, and CalTech’s non-alum faculty have been warded 14.)

Tolman, a physicist, was General Leslie Groves’s scientific advisor during the Manhattan Project. He had been a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an independent policy research center still working on the world’s complex problems. Some of Tolman’s papers reside in the CalTech archives because he joined the faculty there in 1922. Linus Pauling, who studied at Oregon State University (where Doug earned his PhD), shows up in the Tolman papers because he came to CalTech in 1927 and later declined an invitation to join the Manhattan Project.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves at Trinity Test Site

There are also wonderfully personalized parts of letters that are otherwise largely about scientific notions or career moves: hello to a wife, a mention of a recent visit. Tolman seems to have sent his talk and article “A Survey of the Sciences” to almost everyone he knew, and many of them responded, all positively but often with a quibble over this or that statement. In the less formal comments, we can glean an individual voice, a relationship, and the idiom of the time.

And there are little surprises, mysteries, too. Who is Helen Evereth? And why did Richard Tolman send her flowers on several occasions? She mentions her advancing age, along with expressing socialist political stances. Was she a great aunt or a former teacher or, perhaps, a sweetheart before he met his wife? Is she the Helen Evereth that the U.S. Census lists as having been born in 1874 in Maine? Helen’s are the most personal correspondence in the folders, but it’s impossible to piece together from these documents the story of Helen Evereth and Richard Tolman.

Perhaps our favorite piece of paper was a response to Albert Einstein (another Nobel laureate), instigated but not written by Tolman. The translation reveals that Einstein had submitted an idea to solve a problem with flight dynamics. The response, to put it simply, tells Einstein that they’d already thought of his idea and it doesn’t work. It’s heartening somehow to see plainly that even Einstein came up with notions that didn’t pan out and that even he faced rejection.

When you read a book like Uranium, you get what feels like the whole story. The narrative is figured out, and you find pleasure in its arc and cohesiveness. When you thumb through archives, you get tidbits, some of which state the obvious and expected and some of which don’t seem to fit. You find bits and pieces that could fit together in any one of a variety of ways but that also stand on their own for what they are (and were).

Beautiful Science December 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter from Albert Einstein, 1913

Edwin Hubble’s Logbook, 1923

Pie with Einstein March 14, 2011

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

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

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

Einstein Cartoon circa 1933

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

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

Albert Einstein 1921

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

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

Frank Borman

Gene Cernan

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

Lucy Hobbs Taylor

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

Guest Blog: Brian Foster February 21, 2011

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We welcome guest blogger and physicist Brian Foster this week. With Jack violinist Jack Liebeck, he does a program called “Einstein’s Universe.” Click here to find out more about the upcoming events.

Brian Foster is a professor of experimental physics at Oxford University. His CV is twelve pages chockfull of publications, awards, and grants. His books include Electron-Positron Annihilation Physics. Among other aspects of particle physics, he studies the structure of the charm quark. But Brian Foster is also an amateur violinist. And the intersections appreciates between science and art is the reason we invited him to share some thoughts here at Lofty Ambitions.

EINSTEIN’S UNIVERSE

It’s a great thrill for Jack Liebeck and me to come to Los Angeles, following in the footsteps of our hero, Albert Einstein. Our lecture “Einstein’s Universe” tries to illustrate his life and work through its two most important elements: his science and his love of the violin.

These two elements weren’t separate watertight compartments in Einstein’s life; rather, each cross-fertilized the other. We have evidence from his wife Elsa of the way in which playing music briefly while he was engrossed in a problem could often trigger a new insight. He frequently said that he had had the most enjoyment in his life from his violin. We too share in that duality. Jack as a true artist on the violin and I as a humble amateur share a love of science that we hope is reflected in our performances.

Einstein's Princeton Home

It has been a journey of discovery for Jack and me to take “Einstein’s Universe” and its companion lecture “Superstrings” across the world, now in more than 170 performances. We have journeyed all across Europe, and as far afield as China and New Zealand, the home of my other hero in physics, Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson, arguably the greatest experimental physicist who ever lived. We have followed in Einstein’s footsteps to Japan, where he allegedly played Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata when he should have been in Stockholm receiving his Nobel Prize. We have also performed the lectures across the United States from coast to coast, from Brown University to Stanford and stopping off, of course, at Einstein’s last home, his beloved Princeton, where we were privileged to visit his house on Mercer Street.

We have met hundreds of people who have drawn inspiration from Einstein’s life and who have expressed wonderment at his work in science. I treasure the letters from young people who have told us that our lecture has inspired them to study physics at school, university and beyond. Their parents and grandparents, too, are touched with wonder at the sheer breadth and daring of Einstein’s scientific achievements. Many of the people we have met on our travels have become friends.

It is therefore a very special feeling for us to bring our lecture to Los Angeles, where Albert Einstein came at a very difficult time in his life. He was in fear of the Nazis who threatened his whole concept of civilization and who were preparing the Holocaust to destroy the rich Jewish tradition of culture and music in Europe in which Einstein had been brought up. Here on the West Coast of the United States, he found a sanctuary and a joy in the climate and people that he always remembered fondly. It is also a pleasure to be able to join in the celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of Chapman University, making it incidentally older than any English University except Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham.

Brian Foster, Jack Lieback, and Students in Belfast

The tradition of liberal arts institutes of learning that Chapman University so ably represents is generally missing in Europe. As a Professor of Oxford University, I am proud to be able to lecture to physics students and Jack, about to become a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, is honored to work with its music students in a master class.

Our visit stems from a conversation last May in an Oxford pub between me and two Los Angeles residents, whom Jack and I met when they attended the first of our Oxford May Music festivals. These festivals take place in the Holywell Music Room, the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Europe, where Haydn rehearsed his “Oxford” symphony. Founded to emulate Einstein’s ethos of bringing together music and science, the Oxford May Music festival in now in its fourth year; one of our friends has traveled from Southern California to England for every festival.

As a regular visitor to Caltech, I know the hospitality of the Angelinos well. This time, though, Jack and I hope that we will be able to bring a flavor of both the science and the music that Einstein adored to a city of which he had only the fondest memories.

10:17 Birthdays & More October 16, 2010

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Sharing birthdays on October 17 are Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders (1933), daredevil Evel Knievel (1938), and Space Shuttle astronaut Mae Jemison (1956).

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s remember Evel Knievel, dressed in his red, white, and blue garb. He attempted to jump this, that, and the other thing, including the Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle—or rather, on a Skycycle with a steam-powered rocket engine. (See the video here.) For twenty years, he held the record for jumping 19 cars. Unlike Fonzie’s jumping of a shark in 1977, however, Knievel’s shark jump in Chicago in 1976 was thwarted by an unsuccessful rehearsal; he broke both arms, and a camera operator lost an eye. Evel Knievel died in 2007.

WikiCommons/public domainMae Jemison was the physician aboard the Space Shuttle’s 47th mission in 1992 and the first African-American woman in space. Born in Alabama, her family moved to Chicago when she was three years old. After graduating from Morgan Park High School, she started college at Stanford University when she was sixteen. In 1977, she earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and also fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African-American Studies. Then, she became a physician, served two years in the Peace Corps, and was accepted to the astronaut program in 1987. She appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993, the year she retired from NASA. See her TED talk here.

On October 17, 1933, Albert Einstein moved to the United States. He became a U.S. citizen seven years later. Einstein died in 1955, after stating, “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share; it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” But death didn’t stop his migration. Thomas Stolz Harvey removed and preserved Einstein’s brain within hours of the scientist’s death, and then kept it for decades. After a trip chronicled in Driving Mr. Albert, Einstein’s brain—or most of it—now resides once again at Princeton University. (Visit his digital archive here.)

On Books: A Nerd by Any Other Name July 7, 2010

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In future posts, we’ll offer recommendations for good books about aviation, science, writing, and collaborating. But as we were talking about those tomes, we realized that our most important book experience was as children in homes with a set of the World Book Encyclopedia. This encyclopedia offered our young selves answers we sought to specific questions—where is this country Uruguay, what are its capital, natural resources, and sports? Because topics are arranged alphabetically, the encyclopedia also instilled in us the habit of browsing. The order of entries isn’t influenced by popularity or supposed importance. The Aztecs can’t spend their advertising money to buy a spot at the beginning of Volume A. So, poking around in an encyclopedia led us to discoveries, and to a process that encouraged curiosity. We learned about things about which we didn’t know enough to ask questions, and we made connections through juxtaposition. We have come to believe that serendipity—strangely happenstance discovery—is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. At least in our universe, at least as we understand it.

In the early 70s, Doug’s grandmother Mariam, by then retired from teaching, sold World Book Encyclopedias. In a classic example of the chicken-and-egg problem, Doug has never been able to decide whether his curiosity about the world existed (unsatisfied) before he encountered the World Book, or whether the meeting between boy and book led to his inveterate inquisitiveness. Either way, when the 50,000+ gilt-edged pages, bound in beige and brown, found their way into his childhood bedroom, it was, as Rick Blaine eloquently stated in Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In grade school, the relationship between boy and book was intense enough that his nickname was The Walking Encyclopedia, or just Mr. Encyclopedia, to bookish fellow travelers.

Anna’s mother couldn’t imagine her five-year-old and toddler needing such a thing, but relented to the persistence of the woman they knew who sold the sets on the installment plan. In hindsight, Mary Lee would realize kids grow up faster than parents expect, and the encyclopedia set, built a volume at a time, was one of the best investments she and Andy ever made.   Among Anna’s favorite entries were articles on the planets of the solar system and the section of plastic pages that separated the human body into its layers of muscles, bones, and organs. Anna’s sister used the encyclopedia for an eighth-grade paper about pigs (now living outside Springfield, she toured the neighbor’s hog operation too) and for a paper about a president; she chose the president with the shortest encyclopedia entry, Chester A. Arthur. Anna’s father once even used World Book as the authority in a follow-up legal argument.

Growing up in a small, Midwestern town or state capital prior to the Internet, the World Book Encyclopedia provided access to the world’s accumulated knowledge, available on a shelf at arm’s length from our desks or beds, there to relieve boredom during sick days, provide answers to questions that popped into our heads in the middle of the night, or just because we went looking for information about salamanders and wound up in Salamanca instead. We thought the volumes were there to be opened, spontaneously and at random, just to see what might be revealed. That’s a nerdy way to think. That’s the kind of thinking—self-styled through curiosity, rather than merely by rote—we want to encourage in our students. In a recent article in New Writing, Anna publicly admits that she wants her students to be nerds.

The World Book Encyclopedia is a hallmark of nerds. You may use another descriptor, perhaps Renaissance man or pubic intellectual. You may use the cognitive science term divergent thinking. Majorie Garber, in Academic Instincts, discusses “the amateur professional and the professional amateur.” John Hodgman, in his address at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner, uses the terms nerd and geek interchangeably, recognizing a common philosophy of inquiry. That’s how Einstein defined himself, too, claiming he had no particular talent, but was “passionately curious.” Hodgman goes on to define with examples, “Radio talk show hosts are jocks. Bloggers are nerds.” We are those bookish nerds of which he speaks. The World Book—the set of volumes that gives kids the world—made us the nerds we’ve become.  

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