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The Next Year: Countdown to The Cold War, Cancer, and Space Exploration August 6, 2014

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August 6, 1945: An atomic weapon named “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. An estimated 70,000 people—almost one-third of the city’s population—and more than 90% of the physicians and nurses were killed by the bombing that day. In the days, months, and years after that event and the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, others died as a result of radiation exposure and related cancers.

August 6, 2012: The Mars rover named Curiosity landed on the Red Planet after more than eight months of travel. The final phase of Curiosity’s journey to Mars had been dubbed the “Seven Minutes of Terror” because of the complexity of using a sky crane to lower the rover safely to the planet’s surface. The rover has completed its original two-year mission to study the climate and geology of Mars and to establish that Mars once had a climate that could support microbial life—and Curiosity is still perusing Mars.

Hiroshima after the bombing

Hiroshima after the bombing

We made the connection between these events two years ago in a post called “Plutonium at Its Worst and Best.” That connection has kept niggling at our minds, so we plan to refocus on three intermingled topics between now and August 6, 2015.

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the first use of a nuclear weapon against an enemy. In our research and writing over the last several years at Lofty Ambitions, we’ve come to recognize this event as the beginning of The Cold War. For it was not only a strike against our enemy at the time in World War II, but also a powerful demonstration to our newly emerging adversary. As much as we used an atomic weapon to end the War in the Pacific, we used it to set up our future role in the world and our relationship with Russia.

We have decided that we will focus over this next year, at least in part, on this concept of early nuclear weapons development as the Countdown to The Cold War. We begin by pointing you to a particular series and related posts we’ve already published here:

In the Footsteps

We cannot ignore the relationship among nuclear weapons, radioactivity, and cancer. In fact, some of Anna’s other nonfiction deals very directly with cancer. And we’ve both been affected, especially over the last two years, by the deaths of family members and friends from cancer. So, over this next year, we’ll also pay special attention to cancer as a blog topic. Again, we point you to a few posts that underlie our interests and thinking about radioactivity, cancer, and risk:

“Cancer, Risk, and the Language of Loss”


“Purple Stride 2012: Research on Pancreatic Cancer”


“Radioactivity and Other Risks (Part 2)”

Curiosity's View of Mars (NASA/JPL)

Curiosity’s View of Mars (NASA/JPL)

Our interest in space exploration, both its history and what’s next, will continue to drive the content of this blog. In fact, we are on the verge of a slew of 50th anniversaries of space exploration, including the 50th anniversary of the first-ever spacewalk this coming June. The future may also be upon us, too, as NASA plans to launch its Orion capsule for a test flight this December. We continue to hone our Generation Space project and hope that it finds a great publisher.

For now, we’ll point you to a couple of our posts about Curiosity:

“Is Mars the Future for NASA?


“Guest Blog by Ken Kramer”

We’ll end this post as we began it, with the seemingly odd and perplexing juxtaposition of August 6 dates. On the one hand, a devastating moment that has reverberated for decades. On the other hand, an amazing moment that suggests an ambitious future.

Santa Fe Retreat (2) July 16, 2014

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Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Recently, we spent eleven days in Santa Fe on our very own self-made writing retreat. Writing was our goal, but we also recommend Santa Fe as a great getaway even if getting away from your routine is your only goal. You can read about lodging, food, and shopping in our first Santa Fe Retreat post. But wait, there’s more!


Santa Fe is a hub of galleries and has several good art and history museums. When we took a loop around the Plaza, many of the passers-by were chatting about their own art practices or exhibits they had seen. Santa Fe’s Society of Artists features 44 artists, and the city boasts several art schools.

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

When Anna discovered that the David Richard Gallery was hosting an opening for Judy Chicago’s newest work and that she and art historian Kathy Battista would be giving a gallery talk, she rushed over to the Railyard. During that talk, Anna learned that an exhibit of Judy Chicago’s work since The Dinner Party was on display at the New Mexico Museum of Art. A lovely docent named Miriom Kastner offered an overview of the exhibit, the progression of Chicago’s themes, and the various media Chicago has learned and used in her work over the last several decades.

Some of Judy Chicago’s work fits the subject matter we cover at Lofty Ambitions, and she had some great things to say about the creative process, so we’ll have a separate post focusing on her work and ideas.


BathtubRowDoug’s writing time in Santa Fe was devoted to his novel-in-progress, The Chief and the Gadget. The Chief is the passenger train between Chicago and Los Angeles, and The Gadget refers to the first atomic weapon, which was developed in Los Alamos. Of course, though we’d been there before, we had to spend a day on The Hill, at Los Alamos. Our two destinations were The Los Alamos Historical Museum and the Bradbury Science Museum, both of which are free.

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

We hung out at Fuller Lodge, where scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Neils Bohr, and Enrico Fermi socialized. We drove by Oppenheimer’s house on Bathtub Row, now a private residence. The property used for the Manhattan Project had been a boys’ boarding school when the government bought it in 1942, so Fuller Lodge is also where William S. Burroughs and Gore Vidal ate meals as teenagers.

The Bradbury Science Museum is run by the Los Alamos National Laboratory so it covers the history of the Manhattan Project and also the lab’s research projects since then. We watched a short version of the documentary The Town That Never Was and perused the exhibit about some of the individuals who had lived on The Hill as part of the Manhattan Project.

Please take a look at our Photo Essay based on our trip to Los Alamos three years ago and our whole “In the Footsteps” series!

Writing Process Blog Hop (Doug) April 30, 2014

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Patricia Grace King tagged us. Her post about her writing process HERE.

Emily Gray Tedrowe also tagged us. Emily’s blog hop post is HERE.

Anna was up last week HERE. Now, Doug shares his writing process.

What am I working on?

I am about to restart a novel project that I had to set aside for some time. If I’m honest, I admit that I set it aside for about two years while we worked on other projects. I found that I couldn’t work on both the novel and the nonfiction book at the same time.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

My novel is a historical thriller set at the end of the Manhattan Project, which was the World War II program to create an atomic bomb. The seventieth anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will take place in a little less than eighteen months, in August 2015.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m sorely tempted to say, “But it doesn’t.” The whole point of a genre is to classify some appropriate level of sameness. My current day job (I’ve had many) is as a librarian. As a result, I’m a pretty firm believer in classification. Classification by genre gives a reader the ability to make sense of the world and to have certain expectations of that world. But as any librarian—or anyone else who tries to impose order on a/the world—knows, worlds are messy, tenuous places. In my own writing, I simply strive to render the world that I have in my head in the most compelling way that I can. In the end, I don’t think much about making my story differ from others in the genre. My focus is on making the story the best story that I can tell and, in doing that, tell a distinctive story that no one else could render.

Why do I write what I do?

In the largest sense, my writing reflects my interests. The specifics of Why this novel? are related to a chance occurrence in graduate school that brought me into contact with a veteran of the Manhattan Project. After the campus viewing of a documentary made by science historian Peter Galison, I went up to ask him a question. Standing in line in front of me was one of the very few women who’d performed scientific or engineering work on the Manhattan Project. She told Galison about working for Edward Teller. I struck up conversation with her and asked her if I could interview her. It took me more than three years to get that interview, but it was worth it. My writer’s mind was off and running.

Train Station at Lamy, NM

Train Station at Lamy, NM

There was a related, secondary thread at work in my life at the same time. My wife and collaborator, Anna Leahy, was working on a novel about her grandfather, Henry. As an adult, Henry was a Pullman Conductor on the Santa Fe Chief, the train that ran between Chicago and Los Angeles. The Chief and other trains were the primary mode of cross-country transportation for the scientists of the Manhattan Project. All through the war, Henry dropped these scientists off at Lamy, New Mexico. The novel grew out of my ruminating on the possibility that this woman I’d met by accident and Henry, who died shortly after I met him, might have met nearly sixty years earlier.

How does my writing process work?

ID cards from the Manhattan Project

ID cards from the Manhattan Project

Though I have regular tasks and obligations, my work as a librarian doesn’t have as much of a set schedule as most might think. I also teach at least one class a year, and I run at least one major event (a conference, a writer’s program, etc.) every year in addition to my day-to-day duties. As a result, I can’t consistently say that THIS hour of EACH day is my writing time. I have to be opportunistic.  When I can find time to write, I have to do it.

DorlandDougI’m a firm believer in writing residencies (like the ones at Ragdale and the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony), and I use the uninterrupted time that they provide to get large chunks of work done and to give me inertia—the tendency of an object in motion to stay in motion—to keep going when I get back to my usual routine-that’s-not-routine. I’ve been blogging with Anna for almost four years. We post something new every week on Wednesdays. So, even when I’m not specifically focused on a book project, I consistently write, edit, and discuss with Anna each week. I stay engaged with the process.

Who’s next in the My Writing Process blog hop?

Amanda Niehaus at http://www.easypeasyorganic.com

Amanda Niehaus is a science writer, blogger, and mother. In 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer when her daughter was eight months old. She began “researching all the ways to make my family’s life healthier and happier” and began her blog as a result. She also contributes to magazines and other blogs.

Leslie Pietrzyk at www.workinprogressinprogress.com

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels (Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day) and has published short stories in many journals, including Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, and The Sun. She teaches fiction in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University and is on the core faculty at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program. You can read recent short fiction by her at http://rkvryquarterly.com/i-am-the-widow/.

Stephanie Vanderslice at wordamour.wordpress.com

Stephanie Vanderslice, M.F.A., Ph.D., most recently published Rethinking Creative Writing. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction and directs the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas. She also writes “The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life” column at The Huffington Post.  Stephanie is represented by Anne Bohner at Pen and Ink Literary.

In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 15) January 2, 2013

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The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

Last Wednesday, Lofty Ambitions introduced Jean Dayton and our serendipitous meeting with that woman of the Manhattan Project and nuclear history. You can start with that post by clicking HERE.

Jean Klein Dayton would have been 88 years old this past Sunday. In continuing with our theme of chance, of serendipity, we hadn’t thought about Jean in quite a while, but recently, when tidying up the Manhattan Project area of Doug’s writing space, something in the stack of books, notes, photos, and maps brought Jean into a moment’s focus. Later, fingertips on laptop keyboard, Doug did a quick search for Jean (“jean klein dayton manhattan project”). Almost at the top of the search results was Jean’s obituary in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper. She had died more than three years earlier in March 2009.

Also in that first page of results were links to information about Jean in Manhattan Project related websites and books. In particular, Doug was drawn to the passages about Jean in the book, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. It was a more-than-appropriate reminder of how we came to interview Jean in the summer of 2004. That summer was a furious maelstrom of activity. Doug was focused on writing up the results of his PhD research, Anna copyedited, and together we planned the moves necessary to reunite our household after five years of maintaining one residence in Oregon and another in the Midwest.

Doug hadn’t so much forgotten about his encounter with Jean Dayton and her association with the Manhattan Project as he had boxed them up and put them away like holiday decorations in the attic of his mind. Doug’s novel project, set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, could easily consume weeks of time. Time that took him away from his dissertation. Time that he couldn’t afford if he were to finish his degree. Eventually, after some lengthy self-bargaining, working on the novel became a reward. It was a present Doug would give to himself for finishing his dissertation. But toward the end of that summer, running out of time if he were to finish before the move back to Illinois, Doug found himself fingering the spines of books about the Manhattan Project in Oregon State’s Valley Library. What had started out as a simple errand to return a stack of books about software engineering and qualitative research methods—two topics not often seen together at the time—had become a mini-break away from the drudgery of academic writing.

ID cards from the Manhattan Project

ID cards from the Manhattan Project

When Doug came across Their Day in the Sun, he instantly remembered the woman that he’d run into after the Cold War lecture more than a year earlier. He quickly skimmed the book’s index for her entry. Upon finding and reading Jean’s pages in the book, Doug was once again fascinated by this person and wondered if there would be time to interview her before leaving Corvallis for good. We quickly discussed the situation and decided that we would just have to make time for the interview. The phone call to set up the interview was very much like the last time that Doug and Jean spoke: quiet, full of pauses, and somewhat awkward. We agreed to a meeting in the cafeteria at a hospital in Corvallis. Jean or her husband was undergoing treatment at the time.

The interview began with lots of background about Jean’s life. She’d gone to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project as the wife of a physicist, Henry Hurwitz. After the war, Hurwitz would be a leading thinker in the area of the nuclear power plants and made significant contributions to the design and development of nuclear submarines. Jean and Henry would ultimately divorce, but during the war, like many of the smart, capable scientists’ wives at the Manhattan Project, she pitched in.

Doug reminded her of their meeting after the Galison talk where she’d indicated that she worked for Edward Teller. She nodded, but said nothing. Even after further prompting, Jean was unwilling to provide specifics about the nature of her own work. In fact, before agreeing to the interview she required that we provide her with any notes that we took so that she could forward them to the security office at Los Alamos.  We kept our word, and we can only assume that she did too. Jean exuded a calm competence that suggested when she said she would do something, she did. About her work during the Manhattan Project, Their Day in the Sun has this to say:


Trinity Test, 1945

“Dayton started in the Electronics Division, making Geiger counters and other equipment and installing an interoffice phone system. She transferred to weapons testing in order to get outdoors, and she later helped to design the detonation system for the hydrogen bomb. John von Neumann selected her for the job because he felt that a mathematician would take to long to figure out the system. A person working intuitively, he hoped, would be more efficient.”

Although the book’s description doesn’t precisely coincide with Jean’s recollection—she indicated that she worked for Teller (von Neumann’s countrymen and friend)—it does pinpoint her thinking as to the reason that she was chosen. Also, given Teller’s role in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, it’s likely that she was collaborating with both men.

During the interview, Jean was much more open about day-to-day life on The Hill (one of the many monikers that Los Alamos went by during the Manhattan Project). Jean was reluctant to mention the names of many of the personages that she encountered during her time on The Hill. After mentioning a dinner party that she held where three of the attendees would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize, we developed a habit of guessing whom she was talking about. If we guessed correctly, she’d confirm our guess with a quick nod. One of the attendees at her dinner party was a young Richard Feynman. After we made that connection, Jean fondly recalled broadcasting an advice-for-the-lovelorn radio show with Feynman. She also related that Feynman had developed a bit of a crush on her. Still married at the time, Jean introduced Feynman to her sister, and the two dated for a time.

It’s been more than eight years since we interviewed Jean. Jean arrived at Los Alamos in 1943. She was nineteen years old, younger than many of our students. Jean Dayton was our first interview as a team. We feel like we did a pretty good job, but now that we’ve done more research and visited Los Alamos ourselves, there are many things that we wish we could ask.

In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 14) December 26, 2012

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As frequent readers of Lofty Ambitions well know, we’re big believers in serendipity–that chance meeting with an idea, a place, or a person (or even better, a combination of those). Afterwards, your thoughts move in a new, unexpected direction. Last week’s post was about recent serendipity, and this week’s is about serendipity from our past.

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

In May 2003, while he was a graduate student at Oregon State University, Doug had just such a chance collosion while attending a lecture about the Cold War and nuclear weapons. Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics at Harvard University, was speaking about a documentary that he had recently completed, The Ultimate Weapon: The H-bomb Dilemma. The title of Galison’s talk was “Filming and Writing History: The H-bomb Debate.” Doug had just started doing research for a historical novel set during the Manhattan Project, and the talk seemed to dovetail neatly with this new project.

One of the 20th century’s most controversial scientific figures, Edward Teller, is often referred to as the father of the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb). The H-bomb came into the world’s consciousness in 1952, less than ten years after the atomic bomb. Although much distinguishes the two types of weapons, not the least of which is that they operate on different physical principles; atomic bombs use fission, H-bombs use fusion, and the resulting difference between the two weapons is their destructive power. Atomic bombs have a practical upper limit in explosive yield based on the size of their uranium or plutonium core (see more HERE). Hydrogen bombs (more commonly called thermonuclear weapons in the latter stages of the Cold War) are nearly unlimited in their destructive potential. The primary requirement for increasing their power is adding more fuel (see more HERE).

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

Galison’s documentary–which aired on the History Channel in August 2000–gave voice to a number of the people associated with the development and deployment of thermonuclear weapons. In his talk, Galison made it seem as if he had a particular fondness for, or at least was intrigued by, the nuclear weapons designer Theodore “Ted” Taylor. Taylor had a reputation for being a particularly innovative thinker, a producer of remarkably elegant designs, although perhaps elegant isn’t quite the right term when the context is nuclear weapons. In the late 1950s, Taylor worked with physicist Freeman Dyson on Project Orion, an extravagantly ambitious plan to create a spacecraft capable of deep-space travel. At a time when NASA had yet to place a man in orbit, the mavens behind Orion were proposing a ship that could scoot easily past Mars and make its way to the outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and even Pluto (back in the days when Pluto was punching above its weight and still held planet status). Potential multi-generational missions involving dozens of scientists, their families, and a small menagerie of farm animals gallivanting off to Alpha Centauri were considered. The magical elixir that would power the enormous Orion? Not Star Trek’s dilithium crystals or ion drives. No, Orion was designed to ride a steady stream of H-bomb explosions. Megaton class (1) H-bombs would be ejected from the rear of Orion, detonated at a so-called safe distance, and the resulting stream of radiation and shock waves would push against a gigantic metal plate–logically enough called a pusher plate–fixed to Orion’s backside. Orion, of course, never went beyond the drawing board.

In his later years, Taylor became an ardent critic of the nation’s nuclear weapons program and its potential for nuclear proliferation. Not so with Edward Teller. Teller remained a passionate defender of nuclear weapons and his role in the creation of the H-bomb until the end of his life in 2003.

At the end of Galison’s talk, Doug went up to the speaker’s lectern to ask him a question about Ted Taylor. Doug was not the only person in the audience whose personal interests weren’t fully addressed in the short Q&A; there were a half-dozen people in line to speak with Galison. Standing quietly in front of Doug was a tiny, elderly woman. When it was her turn to speak with Galison, the woman stepped forward and began to tell her story. She had been a part of the Manhattan Project. There, she worked as a kind of assistant to Edward Teller. Though not a physicist, she’d studied biology at Cornell University, Teller valued her unorthodox problem solving strategies–what we’d today call outside-the-box thinking–and often gave her problems to work on, thorny, unusual problems that were stymieing the physicists.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

The woman’s interaction with Galison was economical. She did the majority of the speaking, and after a brief moment of silence, she turned and left. Even after standing in line and while still wanting to ask Galison a question, Doug made a very easy decision: he followed the woman. As reached the lecture hall’s doorway, Doug tapped her gently on the shoulder. Introducing himself and explaining his interest in the Manhattan Project, Doug asked her if he might interview her about her experiences. With a look that suggested she was taken aback by this turn of events, she thought for a moment and ultimately said in a soft voice, “Yes.” Again she turned to leave, and again Doug tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Your name. I need your name.” This time, the frown on her face indicated that she hadn’t anticipated this question as a part of the bargain. After a brief pause, she relented and said, “Jean Dayton.”

Doug’s graduate work intervened, and it was more than a year before he contacted her for an interview. For more on Jean Dayton, who was born on December 30, 1924, check out our next post HERE.

Going Nuclear: From New Mexico to Colorado to Nevada June 13, 2012

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Today’s post is an extension of or at least directly related to our “In the Footsteps” series, in which we trace the nuclear history of the United States.

On this date in 1911, Luis W. Alvarez was born. He would go on to become a world-renowned physicist, eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his work in particle physics, resonance states, bubble chambers, and data analysis. Just before his work on nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, Alvarez, while based briefly at the University of Chicago, helped develop a plan for the first intelligence gathering and monitoring of nuclear development in other countries, at the time Germany.

Then, he became one among a host of scientists who worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico on the Manhattan Project. There, Alvarez worked on the first plutonium bomb, Fat Man, which was used on Nagasaki. In fact, he flew on The Great Artiste with the detection equipment he developed to measure the explosive power of the nuclear detonations over both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, he turned his attention to particle accelerators, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and the cause of dinosaur extinction.

Last Tuesday, Anna headed over to the local Barnes & Noble to pick up the new book by a recent Lofty Ambitions guest blogger. Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats made its debut on June 5, 2012, and as a Discover Great New Writers selection. The book has been chosen as a common reader for incoming students at Virginia Commonwealth University, and it’s getting great reviews. So Anna tucked it into her bag and headed off to Las Vegas to read it under the cabana.

What we like about Full Body Burden is the concept of science writing to which we keep returning here at Lofty Ambitions, namely that good science writing tells a story and is about the people as well as the science or technology. Kristen goes one step further, as we do here on our blog, by weaving her own story—memoir—into the larger cultural story. Or rather, Kristen recognizes that she too is part of the story of Rocky Flats in Colorado, where she spent her childhood and where plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were produced until 1992. So we learn about Kristen’s horses—Tonka, Sassy, and the others—and family life in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as about the fires in 1957 and 1969 at the Rocky Flats facility operated then by Dow Chemical.

The story of Rocky Flats, including its two major fires and its day-to-day leakage, is one that most of us don’t know. To put its importance in perspective, here’s a tidbit from Full Body Burden: “In early December 1974, residents wake up to a socking headline in the Rocky Mountain News: cattle near rocky flats show high plutonium level. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study has found that cattle in a pasture just east of Rocky Flats have more plutonium in their lungs than cattle grazing on land at the Nevada Test Site, where the United States conducted hundreds of aboveground nuclear explosions in the 1950s and 1960s. Plutonium, uranium, americium, tritium, and strontium are found in measurable quantities in the cows’ bodies, and levels of plutonium in the lungs and tracheo-bronchial lymph nodes of the cows are especially high.”

Indeed, 928 nuclear tests (some with multiple detonations) were conducted both above and below ground at the Nevada Test Site (check this link to see warning to users) between 1951 and 1992, the year the United States agreed to a nuclear test ban and the year Rocky Flats stopped producing plutonium triggers. While the United States performed more than 200 atmospheric tests, some of those were done in the Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of nuclear tests in Nevada—more than eight hundred—were underground detonations. The last aboveground test at the Nevada Test Site occurred on July 17, 1962. Of course, underground tests raised dust too, and some, like Buster-Jangle Uncle in 1951 and Baneberry in 1970, had visible releases of fallout well above the Earth’s surface.

We know these facts about the Nevada Test Site in part because, while in Las Vegas, we usually visit the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo Road, just a few minutes drive off The Strip. Doug drove out to Las Vegas on Saturday to spend the night and retrieve Anna and some friends. So this trip provided another opportunity to visit the museum on Sunday, in the midst of reading about the nation’s nuclear history in Full Body Burden.

Last Underground Nuclear Test (NNSA)

In the films at the museum, we were reminded of what the shift from aboveground testing to underground testing meant for the people involved in the program. One person pointed out that, though many scientists and engineers initially opposed the move, “The data was much better underground.” Another man, though, worries that, when we moved nuclear testing underground and out of sight, “We shielded ourselves and the public from what a nuclear test is really like.” The United States hasn’t conducted a critical nuclear explosion in twenty years.

The Nevada Test Site remains ready to resume nuclear testing, though. A test site engineer in one of the museum’s films went so far as to state, “As long as you have a nuclear stockpile, the day will come when you have to have a nuclear test.” A New York Times article this year notes that our current agreement with Russia limits us to 1550 deployed weapons and “thousands more warheads [that] can be kept in storage as a backup force” and additional short-range nuclear weapons. Given the order for a nuclear test, the Nevada Test Site could be ready again within two or three years.

In the Footsteps (Part 12) February 8, 2012

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Lofty Ambitions is going to AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Doug will present on a panel called “Purloining the Letter” on Thursday, March 1, at 10:30a.m. in the Chicago Hilton. As we’ve peeked at letters and telegrams written in bygone days, we’ve learned a lot about archives and how to read these documents. Doug’s expertise as a scientist and as a librarian continues to be a great asset for us, and he’s sharing some of that here at Lofty Ambitions as well as at AWP.

To read the rest of our “In the Footsteps” series, click HERE or on that tag in the tag cloud in the sidebar. To read posts by those presenting presenting at the AWP panel “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age,” click HERE or on the Guest Blogs category in the menu up top, then scroll for Tom Zoellner, M. G. Lord, Jeff Porter, and Kristen Iversen, whose forthcoming book will be featured in Barnes & Nobel’s Summer Great New Writers program.


Doug & Enterprise at NASM

I’m currently working on an espionage novel, set during the Manhattan Project. the Lofty Duo has done a fair bit of research, including working in the archives of the Library of Congress, where we’ve read through some boxes of the papers of J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of Los Alamos laboratory during the Manhattan Project. Although I’d taken away several fascinating tidbits from that research project, after hearing Alan Furst discuss methods for building a vocabulary that authentically recreates a historical period, I silently admonished myself for not being more methodical in my own use of the letters, memos, notes, and other ephemera in Oppenheimer’s papers. All these types of documents—letters, memos, telegrams, notes, and other ephemera—play the same role in my research because they, unlike a private journal or a publication intended for the general public, are written for a specific audience.

Since that realization inspired by Furst’s talk, I’ve been more focused in my research use of letters and other materials. I think about my usage as fitting a few primary categories:

  1. Language and vocabulary development. This aligns with Furst’s suggestions in recreating a time period but has also helped me in creating verisimilitude by learning the military and scientific jargon of the era.
  2. Events confirmation. This helps me align my novel’s plot with the recorded events.
  3. Character development. Each document reveals aspects of the person who wrote it and also of the person who was intended to receive it.

Samuel Goudsmit to Robert Bacher (CalTech Archives)

A concrete example of the type of historically accurate vernacular that I needed to develop in my novel is the list of codenames assigned to important Manhattan Project scientists. Nobel Laureates Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, for example, were assigned the names Farmer and Baker respectively. The use of code names, primarily for communications and travel purposes, is described in a number of books and biographies about the era. In the richly annotated book Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections, authors Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner include a letter from Oppenheimer to the project’s military head, General Leslie Groves, wherein the left-leaning academic encourages the security-obsessed military man to consider assigning code names by saying, “it would be preferable if such well known names were not put in circulation.” Not only do I better understand the practice of codenames, but also the way in which the practice was discussed.

From Max Planck (CalTech Archives)

The second way in which letters have played a role in my novel has been to develop my understanding of the sequencing of events associated with the Manhattan Project. The beginning of the project itself is associated with a specific letter, signed by Albert Einstein in October 1939 and hand-carried to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s response was to create a committee to investigate the feasibility of this research. For a program that would ultimately consume $2B dollars, the Manhattan Project got off to a very modest start, spending in the neighborhood of $5K in 1939 and 1940. The papers of Robert Bacher in CalTech’s archives detail the extent of this work. Even more important, by the letters’ very nature—one-to-one communication between the involved scientists—the documents point to the fact that none of the involved parties anticipated the scope of what was to come. That in-the-moment record can be even more important than the hindsight of a historical text that looks back long after the events.

The third letter-use category that I have defined for my own work has been their use in character development, both fictional and historical. Of particular interest to me, for instance, was a recommendation letter written by Richard Feynman, which I encountered in the papers of Robert Oppenheimer in the Library of Congress. Much has been written about Feynman’s quirky, non-conformist character (including much in his own voice, in books that he penned). And yet, after making my way through most of Feynman’s books and several books where Feynman appears, nothing could make his unconventional ways as tangible as a single letter—written for a single person, Oppenheimer—wherein Feynman suggests that a candidate for a job (at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies) will make his greatest contribution by being fantastic at parties.

Other aspects of working with letters in archives can be helpful as well. Recently, I listened to Knox College Professor Doug Wilson discuss how Abraham Lincoln’s predilection for producing multiple drafts of letters has actually influenced the course of scholarship. In a somewhat unusual situation, the final copies of Lincoln’s letters have been archived at the Library of Congress, while the drafts are at the Huntington Library. By comparing the two collections, Wilson discovered that the Library of Congress actually had gaps in its Lincoln Collection, that drafts existed where there was no remaining final copy in the Library of Congress. My research thus far indicates that this tendency to produce multiple drafts of letters (usually one or two handwritten versions that were then typed up, sometimes with a carbon copy, perhaps by a secretary) is also common in the papers of Manhattan Project scientists. While this hasn’t been consciously reflected in my novel by characters writing drafts of letters, it has provided me with an insight into how these people thought, how they planned and revised. It has also caused me to wonder on several occasions about how many of my colleagues draft and revise emails before sending them, as I often do.

Letter from Albert Einstein, 1913 (Huntington Library)

I’ll conclude this post as a librarian myself, with some practical advice regarding working with letters in archives. First, call ahead and make an appointment. Particularly in these times of economic uncertainty, archives are overworked and understaffed. During our most recent archival visit to CalTech, drop-ins were turned away. In addition, librarians and archivists are best able to help those who help themselves. By contacting them prior to your visit, they will probably ask you for specifics regarding the materials that you wish to see. In larger archives, materials are often stored offsite. By planning ahead, those materials can be brought to the work area prior to your visit.

Also, think ahead about copyright. In some collections, statements about copyright are included. In others, not so much. Ask questions so that you know the extent to which you can quote or otherwise use documents and how you should credit that use. Depending on the date it was written, the copyright holder of a personal letter, for instance, is usually the writer of that letter, not the recipient or whoever happens to have it in her attic.

Lastly, be cognizant of the age of the materials that you handle. Tearing a letter in half as you pull it out of the box is a rotten way to start a research visit. Holding thin, fragile letters conveys a sense of the preciousness of these materials and their contents and a sense of proximity to the time in which they were written, as if you can hear the letter-writer’s footsteps receding down the hallway.

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).

In the Footsteps (Part 10) December 7, 2011

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Thanksgiving Dinner in France

Late on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we overpacked our suitcases and headed out on the highway. Five hours later, we had checked into our Las Vegas hotel and were in search of the food you can find at the wee hours in the city that really does never sleep. On Monday, we made our now-annual visit to the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo Road.

The Bellagio’s Dancing Fountains

We’ve written about this museum before HERE. This time, the museum boasted a special exhibit called “Building Atomic Vegas” that fits perfectly with our ongoing series “In the Footsteps.” This week, we’ll walk you through some of the highlights of that exhibit by sharing some of our photos.

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

Casino Owner Benny Binion (1904-1989) greets visitors.

Here’s a Las Vegas postcard featuring the Desert Inn, with a nuclear test blast rising in the background.

The museum’s permanent exhibit displays an array of pop culture memorabilia. Here’s that Atomic Fireball you may know from childhood and a book called Our Friend the Atom, which was also the name a Disney film.

Perhaps the most striking item in the “Building Atomic Vegas” exhibit is this mannequin. She was used in civil defense tests at Yucca Flats in 1953.

The mannequin’s injuries, the scrapes and the dislocated arm, were sustained in a nuclear test blast.

Las Vegas High Schoolers of the 1950s and early 1960s had nuclear blast drills and cheered their teams with atomic pom-poms.

Many Las Vegas residents were issued dog tags for identification, in the event of an atomic bomb attack.

Soldiers sent into ground zero after a nuclear test blast were issued masks. Films we’ve seen also show soldiers being brushed off with brooms after being exposed to radioactive fallout at ground zero.

Far from the Nevada Test Site, which was renamed the Nevada National Security Site last year, the name “atomic” was popular in the 1950s. Here’s a snapshot of New York phone book listings from 1950.

In 1957, a beauty contest led to the naming of Miss Atomic Bomb.

The Stardust Casino opened on July 2, 1958. What is a nuclear blast but a harnessing of the star’s energy? The Stardust closed on November 1, 2006, and was demolished the following March.

This Apollo spacesuit is part of the “Building Atomic Vegas” exhibit because Apollo 11 astronauts trained in their spacesuits at the Nevada Test Site in 1965, a prelude to walking on the Moon.

Read the notes in pencil on this atomic blast preparation pamphlet. It was at the Nevada Proving Ground (the name changed to NTS at the end of 1954) for Shot Simon on April 25, 1953.

President John F. Kennedy visited the Nevada Test Site on December 8, 1962. Here’s a rare photo of him with half of Lofty Ambitions.

Liberace played Las Vegas during its atomic era. At Wisconsinite, Mr/ Showmanship died in 1987. His Las Vegas museum closed permanently on October 17 of last year.

Yes, this suit is the one Evel Knievel wore in his ill-fated attempt to jump the Caesar’s Palace fountains on his motorcycle on New Year’s Eve 1967. He suffered multiple fractures and remained in a coma for 29 days after the accident.

Near the end of the exhibit, after Evel Knievel and Liberace, is this Mk/B53 Gravity Bomb casing, on loan from the United States Air Force. This shell for a bunker-buster thermonuclear weapon is a reminder of the foundation of “Building Atomic Vegas.”

The exhibit “Building Atomic Vegas” runs through January 5, 2012. For the video of the press preview for this exhibit, click HERE. If you’re in Las Vegas this Friday, December 9, check out the lecture on “Salvador Dali and Nuclear Art.”

In the Footsteps (Part 9) August 31, 2011

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On this date in 2005, nuclear physicist Józef Rotblat died. Born in Poland, Rotblat joined The Manhattan Project in 1944. When he was certain that Germany was no longer pursuing an atomic bomb, he put in a request to leave the bomb-building project in Los Alamos. Shortly thereafter, he was accused of being a spy and was prohibited from returning to the United States for two decades.

Joseph Rotblat, Los Alamos National Laboratory ID Badge

Having opposed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the political use of atomic weapons in the emerging struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Joseph Rotblat returned to England to work on nuclear science for other purposes. He turned his attention to medical uses for radioactivity and to studying nuclear fallout, including the dangers of Strontium-90. He played an instrumental role in questioning the real extent of contamination from the Castle Bravo nuclear test and claimed that the nuclear weapons used in these tests were especially dangerous because they unfolded in three stages, with the last fission stage drastically intensifying radioactive contamination.

In 1995, Joseph Rotblat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Pugwash Conferences, an organization he helped found in 1957. The 59th Pugwash Conference was held in Berlin this past July and focused on Europe’s contribution to nuclear disarmament.

Rotblat helped bring wider attention to the dangers to humans of exposure to radioactivity. By that time, though, radioactivity had made its way into some common uses that may today seem odd. At the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, which we visited earlier this year, we saw lots of examples of the popularizing of radioactive substances and the idea of radioactivity’s power.

A poster boasts the benefits of Tho-Radia, a line of beauty creams and cosmetics containing Thorium and Radium. French women bought the concoctions in hopes that it would keep their skin healthy and stimulate beauty. Notice how the lighting in the advertising poster makes the woman’s face glow. Sadly, one of its creators banked on the last name he shared with two Nobel-winning scientists, Pierre and Marie Curie.

A much more familiar pop-culture outgrowth of nuclear science was the shoe-fiting fluoroscope. Thousands of these contraptions dotted America’s shoe store landscape as early as the 1930s. Kids loved to step up, stick their feet into the bottom of the wooden box, and look through the top to see the bones of their feet inside the shoes. Parents could take a peek to see that the shoes fit well. By the late 1940s, concern arose about exposing kids to radioactivity so that the fluoroscopes disappeared from shoe stores only to reappear as museum artifacts decades later.

Another widely known use of Radium was in the luminescent paint used on watches and clocks from 1917 to 1926. Thousands of women, now known as Radium Girls, painted hundreds of dials a day. To keep the brushes sharply pointed, they would use their lips or tongue. Five of the women later sued and reached a settlement that influenced our understanding of radioactivity tolerance levels, workplace safety standards, and labor laws.

In a bit of irony, The Manhattan Project temporarily ended the use of radioactive uranium oxide in the orange-red pottery glaze used by Fiesta for their dinnerware. In 1936, Fiesta introduced the United States to solid-color, mix-and-match ceramic dinnerware. In 1944, though, the Army needed all the uranium that was available to build an atomic bomb. Fifteen years later, Fiesta reintroduced its red plates and bowls, but this time, they used depleted, instead of natural, uranium. On the positive side for Fiesta, their dinnerware is lead free, made in the United States, and no longer made with radioactive materials.

As we meandered through these artifacts, a song by Blind Boys of Alabama played in the background (see video below too):

In nineteen hundred and forty-five
The atom bomb, it came alive.
In nineteen hundred and forty-nine
The USA got very wide.
We found out a country across the line
Had an atom bomb of the very same kind.

Everybody’s worried ’bout the atomic bomb.
But nobody’s worried about the day my lord will come
When he hits (great god almighty) like an atom bomb
When he comes, when he comes.

As the displays at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History make clear, we can’t eliminate radioactivity from our daily lives or from the larger world. We saw artifacts of popular culture of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s—items for daily use and sensational gadgets—about which few had any concern at the time. We’ve written before about the difficulties that individuals and entities have assessing risk (HERE and HERE). But Joseph Rotblat left us lessons about becoming more aware of the actual exposure levels and risks associated with radioactivity. We end this post with his words, which are taken from his Nobel lecture. (And then we top that off with a video for the Blind Boys of Alabama song mentioned above.)

But science, the exercise of the supreme power of the human intellect, was always linked in my mind with benefit to people. I saw science as being in harmony with humanity. I did not imagine that the second half of my life would be spent on efforts to avert a mortal danger to humanity created by science.


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