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Countdown to The Cold War: October 1944 October 8, 2014

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In the book, Hanford and the Bomb: An Oral History of World War II, author S. L. Sanger gives perhaps the most straightforward description of Hanford’s role in the Manhattan Project:

In simplest terms, Hanford’s job was to make plutonium inside the nuclear reactors by bombarding uranium fuel with neutrons, and to separate the plutonium from the irradiated uranium. The first step was nuclear; the second was chemical.

The first Hanford nuclear reactor (also known as atomic piles in the 1940s) in which the bombardment process took place was the B Reactor. After a fifteenth-month construction period, scientists and engineers began coaxing the B Reactor into operation in the fall of 1944. The B Reactor initially went critical on September 26, 1944. But getting the B Reactor into operational status was a lengthy, problematic exercise. Many of those problems were diagnosed and solved 70 years ago this month, in October 1944.

Hanford B Reactor

Hanford B Reactor

When you think of the Hanford reactors, imagine a roughly square box—36 ft. x 28 ft. x 36 ft.—of graphite with horizontal holes that function as tubes running through the box. In order to create a functioning reactor, the horizontal tubes are filled with cans—“slugs” in the nuclear business—of uranium. The nuclear reactor goes critical when enough uranium is placed inside the graphite box. If everything is properly controlled, the reaction is said to be self-sustaining.

The Hanford reactors were designed with 2,004 horizontal tubes. There were also a number of tubes for control rods, also mounted horizontally, that cut across the 2,004 tubes designed to contain uranium. The control rods, as the name implies, were used to control the level of neutron production within the pile and, therefore, the power production of the reactor. There were a few tubes drilled vertically through the reactor as well. These tubes could be used to shut down the reactor in an emergency. That way, in the event of the failure of the control rods, a last-ditch system consisting of a boron solution could be dumped over the pile from five 105-gallon tanks positioned on top of the reactor.

The amount of material and effort that went into the construction of the reactors is staggering. In his book The History and the Science of the Manhattan Project, physicist Bruce Cameron Reed has the following to say:

The piles themselves were welded to be gas-tight, and contained 2.5 million cubic feet of masonite; 4,415 t of steel plate; 1,093 t of cast iron; 2,200 t of graphite; 221,000 feet of copper tubing; 176,700 feet of plastic tubing; and some 86,000 feet of aluminum tubing.

As he had with the first atomic pile—CP-1—famously built under the stands of the University of Chicago’s former football field, Enrico Fermi loaded the first uranium slugs into the B Reactor at Hanford. This action, informally known as “the blessing of the pope,” took place on September 13, 1944. Loading of uranium continued until various measures of criticality took place on September 15-18.

Hanford 1960

Hanford 1960

In late September, power levels in the B reactor began to fluctuate because of the creation of the fission product xenon-135. The xenon-135 was capturing neutrons at a greater rate than had been predicted, and the resulting effect played havoc with the reactor’s ability to sustain a nuclear reaction. The solution turned out to be to add more uranium into more of the reactor’s tubes. The effect was discovered at many power levels. As a result, for much of October the engineers and scientists continued to add more uranium slugs to the reactor.

About the construction of Hanford as a whole, Reed says, “The total volume of land excavated at Hanford was equivalent to about 10% of that of the Panama Canal.” Though Hanford is almost entirely decommissioned now, the volume of radioactive waste that remains there makes it the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States.

Elie Wiesel on Stories & Memories April 9, 2014

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Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel is visiting Chapman University this week as part of his role as Presidential Fellow and teacher and work with the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. In fact, Wiesel, who is 85 years old, told Chancellor Daniele Struppa, a mathematician who deeply appreciates literature, to never give up teaching because students are the world’s “future teachers, guides, healers.” Yesterday’s Q&A between Struppa and Wiesel, however, focused on stories, memory, and writing, so we share our recap here at Lofty Ambitions.

“There are so many sources and resources for more stories and more stories.” Wiesel’s energy is incredible, and he has written 60 books, the first of which was published in 1958. For him, writer’s block or the lack of subject matter or ideas falls completely beside the point of the writing life. That said, he didn’t start writing La Nuit until a decade after that events had taken place. “I needed ten years of silence,” he says, “to think about those lives.”

“The quest for more knowledge, more knowledge always—” This statement explains Wiesel’s attraction to books as a reader and as a writer. The point of writing, for him, is to bring knowledge into the world, to share knowledge among humanity. That’s a grand and wonderful goal for any writing life because it sets the bar high and gets the writer out of her own head, her own needs.

“How to bring matter to life—” That’s the big question for Wiesel as a writer. Pages speak to him, and words come alive. He goes so far as to say, with a sly smile, “Words that don’t come alive shouldn’t be uttered.”

“I write for four hours a day. Every day. Except Sabbath.” Wiesel takes this daily habit seriously and credits it for his productivity. He is a writer, and a writer must do the writing, do a lot of writing and revising.

“The mystery of the beginning and the mystery of the end” are Wiesel’s greatest challenges as a writer. Even if he has a story to tell, even with the many sources and resources for more stories, where a story begins and ends—the first and last pages—remains a mystery until the writer figures it out.

“When you write, you are a conductor.” Wiesel thinks of himself as a conductor of character, setting, words. Conduct means to bring together, and, indeed, that’s what a writer does as he writes, weaving together words, sentences, story elements as a complete whole.

“If I want to write, I have to go deep down in my memory.” For Wiesel, the individual memory is connected to the collective memory. His writing represents his individual perspective and story and also becomes part of the collective perspective and story. Memory is Wiesel’s greatest source, though he also speaks of imagination—what if?—as his greatest resource.

“I look into the mirror only to brush my teeth.” And he brushes his teeth as quickly as possible so as not to stand long in front of the mirror. Wiesel proclaims a purposeful lack of self-awareness of his physical image, noting that he will walk out the door not knowing whether he is wearing a tie or not. Preening is not writing, and writing is not merely performance.

“The birth of something that didn’t exist before—” Though Wiesel talked of personal relationships in these terms, this notion captures the goal of writing. In fact, this notion may be a profound explanation for any human life, any lived life. “Think higher,” he advises. What is it that each of us can create that did not exist before?

To read our post about Elie Wiesel’s Q&A about writing last year, click HERE.

Palomar Observatory: Hale (Part 8) January 8, 2014

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Our previous post in this series can be found HERE.

Our university’s library, where Doug is the Science Librarian, contains an excellent DVD about Hale and the Palomar Observatory: The Journey to Palomar: America’s First Journey Into Space. The italics are the filmmakers and are an emphatic reference to the ability of Hale’s telescopes to present humankind with a revelatory view into the cosmos. This film became mandatory viewing for us after our own journey to the observatory during our writing residency last summer.

George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

We mentioned in last week’s post that George Ellery Hale was a man of many interests. He was also unusual in his ability to transform his interests into talents. In The Journey to Palomar, California historian (and former California State Librarian) Kevin Starr says of Hale, “I think that we have to consider George Ellery Hale, if not the founder of Pasadena, certainly the re-founder.” As an example of the kind of transformation that Hale sought for Pasadena, taking it from a sleepy little town to “a great center of scientific and humanistic research,” Starr goes on to talk about Hale’s role in convincing Henry Huntington to use his vast personal collection of art, books, and manuscripts as the foundation for The Huntington Library. Hale’s efforts to remake Pasadena didn’t stop there. He had a fundamental role in the creation and development of what is arguably the world’s finest university, the California Institute of Technology.

How does a man interested in building telescopes end up instigating the emergence of Cal Tech? In 1891, Amos G. Throop, yet another Chicagoan who ultimately made his way to Pasadena, founded Throop Polytechnic Institute.  The school operated under a number of names, including Throop University, and it included primary and secondary schools in its educational program. In the early 1900s, Hale became close friends with a Throop trustee, Charles Frederick Holder. Hale became interested in the institution, and he advanced a plan for remaking the school via Holder.

Like all Hale plans, it was bold and expansive. Hale saw the possibility of creating a first-rate research institution for the Western United States, a place whose graduates would vie with the scientists and engineers produced by German research universities. But Hale wasn’t interested only in turning out engineering automatons. He had a deep affinity for the humanities as well. He wanted to develop creative, imaginative men. In her biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, author Helen Wright quotes Hale as saying:

Happy is the boy whose career is plainly foreshadowed. […] But this very interest, in direct proportion to its intensity, is almost certain to lead to a neglect of other opportunities. The absorbing beauties of machine construction and design so completely occupy the boy’s mind that they hinder a view of the greater world. […] He does not yet know that to become a great engineer, he should cultivate not merely his acquaintance with the details of construction, but in no less degree his breadth of view and the highest powers of his imagination.

Throop’s board embraced Hale’s plan and charged him with finding a president who could steer the institution towards the future and some great Nobel successes. Hale undertook the board’s charge with his typical gusto (see our earlier posts in this series for other examples of his gusto). Ironically, at the very same moment, Hale’s alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was trying to woo him into becoming their new president.  Ultimately, after a chance meeting on a transatlantic voyage, Hale enticed James A. B. Scherer, a professor of literature and president of South Carolina’s Newberry College, to become Throop Institute’s president. Over the years, the capable duo of Scherer and Hale succeeded in luring notable academics such as Robert A. Millikan, Thomas Hunt Morgan and Arthur Noyes to Pasadena. In addition, the Hale and Scherer families become so close that Hale’s daughter and Scherer’s son married. Throop became the California Institute of Technology in 1921.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome at Palomar Observatory

Hale’s life is marked by periods of boundless, almost manic, energies and accomplishments. All the while that Hale was working on a reimagined Pasadena and Throop Institutite, he was also writing popular books and carrying out his own research, primarily solar astronomy. Indeed, Hale’s solar research from this time period culminated in his 1908 discovery of the Sun’s magnetic field.

While this work was going on, Hale was also finishing Mt. Wilson’s 60-inch telescope. Hale being Hale, he also started work on an even larger telescope, the story of which will provide a culmination for this blog post series.

View the next post in this series HERE.

Recap of 2013: 5 Posts to Re-Read January 1, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews, Writing.
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Earthrise, Apollo 8 (see our most recent post)

As we begin 2014, we take a look back at Lofty Ambitions over the last year to see where we have been and where we might be going, to see how our interests emerge and shift, to share a few highlights in hopes that our readers take a few minutes to re-read one of our posts. We continue to focus on aviation and spaceflight, science of the 20th century and beyond, and writing as a couple, but we’ve explored these topics in new ways, and certain posts (or groups of posts) stand out for us.


Our first post of 2013 was “In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton.” Dayton arrived in Los Alamos when she was 19 years old to work on the Manhattan Project, and Doug met her when he was in graduate school at Oregon State University. This post is the most recent in our series about our travels to New Mexico and walking in the footsteps of the nation’s earliest nuclear scientists. Read the whole series HERE.



Adam & Wooten Schmitz

The most heart-wrenching post we wrote this year was “Cancer, Risk, & the Language of Loss.” We lost two college friends to cancer this past year, friends still in their 40s and with children and jobs they enjoyed. This post served as our tribute and an expression of our sorrow and gratefulness. We finally added “Cancer” as a tag and re-tagged other posts so that you can read more HERE.


We started Lofty Ambitions in July 2010 and shortly thereafter decided that the end of the space shuttle program would be a major focus for us. Just over a year later, the last mission concluded, and now all the orbiters are tucked into their museum homes. SpaceX thinks they’re next, and its president Gwynne Shotwell told us why and how. We continued to post other  interviews with astronauts, and all our videos thus far can be viewed on the Lofty Ambitions YouTube channel.

Lise Meitner (U.S. public domain)

Lise Meitner (U.S. public domain)


We usually keep our posts at Lofty Ambitions and at The Huffington Post distinct, but “5 Women Who Should Have Won the Nobel Prize” in October was an exception because we recognized its importance and wide appeal. That was a follow-up to an earlier piece we published at The Huffington Post titled “The Nobel Prize: Where Are All the Women?” in July. You can peruse all our HuffPost articles HERE, and we hope to make regular contributions there in the coming year.


This past year, we explored with greater depth the area of science writing by attending the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and Launch Pad as well as spending two weeks in August at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony to work on our writing without the usual routine distractions. We are very happy to share that we have been awarded another two-week residency at Dorland soon and plan to think about how to shape our lives in 2014 around our writing goals. Our most recent post about science writing is an overview of the annual anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writingand we encourage our readers to use the information in that post to submit articles they read and enjoy in the coming year to the series editor.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 December 18, 2013

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BestAmBookWe have perused science writing handbooks and anthologies before, and we’re at it again for the recently published anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. It’s the time of year for “best of” lists, and this book is chockfull of great articles on a wide array of subject matter from the past year.

This year’s iteration is edited by Siddhartha Mukerjee, who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies and is also a cancer physician and researcher. (Take a look at his appearance on The Colbert Report.) His introduction is itself a bonus contribution to the collection of essays.

Gregor_MendelIn “Introduction: On Tenderness,” Mukherjee writes of his visit to the Augustinian monastery in Brno, Czech Republic, where Gregor Mendel performed “the laborious cross-pollination of seedlings, the meticulous tabulation of the colors of cotyledons and the markings of wrinkles on seeds” and, as a result, had “revolutionized biology.” Mukherjee extrapolates from this “tending” of the garden that Mendel did to the “tenderness” that he sees as the quintessential quality of the scientist and used as his selection criteria for this anthology. In this way, The Best American Science and Nature Writing represents the art of science and science writing as art.

While we had not yet made our way through every essay in the collection, several of the pieces we’ve read have us thinking about subjects and issues that are near and dear to the Lofty duo.

Because Anna’s mother died a year ago from pancreatic cancer, Anna turned first to “The Patient Scientist” by Katherine Harmon. This essay tells the story of Ralph M. Steinman, who died of pancreatic cancer a few days before he was announced as a Nobel Prize recipient for his discovery of dendritic cells and their ability to “snag interlopers with their arms, ingest them, and carry them back to other types of immune cells.” Readers may recall that this situation caused quite a tizzy for the folks in Stockholm because a Nobel Prizes are awarded to people who are still living.

The prize rules state that it cannot be given posthumously, but if a laureate dies between the October announcement and the award ceremony in December, he or she can remain on the list. This odd timing [that Steinman had died before the announcement, though the committee didn’t know it] threw the committee into a closely followed deliberation before it announced, late in the day, that he would remain a prize recipient.

The essay, however, focuses on Steinman’s cancer treatment, including his own expertise in the immune system, which allowed him to be an especially active participant in treatment decisions, have unprecedented access to individualized experimental treatment, and even spearhead IRB approval for his own participation in medical trials. He had the Whipple surgery and chemotherapy that is standard treatment, but Steinman was able to participate in several research trials that seem to have extended his life for several years and also provided research teams with additional data that may, in the long run, be difficult to sort out. In one treatment, an individualized vaccine was developed from the pancreatic tissue removed during surgery, and, in another treatment, a melanoma vaccine was repurposed for pancreatic cancer.

The essay poses this process of Steinman’s treatment as a community helping one of its own in a spirit of respect and generosity and as an individual further devoting himself to the scientific research he has practiced all of his adult life. Reading the essay, we could not help but think about who has access to what kind of treatment as well.

hs-2013-51-a-webThe Lofty duo are longtime fans of Alan Lightman, who is a novelist and physicist as well as an essayist, so we turned to “Our Place in the Universe.” Lightman frames this essay with his “most vivid encounter with the vastness of nature” on a sailing excursion with his wife on the Aegean Sea. The real subject of this piece, however, is the great distance of space and how we have come to measure it.

From the first relatively accurate measurement of Earth by the geographer Eratosthenes in the third century B.C to Newton’s estimates of the distance to Earth’s nearest stars to Henrietta Leavitt’s measurements that were used to pin down the size of the Milky Way, we must ponder what distance and numbers mean and how our ability to measure greater distances accurately changes our place in the universe. In the last few years, as a result of data from the Kepler spacecraft, scientists have been able to estimate the percentage of living matter—or the likelihood of it—in the universe.

If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if life emerges by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life. Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.

One of the great things about this annual anthology is that, while many pieces are from the usual big magazines like Scientific American, The New Yorker, and Orion, anyone can submit published work for consideration. Series Editor Tim Folger says in his introduction:

I hope too that readers, writers, and editors will nominate their favorite articles for next year’s anthology at http://timfolger.net/forums. The criteria for submissions and deadlines, and the address to which entries should be sent, can be found in the ‘news and announcements’ forum on my website. Once again this year I’m offering an incentive to enlist readers to scour the nation in search of good science and nature writing; send me an article that I haven’t found, and if the article makes it into the anthology, I’ll mail you a free copy of next year’s edition.

5 Women Who Should Have Won the Nobel Prize October 9, 2013

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It’s Nobel Prize season! The three big science categories—physiology or medicine, physics, and chemistry—were just announced on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Of the eight science winners, how many are women? Zero!

MarieCurieAmHistThat’s the usual number of women in the annual mix. No female scientist has been awarded a Nobel Prize since 2009. In “The Nobel Prize: Where are All the Women?” we wrote about the paucity of women among Nobel laureates in the sciences and about some of the women who had been awarded the prize. “In more than a century, only 15 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in a science category,” we wrote. While we document there some of the ways that the deck is stacked against women, women have made and continue to make significant contributions to science.

You wouldn’t know that from ABC News, which listed “5 Achievements That Haven’t Won a Nobel Prize” and mentioned only male scientists. So, here, we share the accomplishments of five women who should have been more widely lauded for their research. Some made foundational contributions to work that ultimately won the Nobel Prize. Some were genuinely ripped off. Each of them deserved greater recognition for adding to our understanding of the world.

Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)

American astronomer Annie Jump Cannon was one of the so-called Pickering’s Harem, a group of women hired by Edward Pickering at Harvard Observatory. These underpaid women were charged with the painstaking task of mapping and classifying every star in the sky.

When disagreement over how exactly to classify stars arose, Cannon came up with the logical system based on spectral absorption lines. She alone observed and classified more than 200,000 stars over a forty-year career. Instead of being honored with a Nobel, her work is encapsulated in the mnemonic to remember the star classification letters: Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me!

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Lise Meitner (U.S. public domain)

Lise Meitner (U.S. public domain)

Austrian-born Lise Meitner was one of the physicists on the team that discovered how nuclear fission worked. Her contributions to the research were central and she had an especially important role in working out the basic math. Her colleague Otto Hahn, with whom Meitner worked closely for thirty years, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery.

Her tombstone doesn’t say, Nobel Laureate. Instead, it reads: Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

German mathematician Emmy Noether worked in the area of abstract algebra and developed a theorem—Noether’s Theorem—that became important in theoretical physics. It’s helped physicists better understand conservation of energy, and the formula is also a practical tool to test theoretical models of physical systems.

At the time of her death at the age of 53, shortly after an ovarian cyst was discovered, Noether was still actively lecturing and investigating mathematics. Noether helped recast the field of algebra for twentieth-century use and is generally recognized as the greatest female mathematician. But that didn’t attract a Nobel Prize.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin made important contributions to the field of genetics, particularly to our understanding of DNA and RNA. She published independent findings about the DNA helix. Her x-ray crystallography images of DNA led Francis Crick and James Watson to develop their double helix model of DNA, for which the male scientists (along with Maurice Wilkins) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

Franklin seems to have borne little grudge, accepting the gender dynamics of scientific research, especially present in the 1950s. However, she may not have known how much access Crick and Watson had to her data, data that was shared without her permission or knowledge. She died before they were awarded the Nobel. It’s possible that, had she not died, she might have joined the Nobel ranks with her male colleagues, but it’s unlikely. By 1962, when work on the double helix of DNA was awarded the big prize, only three women had won a Nobel Prize in a science category. Two of those three shared the same last name Curie. Crick later commented, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt–let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943)

Of the women on our shortlist of Nobel should-have-beens, astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell is the only one alive and, therefore, the only scientist on our list still eligible for a Nobel. But she won’t get one.

Bell Burnell, while working under Antony Hewish, first observed radio pulsars, or rotating neutron stars. In the paper documenting the discovery, Hewish was the first of five authors, and Bell (her last name at the time) was listed second, as is customary for mentor-student publications. In 1974, the Nobel committee awarded the prize in physics to Hewish and Martin Ryle, overlooking the woman who had pinned down those pulsars in the first place.

Annie Jump Cannon (Library of Congress)

Annie Jump Cannon (Library of Congress)

These five women excelled in their fields and laid the groundwork for scientific research that continues today. They serve as predecessors for women scientists working today and for girls interested in studying science. But times shift slowly, and assumptions about gender are deeply engrained in the culture of scientific inquiry and in larger cultural attitudes about science. While it’s not clear that today’s female groundbreakers have any better shot at a Nobel than Bell Burnell did almost four decades ago, it’s time for women to rise to the top ranks in the sciences more often and be recognized.

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.

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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

You say, Festschriften; I say, that’s a funny word. August 15, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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PUBLIC EVENT TOMORROW: “The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics,” 5:30p.m. in Fish Interfaith Center, Chapman University

Around the Lofty Ambitions household, our tongues have been tripping regularly over the lovely German word Festschriften (and its singular, Festschrift). As any good dictionary will tell you, a Festschrift is a book produced to honor a noteworthy academic, usually on a significant birthday. It is a kind of lifetime achievement award, often produced by the doctoral students that the recipient has advised during her or his career.

Yakir Aharonov

For the last five months, Doug has been involved in the planning of a conference to honor Chapman University faculty member and 2010 National Medal of Science winner Yakir Aharonov. Aharonov is celebrating his 80th birthday this August, so this conference invites fifty of Aharonov’s colleagues to Chapman’s campus on August 16-18, 2012. Like most academic conferences, the working conference itself is open only to researchers presenting original work. However, because of the high level of interest in the conference, it’s going to be live-streamed on the web (click HERE for info). After the conference ends, each of the presented papers will be collected and printed in a Festschrift.

Luckily for those of us who don’t do ground-breaking work in theoretical physics, the conference kicks off with an amazing public event: “The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics: Achievements and Opportunities.” This discussion will be held tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. in the Wallace Chapel of the Fish Interfaith Center.  The event speakers include some of the most accomplished physicists in the world: Yakir Aharonov, Sir Michael Berry, Paul Davies, François Englert, and Nobel Laureate Sir Anthony Leggett. If quantum physics were an Olympic event, these are the guys who collect the gold medals. If you are in Southern California tomorrow, you should be there too.


Aharonov-Bohm Effect

Yakir Aharonov, born and raised in Israel and educated there and in the United Kingdom, is best known for the Aharonov-Bohm effect, a quantum mechanical phenomenon proposed by himself and his doctoral advisor, David Bohm, in 1959. Aharonov’s more recent work is in the area of subatomic weak measurement, non-locality, and the idea that random quantum mechanical effects can be caused by future events. In other words, on the subatomic level, a cause might happen after its effect. Aharonov shared the Wolf Prize in 1998 with Michael Berry “for the discovery of quantum topological and geometrical phases, specifically the Aharonov-Bohm effect, the Berry phase, and their incorporation into many fields of physics.”

Michael Berry, born, raised, and educated in the United Kingdom, defined a quantum mechanical phase called, of course, the Berry phase. Like Aharonov, Berry has a slew of honors, from the Maxwell Medal in 1978 that encourages physicists early in their careers to the Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for work with frogs and magnets. And a Thompson –Reuters poll indicated Aharonov and Berry have a pretty good chance at a Nobel Prize in physics one of these years.

Paul Davies is currently at Arizona State University but is a Brit by birth and education. According to the conference brochure, “Paul Davies’ research has focused on the big questions [a reference to the Australian television show The Big Questions, to which he contributed]: the origin of the universe; the origin of life; the deep nature of reality; the mysteries of time; and the realm of quantum physics.” He’s even involved with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. His latest books—meant for a popular audience, not just for theoretical physicists—are The Eerie Silence and Information and the Nature of Reality.

François Englert, another Wolf Prize winner, must have been pleased when CERN’s new particle accelerator came up with possible confirmation of a particle theorized by Englert and Robert Brout and independently by Peter Higgs. Englert spent most of his life and career in Belgium, with a two-year stint at Cornell University with Brout. (See him talk about the recent Higgs boson news HERE.)

Anthony Leggett, a dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom, works in low-temperature physics and superfluidity.  Never heard of superfluidity? That’s what earned Leggett the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2003; he shared the prize with V. L. Ginzburg and A. A. Abrikosov. In 2004, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

So this is the dance card for Lofty Ambitions on Thursday evening. Our electrons will be spinning wildly on their heels. Who knows what collisions will occur?

Plutonium at Its Worst and Best August 6, 2012

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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Hiroshima, after August 6, 1945

Hiroshima, before August 6, 1945


This week marks the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively, in 1945. Tens of thousands died on those dates, and more people died, as a result of radiation sickness, in the weeks and years following. War reveals human beings at their worst. Nuclear weapons represent our largest, surest capability for self-destruction.

In commemoration for that time, we encourage you to read the poem “Hiroshima’s Secrets” at Lofty Ambitions and to seek out other ways to remember. We’ve written a lot more about nuclear weapons and the nuclear history of the United States—read some of it HERE.

The night before this anniversary—last night—our thoughts were elsewhere. We were following the story of Curiosity, the Mars rover that landed at 10:31pm Pacific Time. Or rather, the rover landed at 10:17pm, and the confirmation signal reached Earth fourteen minutes later. A few minutes after that, two thumbnail photos arrived from Curiosity’s Hazcams, cameras positioned on the front and rear of the rover, cameras with a fisheye lens and amazing focus from four inches to the horizon. Curiosity’s wheels were firmly planted on relatively smooth, even ground. We could see Curiosity’s shadow cast on the surface of Mars.

Curiosity Caught in the Act of Landing (NASA)

The two most recent rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—were powered by solar panels. Curiosity, though, is much larger and more complex than those predecessors, so it needed more oomph and a longer life. Besides, solar panels can be compromised by the dust whipping about the Martian landscape. Curiosity is powered, therefore, by what NASA calls “a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) supplied by the Department of Energy.” In other words, Curiosity runs on a nuclear battery containing more than ten pounds of plutonium-238.

In 1941, chemist Glenn Seaborg developed Pu-238 from uranium-238. As it decays and generates the heat that makes it useful as fuel in a robot’s battery, Pu-238 decays back into that uranium isotope. The half-life for Pu-238 is more than eighty-seven years. In comparison, the isotope plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. Pu-238 does not explode like a bomb and is made in a ceramic form in an attempt to reduce health hazards. Neither the United States nor Russia produce Pu-238 anymore, though Russia has a small stockpile from which NASA purchases the isotope. Because its primary use is as battery power for NASA’s robotic space missions, there is some discussion of restarting production in the United States to ensure that the sort of Mars and outer planet exploration NASA has in mind can continue beyond 2020, but funding has not been approved by Congress.

Curiosity Sees Its Own Shadow on Mars (NASA)

This week, we remember the destruction that nuclear weapons can unleash in a single instant. May we also look to the skies this week and know that Curiosity, powered by its nuclear battery, is readying itself to explore the geochemistry of another world. May we glimpse, in Bill Nye’s words last night, “Humans at their very best.”


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