Countdown to The Cold War: J. Robert Oppenheimer April 22, 2015Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Countdown to The Cold War, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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On this date in 1904, Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York. Forty years later, he became the head of the secret nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and, therefore, also became instrumental in the countdown to The Cold War.
We’ve written about Oppenheimer before, and we’ve visited Los Alamos a few times to walk in his footsteps. Here, we talk about a few areas of Oppenheimer’s work and life that we haven’t discussed much before.
Oppenheimer skipped the basic college physics classes and leaped into graduate work at Harvard University. It took him only three years to graduate summa cum laude.
Robert is the Oppenheimer half of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation that, on the atomic level, the vibrational motion of nuclei can be separated from the rotational motion of electrons. Max Born is the other physicist in the discovery of this equation, and Born won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his work in quantum mechanics.
Robert is also the Oppenheimer of the Oppenheimer-Phillips process that allows for a specific type of nuclear reaction to occur at lower energies than expected. Deuteron is a hydrogen isotope with one proton and one neutron. In the Oppenheimer-Phillips process, the neutron of this isotope fuses with a nucleus in a target to make a heavier target isotope with a discharged proton.
Melba Phillips, a native of Indiana, is the other half of the name of this process and was Oppenheimer’s student. Later, she refused to testify during the McCarthy-driven investigations of communists and lost her academic position. She did go back to teaching several years later, at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Chicago.
Oppenheimer took up with a married woman named Kitty Harrison. They married in 1940, after she got a quickie divorce in Reno, and they had two children within a few years.
It’s unclear whether he also continued or rekindled his affair with Jean Tatlock after he married Kitty, though there’s consensus that Oppenheimer and Tatlock spent the night together once. Tatlock committed suicide in January 1944. Oppenheimer’s association with her and her leftwing friends was brought up during his security hearing in front of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, which stripped him of his government security clearance.
Most people assume that Oppenheimer, at the moment of the first successful nuclear weapons test, Trinity, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” He did claim, later, that he’d thought of that quote at the time of the explosion and also of another from the same text: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” But it’s tough to find reliable evidence that he said either at the time.
To look at photos of Oppenheimer, anyone can see that he was extraordinarily thin. He stood roughly six feet tall and was often smoking. He likely never took very good care of his health. He first spent time in the New Mexico desert, in fact, not when he joined the Manhattan Project there but, rather, when he suffered a bout of colitis before college and went to New Mexico to recover. Oppenheimer’s adoration of the Southwest from that early experience influenced the Manhattan Project’s location later.
Oppenheimer was treated for throat cancer in 1965, but he never fully recovered. Undoubtedly, his smoking habit was a likely factor in the development of his cancer, and smoking plus exposure to radioactive materials couldn’t have done his health much good. He died on February 18, 1967, at the age of 62. His wife Kitty is said to have taken the ashes in an urn and dropped it into the ocean off the Virgin Islands, where they owned property and a small home.
Five French Scientists March 25, 2015Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Beer, Biology, Books, Chemistry, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Math, Nobel Prize, Physics, Radioactivity
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We’re in Paris for a week. See last week’s post for information about the A380 we flew.
Here are five French scientists we’d like to meet while we’re in France, if only they were still alive. These scientists represent the kind of thinking we appreciate, thinking outside the box and searching for novel connections.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Okay, she was a naturalized French citizen, but Marie Curie is at the top of our list of French scientists we’d like to meet. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two Nobels, one in physics in 1903, shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and the other in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium. Only she and Linus Pauling have won Nobels in two separate fields. To find out more about her, we recommend Marie Curie by Susan Quinn, Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling, and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, a graphic biography by Lauren Redniss. We’ve written about Curie several times before (here’s one post about Curie), and we’ll undoubtedly write about her again.
René Decartes (1596-1650)
Equal parts mathematician and philosopher, Decartes had just the sort of interdisciplinary approach to the world we appreciate. He made the crucial connections between algebra and geometry upon which much of mathematical thinking followed. He also studied refraction and gave the world a scientific understanding of rainbows. He’s the guy who uttered, Cogito ergo sum. Or, I think, therefore I am. He thought that doubt and mistakes were part of learning and innovation and that reading books was like having conversations across centuries. Because we like to have any excuse to celebrate, Decartes’s birthday is next Tuesday, March 31. In fact, the town where he was born remains so proud of Decartes that they renamed the locale for him.
Prosper Ménière (1799-1862)
Prosper Ménière may have more adept and interested in the humanities than in science, but he became a physician. Initially, he planned to teach at a university, but then a cholera epidemic called, and he got hands-on experience. Eventually, he headed up an institute for deaf-mutes and studied hearing loss caused by lesions inside the ear. Prosper Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear was named for this physician and is what grounded astronaut Alan Shepard for several years after he became the first American in space. Shepard’s disorder was cured by surgery so that he did fly Apollo 14. Other sufferers include Marilyn Monroe and possibly Charles Darwin and Julius Caesar.
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
Louis Pasteur argued that microorganisms couldn’t appear out of nothing and asserted the idea of contamination that has guided thinking about the spread of disease ever since. We are especially impressed that some of his most important work can be traced back to his understanding of alcohol fermentation in the making of wine and beer; published his Studies on Wine in 1866 and his Studies of Beer ten years lateen. He was also an early investigator of immunization and developer of specific vaccines. For a more recent and beautifully written book about the subject of immunity, we recommend Eula Biss‘s On Immunity: An Inoculation. At his own request, Pasteur’s private notebooks were kept secret long after his death, but his request was breeched by a descendant, who donated them to France’s national library for use after the descendent’s death. Those notebooks have revealed that Pasteur may have been a less-than-amiable character generally and a problematic researcher.
Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)
Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient man used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient.
Poincaré, as demonstrated by this statement, was a philosopher, in addition to being a mathematician and physicist. His work underpinned what would emerge as chaos theory and also laid the groundwork for topology, the geometrical study of space that focuses on connections and transformations. Poincaré worked with a team to establish international time zones, and this work led him to think about the relative speed of clocks, which, in turn, pointed to what would become Albert Einstein‘s theory of special relativity.
Interesting to Anna especially, Poincaré was a good decision-maker if he made a decision quickly, but the more he dwelled on a choice, the more difficult he had making it. A psychologist named Édouard Toulouse wrote about Poincaré‘s personality and work habits, and we think Poincaré has something to offer us as writers in this respect. For one thing, Poincaré worked on mathematics for four hours every day, one two-hour stretch in the late morning and another in the early evening, which strikes us as an ideal schedule for focusing on a large project. He would read later in the evening, a practice we like as well.
Countdown to The Cold War: March 1945 March 11, 2015Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Countdown to The Cold War, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
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The Manhattan Project boiled down to two enormous manufacturing problems: explosive materials and explosive devices. Each of these problems was eventually resolved in its own binary fashion. The explosive material, or, more appropriately, fissile material, came in two flavors: uranium and plutonium. Owing to their different physical properties, it was necessary to create an individual explosive device, or bomb, for each of the two radioactive elements. The gun design, known as Little Boy, was designed for the uranium, and the implosion design, known as Fat Man, was designed for the plutonium weapon.
Although the creation of the bombs, particularly the implosion device, was a fiendishly complex exercise that required some of the greatest physics talent then in existence, the effort to create the processes for the separation of uranium 235 from uranium 238 was every bit the equal intellectual enterprise. As a manufacturing problem, the facilities devoted to the separation of uranium isotopes dwarfed the bomb-making project.
A 1951 AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) report entitled “Liquid Thermal Diffusion” reiterates what we describe:
The primary problem, other than finding circumstances under which a controlled chain reaction could be sustained, which faced scientists engaged in this country’s atomic energy program in early 1940 was the development of methods for separating uranium isotopes on a large scale. Time would not permit a gradual development of individual separation processes, followed by the full exploitation of the best method. Consequently it was necessary to launch a number of separation projects simultaneously.
One of those separation projects was Oak Ridge’s S-50 facility, and it went into full production seventy years ago this month on March 15, 1945. The S-50 uranium production plant used the separation technique known as liquid thermal diffusion.
A good overview of the liquid thermal diffusion technique can be found at the Atomic Archive:
Into the space between two concentric vertical pipes [Philip] Abelson placed pressurized liquid uranium hexafluoride. With the outer wall cooled by a circulating water jacket and the inner heated by high-pressure steam, the lighter isotope tended to concentrate near the hot wall and the heavier near the cold. Convection would in time carry the lighter isotope to the top of the column. Taller columns would produce more separation.
As a graduate student, Philip Abelson worked with Nobel Laureate Ernest Lawrence, himself the developer of another Oak Ridge-based uranium separation technique, electromagnetic separation. Abelson began his pioneering work on using liquid thermal diffusion to enrich uranium in July 1940, and he was one of the editors of the AEC report mentioned above. After several frustrating years of experimental work (part of the frustration resulted from Army vs. Navy squabbles over ownership of the technique), Abelson’s technique was sufficiently refined to build a production plant at Oak Ridge.
Liquid thermal diffusion had already been underway at a pilot plant at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, which was the site of what may have been the largest accidental release of radioactive materials during the Manhattan Project. That accident occurred in September 1944.
The S-50 plant, sited on the Clinch River in Tennessee, was essentially a copy of the Philadelphia Navy Yard pilot plant, which used 102 separation columns (the vertical pipes described in the quote above). S-50 replicated the Philadelphia plant 21 times. S-50 was built so that it could share the steam generated by the power plant that also fed the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant. It was to be completed in ninety days. The primary contractor, H. K. Ferguson Company, missed that deadline, but the plant started operation in October 1944 and, then, went into full production 70 years ago this month.
S-50 was the first step in the uranium enrichment process used during the Manhattan Project, and it took the uranium from 0.72% to 0.85% U-235.
March 1945 was an eventful month beyond the Manhattan Project, of course, with war raging on. Other wartime events that occurred then include a Japanese Fugo balloon that exploded at the Hanford Site for nuclear production, the B-29 firebombing of Japanese cities by the United States, and V-2 rocket attacks against London by the Germans. Though the end of the war was in sight, we shouldn’t forget that much of the world was still enmeshed in battle.
Countdown to The Cold War: October 1944 October 8, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, Countdown to The Cold War, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons
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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.
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.
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, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Writing.
Tags: Books, Nobel Prize
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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, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Palomar Observatory
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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.
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.
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, 2014Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews, Writing.
Tags: Books, Cancer, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Science Writing, Space Shuttle, SpaceX
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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.
IN THE FOOTSTEPS
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.
CANCER, RISK, & THE LANGUAGE OF LOSS
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.
VIDEO INTERVIEW: GWYNNE SHOTWELL
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.
5 WOMEN WHO SHOULD HAVE WON THE NOBEL PRIZE
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.
THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2013
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 Writing, and 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, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, Cancer, Nobel Prize, Physics, Science Writing
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We 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.
In “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.
The 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, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Chemistry, Nobel Prize, Physics
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!
That’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)
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.
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, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Serendipity
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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.
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:
“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.