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Higgs Boson, Space Shuttle Benchmarks, and Astronaut Birthdays July 4, 2012

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Large Hadron Collider (CERN)

As you might expect, we stayed up late last night to listen live to the press conference from CERN announcing that physicists found that elusive Higgs boson. They’ve been looking for this subatomic particle ever since six scientists, including Peter Higgs, now 83 years old, suggested in the 1960s that it might exist and that it could answer some questions about the early state of the universe, in particular, why we have orderly, discrete objects as opposed to mass-less chaos. Yep, two research teams working at the Large Hadron Collider have discovered a new particle, and these physicists are pretty sure that it’s the Higgs boson. There remains a one in 3.5 million chance that it’s a fluke, but those are incredibly convincing odds that this particle is the real thing. And it behaves like the Higgs boson has been predicted to behave, with the expected mass and kind of decay.

Higgs Boson Event Display (CERN)

Congratulations all around. It’s good to see science as the big news story today. And in one of those serendipitous collisions that make us happy to be at Chapman University, Francois Englert, one of the scientists who originally eveloped the theory that predicted the Higgs boson, will be on campus on August 16-18 for a conference that Doug is helping to organize. If you want to read a good basic article at Reuters, click HERE. And Scientific American has pieces posted HERE and HERE. And HERE is one just for fun.

STS-4 Crew (NASA)

July 4 also marks the anniversary of several space shuttle events, the most important of which is the landing of STS-4 in 1982. The first four shuttle missions were flown by the orbiter Columbia, this one with astronauts Ken Mattingly and Hank Hartsfield. (See our video interview with Hartsfield HERE.) After seven days in space and some top-secret tasks up there, the two astronauts landed at Edwards Air Force Base, the first time an orbiter landed on a concrete runway. Mattingly and Hartsfield struggled to get out of their seats—Mattingly cut his head in the effort—and move around naturally after a week in low-gravity. Emerging from the orbiter, the astronauts were greeted by President and Mrs. Reagan at the bottom of the stairs. The president declared the space shuttle “fully operational.” After a rousing rendition of God Bless America, with the orbiter Enterprise behind him, Reagan added, “Happy Fourth of July, and you know this has got to beat firecrackers.”

STS-121 Crew (NASA)

STS-121 launched on July 4 in 2006. Aboard this second “return to flight” mission after the Columbia accident were seven astronauts, including Mark Kelly, whom we saw launch on STS-134, and Steve Lindsey, whom we saw launch on STS-135. Originally, STS-121 was supposed to be accomplished by Atlantis, but when mechanical problems crept up, Discovery jumped ahead in the mission queue to deliver several items to the International Space Station. As a “return to flight” test mission, it incorporated responses to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, namely addressing problems of debris hitting the orbiter during liftoff, a problem that had occurred on the first “return to flight” mission a year earlier. STS-121 included testing procedures to look for damage to the thermal protection system, in the event that debris had hit the orbiter during launch. When the mission concluded successfully, the space shuttle was, once again, deemed fully operational for ongoing trips to the space station.

STS-107 Crew (NASA)

With STS-4, flown by Columbia, and STS-121, a “return to flight” mission after the Columbia accident, in mind, we commemorate two July astronaut birthdays. Kalpana Chalwa, a research scientist who flew on the doomed STS-107 mission, was born on July 1, 1961, in India and became a United States citizen in 1990. Rick Husband, who commanded that last and fatal Columbia mission, was born on July 12, 1957, in Amarillo, Texas. Each had flown one previous mission. For all those—astronauts and relatives—who were born in July and are no longer with us, we are grateful to have shared your company for a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Underground Nuclear Test (NNSA)

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

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

Happy Birthday, Skylab May 14, 2012

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Skylab on Launch Pad (NASA)

On this date in 1973, when we were in elementary school, NASA launched Skylab from Kennedy Space Center. As with other projects, like the Hubble Telescope, not everything was right with the first American space station at the beginning. But in-space repairs made real science in space—and living there—a reality for our generation.

Apollo astronauts like Pete Conrad and Alan Bean spent time on Skylab, as did space shuttle astronaut Jack Lousma. Fellow Illinoisan Joseph Kerwin became the first physician to be invited to train to go to space and spent 28 days in space. The 84 days of Skylab’s last mission now pales in comparison with stints on the International Space Station, and the percentage of days that Skylab was inhabited makes it looked little used. But at the time, this space station was pretty amazing and certainly paved the way for future low-Earth orbit projects.

Skylab, as seen by departing Skylab 2 crew (NASA)

What we remember most about Skylab is the anticipation of reentry in the summer of 1979. The space shuttle hadn’t been completed in time to save Skylab, to push it higher in orbit and extend its life for a few more years. Bets on the date of its demise were wagered, t-shirts were printed up, and rewards for pieces of the space station were offered by news organizations. We hoped its demise would come on the weekend and on our side of the globe, though all along NASA was shooting for the pieces to fall in the largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean, far from land and people who could be hit by burning bits of debris. On July 11, a Wednesday, Skylab fell to Earth, and we didn’t see it. NASA miscalculated the process and angles slightly, the spacecraft didn’t burn up fast enough, and some debris landed in Australia.

Apollo Capsule Docked with Skylab (NASA)

In many ways, as we look back on Skylab, it seems as if it, like Star Trek and The Six Million Dollar Man, had been a television show we watched as kids, a bit of popular culture. The real science of it hadn’t made its way into our textbooks then. But it was real, and there’s proof at the National Air and Space Museum, where the second orbital workshop is on display. NASA had planned to send a second Skylab to space, so two complete space stations were manufactured. NASA doesn’t build spare spacecraft so that museum visitors can walk through them, imagining what it would be like to look down on the earth from 250 miles up. But that’s exactly what happened with Skylab, and it gave regular folks the rare opportunity to inhabit—to physically invest themselves in—the idea of living on a space station.

Guest Blog: Claire Robinson May April 16, 2012

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Claire Robinson May

We just never know whom we’re going to find for our next guest post. Today, we’re featuring the granddaughter of Kenneth T. Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity nuclear test. This guest post is a great complement to our In the Footsteps series, which you can find HERE.

Claire Robinson May is a playwright in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program. Her ten-minute performance piece, The Trinity Project, is being produced this month by the Oddy Theater Lab. Her full-length plays Mother/Tongue and Standardized ChildTM have been performed at Cleveland Public Theatre. She teaches Legal Writing at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband, two sons, and a few other animals.


“Now we are all sons of bitches.” That’s what my grandfather, Kenneth T. Bainbridge, said after the successful Trinity test of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. Not a grand soliloquy like J. Robert Oppenheimer’s—Ken cut right to the heart of the matter.

Kenneth T. Bainbridge (LANL)

Ken Bainbridge directed the Trinity Test. He always said he was glad the test was a success because otherwise he would have had to climb the tower to investigate what had gone wrong.

Ken was forty at the time of the test and a married father of three. He was a Harvard University physics professor who had relocated his family to Los Alamos, New Mexico, so that he could work on the Manhattan Project, one of the most top-secret endeavors in history.

Ken and his nine-year-old son, Martin, drove from Cambridge to Los Alamos in early July 1943. In late August, after Ken had arranged for their housing, my grandmother, Margaret Bainbridge (Peg), brought daughters Margaret (Margi) and Joan out to Los Alamos on the train. Joan was six. My mother, Margi, was fourteen months old. She learned to walk on the train to New Mexico. They lived at Los Alamos for the next two years.

The Bainbridges moved into a two-family house on the coveted Bathtub Row (so named because the street had the only housing units with bathtubs). Physicist Norman Ramsey’s family lived on the other side of the house. (Ramsey would go on to share a Nobel Prize in 1989.) Joan and Martin explored the new landscape, distressing the patrol guards with their utter disregard of the security fence.

Bainbridge Family, 1944

Oppenheimer managed the gasoline rations so that scientists and their families could take the occasional day trip. There were picnics, mineral collecting outings, and visits to the pueblo. Joan remembers weekend fishing trips and other adventures with her father, writing, “I have some childhood memories with Dad at Los Alamos—I still have the trout rod he made for me, hand wrapped with silk . . . but, thinking about it, there are not as many as I might have imagined. He was very absorbed and then gone much of the time in the spring of ’45.” The test blast would occur on July 16, 1945.

After the war, my grandfather joined the numerous physicists who spoke out against nuclear weapons. But he never wavered in the conviction that developing the bomb was necessary. He later wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that he had “a somewhat bloodthirsty viewpoint on the war” when he decided to join the Manhattan Project because he’d already heard first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities from some of the European scientists he knew.

Claire Robinson May, Ken Bainbridge's Granddaughter

When I studied the history of science as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the early 1990s, I invited my grandfather to come to campus to hear a panel discussion that took place each year in one of the core science courses. Scientists such as Hans Bethe and Victor Weisskopf spoke to students about the development of the bomb and the decision to use it against Japan to end the war. Ken’s Los Alamos friends would wave from the stage, delighted to spot him in the Science Center auditorium. I was always proud to be with him. It was hardly a coincidence that my undergraduate studies focused on the history of twentieth-century physics.

Ken Bainbridge didn’t want to be remembered only for the bomb. He had many other achievements, both before and after the war, including his work on the Harvard cyclotron and the first experimental verification of E=MC2. When he chaired the Harvard University physics department in the early 1950s, Ken staunchly defended colleagues against the blacklisting attacks of Senator Joseph McCarthy. My grandfather was widely respected in his field as a careful and conscientious experimentalist and as a mentor to younger physicists. He was beloved by his family and many friends.

My grandfather died in 1996, shortly before his 92nd  birthday. His wife, Peg, had died suddenly in 1967, several years before I was born. With both of them gone, I can’t help but wonder what transpired between my grandparents in the days after the test, when the families finally knew what really had been going on at Los Alamos. I wonder what role the experience may have played in Peg’s decision not long after the war to become a Quaker, a faith that wholly rejects violence. I now find myself drawn to the point where human history and family history intersect, in a blinding desert sky.

Irish Scientists March 14, 2012

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

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

William Rowan Hamilton (TCD)

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

George Boole (UCC)

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

Kathleen Lonsdale (UCC)

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

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (NASA)

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

Collaborations. Innovations. Art and science. Sláinte!

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

Guest Blog: Tom Zoellner February 20, 2012

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Today, we feature our colleague Tom Zoellner. He’s part of Anna’s panel called “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age. Check out the rest of the panelists in our other recent guest posts: KRISTEN IVERSEN, JEFF PORTER, and M. G. LORD. And if you’re at AWP, join us for the panel on Friday, March 2, at 1:30p.m.

Tom’s latest book is A Safeway in Arizona, part memoir, part history, part cultural commentary, all an exploration of Arizona as the context of the shooting rampage that injured Gabrielle Giffords, his friend. But we asked him to be a guest blogger at Lofty Ambitions because his previous book is Uranium, which won the Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics and garnered him a spot on The Daily Show.


Here is an experience that will make you want to wash your hands immediately—holding a stick of pure uranium. It was about the size of a small mechanical pencil, pure ebony in color, and it left dusty smudges on my hands. I was standing among mill workers at the Ranger Mine, which is located in the midst of some spectacular outback jungle in Australia. The stick of uranium was used in the mill’s lab for assaying purposes. I wanted to look like a tough guy so I inspected it like any other rock and casually handed it back to the technician. But more than anything, I really wanted to wash my hands.

That uranium wasn’t dangerous by itself. The number of unstable U-235 atoms that create the famously explosive critical mass was present at a perfectly safe ratio of 1 to 140, and the stick was not about to catch fire in the way that uranium can spontaneously self-combust when sliced thinly (an interesting state called “pyrophoricity”). The dust on my hands was radioactive, but the signature was small and only hazardous if I put my fingers to my nose and inhaled deeply. From there, it would get caught in fragile lung tissue and emit alpha, beta, and gamma particles at a constant rate. This is what slowly killed so many miners in the dusty adits of the American Southwest and the East German mountains during the Cold War.

I had been writing about uranium for several months at that point, relearning matters of basic atomic physics that had been long forgotten from high school. I had traveled to old mines in Utah and the Czech Republic and interviewed UN diplomats in Vienna. I had visited the site of a deserted mine in Africa once described as a “freak of nature” by a Manhattan Project official because it held ore at a purity level of 62%, which had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. That mine, named Shinkolobwe for a particular kind of thorny fruit, gave up most of the material used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts and continues to leak unknown quantities of ore to local buyers.

But holding this stick of 99% pure concentrated uranium—far better than anything Shinkolobwe yielded in the raw—was my first up-close experience with the subject that I had been chasing for months. It was sort of like a biographer of an elusive subject who talks to multiple friends and acquaintances and then unexpectedly gets introduced to the person in the flesh.

I wanted the moment to be more special than just being passed a lab sample. But after all, this was just an inanimate object. It could not talk. It could only sit there in my palm and chuck off (I couldn’t help but envision it) little packages of protons and neutrons at a rate far faster than the speed of sound, fast enough to travel around the earth’s equator in about two seconds. These alpha particles could be blocked with a barrier as thin as a sheet of paper and my bare skin was adequate protection. But still. This little wand contained a power unlike anything else in nature. It had an instability about it which could be exploited with the proper application of massive industrial force—the immense cascading rows of centrifuges and gaseous diffusion chambers which we had built in secret cities during the war and which Iran was now hiding underneath mountains to shield from American and Israeli spies and bombers.

I felt as if I should have spent more time holding this stick, thinking about this weird little trick of the universe that it held inside. Here was a small sliver of the rock buried in the earth’s crust that had the power to end all life on the planet. One that posed an overwhelming moral test for humanity ever since World War II ended with a uranium-powered exclamation point. There is much we don’t know about uranium and much we don’t know about our future with this mineral after just under seventy years of coexistence with its concentrated form.

Has the scientific genius of mankind outstripped our abilities to take care of the planet, and each other? Have we learned enough not just to crack open an atom, but how to get along despite our racial and political differences? Will we be able to keep our species alive in a world where we have access to such awesome means of destruction?

These thoughts didn’t come in that moment. Other things were on my mind. I wanted to look like a tough guy in front of the miner and chemists, and I handed the uranium back, keeping my faintly dusted hands casually at my side. And when a safe amount of time had passed, I found a reason to excuse myself to the men’s room and there I washed my hands twice with soap.

In the Footsteps (Part 13) February 15, 2012

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On Friday, March 2, Anna will present at a panel entitled “Fallout & Facts: Creative Nonfiction in the Nuclear Age.” Her four fellow panelists on this topic are guest bloggers at Lofty Ambitions. Today, Anna shares some of what she will talk about at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago.

On February 29, we’ll post more information about AWP, including links to our recent AWP-related posts.


Mary Lee Leahy and Anna (law school graduation)

The nuclear age began in Chicago seventy years ago, when Enrico Fermi conducted the first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago, where my mother earned her law degree a little more than twenty years later.

For a few months in the 1970s, my mother was the Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the state-level regulator of nuclear power plants. She was also the person in the state whom the military contacted when there was a lost nuclear weapon. That happened once while she was director.

Illinois has six operating nuclear power plants, more than any other state. More than 30,000 people live within fifty miles of Braidwood and also within fifty miles of the Quad Cities plant, the secondary radius considered in danger if an accident were to occur. The two units at the Quad Cities plants went online in 1973, and their licenses are good until December 2032. In 2006, almost half of the state’s electricity came from these six power stations. Illinois gets more electricity from nuclear than from coal, even though Illinois has mined coal for more than 200 years. I’m not advocating coal; it’s dirty in its own right. But I grew up here and think of Illinois as a coal state, not a nuclear state.

Andrew Leahy & Anna

My father, though, is my more imperative connection to the topic of the nuclear age. He served most of his requisite military service in Pirmasens, West Germany, where the United States had deployed tactical nuclear weapons. These weapons were rotated in and out of the facility where my father was stationed. To do his work, my father descended by elevator with a partner, each of whom had a different code that had to be entered before the elevator would take them underground. My father’s job was, in his words, to scrape corroded uranium off the bombs. He wore no special protection for this work, only a badge that, as he remembered years later, he threw into bin at each week’s end. He was told that this dosimeter measured his exposure to radioactivity, but he figured that the Army didn’t check all the badges and keep track. He never saw any records that referred to his exposure levels.

Anna, Brigid, and Andy Leahy

My father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer just before my sixteenth birthday, though two separate exploratory surgeries did not reveal an originating tumor. The doctors went over my father’s history. Their conclusion—though the cause of cancer is never completely conclusive—was that my father’s illness was the result of his exposure to radioactivity during his military service.

Anna, Andy, and Brigid Leahy (with Benji)

This history began showing up in my writing in graduate school, first in a poem about his military work and in a fragmented story. When I held the first copy of my poetry book my hand five years ago, I opened it and found this history. Sven Birkerts, in The Art of Time in Memoir, “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.” For me, an intuition about connections—my father’s death and Chernobyl, for instance—began to gnaw at me. Birkerts asserts that, for him, part of the draw to memoir came with age:

A curious thing happened to me personally and as a writer when I entered my late forties, that time zone I reluctantly acknowledge as marking the onset of middle age. Quite suddenly, at least in retrospect, my relation to my own past changed. […] It was as if that past, especially the events and feelings of my younger years, had taken a half step back, had overnight, following no effort on my part, arranged  themselves into a perspective. No, ‘perspective’ isn’t quite right, for that suggests a fixed, even static arrangement. Rather, these materials had, without their losing their animation or their savor, became available to me.

Indeed, over the last two years, I’ve paid more attention to this topic, have learned to savor my available past, and have started to think of more of my writing as memoir.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

We’ve written a lot about nuclear history and our connections to it at Lofty Ambitions blog, including an ongoing, currently 13-part series called “In the Footsteps.” The length of blog posts—most of ours run long at about1000 words—has offered us a way to understand the possibilities and pieces in what otherwise is the large topic of the nuclear age. Blogging as an aspect of creative nonfiction has helped us address a problem that Peter Turchi raises in Maps of the Imagination. He writes the following:

Anna in Lamy, NM (train station for Manhattan Project arrivals)

If we attempt to map the world of the story before we explore it, we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration , so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information. The opportunities are overwhelming.

What to include and exclude and how to organize remain challenges for me as a creative nonfiction writer, especially when dealing with a cultural topic like nuclear history. We’ve all lived the nuclear age. As Susan Griffin puts it in A Chorus of Stones, “For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.”

Update from Ragdale and A Nuclear Birthday February 11, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Footsteps (Part 12) February 8, 2012

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

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


Doug & Enterprise at NASM

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

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

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

Samuel Goudsmit to Robert Bacher (CalTech Archives)

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

From Max Planck (CalTech Archives)

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

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

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

Letter from Albert Einstein, 1913 (Huntington Library)

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

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

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

In the Footsteps (Part 11) January 11, 2012

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

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

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

Richard C. Tolman and Albert Einstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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