jump to navigation

On This (Holiday) Date: Celebrating Science & Space (Part 1) December 24, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

It’s been a while since we wrote an “on this date” post to share a few reasons to celebrate science or space, right here, right now. The holidays seems a great time to toast to some perhaps hidden historical gems for nerds.

December 24


Doug in Polar Vortex

Doug in Polar Vortex

NORAD—the North American Aerospace Defense Command, made famous to us 40-somethings in the film War Games—began to track Santa’s annual flight from the North Pole to deliver gifts to children around the world. As recapped last week by NPR, Sears ran an ad encouraging kids to call Santa but printed the wrong phone number. NORAD was then called the Continental Air Defense Command (Alaska and Hawii weren’t yet states), and that’s the super-secret phone number the kids called. Guys working to keep the United States safe from Soviet attack on Christmas Eve started joking around, and Col. Harry Shroup dialed the local radio station to report that they were tracking Santa’s sleigh. Radio stations began calling for hourly updates. The NORAD Santa tracking tradition had begun. And you can now watch it in real time HERE.


Apollo8CrewLast year was the 45th anniversary of Apollo 8, and reminiscing about its holiday adventure was the focus of our post last December 25. Apollo 8 launched on December 21, so by Christmas Eve, the spacecraft had started orbiting the Moon. Human beings had never traveled that far before and had never before looked back at Earth from the other side of the Moon. For the fuller story, take a look HERE.

December 25


Rod Serling was born on Christmas Day. Like the Lofty Duo, he attended a Midwestern liberal arts college, in his case, Antioch College in Ohio, which boasts a motto coined by Horace Mann, the college’s first president: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. He began his career as an actor and writer for radio, then moved to television. In 1959, his series The Twilight Zone premiered. The series played with science fiction and also tackled controversial cultural topics like race and gender. He also wrote a remake of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol called Carol for Another Christmas, which aired without commercials in 1964 and featured stars such as Peter Sellers, Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, and Robert Shaw and music by Harry Mancini. Turner Classic Movies began to rebroadcast the film in 2012, after 48 years.


The Cassini spacecraft, designed to orbit Saturn, had been launched on October 25, 1997, and had arrived to orbit the ringed planet seven years later, on June 30, 2004. Cassini carried the Huygens probe, named after Christiaan Huygens, who’d discovered Titan, one of Saturn’s moon, in 1655. On December 25, 2004, Cassini released Huygens, and, on January 14, the probe became the first spacecraft to land on Titan’s surface. Cassini’s primary mission took four years, but it’s still circling Saturn and sending back intriguing information. Earlier this year, data indicated that Encalades, another of Saturn’s moons, might have an underground ocean. NASA hopes that Cassini keeps on going into 2017.

December 26


MarieCurieAmHistWe’re fans of the scientist couple named Curie, so we extend our holiday post to include the announcement that they’d isolated radium, a then-new chemical element with the atomic number 88. Radium is radioactive, with a half-life of 1600 years. It had been used to make luminescent paint, but, in the 1920s, it became clear that the women who painted watch dials were suffering from radiation sickness, and radioactive paint was finally discontinued in the 1960s. When it decays, radium produces radon gas, which is emitted from Earth’s all the time. Radium is now used mainly in nuclear medicine. The Curies had been separately out components of pitchblende for a while and actually discovered radium five days earlier, but, in the age of the internet and social media, we’re happy to acknowledge the official announcement to the French Academy of Sciences as well as the discovery itself.

First Photo of Earth from Moon (NASA)

First Photo of Earth from Moon (NASA)

JPL Open House 2014 (Part 2) October 22, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

On October 12th, Doug spent the day at the 2014 iteration of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Open House. You can read the first Lofty installment HERE, but there’s more! It was a day full of space-nerd goodness, and one of the highpoints was Site 18: “Flying Saucers for Mars.”

JPLflyingsaucersThis particular site was dedicated to a project known to researchers by the acronym LDSD, the Low-Density Supersonic Demonstrators. Low-Density is a descriptor for Mars’s atmosphere, and Supersonic is an indication of the speed range where the balloons and parachutes are useful. To cut to the chase, we’re talking parachutes—parachutes for Mars—and how they work in a low-density atmosphere and at supersonic speeds.

Tommaso Rivellini, one of the EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) engineering leads for the Mars Curiosity lander, describes the problem as this in his article “The Challenges of Landing on Mars”:

Upon arrival at Mars, a spacecraft is traveling at velocities of 4 to 7 kilometers per second (km/s). For a lander to deliver its payload to the surface, 100 percent of this kinetic energy must be safely removed. Fortunately, Mars has an atmosphere substantial enough for the combination of a high-drag heat shield and a parachute to remove 99 percent and 0.98 percent respectively of the kinetic energy. Unfortunately, the Martian atmosphere is not substantial enough to bring a lander to a safe touchdown.

Kinetic energy is the energy of motion, and the wispy atmosphere of Mars—roughly 1% as dense as Earth’s atmosphere—is just thick enough for a parachute to do its job. So, unlike with Earthbound parachutes, that job doesn’t include gently lowering the lander to the surface. The atmosphere on Mars simply isn’t dense enough for a parachute to bring the mass of a spacecraft to the surface.

Our current Mars parachute designs date to the era of Viking Martian landers in 1976, and those parachute systems have reached their performance limits with the Mars Science Lander (MSL). More popularly known as Curiosity, the size of the one-ton MSL is often compared to a Mini Cooper automobile.

In order to deliver landers to Mars that are larger than Curiosity, or to land in a mountainous region—Mars has the largest mountain in the solar system in the 69,459 foot tall Olympus Mons and four other mountains which are taller than comparably puny Everest—NASA needs new parachute designs. LDSD steps in.

LDSD is suite of deceleration technologies being investigated by NASA. The project is being lead by principal investigator Dr. Ian Clark. Clark earned his PhD in Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech, and he has been awarded the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Ian Clark at JPL

Ian Clark at JPL

The first LDSD testing mechanism that Clark discussed was a rocket sled used to test the SIAD-R (Supersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator). This particular device isn’t a parachute. It’s more like an inflatable bladder that encircles the outer edge of a spacecraft’s aeroshell. This device is meant to slow the spacecraft from supersonic speeds (ranging from Mach 2 – 3.5) to subsonic speeds. A look at the videos with this post will give you an idea of the origin of the “flying saucer” part of the “Flying Saucers for Mars” title of this exhibit.

Clark indicated that the rocket sled, which he vividly described as a siege tower, was powered by Cold War-era solid rocket motors that had formerly been used as a part of a missile defense system for Los Angeles. Though he didn’t say it by name, Clark could only be talking about the Project Nike sites that ringed Los Angeles. It’s wonderful to think about these Cold Warriors being used for science as opposed to their original purpose.

The LDSD program also included the testing of a more traditional looking parachute, complete with a billowing canopy and long control lines. In keeping with the rigorous nature of its intended use, the parachute design also required some extreme engineering so that it might be tested in a manner that approximates its use. Because of the low density of the Martian atmosphere, the parachute has to be enormous to generate the necessary amount of drag to slow the spacecraft down. In this case, the parachute that was tested was thirty-four meters (roughly 110 feet) in diameter. A parachute this size is too large for a wind tunnel, and so it has to be tested outside. The parachute test rig resembled a Rube Goldberg device as much as something designed by NASA. For this test, a helicopter carried the parachute canopy aloft. Lines from the canopy (the line was nearly a kilometer in length) were connected via a wench/puller to yet another rocket sled. Once the helicopter released the canopy of the supersonic parachute, the rocket sled was ignited to tug on the parachute to simulate the forces to which it would be subject on Mars. In this test, the peak force generated by the rocket sled and transferred to the parachute was over 90,000 foot pounds. Although the parachute did develop a single tear, the test was deemed a success.

The second flying saucer (the test device really does resemble a saucer) of the LDSD program took part in an extremely ambitious test that was conducted this past summer. An enormous experimental balloon—it has a volume of more than 1million cubic meters and, according to Clark, when fully expanded it’s the size of the Rose Bowl—carried the test device to an altitude of 120,000 feet. Once the balloon reached this height, it released the saucer, and the fun began. A solid rocket motor fired, accelerated the saucer to Mach 4, and propelled it to an altitude of 180,000 feet. It’s necessary to conduct the test at this altitude, because this is the zone where Earth’s atmosphere most resembles that of Mars. At this point, the SIAD device expanded and began slowing the saucer from its top speed of Mach 4. At Mach 2.5, onboard sensors deployed the new supersonic parachute design. In this test, the supersonic parachute failed to fill completely with air, thus pointing out another design flaw. But, this is why testing is done, to find the weaknesses in a design. So it was a successful failure.

The total cost of the LDSD program is about $200M. Considering the price of the Curiosity mission was about $2.5B, this is a small price compared to the cost of real failure.

Countdown to the Cold War: September 1944 September 24, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: , , , , , ,

In the last couple of posts, we’ve begun our Countdown to the Cold War by talking about the reorganized at Los Alamos in the fall of 1944 to develop a method known as implosion. You can read the last post in the series by clicking HERE.

Handling Radiolanthanum

Handling Radiolanthanum

The next step on the Manhattan Project’s Countdown to the Cold War occurred on September 22, 1944, and was known as the RaLa experiment. Very early in the implosion research program, it became obvious that being able to systematically verify the success or failure of implosion would be a crucial measure for success. But very few experimental measures of implosion existed at the time.

In particular, for a successful atomic weapon, it was imperative that the scientists be able to engineer a symmetric implosion. Early attempts at creating implosion revealed a wide range of asymmetric behaviors that scattered material unevenly. In order to measure the symmetry of implosion, it became necessary to observe implosion events with instruments. One technique that was developed for observing implosion was known as RaLa.

Robert Server

Robert Server

RaLa is a shorthand for the active ingredient in a RaLa test: radiolanthanum. Radiolanthanum (La-140) is a manmade radioactive isotope of lanthanum. According to Critical Assembly (by Hoddesson, et al), Robert Serber first outlined what would become the RaLa method on November 1, 1943. Serber was arguably Robert Oppenheimer’s right-hand man at Los Alamos and someone familiar to folks there for the Los Alamos Primer, the introductory lectures that kicked off the Manhattan Project’s bomb design effort.

The RaLa method depended upon the use of gamma radiation given off by the radiolanthanum isotope. Gamma radiation—or just gamma rays—are a very energetic type of electromagnetic radiation. The EPA.gov website devoted to radiation protection has this to say about gamma rays:

Gamma photons have about 10,000 times as much energy as the photons in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma photons have no mass and no electrical charge. The are pure electromagnetic energy.

Highly energetic gamma rays travel at the speed of light and easily pass through most materials. It is this set of properties that made them useful in characterizing the implosion necessary for setting off an atomic bomb.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Serber hypothesized that by placing an amount of radiolanthanum in the center of the metal sphere to be compressed by implosion, the strength of the gamma rays emitted during that implosion would vary in such a way that the scientists could use instruments to understand how symmetrical the implosion was. Serber knew that, as an implosion event progressed in a metallic core (uranium or plutonium for the atom bomb), there would be significant changes in the density of the material being compressed. These changes in density would retard the gamma rays in predictable ways. In addition, because the gamma rays would radiate out from the center of the sphere, the scientists would be able to collect information about the implosion in three physical dimensions.

Ta-dah, RaLa!

Given that the radiolanthanum material would be at the center of an explosion, there would of course be radioactive debris and dispersal of that debris. Gamma radiation is ionizing—releases electrons—and therefore has biological implications, meaning that it affects human bodies. And because gamma rays penetrate materials, they can be very dangerous. In this way, the RaLa experiments constitute the world’s first production of radioactive fallout, a waft of the Cold War to come. In order to minimize human exposure to the radiation that would be released, the RaLa experiments were held offsite in Bayo Canyon, located about two miles east of Los Alamos—a sort of lab away from lab. Checking the wind direction or measuring fallout, however, weren’t much a priority for these early radioactive test explosions.

Countdown to The Cold War: August 1944 August 20, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment
Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Over the last few years, your Lofty Duo has had an inordinate amount of interest in the Manhattan Project. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of our many overlapping interests in this historical event, it’s likely that somewhere in the shaded region at the center of the diagram would be a man named Henry Cullen. Henry was Anna’s grandfather. In his professional life, he was a Pullman Conductor on the Santa Fe Chief. The stories that Henry told about his train dropping off men with foreign-sounding names and accents in-the-middle-of-nowhere New Mexico are a part of Anna’s family lore.

That middle-of-nowhere spot was Lamy, New Mexico, situated about ten miles south of Santa Fe. During the years 1943-1945, the Lamy railway station was the disembarkation point for thousands of American scientists, engineers, soldiers, and their families as they made their way to the heart of the Manhattan Project: Site Y, more popularly known as Los Alamos. Site Y was one of the thirty locations that made up the Manhattan Engineer District, an administrative organization for the atomic bomb project that was created within the Army Corps of Engineers.


Trinity: First Atomic Weapon

The military director of the Manhattan Engineer District was General Leslie M. Groves, who received the assignment to manage the Manhattan Engineer District as a result of his success with building the Pentagon. As Groves contemplated the necessity of moving so many valuable technical people around the country, he became concerned by the possibility of airplane crashes. As a result, trains like the Santa Fe Chief became the primary mode of cross-country transportation for the people working on the Manhattan Project. If it weren’t for the General’s fears, it’s unlikely that Henry Cullen would have crossed paths with so many individuals who were in the process of changing the course of history.

Henry Cullen’s outsider-looking-in stories about the then secret world of the Manhattan Project have given rise to a number of projects here at Lofty Ambitions. We’ve made trips to Santa Fe and Los Alamos numerous times. We’ve visited a number of atomic-themed museums. And we’re academics, so we’ve turned what we learned into conference papers and presentations. Doug is also using parts of Henry’s story in the novel he’s writing this summer.

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

As we mentioned earlier this month, over the next year, we’re going to be taking a look at the last year (August 1944-1945) of the Manhattan Project. Our starting point is a sequence of events that led to a massive reorganization of the laboratory at Site Y seventy years ago in August of 1944. That reorganization centered on a new design, a new model for the atomic bomb called implosion. This new design was necessary in order for the project to make use of the element plutonium, about which we’ve written. To understand this shift in August 1944, it’s helpful to keep in mind how the Manhattan Project scientists had initially thought they might go about designing an atomic bomb.

Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard is the scientist credited for first recognizing the possibility of using the energy released by the splitting of an atom—the process of nuclear fission—to create a weapon. In the late 1930s, much of the research in the area of nuclear fission was focused on the radioactive element uranium.

In uranium, the fission process begins with the absorption of a neutron (a subatomic particle with no electric charge, and one of the three constituents of atoms along with electrons and protons). This new neutron introduced to the uranium atom adds to the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, a process that excites the atom and makes it unstable. As a result of this instability, the uranium atom breaks apart into lighter elements (krypton and barium), three more neutrons, and energy.

Replica of The Gadget at NMNSH

Replica of the first atomic bomb at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

However, this set of byproducts is the result of the fission in a specific uranium isotope, U-235. Naturally occurring uranium has two isotopes: U-235 and U-238. The element uranium has 92 protons in its nucleus. Isotopes are alternative configurations of a chemical element that differ in the number of neutrons in the nucleus. U-235 has 143 neutrons in its nucleus, and U-238 has 146 neutrons. The number after the chemical symbol—235 or 238—indicates the total number of protons and neutrons for that isotope (e.g., U-235: 92 + 143 = 235).

The nuclear fission that described above for U-235 releases three new neutrons. Each of those neutrons can then go on to fission more uranium atoms. As this process repeats cycle after cycle, it produces what is known as a chain reaction. In nuclear engineering, a controlled chain reaction is a nuclear reactor, a machine that can be used to generate power. An uncontrolled chain reaction is a weapon, and that was the goal of the Manhattan Project. Get that fission started and let it run wild.

U-238, the other naturally occurring isotope of uranium, has a nuclear reaction that generates only a single new neutron. So, one neutron is needed to cause fission, and one neutron is produced by the fission. That’s just not enough to sustain a chain reaction. So the Manhattan Project needed U-235.

Train Station at Lamy, NM

Train Station at Lamy, NM

Naturally occurring uranium, however, is found in an isotope mix that is 99.3% U-238 (which the scientists and engineers didn’t want) and about 0.7% U-235 (which was what they did want). They worked as best they could with this situation of separating out the isotope they wanted. As their work proceeded, though, they wondered whether plutonium might be used instead of uranium. As they began to think about how plutonium might work, they realized that the bomb design under development for uranium wasn’t suitable for using plutonium.

So while the Manhattan Project continued to pursue a weapon that used uranium, they refocused efforts on plutonium and began developing another design.

For the next post in “Countdown to the Cold War,” click HERE.

Santa Fe Retreat (2) July 16, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

Doug on our patio at Fort Marcy Suites

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


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

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

Judy Chicago & Kathy Battista

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

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


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

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

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

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

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

Duck! It’s an Asteroid! February 12, 2014

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: ,

lincolnIf you’re celebrating today, you’re probably celebrating Lincoln’s birthday, a welcome mid-winter holiday for us as children growing up in Illinois. Or maybe you’re celebrating the natal day of Charles Darwin, the renowned naturalist and geologist who was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln in 1809. By mapping out his theory of natural selection, Darwin changed the way we think about ourselves, our history, and the natural world of which we are part.

Lofty Ambitions is also celebrating an asteroid landing. On this date in 2001, a robotic space probe named NEAR Shoemaker landed on 433 Eros, the second largest near-Earth asteroid. NEAR, in fact, stands for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous. It wasn’t exactly Armageddonno Razzie Awards for this accomplishment. A spacecraft had never before orbited and landed on an asteroid.

NEAR Shoemaker (NASA)

NEAR Shoemaker (NASA)

How near an asteroid to Earth is 433 Eros? Less than a year after NEAR Shoemaker landed there, the asteroid passed within 17 million miles of Earth, which was still more than seventy times farther from Earth than the Moon. In fact, NEAR Shoemaker launched on February 17, 1997 (a year before Armageddon was released), and finally began orbiting 433 Eros almost three years later, on February 14, 2000. The probe spent a year orbiting and relaying back data about the asteroid’s physical characteristics and motion before landing on February 12, 2001.

How big an asteroid is 433 Eros? 433 Eros has an elongated shape, estimated to be more than 20 x 8 x 8 miles in size. 1036 Ganymed is larger, with a diameter of roughly 20 miles. Asteroids are small in relation to the size of Earth, but 433 Eros travels at 15 miles per second, so a collision with Earth would be devastating. Consider how small and light the piece of foam was when it hit Space Shuttle Columbia during launch—velocity matters in the damage a collision causes.

Image of 433 Eros from 250 meters (NASA)

Image of 433 Eros from 250 meters (NASA)

How many of these NEAs are there? According to NASA, as of this month, “10,693 Near-Earth objects have been discovered. Some 868 of these NEOs are asteroids with a diameter of approximately 1 kilometer or larger. Also, 1,454 of these NEOs have been classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.”

We’ve written about risk and scale before, and thinking about asteroids today brings up these same issues again. Almost a year ago, on February 15, 2013, a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, and reminded us that objects from space aren’t just statistics. In fact, Space.com reported that studies of that meteor and where it originated led some scientists to conclude that the risk of impact by an object from space is ten times higher than we’d previously thought.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory keeps track of NEOs and shares a chart of potential risks. Even so, NASA’s website on NEO risk points out, “Whenever a newly discovered NEA is posted on the Sentry Impact Risk Page, by far the most likely outcome is that the object will eventually be removed as new observations become available, the object’s orbit is improved, and its future motion is more tightly constrained.” The more we know about each object and its motion, the more accurately we can determine whether it’s likely to come close enough to Earth to pose a problem.

Using our Earth-bound sense of distance, those two large, near asteroids are not that close. But if we think about these objects in relation to the vast universe, proximity means something different. It’s mid-boggling to try to imagine millions and billions of miles of space and to think of 17 million miles as nearby.

We’ve been reading novelist and physicist Alan Lightman’s recent essay collection, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. There, he talks of scale in “The Gargantuan Universe”:

Of all these aspects of things, none seems more immediate and vital than size. Large versus small. Consciously and unconsciously, we routinely measure our physical size against dimensions of other people, animals, trees, oceans, mountains. As brainy as we think ourselves, our bodily size, our bigness, our simple volume and bulk are the first carrying cards we present to the world. I would hazard a guess that somewhere in our fathoming of the cosmos, we must keep a mental inventory of plan size and scale, going from atoms to micobes to us humans to oceans to planets to stars. And some of the most impressive additions to that inventory have occurred at the high end. Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. At each new level of scale, we have to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.

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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: , ,

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

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

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

Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)

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

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

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Lise Meitner (U.S. public domain)

Lise Meitner (U.S. public domain)

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

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

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

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

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

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

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

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

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943)

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

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

Annie Jump Cannon (Library of Congress)

Annie Jump Cannon (Library of Congress)

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

Palomar Observatory: Hale (Part 4) September 25, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment


To go back and begin reading this series from our initial visit to Palomar Observatory, start with PART 1.

When the big book of facts is finally written, it’s possible that George Ellery Hale’s contributions to changing the United States into a techno-scientific nation will outshine those of all others. Hale, eventually, spearheaded the building of Palomar Observatory, the biggest telescope in the world at the time it saw first light.

Hale was born in Chicago in 1869, just two years prior to the great Chicago Fire. The fire was an enormous influence on the fortunes of the Hale family. Hale’s father William founded the Hale Elevator Company based on his design for the Hale Water-Balance Elevator, which used the force of gravity (1). As Chicago rebuilt, elevators from Hale’s company found their way into buildings and skyscrapers across town. The fortunes of the Hale family were buoyed along with Chicago’s, which, post-fire, was remaking itself into the most dynamic city in the world.

Hale Telescope

Hale Telescope

George Hale shared his father’s curiosity and inventiveness regarding the mechanical world. A pattern of expansion of his working area to meet his expansive imagination was established in his childhood, and it repeated throughout his life. As a young boy, he turned his bedroom, which he shared with a younger brother, into his laboratory, filled with the tools, books, and paraphernalia of a budding young researcher. When his ambition outgrew that space, he convinced his mother to give him her dress room, located upstairs in the family home. Both Hale’s siblings were pulled into their older brother’s orbit and worked with him in the new workshop. In the comprehensive biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe, author Helen Wright describes the setup in Hale’s workshop in a way that is giving the Lofty Duo ideas about what to do with our garage. Hale’s words describe his dress-room laboratory in that biography: “each of us had a seat and an ‘outfit’ consisting of Bunsen burner, batteries, galvanometers, and other devices, most of them made by ourselves.”

Chicago of Today

Chicago of Today

We wrote earlier this summer about a mid-1950’s book titled Experiments in the Principles of Space Travel. Passages from Wright’s biography of Hale would fit right in with the experiments described in that other book. “We poured hydrochloric acid on zinc and lit the evolved hydrogen as it issued from the slender tube.” It isn’t likely, in our current day and age, that many children are left unsupervised to do this type of investigating.

Hale’s relentless energy eventually even outgrew the well-appointed workshop. Eventually, he built another, larger workspace in the backyard of the family home. Some of the tools in his new laboratory were powered by a one-eighth horsepower steam engine. Hale had assembled the steam engine himself. When running, the belching, hissing steam engine shook the laboratory violently enough that it earned a nickname: demon.

George Ellery Hale

George Ellery Hale

If the richness of his home environment seems difficult to imagine these days, the austere, rigid environment of his school life was definitely apiece with the times. At twelve years old, George Hale began at the Allen Academy. There, the head of the school encouraged the youngster’s interest in astronomy. Allen thought so highly of the young Hale that “he asked George to become the ‘unofficial curator’ of the philosophical instrument’—an air pump, an electric machine, some Leyden jars, a few test tubes and a Busen burner.

By the time he was fourteen, Hale tried to make his own telescope and enlisted the advice of Sherbourne Wesley Burnham, a court reporter and, at night, an amateur astronomer. George’s father secured a secondhand telescope in time for the teenager to peer through it to view a Transit of Venus. Before long, he hitched a camera to his telescope and tinkered with the setup until he photographed the craters on the Moon clearly.

One thing led to another. The Dearborn Observatory fueled his obsession. He had big ambitions, saying, according to the biography, “I was a born experimentalist, and I was bound to find the way for combining physics and chemistry with astronomy.” He also picked up molding, casting, forging, and tempering skills in the unlikely event he would actually devote himself to the Hale Elevator enterprise.

Hale came of age in a time when science was just coming into its own in the United States. The Origin of  Species had been published in 1859. Ten years later, the year Hale was born, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev presented, then published, his periodic table of elements and predicted additional elements to be discovered. Ten years after that, Thomas Edison applied for the patent on the light bulb. All the while, astronomers are developing the observation of stars’ spectra, which leads to the discovery of helium and the ability to measure how fast a star is moving. Hale took full advantage of the opportunity into which he was born. These early years of his life set the foundation upon which he would imagine Palomar Observatory.

Read the next installment of our series on Palomar Observatory and the man named Hale HERE.

The Second Anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident March 6, 2013

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: , , ,

Note: Photographs in this post were taken at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque in May 2011.

Two years ago, on March 11, 2011, one of the worst nuclear accidents the world has ever known occurred at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. The cleanup continues today and will continue for years to come.

NuclearProsConsThat prefecture in Japan remains devastated. One need only look at the photo essay of ghost towns recently published in Bloomberg to see that, while we go about our daily lives, others across the Pacific Ocean live with the results of the nuclear accident every day. One need only hear the story of Atsufumi Yoshizawa published in The Independent early this month; Yoshizawa was a Tepco engineer who went back into the plant with a group of fellow workers to see what they could do to keep the accident from getting worse. One need only think about the fuel rods still in the mess, the debris still being removed. Or one need only think about the baby girls born in the last year who are 70% more likely to develop thyroid cancer; other cancers—breast cancer, leukemia—are expected to have an uptick in years to come for the population most exposed to radioactivity there.

Within a few days of the accident, we wrote about “Measurement and Scale.” Japan’s nuclear accident was the result of a 9.0 earthquake, and we wanted readers to ponder how enormous a shaking of the earth’s crust that was.

NuclearFuelCellsLater that month, we wrote about “Radiation vs. Radioactivity.” Radiation describes many physical processes; radios and light bulbs emit radiation. Radioactivity refers to the more specific process of nuclear decay. The danger from the nuclear accident—the danger that remains—is from radioactivity.

After that, as reports were emerging about exactly what substances had escaped into the atmosphere and ground around Fukushima Daiichi, we wrote about “Uranium & Plutonium & Fission.” Not all radioactive substances are equally toxic. Uranium is found in nature, whereas plutonium is manmade. Plutonium is especially toxic and stays around for a long, long time.

But the radioactive substances that were making the news in the weeks after Japan’s nuclear accident weren’t uranium and plutonium, so we wrote “Fission Products and Half Lives.” The products of nuclear fission—iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90—were what had escaped and continued to escape from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Our bodies absorb and metabolize each of these isotopes differently, so that iodine-131 collects in the thyroid, whereas strontium-90 affects the bones. These substances have a much swifter rate of decay than their parent elements uranium and plutonium, but they still stick around for decades.

NuclearCTWithin two months of the nuclear accident, we write a two-part series on “Radioactivity and Other Risks” HERE and HERE. We wanted to talk about how we—individually and generally—weigh risk in our lives. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not unknown risks in Japan, but those who planned and built the nuclear power plant calculated that an earthquake of that magnitude and tsunami with waves of the height that occurred in 2011 were unlikely.

In that pair of posts, we also talked about the tricky nature of risk. Radioactivity affects each body differently, and most research we’ve been using to understand exposure risks is from the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only recently have studes suggested that we’re exposing ourselves to potentially dangerous levels of radioactivity because we treat medical testing as safe and routine.

NuclearProsCons2We’ve written about things nuclear since Japan’s accident two years ago, but the last time we mentioned Fukushima Daiichi specifically was at the end of 2011. We at Lofty Ambitions are interested in nuclear physics, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power, but even we didn’t bother to say anything about Fukushima Daiichi for more than a year. If we put it aside, certainly most people have. Sure, the anniversary will be covered in mainstream news media this coming week. But the nuclear accident of March 11, 2011, changed the world. The world became a little more risky that day.

In the wake of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan shut down all of its 50 nuclear power plants. Leaders talked about phasing out nuclear energy in Japan. But instead, Japan has toughened its standards for nuclear plants, and new leaders promise that some plants will go back online soon.

Meanwhile, debris from Japan’s tsunami is expected to wash onto the shores of British Columbia in Canada this year. The cleanup in Japan will continue for decades to come.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 229 other followers