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

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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.

Lofty Ambitions at The Huffington Post February 25, 2013

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Roughly ten days ago, The Huffington Post asked us to write an article for their next TED Weekends feature. They chose a popular Ted Talk–Honor Harger’s “A History of the Universe in Sound”–and asked some of their bloggers to write responses and riffs that would be posted over several days. We are pleased that HuffPost noticed our work and happy to contribute to a section that gets front-page coverage.

The Golden Record (NASA)

The Golden Record (NASA)

Our post is called Voices Carry,” after the ‘Til Tuesday song (see video below). Among the voices to which that title refers is the Golden Record, now carried toward the edge of our universe by two Voyager spacecraft. We also discuss poet Robert Frost, President John F. Kennedy, and sferics. Read (and then “like” or maybe share) the whole post by clicking HERE.

Today, Honor Harger responded to the group os posts. You can find the amazing collection of TED Weekends HERE and find Harger’s responses to this particular TED Weekend HERE.

This year’s TED Conference begins on Tuesday–’til Tuesday, then. It runs through Friday in Long Beach, California, but the $7500 tickets are sold out. The conference moves to Vancouver next year.

“Voices Carry” is not our first article at The Huffington Post. Anna’s recently published post there is “5 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Chemo.” We’ve also published the following articles together there:

“Want to Be an Author? 5 Insider Tips”

“Neil Armstrong and the Space Generation”

“5 Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do” & “5 More Things Every First-Semester College Student Should Do”

“Space Shuttle: On the Anniversary of the Last-Ever Mission” (PHOTOS)

“SpaceX: Giving Berth, Hatching, Making a Splash”

“Endeavour Slideshow: On the First Anniversary of Its Last Flight” (PHOTOS)

“SpaceX: Future or Failure?”

The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics & a Poem August 22, 2012

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Last week, we posted “You say, Festschriften; I say, that’s a funny word.” The next evening, we attended a public discussion among Yakir Aharonov, Sir Michael Berry, Paul Davies, François Englert, and Nobel Laureate Sir Anthony Leggett; that discussion was called “The Cutting Edge of Modern Physics: Achievements and Opportunities.” We were impressed by how well these physicists made their own specialized fields accessible to the lay audience. What also impressed us, as another colleague reiterated that night, was the enthusiasm these scientists conveyed for their work. Even those in the audience who don’t know a neutron from a gluon must have been excited to see these men still curious, still fascinated, still questioning.

That public event opened what was a working conference that extended through Saturday, concluding with the dedication of the Yakir Aharonov Alcove in Leatherby Libraries, donated by Kathleen M. Gardarian to honor the physicist’s 80th birthday. Charlene Baldwin, the Dean of Leatherby Libraries, is a fan of our work at Lofty Ambitions and also a great appreciator of poetry and literature. She, of course, provided the welcome for the dedication event and included excerpts from one of Anna’s poems in her remarks.

We post here the entirety of that prose poem “Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists,” which is available the collection Constituents of Matter:

Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists

It is the light she longs to find,

            When she delights in learning more.

            Her world is learning: it defines

            The destiny she’s reaching for.

                                    —Marie Curie



At nineteen, Albert Einstein picks up an apple and an orange in the market. Today, this is two, but there are many ways of counting, and, of course, he knows apples and oranges should never be compared. He wants both but does not buy either. His wife may not be strong enough to endure this kind of resistance.


At the evening garden party, Marie Curie lifts a glowing test tube out of her pocket to show her colleagues what she has discovered. Everyone stares at her husband’s hands in the strange light. Later, she smooths ointment on his hands and bandages them. She knows it is too late for anything more.


Werner Heisenberg hikes all day at a steady pace to clear his head. It is too cold to swim, even for him. When he gets home, he remembers only one particular tree, the way its limbs arched as if growing. Or was that his wife lifting herself up from her garden, waving to him even? Or, he thinks, that may have been a different hike altogether.


Enrico Fermi listens to Neils Bohr carefully. Who wouldn’t? He knows that later he will not remember if he was surprised at the question. He straightens his jacket as if that is answer enough. To accept a Nobel Prize is rarely such a difficult choice. His wife will be pleased, he will have to write a speech, and they will leave Italy.


Just as the water begins to boil, Richard Feynman and his colleague realize that spaghetti, when snapped, breaks into three pieces. Always. They break all the spaghetti they have. He is sure there is a great theory involved. His first wife has been dead many years, and he misses their dinners. He knows he will be dead soon, too.

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

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

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

Yakir Aharonov

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

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


Aharonov-Bohm Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Top 15 Reasons for Space Exploration (and Mars in Particular) August 4, 2012

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Curiosity’s Cameras (NASA)

We spent today at Planetfest 2012, listening to more than a dozen speakers, each with some connection to and great enthusiasm for space exploration in general and the current mission to Mars in particular. As we await tomorrow night’s landing of the Mars rover Curiosity on the Martian surface, we share with you the reasons we heard today for bothering with such an endeavor.

LORI GARVER, NASA Deputy Administrator:

“NASA is a place that carries our dreams and aspirations.”

“We’re the one species that does it [explores] for reasons other than our own survival. […] I believe it is one of our most intrinsically human characteristics.”

Space exploration “helps lift the standard of living for all.”

DAVID BRIN, Science Fiction Author:

“It’s a manifestation of desire when a free people say I want to allocate enough money and patience” to explore space. “Are we a civilization that desires to do this kind of thing? […] We have to become a people again who have a mission.”

SCOTT MAXWELL, Mars Rover Driver:

“The most exciting words are I don’t know.”

“This is the reason we are so lucky to live in this time and place. […] We can have these kinds of adventures.”

“The future has a lovely habit of surprising us.”

There exists “no substitute for going down to the surface.”

JIM BELL, President of The Planetary Society and Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University:

“It’s not easy. […] These [space exploration missions] are some of the hardest things our species does.”

“These layered rocks [on Mars] are telling us a story. […] We’re going to go read those pages of the book.”

JIM GREEN, NASA Director of the Planetary Science Division:

“It has changed everything about our perspective of us in the solar system.”

“I would love to see humans on Mars, boots on Mars. […] Mars is the ultimate destination. […] I’d like to think it will happen in my lifetime.”

RAY ARVIDSON, James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor, Washington University:

“Understanding of Mars will undoubtedly come back [to Earth].”

BILL NYE, The Science Guy and CEO of The Planetary Society:

“The joy of discovery—that, my friends, is the essence of this business.”

“We’re doing it for much less than a fancy cup of coffee per tax payer.”


“This weekend is going to change the world.”

Gale Crater (NASA): Curiosity will land here on August 5!

That’s why we’re heading back to Pasadena tomorrow for more discussions and to watch the streaming coverage of the landing with The Planetary Society. See our previous post “Mars Rover! Mars Rover! Send Curiosity Right Over!” for information on how you can view Mars in the night sky and watch the landing on your computer.

The Cold War: Trinity & Apollo July 16, 2012

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On this date in 1945, the United States exploded the first nuclear weapon. A test to see whether the concept worked. It did.

Trinity Test (LANL)

Two years ago to commemorate this anniversary, only a couple of weeks after we started blogging together as Lofty Ambitions, we posted “A Day with Two Suns.” That’s a relatively brief post that we hope you’ll read along with this one. That post hinges on a statement in a physics textbook from 1942 that presages the eventual use of an atomic bomb and implies the inevitability of nuclear weapons, once radioactivity and isotopes of uranium and plutonium were discovered and studied by scientists.

Groves and Oppenheimer, September 11, 1945 (LANL)

“The Gadget” was perched at the top of a hundred-foot tower and exploded on July 16, 1945. It had a twenty-kiloton yield. A device of the same design was detonated over Nagasaki a few weeks later, killing 40,000 people instantly. The exact detonation site for the Trinity test in New Mexico is now marked with an obelisk and is open to visitors two days every year.

On this anniversary of the beginning of the nuclear age, we invite you to look at another link as well, not ours, but an artist’s rendering in video of the nuclear age through 1998. Click HERE for Isao Hasimoto’s powerful representation of the world’s nuclear detonations, beginning with the Trinity test. In the top banner, note the detonation count by country along with the months and years elapsing. Since 1998 and the timeframe Hashimoto represents, North Korea has tested two nuclear weapons. That brings the total to 2055 nuclear explosions.

Tomorrow, too, marks another anniversary, that of the last above-ground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site (now called the Nevada National Security Site and worth the click for the security notice). In 1962, Little Feller I was a comparatively small weapon shot from a Davy Crockett launcher. All nuclear tests thereafter moved underground to prevent fallout sprinkling radioactive particles around the globe and to protect the atmosphere and those of us who would breathe it for decades to come. Plutonium occurs almost nowhere in the natural world, but in the nuclear era, we swim in a thin stream of the man-made element as a byproduct of atmospheric testing in addition to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Plutonium-239, the isotope used for nuclear weapons, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. You may also want to take a few minutes to read “Fission & Half-Lives.”

With the nuclear age, of course, came the Cold War, our decades of standoff with the Soviet Union. Part of the story of the Cold War is the story of the space race. The Soviets won the race to space, putting the first man into space, then the first man into low-Earth orbit. The United States won the race to the Moon. That victory began on this date in 1969, when Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center, with throngs of viewers crowded in the J.C Penney parking lot across the Indian River. A few days later, on July 20, Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, stepped onto the lunar surface while Michael Collins circled across the far side of the Moon. The three splashed down safely on July 24, 1969.

Apollo-Suyuz Handshake (NASA)

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of another space exploration milestone as well, a friendly gesture between Cold War enemies, the Apollo-Soyuz mission. In 1975, the Soviet Union launched a Soyuz capsule and the United States launched an Apollo capsule. The two capsules docked in orbit on this date, and Tom Stafford and Alexey Leonov gave rise to the first outer-space handshake between nations. (Watch the docking HERE.)

We are no longer surprised by this sort of serendipity, by the fact that important historical events in two different realms about which we write—nuclear history and space exploration—would occur on the same date, years apart in the twentieth century. We find that this sort of serendipity happens regularly, while other dates contain nothing of import for our work at Lofty Ambitions.

What continues to surprise us is a different type of serendipity, one in which we seem actively involved. As we draft this post and realize that tomorrow marks the anniversary of Apollo-Soyuz, we have just watched the film The Far Side of the Moon, about which we knew almost nothing when we added it to our Netflix queue. The title, for us, was enough. It turns out that Alexey Leonov, the Soviet hand in that interstellar, Cold War handshake, plays a prominent role in The Far Side of the Moon. We don’t want to give too much away—the film is not about Leonov but about a philosophy of science student and his weatherman brother, in the wake of their mother’s death. We would have enjoyed the film any time because it is quirky, tells a character-driven story, and tries interesting cinematic moves. But that we happened to watch this film when it would be especially meaningful to us because of this anniversary is one of the pleasures we keep finding in our work together here.

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

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

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.


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