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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)

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

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

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Lise Meitner (U.S. public domain)

Lise Meitner (U.S. public domain)

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

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

Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

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

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

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

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

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

Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943)

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

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

Annie Jump Cannon (Library of Congress)

Annie Jump Cannon (Library of Congress)

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

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

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Palomar3

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

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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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“VOICES CARRY” by ANNA LEAHY & DOUGLAS DECHOW

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

 

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

IV.

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.

V.

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.”

TO SUM UP, IN BILL NYE’S WORDS:

“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

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
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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.

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