Into the valley of the shadow of death… March 8, 2014Posted by photonicpat in imaging.
Tags: history, photography
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Please don’t be put off by the rather depressing title. I’ve just been thinking about the Crimea region of Ukraine recently, because … well, duh. And any mention of Crimea brings to mind a series of images.
Not images I took. Not images of people who are still alive.
You see, the Crimean War was the first war ever (kinda, sorta) photographed. Say “19th-century war photographs” to most people, and they will think of the American Civil War. The conflict in Crimea, however, predated the one on the U.S.; it ended five years before our Civil War began. And a Britishman named Roger Fenton (1819-1869) set out to immortalize his country’s fighting forces.
Photography back then wasn’t as simple as pushing a button and letting technology do the rest. Fenton made a type of picture called the calotype. The process involved making a wet-paper negative print and then contact-printing it onto another sheet of treated paper. Calotypes required really long exposure times, so Fenton had no chance to make “action shots,” and anyway the sensibility of the Victorian era would have rejected stark photographs of dead bodies, like those taken at Antietam and Gettysburg in the following decade. Fenton and his assistants had to cart along a whole wagon full of equipment (please click on that link — WordPress is giving me trouble with uploads).
Mostly Fenton took highly posed photographs of British officers, but he also captured some landscapes. One can only imagine how these images would have looked to people who had never seen the world like that before — indeed, who spent most or all of their lives within a hundred or so miles of their birthplace.
Fenton’s most famous image was dubbed “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” probably after that “shadow of Death” phrase in the famous Tennyson poem. It shows a landscape denuded of plants, with a depressed dirt road strewn with cannonballs. Some people say Fenton and his team faked the photo, because there’s another version of the photo without the cannonballs.
Which image came first? Does it matter? Should it matter? A writer and filmmaker named Errol Morris wrote a three-part meditation on that set of questions for the New York Times back in 2007, well before our 15oth-anniversary observances of the American Civil War — or our worrying about Ukraine and Russia.
Anyhow, whenever I hear about this current crisis, I can’t help visualizing these sepia-tone images of dry battlefields long past.
Question for my readers January 14, 2014Posted by photonicpat in technology.
I’ve got a few things to say in another post. First, though, I want to pick your brains.
Readers, do you like my blog layout? What do or don’t you like about it? WordPress has so many different themes. Originally I picked one that has an astronomical “look” right out of the box, so to speak. But I’m tired of the tiny type. I also realize that more people may be reading this blog on mobile devices, either on a mobile browser or on the WordPress app, which strips away the themes for readability.
So I’m throwing the question to you: How would you like my blog to look? What would make it more convenient for you?
5 Tech Products That Will Be Dead in 5 Years January 3, 2014Posted by photonicpat in technology.
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So, what do YOU all think about these five predictions? I think one will be spot-on, one will never happen, and the rest will be somewhere in between. But I’m not sure which is which….
Happy New Year! January 1, 2014Posted by photonicpat in lighting, nature.
Tags: circadian rhythm, cool stuff, lighting, seasons, sunlight
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First of all, I would like to wish my friends and readers a very Happy New Year! I wish you inner peace, good health, much happiness, and at least enough prosperity to keep the metaphorical wolf away from the door.
I also wish you much light, especially in the darkness of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s easy to feel the “winter blahs” without actually connecting them to the shortened hours of daylight and the increased time spent indoors under artificial lighting. Here’s a New Year’s resolution you may not have thought of making: Get in touch with your circadian rhythm; make sure you get some natural light into your eyeballs during daytime hours, and sleep in a nice dark room (after you’ve done some stargazing, of course!).
Some six or seven weeks ago, I wrote a short Optics & Photonics News article about a small Norwegian town that, for its entire existence, has gone without direct sunlight for six months in every year, because it is located in a deep valley. That’s right — for six months, every day feels like a cloudy day, even if the sky is clear overhead. To brighten up the town square, the town of Rjukan installed a mirror array atop one of the nearby mountains, with solar-generated electricity running a computer system to move the mirrors to track the sun.
When I did the article, I must have gotten on Rjukan’s press mailing list. Just before the winter solstice, I got this notice:
52 days of winter sun in Rjukan.
Since the unveiling of the sun mirror 30th of October this year, the sun mirror has brought light and attention to Rjukan. For the first time the sun shines on the Christmas tree at the market square.
The square has become a meeting place for both young and old residents, as well as for tourists. Several shops and cafes have increased sales. Krossobanen, the cable car that still carries people up to the sun, drove filled carriages the first weekends after the sun mirror opening. It is not usual in November.
- People have been curious about the small town between Gaustatoppen and Hardangervidda ,” says tourist manager Karin Roe. We hope the curiosity takes over and that they visit us as well. – Because we have so much to offer to visitors, especially our exciting history now nominated for UNESCO World Heritage List, she concludes.
Mayor Steinar Bergsland has been busy on other areas after the opening. In late November he presented the news that Green Mountain Data Centre establishes in Rjukan. 2 weeks later the mayor and Rjukan population mobilized against plans to close down parts of the local hospital. However, he still has the great pleasure of the sun mirror.
- The Sun mirror has become a natural part of life. Even when the clouds are low down the mountainside we are looking up at the sun mirror as we walk past the square, says the mayor who believe that citizens have been more proud of their city and what they have managed to achieve.
Here is a photo of the sun mirror shining down on the Christmas tree in Rjukan’s town square:
I think that’s a beautiful image, don’t you? I hope the people of Rjukan are having their happiest winter ever.
Minerals to watch December 13, 2013Posted by photonicpat in Earth science, lasers.
Tags: lasers, solar energy
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I thought I knew about perovskite. After all, it’s a mineral, and I spent my spring and summer writing about rocks and minerals for a Smithsonian project, didn’t I?
Apparently the researchers who figured that out have demonstrated it in an optically pumped laser. They’ll have to devise an electrically pumped laser to get anything commercially viable. But if that works out, who knows what new applications these inexpensive lasers will lead to?
Oh the Sad Irony; Thoughts on a Report to President Truman in 1945 December 7, 2013Posted by photonicpat in history of science, science and society.
Tags: funding, science and government
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Words that ring true almost 70 years later. I’m reposting them here just so I can come back to them at a future date (i.e., when I’m not on deadline for a couple of other articles).
Originally posted on Just Science:
I stumbled across a report from Director of the Office of Scientific Research and DevelopmentVannevar Bush to President Harry Truman in July 1945 in response to Roosevelt’s Letter a year earlier which stated:
“New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.”–
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT November 17, 1944.
Almost 70 years later, I feel Bush’s words and recommendations within the Report ring just as relevant. In a time when developed countries have increased funding for research and development in FY2012, TWO countries stood out like sore thumbs for decreasing federal research dollars; the United States and Canada. I wish this report could be redistributed to all members of Congress. In this post, I want to…
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A very scientific Thanksgiving November 29, 2013Posted by photonicpat in astronomy, history of science, optical communications.
Tags: astronomy, history, lasers, optical communications, space
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I hope all my U.S. readers had an excellent Thanksgiving yesterday, and I hope you all have an excellent weekend, whether you are getting an adrenaline rush out of the Black Friday sales or you are trying to dodge commercialism altogether.
This year we got a reminder that the eye surgery known as LASIK descended from some experiments on Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. I already knew about this, of course, but it’s great to hear that the tale will be going into the OSA Centennial History Book so that future generations will know the origins of this procedure, which has enormously benefited some of my highly nearsighted friends.
Yesterday afternoon, part of Greenbelt, Maryland, was hopping as Comet ISON passed close to the Sun. NASA hosted a Google+ hangout from Goddard Space Flight Center, just a couple of miles from my computer desk, and I was watching along and retweeting things on Twitter. At the time it really looked as if the comet had vaporized entirely when it grazed our local friendly star, but perhaps part of it survived the close passage. I guess that makes ISON a “zombie” comet! Hey, zombies are extremely popular these days.
This year, for my Thanksgiving dinner with friends, I made my from-scratch creamed corn with cornstarch instead of wheat flour, because a couple of the folks at the dinner table are gluten-intolerant. And I hurried home to do a Skype interview with a researcher in Australia. Yes, we used today’s optical communications technology to talk about tomorrow’s optical communications technology. We live in fascinating times indeed.
What I’ve been up to November 12, 2013Posted by photonicpat in history of science.
Tags: geology, history, Optics & Photonics News, personal, scientists, U.S. National Academy of Sciences
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November is almost half over, so if you have access to Optics & Photonics News, please hop on over to my feature article on the 150th anniversary of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and learn something new about this venerable institution.
The OPN editor assigned me this feature; I didn’t dream it up myself. At first, I worried that I would be able to connect NAS to OSA and the world of optics and photonics in only the most vague and general way, and I would leave my readers scratching their heads and wondering, “Why the heck is this in my magazine?”
Fortunately, just around the time I started my background research for this article, the NAS held a historical symposium at Woods Hole in Massachusetts. While listening to the live webcast, I learned that three of OSA’s most famous Honorary Members — George Ellery Hale, A.A. Michelson, and Robert A. Millikan — had played significant leadership roles within the Academy at various times in its existence. Hale, a solar physicist and observatory impresario, spurred the NAS to start publishing a Proceedings journal and served as the first chair of the National Research Council (NRC); Michelson, the first American Nobel physics laureate, served a term as NAS president in the 1920s, when the Academy opened its first headquarters building in Washington, D.C.; and Millikan, first to measure the electric charge of the electron, edited the Proceedings through the 1940s. Those connections helped me frame the story and make the history of the NAS relevant to today’s optical scientists. (After all, who hasn’t had to recreate either the Michelson-Morley speed-of-light experiment or the Millikan oil-drop experiment, or both, in undergraduate physics classes?)
In between my longer articles for OPN, I have been writing some short pieces as well: on a superfast quantum light switch, improved detection of high-frequency UV light, and a compound that can hide from infrared cameras at some temperatures.
Finally, back in April I mentioned that I had a “day job” working for some sort of educational center that hadn’t yet opened, but I didn’t get into details. However, now that the parent institution has started to advertise it, I can do The Big Reveal!
One month from today, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will open Q?rius, a new hands-on learning center for ages 10 and up. I wrote a series of REALLY short (i.e., one-paragraph) essays about geological specimens that will reside in the Q?rius collection. Other museum staff members have been developing novel interactive experiments and demonstrations covering all aspects of the research going on at the museum. I can hardly wait for Q?rius to open, and I hope to see you all there!
The answer to a boy’s question November 6, 2013Posted by photonicpat in astronomy.
Tags: astronomy, education, personal
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Way back when I was a graduate student in astronomy, a schoolboy asked me a question that I never forgot. It took scientists only another 20 years or so to come up with a reasonable answer to it.
For part of my teaching assistantship during my first year of grad school, I was assigned the public observatory program. I had to recruit faculty members and postdocs to give twice-monthly public talks, handle reservations for school and Scout groups who wanted their own private presentations, and corral fellow grad students into running the slide projector (before the days of PowerPoint) and helping with the telescopes. (I used to suggest that all grad students in astronomy should get an automatic master’s degree in slide projectorology.)
One evening a school group showed up for its talk an hour before the public lecture, and for some reason I gave them a presentation. I can’t remember why — perhaps someone had got sick or even forgot to show up. And I don’t even remember what I talked about — maybe the solar system or something really basic like the differences between stars and planets.
Anyway, when I was fielding questions after the talk, one boy — maybe about 10 years old — asked: “How many planets are there in the entire galaxy?”
“Ooh,” I said, trying to stall for my time while my mind raced. This happened to be after the discovery of a planet around a pulsar, but before the teams of Mayer & Queloz and Marcy & Butler had found any planets around “normal” (that is, main-sequence) stars. At the time I was really, really interested in the possibility of finding extrasolar planets.
“That’s a really good question,” I told the kid. “In fact, it’s such a good question that scientists are still trying to answer it!” I explained that astronomers were very busy trying to search for extrasolar planets but the search was really difficult, and maybe, just maybe, in future years they would be able to start answering that question.
Well, the exoplanet discoveries started to roll in a couple of years after that evening’s Q&A session. Currently, astronomers know of more than 1,000 actual extrasolar planets, with thousands more candidates awaiting confirmation.
Finally, just this week, astronomers came up with the first reasonable estimate of just how many Earth-like planets may occupy our galaxy: 40 billion. That’s 40,000,000,000. That’s how many potentially habitable worlds may be out there, in our own little spiral clump of stars, without even crossing intergalactic space to get to the billions and billions of other galaxies out there.
The thought takes my breath away.
And I keep thinking of that boy’s question. I have no idea what this kid’s name was, or where he went to school. Doubtless he is an adult by now, and wherever he is, I hope that he read that news story and realized that, after all these years, he finally got his answer.
Nobel Watch 2013 October 7, 2013Posted by photonicpat in science and society.
Tags: Nobel Prize
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I’ve been meaning to write a post on Nobel Prize in Physics predictions, but I haven’t been able to get my act together. So here are some of the links that I was saving up to post (also including some info on the MacArthur Fellows):
That first link goes to a site where people can apparently wager on various candidates. I’m not sure that’s the best way to go about predictions.
Anyhow, tomorrow morning is the big moment. With the government shutdown and all, I’m not expecting to hear a lot about it on CNN.
And speaking of the government shutdown, not even the 2012 Nobel Prize could get NIST employee D.J. Wineland an exemption from the restrictions on travel during the closure. So he picked out a colleague from the University of Maryland to give a Frontiers in Optics conference plenary talk in his stead. I do hope he gets a chance to speak at FiO 2014.