Time for some optics conferences April 27, 2013Posted by photonicpat in general optics.
Tags: OSA, personal, security
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Even as I type this on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, folks are making their way to Baltimore for the SPIE Defense, Security, + Sensing conference. Since the recent bombings in Boston — terrible news that I, as a Massachusetts native, have been following closely — terrorism prevention is back on the front burner, and, in the wake of those thermal images of the suspect hiding in the boat, I wouldn’t be surprised if the conference garnered some attention from the general press as well as the trade press.
Because this is an odd-numbered year, I’m wishing that CLEO would be held in Baltimore too, but alas, it will be on the West Coast again. This year, it will take place in June in San Jose, Calif. , and will have some mighty impressive plenary speakers.
I won’t be at either of these conferences because … well, I’ve got myself a day job, at least for the next few months. I’m doing some educational writing for a center that hasn’t yet opened. When it makes its debut in six months or so, I’m certainly going to plug it here!
Still more on space rocks March 31, 2013Posted by photonicpat in astronomy.
Tags: astronomy, space
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We on the East Coast of the USA had some more “freaky space rock” excitement a week ago yesterday (March 22). Shortly after 8 p.m., Facebook and Twitter lit up about a flash in the sky that looked like a fireball or bolide. I didn’t see it personally because I was indoors at the time. (Drat!)
The next morning, I learned from Jonathan McDowell‘s Facebook page that the American Meteor Society had aggregated reports of the fireball and made them into a “heat map.” The latter shows that the reports ranged all along the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston (boy, that is a familiar trek for me). Via Facebook I asked Jonathan whether he thought that any leftovers from that blast landed in the Atlantic, and he replied that that was his guess. I’m glad that nobody got hit by that thing — who knows, it might have been pretty big.
Incidentally, should you see a bright moving flash in the sky, the Meteor Society has a handy Web form for reporting your observation. And the organization reported one amateur astronomer’s spectacular photos of the event.
Finally, if you’re wondering about the aftermath of the Chelyabinsk explosion last month, the New York Times did a follow-up article that describes the intruder as a stony meteorite — an ordinary chondrite. There’s more evidence that the people of the Russian city “dodged a bullet,” so to speak. Whew.
(Edited later on March 31 to fix a typo.)
Ask a physicist! March 18, 2013Posted by photonicpat in astronomy, science and society.
Tags: astronomy, Nobel Prize, scientists, telescopes
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If you want to boost attendance at your local religious congregation, just ask a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to deliver the weekly sermon. This actually works!
Folks at Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church (Adelphi, Md.) were honored to have Dr. John C. Mather of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in the pulpit yesterday. Dr. Mather had been at the church a few months ago to attend the memorial service of Frank McDonald, a retired NASA GSFC high-energy astrophysicist, and once he got talking to the minister, she invited him back for a Sunday service.
You can read both his talks during the service — first some comments to the children at the beginning of the service, and then his sermon for the adults. The sanctuary was full!
After the service, Dr. Mather stuck around for a discussion circle in one of the church’s classrooms. About 35 folks got a chance to ask him questions about space-time, the origins of life, the spirituality of scientists, and the James Webb Space Telescope. I didn’t take notes, but I enjoyed the session thoroughly. How often do folks get to sit around and chat with a Nobel laureate?
Great citizen science March 7, 2013Posted by photonicpat in general optics, science and society.
Tags: citizen science, cool stuff, optics
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Want to bring the science of light to the masses? This week I found a fascinating example of demonstrating Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment with a big cardboard box, an eyepiece and bright sunlight. The ScienceDump blog got the video from Veritasium.
Yes, to those of us who actually have studied physics, the competing theories of light as waves and particles might be old hat. But, as you can see in the video, it’s not old hat to the passersby who haven’t thought about the subject since grade school.
I’m certainly going to check out these websites to see what other interesting demonstrations of “citizen science” are out there. If you have had a chance to bring science to the masses, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
And then there was one March 3, 2013Posted by photonicpat in history of science, science and society.
Tags: history, Nobel Prize, scientists
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Once upon a time — literally, in 1960 — Time magazine chose 10 “American Scientists” as its “Men of the Year” (the award would become “Person of the Year 39 years later). Of the 10 scientists chosen to represent their rather broad common profession — George Beadle, Charles Draper, John Enders, Donald A. Glaser, Joshua Lederberg, Willard Libby, Linus Pauling, Edward Purcell, Isidor Rabi, Emilio Segrè, William Shockley, Edward Teller, Charles Townes, James Van Allen, and Robert Woodward — eight of them either had won or would win a Nobel Prize. Considering that such other giants as Albert Einstein were already dead by 1960, this is still a pretty impressive list.
When I was blogging for Optics & Photonics News, I looked up these “1960 Men of the Year” and found that only two of them, physicists Glaser and Townes, were still alive. I met Townes on several occasions during my years at the Optical Society, most recently at the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the laser in May 2010.
Today, while surfing the Web, I stumbled upon an obituary for Glaser; he died in his sleep a few days ago at the age of 86. His official Berkeley obituary goes into more detail about his subsequent careers in molecular biology and neurobiology (after all, when one wins a Nobel at age 34, what else can one do in one’s original career?).
So Townes is the last guy left from the 10 Men of 1960. He’s 96 and will turn 97 later this year. And he’s still not “emeritus.”
Two weeks later March 2, 2013Posted by photonicpat in astronomy, Earth science, science and society.
Tags: astronomy, cool stuff, solar system, space
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It’s been two weeks since a “freaky space rock” blasted out of the sky above Chelyabinsk, Russia. At the time, the worldwide press breathlessly reported the extent of the amateur video footage and the ground-level damage and then moved on to other flavors of the moment. Meanwhile, what have we learned about our cosmic visitor?
A week after the event, Sky & Telescope reporters blogged about the composition and trajectory of the Chelyabinsk meteoroid. The recovered fragments are “ordinary chondrites,” the most common type of stony meteorites. These ordinary chondrites do contain flecks of metals, but also lots of silicates, as opposed to iron meteorites, which really are chunks of iron. The space rock was moving in a completely different direction from the asteroid that nearly missed the Earth the same day, so the events were unrelated, as much as our pattern-seeking human brains would like to deny.
S&T also reported that a scientist at the University of Western Ontario calculated that the near-Earth object (NEO) was cruising at 20 km/s when it hit the atmosphere. The “infrasound” detectors that are supposed to enforce the nuclear test-ban treaty picked up the blast waves — equal to about 30 Hiroshima bombs — from as far away as Antarctica.
Scientists suspect that the space rock came from (or was) an Apollo asteroid, a specific class of minor planets that cross Earth’s orbit. So, yeah, this should really point out the need to keep watch on the other Earth-crossers that may be whizzing by. The University of Hawaii is developing a “last-alert system” to complement PanSTARRS. And, as Chelyabinsk cleans up, local officials are figuring out how to market the newly famous city as a hot tourist destination. (It even has a travel agency called Sputnik!)
Passages February 1, 2013Posted by photonicpat in astronomy, history of science, science and society.
Tags: astronomy, science journalism, scientists, space
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I haven’t forgotten where I was 10 years ago today, when the space shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry into the atmosphere.
The evening before, I’d fallen asleep with my boom box playing one of the local National Public Radio stations softly in the background. Since it was a Saturday morning, I could keep to my own schedule instead of letting the alarm clock jar me into consciousness. When I drifted awake, I could hear voices speaking on the radio, but not in the same pattern as a normal “Weekend Edition” program. It took me maybe 10 minutes to pierce through the mental fog and figure out that there was some sort of trouble with Columbia. I turned on the little bedroom TV set — the little Motorola B&W portable that was one of my Dad’s last gifts to me before he died — and there I first saw the images of shuttle debris streaking across the southern sky.
Today in the news, Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein posed the question: If a space shuttle is doomed, do you let the crew know of their fate? We know what happened to the seven astronauts of Columbia. Even though the shuttle program has ended, the question is worth pondering for future generations of space travelers.
Speaking of NASA … last month I went to a memorial service for one of the scientists who joined NASA when it opened the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1959. Bertram D. “Bert” Donn, the first head of NASA Goddard’s astrochemistry group, also was the Ph.D. adviser to one of my grad-school advisers, making him my “academic grandfather” in a sense. I certainly quoted a lot of “Nuth and Donn” and “Donn and Nuth” papers in my master’s thesis. “Nuth” refers to Joseph A. Nuth III, who still works at NASA Goddard, a couple of miles from where I sit.
The rabbi who delivered the eulogy said that in his college application essay, Bert Donn said that he wanted to understand the universe and to reform the world. He certainly worked at both, because in addition to his scientific work, he was a peace activist who worked tirelessly to desegregate apartment complexes and schools back in the civil rights era, even when racial desegregation was unpopular. (I should add that his wife, Marj Donn, is a social activist and writer too, and a friend.)
Bert Donn’s favorite quote was also one of mine:
You can read more about Bert Donn in this NASA tribute, co-written by Joe Nuth, with links to other obituaries and photographs. Following the service, I enjoyed talking with Joe and with another NASA astrochemistry scientist, Regina Cody, despite the sadness of the occasion that brought us back together.
First woman to the Moon! January 25, 2013Posted by photonicpat in astronomy, lasers, optical communications.
Tags: lasers, optical communications, space
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Did you think that the last person we sent to the Moon was 40 years ago last month? Well, think again!
OK … not quite in corporeal form. More like “telepresence.” But at least this person was a woman! In fact, she’s probably the most famous woman on the planet (ahead of Queen Elizabeth II, Hillary Clinton, or even Oprah).
Let me explain. NASA has a spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which was developed at Goddard Space Flight Center, just a couple of miles down the road from where I sit. I’m pretty sure the LRO craft was still at Goddard when I toured the place in the summer of 2008 in preparation for my OPN feature article, “Hubble’s Final Servicing Mission.” Launched in 2009, LRO is polar-orbiting the Moon and mapping its surface in three dimensions.
In fact, LRO already has a laser link with NASA Goddard, which uses the laser pulses to figure out the precise position of the spacecraft with respect to the Moon. So all the researchers had to do to “send” this famous woman — the Mona Lisa — into space was to encode a black-and-white image of her into the laser signal that was already heading out to the LRO, and then verify that it had been received properly.
This was the first time humans have conducted one-way laser communications at planetary distances, according to the principal investigator of the laser altimeter aboard LRO.
As usual, NBC News science editor Alan Boyle wrote a fine article about the experiment. The original experiment was published in Optics Express (disclaimer: I still write for another OSA publication as a freelancer).
Light in the season of dark December 21, 2012Posted by photonicpat in lighting, nature, science and society.
Tags: colors, light and mood, movies, personal
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Once again I feel the need to apologize for not keeping this blog as up to date as I had intended long ago. This month began roughly, with the deaths of two friends, followed swiftly by the terrible school shooting in Newtown, Conn., which I drive by every December on the way to visit New England family and friends. We are all challenged to find the holiday spirit this year.
Our moods are not lifted by the shortness of the natural daylight in the Northern Hemisphere and the length of time we spend under our imperfect artificial lights. One recent study links our exposure to bright lights during the night hours to depression and even learning impairment. (Here’s the link to the original paper in Nature.) In other words, to lift our mood and improve our cognition, we should put down the computers and tablets after sunset and put our eyes and brains back in sync with the natural world. I’ve personally never been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but I do know one thing: when I go camping during the summer, the bright sunlight all day long, coupled with the lack of artificial glow at night, makes me surprisingly ready to go to sleep early and get a full night of rest.
Whether or not you have “the blues,” check out science writer Natalie Angier’s lyrical “ode to blue” that was published in the New York Times back in October. I recall reading, in a parakeet-care booklet I had as a kid, a passing reference to the fact that a blue-chested parakeet’s feathers would not look blue if they were plucked off the bird. In recent years scientists have been paying much more attention to the structural basis of bright biological colors, including blue, as my colleague Yvonne Carts-Powell noted recently.
To change the subject … If you’re like me and most of my friends, you’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Even though the movie was quite long, I stayed through all of the closing credits so that I could catch the name of Luca Fascione, one of the software brains behind Weta Digital’s amazing visual effects. I interviewed Fascione for my January 2009 OPN article on photorealistic rendering, which explains why a deep understanding of the physics of light absorption and scattering is necessary to create computer-generated beings that look plausibly real. I’m glad the full text is available to all, because it’s a fascinating topic.
Whether you dwell in the solstice-darkened lands of the north or the summer-kissed lands of the south (like Middle-earth — New Zealand, I mean), and whatever your spiritual beliefs are, I wish you much peace in the coming year.