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.
It’s been 50 years now… September 17, 2013Posted by photonicpat in history of science, science and society.
Tags: Nobel Prize, scientists, women
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Dear Nobel Committee for Physics at the Swedish Academy of Sciences:
I realize, of course, that by now you have probably already made your decision about this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. After all, the award is scheduled to be announced on October 8, which is a mere three weeks from today. Obviously it takes some time to prepare the gold medals and certificates and whatnot, and to write up the press release extolling the achievements of the winners — I’m using the plural here, because you choose more than one laureate in the vast majority of years. And I know you try assiduously to uphold the original intent of Alfred Nobel’s will.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of all the events that happened in 1963, from the good (the “I Have a Dream” speech, the early stages of Beatlemania) to the bad (the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the JFK assassination). The event that’s relevant to this discussion is the 50th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics to Maria Goeppert-Mayer (along with two male scientists) for her work on nuclear shell structure.
In other words, this year makes 50 years since a woman received a Nobel in physics. Chemistry and medicine/physiology have had several female laureates in the past half-century — from Dorothy Hodgkin to Carol Greider — but not physics. There have been women who were mysteriously left out (Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Chien-Shiung Wu) and at least one female physicist who won the medicine Nobel (Rosalyn Yalow).
I’m certainly not recommending that a woman get a Nobel in physics just because of her gender — duh! However, every year the world has at least a few more female physicists than the year before, and some of them, somewhere, must have done some Nobel-quality research by now. Please recognize her (or them). Please don’t wait another half-century to name a third physics laureate.
A concerned female holder of a B.S. in physics
“Daddy almost broke the space telescope…” September 6, 2013Posted by photonicpat in astronomy, lasers, optical communications.
Tags: cool stuff, lasers, optical communications, space, telescopes
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I already retweeted the link I’m going to write about, but some stories are just so good that they deserve more than a tweet.
The website io9.com gave a great review of the new first-person Esquire story of how astronaut Mike Massimino “almost broke” the Hubble Space Telescope during the final repair mission to that spacecraft in 2009. I’ve been fascinated with Hubble for most of my adult life, and I wrote an article previewing the final repair mission in 2008 (just before the mission was postponed for a few months — doggone it!). In fact, when I was at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for “media preview day,” the four spacewalking astronauts went into the giant clean room to practice handling the actual tools that they would be using in space. I didn’t get to meet them, but from the observation window I could see them walking around in their masks, booties and garb. Needless to say, I thought that was extremely cool!
You can read the full Esquire story at this link.
Massimino, of course, has been a media-savvy astronaut for a long time; I think he was the first astronaut to use Twitter. And he played a bit role as himself in a few hilarious episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (well, aren’t all the episodes hilarious?).
Speaking of space, NASA is going to shoot for the Moon again tonight, albeit with a small, unpiloted spacecraft. Go here or here or here to find out if you will be able to glimpse the launch, which is going up from southern Virginia instead of Florida. My neighborhood is full of tall, mature trees, but if I walk up the street a half-block or so I might just be able to glimpse enough of the southeastern sky to see something. We shall see.
Most of the publicity surrounding this spacecraft has focused on its planned atmospheric and dust experiments, but the Office of Science and Technology Policy informs us that the craft will also test out a new kind of laser communications system that could potentially rocket-propel (metaphorically speaking, of course) the bandwidth from space.
One more tale of Tingye Li September 2, 2013Posted by photonicpat in history of science, optical communications.
Tags: humor, scientists
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The September 2013 issue of Optics & Photonics News contains my feature article on Tingye Li, a pioneering optical scientist and beloved member of the OSA community. (Sorry, you need to be an OSA member in order to read the full text of the article.)
I wanted to include one more anecdote that came from Li’s two daughters, but I thought it might be a bit too risqué for the magazine. Besides, if I put everything into the article, I wouldn’t have anything to blog about, now would I?
Here’s the story. Since Li, who died last December, spent his entire post-doctorate career working at Bell Laboratories, he lived with his wife and children in Rumson, N.J. According to Wikipedia, Rumson is quite the upscale town, and it was that way in the 1960s and 1970s as well. Still, Li and his wife, both naturalized Americans who were born in China, found it a good place to raise their daughters.
One of Li’s hobbies was gardening, sometimes with his daughters and sometimes all by himself. He always wore his oldest, shabbiest clothes to mess around with the dirt and fertilizer.
One evening, he was working alone in the front yard when a car pulled up and stopped. The driver, who looked like a prosperous businessman, rolled down his window and told Li that he was doing an excellent job on the landscaping. Li thanked him for the compliment.
Then the businessman, in a tone of voice that suggested he was thinking of hiring Li to do his yard work, asked him what sort of compensation he was provided for his toil. With a slight smile and twinkle in his eye, Li promptly responded: “Oh, I get to sleep with the lady of the house.”
The businessman, who apparently still hadn’t figured out that somebody dressed in ratty gardening clothes could actually be a married Bell Labs executive and homeowner, mumbled some sort of farewell and could hardly roll up the car window fast enough. One can only imagine the look on that guy’s face as he drove off!
Here comes Glowin’ Cottontail… August 14, 2013Posted by photonicpat in biomedical optics.
Tags: biomedical optics, cool stuff, cute
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As one TV station reported yesterday, fluorescent green bunnies have researchers hopping with excitement. Scientists from Hawaii and Turkey transferred a jellyfish gene into the rabbits when they were still embryos, and the gene for producing that fluorescent protein expressed itself in the baby rabbits. Fluorescence, of course, means that the protein absorbs ultraviolet photons and gives off visible light.
The researchers have other goals for the gene transfer method, such as producing new or better drugs for human use. This is just one of those “proof of concept” experiments. It doesn’t hurt the rabbits. However, I wouldn’t let a fluorescent bunny loose in the wild, as that glow might make it an easy target for nocturnal predators.
Links to other coverage:
Happy 98th Birthday, Dr. Townes! July 28, 2013Posted by photonicpat in history of science, lasers.
Tags: history, lasers, Nobel Prize, scientists
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Today is the 98th birthday of Charles Hard Townes, the American physicist who developed some of the key theoretical underpinnings of masers and lasers. He won the Nobel Prize 49 years ago, when he was 49 years old.
Sadly, he has now outlived one of his most noted graduate students, James P. Gordon, who developed the maser with Townes back at Columbia University in 1953. For the May 2010 issue of Optics & Photonics News, a special issue on the 50th anniversary of the laser, Gordon wrote a first-person account of the work leading up the maser. (If you are able to read OPN online, I highly recommend checking it out.)
Fortunately, some of Townes’ other grad students — Ali Javan, Robert Boyd and Raymond Chiao — are still with us. So is Elsa Garmire, a past OSA president and current Dartmouth College professor, who studied under Townes during his tenure as MIT provost and, a few years later in her postdoc days, helped to start the modern laser light show industry. (She wasn’t being taken very seriously as a scientist, and it was the late 1960s and early 1970s, so….) I wrote about laser light shows for that same May 2010 issue of OPN.
I’ve been fortunate to have met Townes and his wife, Frances, at several optics-related events over the years. I hope they are still doing well.
I think that Townes may now be the oldest living Nobel laureate. I’ve been trying to figure that out. If anyone has any information on that, please comment on this post.
The reclusive pioneer of Civil War photography studies June 30, 2013Posted by photonicpat in history of science, imaging, science and society.
Tags: history, journalism, photography
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Today I was excited to see a front-page Washington Post story on William Frassanito, whom I first heard about when I was doing last year’s Optics & Photonics News article on photography in the American Civil War (available to OSA members — sorry).
At that time, I heard that Frassanito had been writing about Civil War photography since the 1970s and he was the pioneer in figuring out what the photographs tell us about the actual events that had taken place. Mostly, before then, historians had just treated the photographs as “window dressing” and didn’t care about them as important documents in their own right. Frassanito was the first to establish that Alexander Gardner had staged some shots, and he located the “split rock” that appeared in many of those photographs, so that the Park Service was able to correct the record that it presents to visitors.
While I was working on the story, I was told that Frassanito was pretty hard to get hold of, and I was fighting off a head cold too, so I didn’t spend a lot of time tracking him down. Plus, I try not to make phone calls to sources during the hours that Frassanito (according to the Post article) is actually awake, unless I’ve arranged an appointment beforehand via email with a scientist in a radically different time zone. And Frassanito doesn’t use email. But, hey, he’s got a Facebook page!
So I’ve signed up to follow his Facebook page, and if I ever decide to write anything more about Civil War photography, I’ll know where to track “Frazz” down.
Footnote unrelated to photography: This New York Post writer apparently believes that hardly anyone’s ever heard of Gen. George Meade, who “saved a nation.” Really? Ever driven through Maryland and seen signs for Fort Meade? Guess not.