Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Old cameras fascinate me. I still have my father’s old Argus C3, my mother’s Kodak Brownie Starmeter, and a couple of vintage Instamatics, among others. Somehow I acquired an Argus 75 box camera and a busted Falcon Miniature — there’s a hole in the latter’s body where the shutter button used to be, so that the interior will never be lightproof again. I’m not sure whether those two were purchased by Dad or another family member, but I ended up with them.

My interest in old cameras is certainly not limited to my personal stash. I totally geeked out when I was doing that OPN article on “Photography in the American Civil War” and got to spend an entire Saturday afternoon watching a guy making tintypes in Gettysburg, Pa. And I’ve written about the use of cameras and other optical equipment during the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s; it’s in the hands of the OPN editors now and will probably appear later this year.

So, imagine my delight at recent news reports that the widow of the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, found a bag of his Apollo 11 memorabilia in the back of her closet — and, even better, lent them to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. Best of all, the 16-mm Data Acquisition Camera that was supposed to have been left behind on the lunar surface came back to Earth!

I will have much more about this in my future OPN article, but basically, Apollo 11’s Eagle lander carried both video and film cameras. The video camera, mounted on the lander’s base, was pretty low-definition even by the standards of 1969 (that was the year the charge-coupled device was invented, but it certainly was nowhere near ready for prime-time broadcasting). The 16-mm motion picture camera was mounted so that it could look out the window of Eagle‘s ascent stage. It took much sharper pictures than the TV camera, but of course, no one could see those images until Columbia brought the film canisters (and astronauts) back home and technicians developed the film.

Many video clips of the Apollo 11 landing, such as this one, combine the film from the Data Acquisition Camera from the audio recorded by the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. What many people, especially those born after 1969, don’t realize is that the worldwide audience back on Earth could not see the film images in real time.

What the viewing public actually saw looked more like the CBS footage that you can find here and here: the live NASA audio combined with the voices of the television anchors, canned prepared animations, and the occasional “live shot” of people watching the coverage on giant screens. Because Armstrong had to steer around a boulder-strewn field at the last minute, there was a scary lag between the matter-of-fact animation’s depiction of the touchdown and the actual moment of contact with the lunar soil.

I can hardly wait until Armstrong’s stash goes on display at the Smithsonian. It will be awesome to see the actual camera that took some of the most exciting motion-picture footage of my lifetime, even if it wasn’t broadcast in real time.

(NASA’s own inventory of the objects appears here.)


Before I sign off, I’d like to mention a few other science-related stories that I’ve recently found interesting. I think I’ve mentioned most of them on Facebook, either on my personal or my professional page.

  • First, a Pittsburgh startup company has gotten FDA approval for a new kind of internal tissue adhesive. I know someone whose husband could have really used this stuff after the abdominal surgeries he’s had over the past couple of years. The scientist who developed the adhesive is married to one of my high school classmates.
  • A handheld Raman spectroscopy probe could help neurosurgeons find sneaky, aggressive cancer cells within brain tissue. This too is rather near and dear to me at the moment, because a close friend of a close friend is in hospice care for glioblastoma, which is pretty much the worst kind of brain cancer you can get. She just turned 46 years old, which is way too young to die.
  • Finally, in March and September, you’ll have a couple of opportunities to help measure the brightness of the night sky where you live. You should have no trouble remembering the March date on which this citizen-science effort begins, because it falls on Super Π Day.

Football … and physics!

I’ve been meaning to write about the whole “Deflategate” thing with the New England Patriots, but I’ve been juggling a lot of other things the past couple of weeks. (See previous post about writing a feature article about a certain distinguished scientist who just died.)

Disclaimer: I am the daughter of a football fan who always rooted for the Patriots, but who passed away before the Patriots ever appeared in the Super Bowl, even that first appearance in January 1986 when the Pats got mashed to pieces by the Chicago Bears just two days before the Challenger disaster. I may not follow the NFL with my father’s intensity, but I’m a Massachusetts native to the core.

When the “scandal” first broke, I was going to write about the relationship between pressure, volume, and temperature, but then I did a Google News search on “ideal gas law” and found that a few other writers had beaten me to the PV = nRT punch. Here’s a link to one of those articles: http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2015/01/p-s-i-a-whodunit/.

Vox.com had a more recent analysis of the situation, noting this:

Healy [a Carnegie Mellon grad student] also pointed out a few mistakes made by many scientists quoted in the press on the matter. In citing the ideal gas law, some of them failed to take into account that the air pressure inside a 12.5 psi ball is actually twice as high, because the measurement also reflects the surrounding atmosphere pushing back against the ball. When you account for that, the balls can drop by about 1 full psi from the temperature difference alone.

Additionally, the effect of moisture was often ignored. After the leather absorbed a bit of water, however, it expanded slightly, led to an additional 0.7 psi decrease in air pressure in his experiments.

This give me (hardly unbiased toward the Patriots) some assurance that the whole thing was an honest matter of game-day weather physics, not some nefarious cheat.

Ultimately, everything boils down to this: Haters are gonna hate and people like to put dynasties in the crosshairs. But the Patriots got to be a dynasty by being very, very good at what they do. Photonic Pat says: GO PATS!!! :-)

Yesterday I awoke to the news that Charles Hard Townes, a 1964 Nobel laureate for fundamental work on maser and laser physics, had died on Tuesday, January 27. In six months and a day, he would have turned 100 years old, but you can still think of this as his centennial year, in my opinion.

During my years working at OSA, I met six Nobel Prize winners; five are still with us. But Dr. Townes always looked hale and hearty, even well into his 90s, and he always went to conferences with his beloved wife, Frances — I thought that was so sweet of them. He was always the gentleman and not the least bit overbearing. At the symposium on the exact 50th anniversary of the first laser, when Dr. Townes gave his talk on the history of laser physics, he took a red laser pointer out of his pocket and used it so matter-of-factly, without harping on the fact that it — and a huge amount of today’s optical technology — has its roots in the insight he once had on a humble park bench just a few blocks from the White House.

I was already planning to write an article about Dr. Townes for an upcoming issue of OPN, so his death adds a new poignancy. I have to get back to work now, so I’ll leave you with a few links to some of the obituaries that have come out.

http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2015/01/27/nobel-laureate-and-laser-inventor-charles-townes-dies-at-99/

http://today.ucf.edu/ucf-mourns-nobel-laureate-laser-pioneer-charles-h-townes/

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/local/2015/01/27/dr-charles-townes-nobel-prize-winner-greenville-native-dies/22438001/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/charles-h-townes-nobel-laureate-and-laser-pioneer-dies-at-99/2015/01/28/73e65e04-a69d-11e4-a7c2-03d37af98440_story.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/29/us/charles-h-townes-physicist-who-helped-develop-lasers-dies-at-99.html

http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-charles-townes-20150128-story.html#page=1

http://www.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/Laser-co-creator-Charles-Townes-a-Nobel-6047889.php

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Charles-H-Townes-renowned-physicist-and-Nobel-6047011.php#photo-7450908

http://www.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/Nobel-laureate-Charles-Townes-laser-co-creator-6046795.php

photonicpat:

Here’s a nice post from the International Year of Light’s official blog. Jyväskylä (please don’t ask me how to pronounce that!) is about 300 km north of Helsinki, as far as I can tell from online maps — not far enough north to be truly Arctic, but still up there in the “long winter nights” department. I like this city’s approach to good urban lighting design, with due consideration to mitigating light pollution.

Originally posted on International Year of Light Blog:

Jyväskylä located in Central Finland is a lively city with a growing population. Finland’s seventh largest city is home to almost 136,000 people. Jyväskylä, well known for its green surroundings and Alvar Aalto architecture, is also Finland’s City of Light.

Kuokkala bridge. Credits: Jani Salonen Kuokkala bridge. Credits: Jani Salonen

View original 1,008 more words

Yes, I know I haven’t updated this blog in a long, long time.

Back in November, I started to write a roundup of all the great things that had happened in optics and photonics during the previous month. I actually wrote this much:

What an exciting month for the field of photonics! Granted, I was often busy and didn’t have time to write cogent posts about the breaking news (I’ll come back to that later), but I was following everything avidly.

Of course, the major expected occurrence was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Every year I hope for one of two things: a female physics laureate (about which I’ve posted in the past) or a Nobel awarded for some optics-related discovery. Well, this year we got the latter: three scientists who invented blue LEDs, which in turn led to the development of white LEDs (the white diodes are blue diodes covered by a yellow phosphor). The very next day, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three men “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy” — optical imaging techniques that allow us to see the tiniest molecular details inside cells.

Some, but not all, of the laureates are members of OSA – The Optical Society, which fired off press releases about these prizes. OSA signed up one of the chemistry laureates to give some remarks…

I’m certain that I was about to write “… to give some remarks at Frontiers in Optics, the Society’s annual meeting,” or something like that. But then I got busy with my freelance writing and my job applications and all sorts of other things, and the days ticked by, and then my friend Yvonne Carts-Powell wrote an awesome post on the subject in her blog, The Science of Heroes. So I just put my draft post on the virtual shelf and dived into the usual end-of-year holiday craziness.

Now it’s a new year — a time for renewal under any circumstances. But this New Year’s Day marks the beginning of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. I’ve been excited about the IYL since I first heard about it, so of course I had to wrote a feature article all about it for Optics & Photonics News. I’m following the IYL team on Facebook and Twitter, and during 2015 I pledge to fill this blog with lots of exciting posts about the science of light. Happy New Year indeed!

Just. Do. Science.

This past weekend I went to a science-fiction convention named Balticon, where I attended a couple of presentations by an astronomer named Pamela L. Gay, who co-hosts the “Astronomy Cast” podcast and tweets as @starstryder. She is really, really big on citizen science — she is the driving force behind CosmoQuest.org, where ordinary people like you and me can contribute to real planetary-science projects.

Dr. Gay’s enthusiasm prompted me to sign up for an account on CosmoQuest and to start passing judgment on photographs of the craters on our Moon and the asteroid Vesta. Such tasks, individually small in the grand scheme of things but nevertheless important to solar-system investigators, also helped me get through the weekend with my emotions on an even keel.

You see, today marks one year since a stargazing friend of mine died of a massive stroke. I can’t even begin to imagine what the past 365 days have been like for his widow (also a friend of mine). Last month I went to a planetarium show that she staged — it was supposed to be her husband’s show, but she finished the work on it, and I could tell that her desire to excite young people about science was every bit as strong as his.

So, I’m going to honor my friend’s memory by doing some science. Yeah, there’s that whole bit about not having gone all the way to my Ph.D. However, the world now has incredible opportunities for participating in actual science that were not even in anyone’s imagination 20 years ago when I was discovering HTML and studying for my qualifying exams.

There’s not only CosmoQuest but also Zooniverse, which has a huge range of available projects, from classifying tropical cyclone data to tracking California condors. There’s Eyewire, a neuroscience “game.” There’s SciStarter, which has an even broader range of projects going on. The Smithsonian has a transcription center where “digital volunteers” can type up the handwritten words of long-ago explorers and nature observers.

Even when you’re not sitting at the keyboard, your computer can do science for you — just install the BOINC software and let it crank away during those otherwise idle times. I’ve got my laptop running two different BOINC-based projects: SETI@Home and EON. One of these days I’ll have to try something similar for my Android tablet.

Now you have no excuse. Just check something out. Play. Discover. Learn. Do science.

A new ‘Medium’

I just published in, literally, a new medium for me: the website Medium.com. I stumbled upon the website some months ago, probably because one of my hundreds of Facebook friends linked to an article there. Ever since, I’ve been itching to try it out, and the stars finally aligned for me to do so (sorry about the astrology reference).

I have no idea how to gauge readership of a piece, so I’ll just have to post a bunch of links to it in all the usual social-media outposts and see what happens.

Since the event that inspired me to write the piece happens tomorrow (Wednesday, May 21), I had really wanted to publish this several days ago. However, I had a weekend stomach bug that made it difficult for me to think 1,500-word thoughts and make them semi-coherent.

Anyway, please feel free to check out my tale of a small town auctioning off its prized Norman Rockwell painting: https://medium.com/p/78f084c621b4. Enjoy!

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