Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

In just a few hours, the world will know the names of the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. Sadly, we know one name that will almost certainly not be among them: Deborah S. Jin of JILA and NIST.

Dr. Jin died of cancer last month at the too-young age of 47. I don’t recall ever interviewing her, but I know she spoke at the CLEO 2005 conference, right around the time I started working at OSA.

She and her team made the first fermionic condensate, a new state of supercold matter, and as a result, she was on a lot of short lists for the Nobel Prize. For a long time I’ve been wishing, hoping, that some woman would be found worthy enough to join Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer on the list of Nobel physics laureates. It’s been more than half a century now since the latter won. Yes, I know that Dr. Jin won a slew of other awards, one even named for Goeppert-Mayer but for some reason, our civilization is stuck on the notion that the Nobel outshines them all.

And, yes, I fully realize that some worthy scientists somehow never got the Nobel. Human mortality has to do with that. The Nobel awarders have strict rules against posthumous prizes; there was a minor kerfuffle a few years back when one of the non-physics Nobel laureates had died just two or three days before the announcement, and the committee sincerely did not know about the fellow’s passing. News of Dr. Jin’s death has probably made its way to Stockholm by now, though, so we won’t see a repeat of that situation again.

One of the past presidents of the D.C. Science Writers Association has made a strong case for amending the Nobel Prizes to reflect today’s scientific reality, both in terms of the new fields that have emerged in the last century and the interdisciplinary nature of much modern research. (Never mind the collaborative nature of research — most teams have more than three members nowadays.) I’m a bit surprised at how traditionalist the online comments are trending. I would have expected a few more along the lines of “Yes, please, finally!” But even scientists (and science fiction fans, but that’s another story) can be among those most resistant to change.

Anyhow, let’s see whether the LIGO team gets honored already. Back in February, I was quietly pleased to learn that the first gravitational wave hit the detectors on September 14, 2015 — and September 14 is my birthday. The second gravitational wave arrived on December 26 — the birthday of one of my college roommates. Looking forward to many more detections, regardless of what Stockholm thinks.

As I write this, the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek series is coming to an end. I can’t say I remember the original run — I’m not going to say how old I was, or whether I existed at all. I strongly suspect that my parents were watching something else at the time — my mother loved Westerns and crime dramas, and my father enjoyed variety shows (remember those?). Better to have come to Star Trek as a young adult, though, than to never have embraced it at all. I’m enough of a geek to admit that when I shared a three-bedroom apartment with a couple of other Trek fans many years ago, I was thrilled to learn that the last four digits of our ZIP+4 code were 1701. Perfect!

This evening, to celebrate, I watched (on demand) Building Star Trek, a documentary from the Smithsonian Channel. Lots of closeups of Original Series artifacts and clips from the Original Series. I remember seeing some of the props at the Air & Space Museum way back in the 1990s — I was then surprised at how wooden they looked up close, and how the costumes were made of the cheesiest polyester double-knit. (Bleah!) I was also pleased (though, given my work, not entirely surprised) that the “predicted-by-Trek” technology described in the show came almost entirely from optics: laser weapons, a nanoscale “tractor beam,” entangled photons, and the “invisibility cloak.”

Obviously the Internet has been filled with tributes all day long. My favorite is the one from NASA; it includes a team from NASA Goddard, just down the street from me.

And, speaking of NASA, how cool is it that the space agency launched OSIRIS-REx toward an asteroid tonight? The timing of the launch can’t be just coincidence, can it? Listen to the launch announcer — yep, he slips the phrase “to boldly go” in there. Of course.

One year from today — specifically, the afternoon of August 21, 2017 — many of us in the continental United States will be treated to an awesome sight: a total solar eclipse. This celestial event is a lot briefer in duration than its cousin, the total lunar eclipse, so being in the right spot at the right moment is crucial. (And proper eye protection for the partial phases is even more crucial!)

Because this is America, I’ve already noticed a bit of commercialism creeping in, with websites like and popping up. (At least the latter seems to be focused on eye safety.) Over the course of the next 12 months, I won’t be surprised to see lots of countdown clocks, T-shirts, insta-books, calendars, posters, and other memorabilia flooding the market. Never mind themed “eclipse glasses”!

Blog housekeeping

Wouldn’t you know … as soon as I say I’m going to do something like a series of Women’s History Month posts, something gets in the way (like a late-winter head cold and various obligations to volunteer organizations), and then I don’t do it. Apologies to my readers.

I would still like to write a few posts related to living female scientists, though, even if they’re just “Women’s History” and not “Women’s History Month.” Watch for them soon.

In the meantime, if you’re an OSA member, please check out my latest feature article for OPN. I’ll add a PDF of it to my personal online library in a few weeks.

Women’s History Month began yesterday. This year, I would like to highlight the achievements of a number of amazing women whose work may not be known to the general public, but who are doing, or have done, important research. I won’t limit myself to the field of optics, but I shall start with it.

Elsa Garmire is currently a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College up in New Hampshire. She has had a five-decades-long career in physics, which included a year of service as OSA’s 1993 President (the second of five women to hold that position over the past century).

Garmire was only one of two students to earn her Ph.D. under Charles H. Townes during his stint at MIT in the mid-1960s. Obviously, women in physics were few and far between in those days, more so than now. However, Townes had four daughters of his own and realized that young women were perfectly capable of studying science. Plus, Maria Goeppert-Mayer received the Nobel Prize in physics the year before Townes did.

Once Garmire became a postdoctoral fellow out in California, though, she wasn’t taken as seriously as a scientist as she might have been. And she was living in the trippy, groovy era of the Sixties. So she explored her artistic side and ended up playing a major role in the creation of laser light shows [PDF].

Eventually, she became a professor at the University of Southern California before moving to Dartmouth. After a successful career in lasers and nonlinear optics, she has decided to retire this year. I wish her well and hope that she will continue to stay in touch with OSA.


OK, when you get invitations to five different press conferences on the same day, you might think something’s afoot, right?

One might think that indeed. Specifically, a few days ago, the people from LIGO put out a “media advisory” that they would be giving an “update” on their ongoing search for gravitational waves. It seems a little over-the-top to be organizing a simple “update” at the National Press Club, doesn’t it? Then, when you throw in simultaneous LIGO-related news conferences in London and Paris and Moscow, and you get a personal email encouraging you to attend a special seminar on gravitational waves at the Italian Embassy later in the afternoon … well, this doesn’t exactly sound like a routine assessment of the equipment functions, does it?

So, we have plenty of media speculation going on. Could this be the confirmation of the final piece of general relativity? Could a Nobel Prize be hanging in the balance?

I don’t know anything more than the next person, of course. (Sky & Telescope, which is much more plugged into the astronomical scene than I am, tried to track down the rumors already.) One scary word of caution: BICEP2. Remember that? Yeah, right.

I believe it was Carl Sagan who said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A prominent scientist pointed that out to me almost 20 years ago, when there was a flurry of reports that there might have been some fossilized bacteria found in Martian soil (remember THAT?!?), and I believe it is a good rule for all aspects of life, not just scientific research. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Think about that not just when you’re examining the results of your latest experiment, but also when you’re standing in line at the supermarket next to the screaming tabloid headlines, or when you’re debating whether to forward the latest shocking health claim that your old classmate posted to Facebook.

Incidentally, if LIGO (or its successor, Advanced LIGO) did find extraordinary evidence for gravitational waves, it will be a triumph not just for astronomy, but also for optics. I heard a talk on LIGO at my first OSA annual meeting a decade ago, and I was impressed with the awesome precision that each of the 4-km-long interferometers and their associated optics required. Measuring length changes of 10^-18 m? Optical coatings uniform to 1 atom of thickness? Whoa!

Yes, if LIGO has found something big, I hope the instrumentalists get due credit. We’ll all know in just a few hours.


Awaiting my OptIPuter…

I’ve been writing about optics and photonics professionally for more than a decade now. One of the continuing themes has been the ongoing quest to integrate optical technologies with existing silicon-based electronics to create all sorts of wonderful devices that could run a whole lot faster than their equivalents of today.

To that end, a team of researchers at three U.S. universities has created a prototype of a CMOS optical chip. (CMOS is the type of silicon technology that powers our computers and other devices that contain tiny processors.) If you want to know all the technical details behind this work, the short article I wrote for OPN contains a link to the original Nature paper, but you need a subscription to access it. (Or you could go to your local friendly university library, but I’m writing this post on New Year’s Eve, and I sincerely doubt any university libraries are open at the moment.)

Writing this newsbrief resonated with me because a friend recently asked me whether I have any plans to buy a new laptop computer, as the one I’m now using will be three years old next month. Just for grins and giggles, I gave a cursory glance to the Sunday-newspaper ad from a big-box store that sells tech stuff. Basically, the advertised laptops have the same range of processors as they did three years ago. Many of them have twice as much RAM and storage capacity as they did in January 2013, and of course they’re running Windows 10 (which, as humorist Dave Barry notes, “turns Windows 8 back into Windows 7”). Still, the laptops seem like the “same old, same old,” although I’m sure they don’t have half the letters worn off the keyboard from massive amounts of typing, as mine does. The excitement has moved to smartphones, fitness watches and other tiny gadgets.

It’s been about 20 years since I started following the field of high-performance computing, also known as supercomputing. I remember writing about the first computer that could operate at 1 teraflops, or 1 trillion floating-point operations per second. Today, the 10 fastest computers on planet Earth run at some multiples of 1 petaflops, or 1 quadrillion floating-point operations per second. Now, my 2013 laptop is a lot better than the 2004-era Windows XP machine that it replaced, but I don’t think it’s a thousand times faster.

Optics has been part of high-performance communications — and high-performance computer interconnects — for a while now. I would really like some of this optical (or optoelectronic) technology to filter down to the level of individual microprocessors and motherboards for desktop and laptop computers, never mind the smartphones and tablets that we all crave these days. However, given that humans were supposed to be living on Mars by now according to all those Apollo-era predictions, I’m not holding my breath.