Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Catching up

I’m happy to report that I’m keeping busy with my writing. So far this year I’ve had three feature articles published in Optics & Photonics News — two of them open-access cover stores.

First, I wrote about the technology behind Breakthrough Starshot, the Yuri Milner-funded plan to send an army of tiny laser-powered satellites to the stars. Since this topic was more speculative than the usual OPN subjects, I half expected a barrage of letters complaining that a serious scientific publication should never publish such pie-in-the-sky tripe. But no. My editor did get one letter decrying the high cost of the proposal, but the author decided against allowing OPN to publish his missive. Oh, well.

I’m sure there’s a lot of doubt out there — to wit, a recent Popular Mechanics article on Starshot was subtitled “Inside the Ludicrous Plan to Send a Spacecraft to Our Neighbor Star.” That piece, however, ends on a far more hopeful note than the subtitle would lead you to believe.

By the time my Starshot article was published, I had already written my next cover story on the future of the optics workforce. My inspiration for this one was my idle wonderment about all the articles I’ve read about the displacement of manufacturing jobs by robots and offshoring and whatnot.

I’m finishing another OPN feature article this week — whether it will be on the cover is of course yet TBD. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention that this week marks the 48th anniversary of the first lunar landing by humans. You may choose to celebrate by rereading my article on optics in the Apollo program. I’ll leave you with an optics-related photo from the Apollo Archive:

Neil Armstrong watches as Buzz Aldrin practices using a camera during a geology field trip in Texas, early 1969. NASA photo via the Apollo Archive.

A tale of black and pink

Happy New Year to all my readers!

I’d like to start 2017 by passing along a story of black and pink. The color combination isn’t new — it was quite popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, echoing the famous “Silence = Death” AIDS protest poster. I still have a black jacket with a hot-pink lining that my late mother bought me 20 years ago.

Now, apparently, an artist that has restricted other artists from using a particular “black” has been banned from acquiring the “world’s pinkest pink.”

I have no idea why the pink pigment described in the Smithsonian article has that superlative attached to it. The little jar looks about as pink as the hat I’m knitting for the Women’s March on Washington, or perhaps the Hello Kitty lens-cleaning kit that a friend gave me. Perhaps most painters make their pinks by blending red and white paints together, rather than buying something explicitly labeled pink.

Anyhow, the artist who isn’t allowed to buy the pinkest pink had previously made some sort of deal that stated he was going to be the only person allowed to make artworks with Vantablack, also known as the world’s “blackest black.” It’s a pigment made out of carbon nanotubes, which are tiny rolled-up sheets of pure carbon. (If the “blackest black” seems to be something out of a military video game, you’re right — it was developed for military applications.) As I’ve written in several short articles in OPN’s newsroom archives, carbon nanotubes can absorb radiation strongly at lots of different wavelengths, extending into the infrared. The artist’s monopoly on Vantablack inspired the pink-pigment manufacturer to keep his creation out of that artist’s hands.

Note that the restriction on using Vantablack applies only to “art”; anyone who wants to use the carbon nanotubes to dampen reflections inside a telescope or make some piece of military hardware invisible to enemies is perfectly able to do so.

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.