Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

The legacy continues

Last year at this time, I was working on an article for Optics & Photonics News about the late Stanford University professor Anthony “Tony” Siegman and his legacy of laser education. I’m pleased that the second installment of the international laser school named for him will take place this August.

The Siegman International School on Lasers began last year on the Stanford campus, where its namesake taught for many years. This year it is moving to Germany, to keep with its stated purpose of being a truly international school for young optical scientists. I’m sure it will be held in yet another country in 2016.

The 2015 school has lots of interesting programming lined up for its 102 accepted students. I wish all the attendees well and hope that the event results in many fruitful collaborations.

As I mentioned earlier this year, I was working on an OPN article about Charles H. Townes, one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, when he passed away. My article came out in the May issue of OPN, which is traditionally about lasers because of the annual CLEO conference. It made the cover of the magazine, so the editorial staff made it “open access” for everybody!

CLEO, by the way, is next week in San Jose, California. I wish I could attend, but it’s not in this year’s cards. The conference program sounds awesome — you can’t beat plenary lectures by two Nobel Prize winners. There’s no memorial symposium for Dr. Townes, as far as I can tell, but such things take time to organize; I’ll bet one will be held sometime in the next 12 months.

By now everybody has probably heard that today is the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. I couldn’t possibly put all the links to all the news coverage in this blog entry. We’ve got photos that show how HST changed the world, the breathtaking video made from the official 25th-anniversary Hubble photo, and the telescope’s amazing comeback story (with a mention of OSA to boot). The anniversary has its own website and you can even download a free ebook that will last as long as … well, as long as you have a device that can read and open the file and a storage medium that can save the file without corruption.

On and off, the Hubble Space Telescope has been a recurring theme of most of my adult life. I remember the initial anticipation, followed by the long wait in storage after the Challenger disaster (didn’t that storage cost $1 million per month, or something like that?). Somehow I don’t recall watching the launch, but I certainly knew it happened, and I certainly followed the headlines when the spherical aberration was discovered and the finger-pointing began. When I moved from Massachusetts to Maryland, I had to deal with a housemate who kept calling the orbiter “the Hubble Space Paperweight.”

But then I was at the AAS meeting in January 1994 when the “before” and “after” photos of a spiral galaxy (it might have been M101) were brought out to a hastily assembled brown-bag lunch crowd in one of the hotel ballrooms. When the “after” photo was revealed by someone lifting an opaque piece of paper over the second half of the viewgraph (remember viewgraphs, folks?), everyone broke into thunderous applause. Later, in the exhibit hall, I poured over an enlarged version of the photo mounted on a display board, and I marveled at the incredible detail.

Since then, of course, I’ve been as dazzled as anyone over the photos and the science that have come from Hubble. I’m proud to live a couple of miles down the road from one of the places that did so much work on the instrumentation. I did an article for Optics & Photonics News on the last Hubble repair mission, and I saw some of the last batch of instruments through the NASA Goddard clean-room window, and I even got to watch the astronauts go in there and handle some of the actual tools they would use during their spacewalks.

Recently I got a chance to attend a sneak preview of the National Geographic Channel’s documentary Hubble’s Cosmic Journey, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson (whose voice would thrill me if he were just reading the phone book…) — it looked fabulous on the big screen in the Nat Geo auditorium. I’ll leave you with a couple more links: reflections by one of the Hubble-repair astronauts and the Hubble 25th anniversary entry on the IYL blog.

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: 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.


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

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