Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Here are some things I’ve been thinking about and reading about lately.

Giant lasers in trouble

Nature Photonics recently published an editorial highlighting the proposed elimination of two powerful U.S. lasers from the Energy Department’s budget. These are at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. In particular, the cutbacks at the LLE would hurt the research community.

Light-adapting contact lens

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently cleared the first contact lens that gets darker in bright light, the way some eyeglass lenses do. I don’t want to delve into the details here (I’m certainly not trying to provide corporations with free advertising), but I’m just wondering what these lenses will make the wearer’s eyes look like. I know that the darkening eyeglass lenses look darker on someone else than they appear to me when the glasses are on my face, if that makes any sense. (I have one pair of eyeglasses that darkens and one pair that does not.) It will be weird if these contact lenses make people look as if they have large dark holes where their irises are supposed to be.

A global crisis

My next feature article for Optics & Photonics News will be on optics in oceanography. It hasn’t been published yet, but I can tell you that it mentions the growing problem of plastic garbage in our oceans. The New Republic says that the problem is so big that it will take an agreement as large as the Paris climate accord to handle it.

Looking for extrasolar worlds

This week NASA and SpaceX are scheduled to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, better known as TESS. Back in January I wrote a newsbrief about TESS for OPN. Today was supposed to be launch day — and, as I write this, the countdown timer on the TESS website is still ticking away — but SpaceX tweeted earlier this afternoon that the launch has been postponed until Wednesday to review some guidance, navigation and control issues.

What I’m doing

Besides writing for OPN, I’m helping a colleague, OSA Fellow Jeff Hecht, with some photo research for his next nonfiction book. I’m mentioning this in case anyone who gets an email from me follows the link in my signature back to this website.

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My Hawking number

So, what’s your Hawking number?

I’m referring, of course, to the notion that everyone is separated by no more than six degrees. The mathematicians really got the ball rolling with their concept of an “Erdös number,” based on collaborations with the prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös. In the early days of the public Internet (that is, when Usenet newsgroups were a big thing), a long series of posts linking Kevin Bacon to other Hollywood celebrities led to a popular game, and eventually a website, for calculating “Bacon numbers.”

Of course, I wanted to calculate my own Bacon number. Around that time, a couple of things happened: one friend from my college newspaper had a bit part in Ron Howard’s The Paper, and another friend had a major CGI credit in Howard’s next film, Apollo 13. Thus, if you limit the Bacon game to actors, my Bacon number is 3: me -> my friend -> Robert Duvall (who was also in The Paper) -> Kevin Bacon. But if you include crew members, my Bacon number is only 2: me -> my other friend -> Kevin Bacon, who was of course in Apollo 13.

When I learned of the death of Stephen Hawking, my first thought was of one friend who got his Ph.D. at Cambridge University: Jonathan McDowell, the “Jonathan’s Space Report” guy. I’ve known him for almost 30(!) years now; when our friendship was new, A Brief History of Time was just hitting the bestseller lists. I checked with Jonathan, who confirmed that his doctoral adviser at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy was Bernard Carr, whose doctoral adviser in turn was Hawking. So Hawking was Jonathan’s “academic grandfather.”

And thus, even though I’ve never met this distinguished scientist, my “Hawking number” is 3: me -> Jonathan -> Carr -> Hawking. (Strictly speaking, this number should include only published peer-reviewed journal articles. But in my mind, a friendship counts as much as a film credit or publication.)

Incidentally, Jonathan’s Erdös nuber is 5, so does that make my Erdös number 6?

I’ll leave you with a list of links to news and commentary about Professor Hawking’s passing.

I’m sure there are plenty more tributes out there, but if I spend any more time tracking them down, I’m definitely not going to get my own work done.

I’ll leave you with a couple more relevant tweets from Jonathan McDowell:

Just a few days to go…

Let the record show that, nearly a year ago, I predicted the hype over the Great Eclipse of 2017. I just thought it might start a little sooner than the week before the big event. However, we Americans have notoriously short attention spans. Eclipse on the 21st of August? By the 31st of August, it will have been completely forgotten, and everyone will be focused on Britain’s royal family.

I know that, come next Monday, I’m not going to be in the path of totality. Yeah, I wish I could. However, this past weekend my car decided that it could eat its own radiator and alternator for Sunday brunch. I paid the $773 bill, but I won’t have spare change until next Friday. I can do a lot of things, but changing the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon to suit my bank account isn’t one of them.

Once before, I was in the path of totality. You may recall the eclipse of July 11, 1991 — it passed right over Mauna Kea. That summer I had an internship at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, but I arranged to take a trip with three undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Arizona down to Mazatlán, Mexico, which is about as far south as the tip of Baja California, but on the mainland instead of the peninsula. Unfortunately for our traveling quartet, while the tip of Baja California had a grand view, Mazatlán seemed to be the only major Mexican city that was completely overcast. The thick clouds did get very dark for five and a half minutes around noon … but, yeah, it wasn’t the same as an actual view.

And since the closest part of the path of totality to my current Maryland residence is in South Carolina, which seems to have a pretty good chance of clouds and/or rain … yeah, I think I’m better off staying put and waiting for April 8, 2024.

Anyhow … before the eclipse hits Monday, I urge you to educate yourself about eclipse-watching safety, first and foremost … and also what to expect wherever you are, and where to find the cool pictures online. Here’s my curated list of links:

  • The two sites I mentioned last year, GreatAmericanEclipse.com and Eclipse2017.org, are still up and running.
  • The two major U.S. magazines for amateur astronomy, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy, each have a comprehensive guide to solar-eclipse viewing, eclipse science, and eye safety.
  • The American Astronomical Society (AAS), an organization primarily for professional astronomers, nevertheless has assembled an eclipse site for the general public.
  • Not to be outdone, NASA has another pretty comprehensive eclipse portal, and my local friendly space center’s visitors’ center will have programming for the masses.
  • One of the DC-area TV stations advises viewers on procuring those crucial solar-eclipse glasses.
  • Plug your zip code into this page to see what percentage of the Sun’s disk will be covered in your area.
  • Wondering whether the weather will give you the same totality-blocking heartbreak that I felt in 1991? My friend at the Associated Press summarizes the forecasts.
  • Somebody who knows how to use GIS software has figured out the eclipse traffic choke points. I like the notion of a “driveshed,” which is to roads what watersheds are to bodies of water, and wonder about its applicability to other events.
  • More solar-viewing safety tips. (I remember that my father brought home some welding glass from his workplace so that I could view a partial solar eclipse when I was a youngster. I don’t know the “number” of that glass, but it must have worked, because I don’t have eye damage from that experience.)
  • Courtesy of Newsweek and Mother Jones, a handy guide to eclipse photography.
  • Finally, if you want to watch the total eclipse from the comfort and safety of your television or computer, here’s a guide to that experience.

Remember, SAFETY FIRST!!!

I love it when I stumble across some news that pertains to one of the articles I’ve written in the past! In this case, I actually have two updates.

Back in January, OPN published my article on the IRENE project, which is using high-tech imaging techniques to preserve ancient audio recordings. (By “ancient,” of course, I mean everything from the earliest 19th-century phonographic cylinders to mid-20th-century transcription platters for saving radio broadcasts and ethnographic tales.) Somehow I missed this in real time, but in May, the Library of Congress — which is a big contributor to IRENE — hosted a lecture by one of its in-house chemists, Eric Monroe, who wanted to figure out why the broken cylinders whose recordings IRENE was trying to preserve were, in fact, broken. That led him to study the historical records of the hundreds of experiments that led to the original invention of wax cylinders, and then to perform his own experiments to try to reconstitute the stuff that went into these cylinders. You can go here for some additional material on Dr. Monroe and his work, plus a link to the video of the lecture.

Second is a follow-up to my Breakthrough Starshot piece. The Breakthrough Initiatives just announced today that last month it launched a bunch of the world’s smallest satellites, with a mass of only 4 g each. Of course, they’re in low Earth orbit, not a trans-stellar trajectory, but hey, it’s a start. And they seem to have the necessary components of a spacecraft, including power source (solar panel) and communications technology. We shall see how long they last in space.

The particular Starshot team member who led this project is Zac Manchester, who didn’t get back to me when I tried to reach him for my article, but oh well. You can read the press release here and here, but go here for Scientific American‘s take.

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 stories.

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.