Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

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.

Apollo 17

When I first noticed on Twitter that today is the 43rd anniversary of humanity’s last presence on the Moon, I felt ineffably sad. But then I noticed in someone’s follow-up tweet that you can relive (virtually) the last lunar exploration mission at Apollo17.org.

I tuned in to that website — produced by a couple of programmer/techie space enthusiasts with the cooperation of the NASA folks who put together the Apollo Flight Journal and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, as well as the surviving Apollo 17 crew members themselves — just in time to watch the real-time “coverage” of the lunar module’s ascent from the Taurus-Littrow valley. You can watch the video feed, listen to the conversations between the astronauts and Houston, and read the transcript of those communications. (And when I say “coverage,” I mean the plain NASA video and audio, without any commentaries from broadcast anchors. No Walter Cronkite here.)

Whether you’re old enough to remember watching Apollo missions on the family television set or were born after the Apollo program, you will probably find something fascinating on this website. As I type this, the two spacecraft, America and Challenger (obviously not the similarly named shuttle), are on the other side of the Moon, and the color TV camera that Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt left behind is scanning the lonely surface. What was I saying about ineffable sadness?

It’s No-Belt Week! :-)

Today’s tongue-in-cheek headline comes from a conversation I had with a friend yesterday. After a brief break in the chat, I changed the subject (whatever the previous subject had been) and murmured, “Gee, this is Nobel Prize week.” My male friend replied, “How am I supposed to keep my pants up? I don’t want to wear suspenders every day!”

I had a good hearty laugh out loud, and then clarified what I meant. Silly guy, he thought I said “no-belt prize week”! I assured him that nobody will be giving out prizes for pant waistbands that sink down and expose underwear for all the world to see.

But it is the usual week during which the Nobel Prizes are awarded, and it’s only fair to get those predictions lined up before tomorrow morning, when the physics prize becomes public. (The physics prize, of course, is my main concern professionally.)

Last year at this time, I had been finishing up a feature article on the International Year of Light, which ended up as the cover story of the January 2015 issue of Optics & Photonics News. Even though I hope every year that the physics Nobel goes to an optics-related discovery, I was thinking then that we’d have to wait for 2015 for a light-related Nobel, because this year is the IYL. But then last year we got three physics laureates who were cited for their invention of blue LEDs — truly important photonic technology — plus a chemistry prize for super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. How can it get any better for optics than that, IYL or not?

Anyhow, here is a roundup of physics-Nobel predictions from Thomson Reuters Science Watch, from Physics World, and from Physics Central. Nature takes a look at the overall speculation and the delay between the winning work and the prizes. AIP’s Ben Stein, who correctly predicted last year’s physics Nobel, weighs in again. One chemist-blogger believes the physics prize should go to a scientific team, not to individuals, the way the Nobel Peace Prize is often bestowed upon an organization. Chad Orzel of Forbes has a few final thoughts.

So … will this year’s Nobel go to a woman, or someone I went to school with, or a friend’s childhood mentor, or someone else entirely? We’ll all know in about 11 or 12 hours from now. In the meantime: guys, keep those pants hitched up! We don’t want to know the answer to “boxers or briefs” from direct visual inspection!

Today a building blew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York, resulting in at least one death. Officials strongly suspect that a natural-gas leak was to blame, although of course the investigation is still going on.

For next month’s (November’s) issue of Optics & Photonics News, I’ve written an article about a possible new method for scanning city streets for gas leaks before they go kaboom. The technique doesn’t require entering buildings, and, as you might imagine, it involves a laser or two. Check out next month’s OPN for all the deets; it’s a special issue focusing on optics, energy, and the environment.

Gas mains deteriorate like the rest of our infrastructure. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix their leaks quickly?

A new month, a new article

It’s September, which means that my article “200 Years of Fresnel’s Legacy” has appeared in the September issue of Optics & Photonics News. I’ll put up a link to the full PDF eventually, but since the issue just came out, I’ll respect the publication’s members-only firewall for now.

If you really liked my previous article on Apollo-era optics, you’ll certainly enjoy Gear Patrol’s gorgeously illustrated photo essay, “Hasselblad’s History in Space.” Even I hadn’t seen some of those images before. I think Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham looks a bit like Bono in those shades and earphones, but maybe that’s just me.

Finally … I’m getting close to the 10-year anniversary of the earliest pieces I wrote for OPN. I’ve been thinking of going back and following up on some of the experimental results and other topics I wrote about back then. Did a such-and-such new technique actually lead to advances in biomedical imaging or quantum computing or whatever was touted? How have subdisciplines in optics advanced over the past decade? Is anyone interested in knowing the answers?

Today, July 28, would have been the 100th birthday of Charles H. Townes. Of course, he’s not here to enjoy it, because he passed away six months ago.

Optics & Photonics News marked the centennial by tweeting a link to the feature article I wrote about Dr. Townes for the May 2015 issue. The Charles Townes Center, a program for gifted students in his hometown of Greenville, S.C., posted a birthday remembrance on its Facebook page. A German website posted this message (in German) about Dr. Townes’ contributions to astronomy. And tonight the South Carolina State Museum will have special programs in honor of the state’s native son. From the museum’s website:

DID YOU KNOW? July 28th would have been the 100th birthday of laser pioneer and Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes. Townes, who passed away in January of this year, was a South Carolina native who won the Nobel Prize for his inventions of the laser and maser and helped build the foundation of laser technology.  Museum educators will be discussing his revolutionary work from 6 – 8 p.m. in front of the Townes exhibit, which houses his Nobel Prize among other laser-related artifacts.  At 7 p.m., experience the technology that Townes developed in Laser Fun, a 40-minute planetarium laser light show set to an assortment of family-friendly songs. In addition, from 7 – 8 p.m., author Rachel Haynie will be signing copies of her children’s book, “First, You Explore: The Story of the Young Charles Townes.” Activities are included with general admission, however there is an additional fee to see the planetarium laser light show.

A “talking light bulb” isn’t the product of some tin-hatted paranoiac — not if the light bulb in question is an LED model, and not if you’re using a Li-Fi signal in place of Wi-Fi.

What is Li-Fi, you may ask? Basically, it’s a type of optical wireless communications (OWC) in which a LED, not a radio-frequency router, gives off the signal that talks to your device. I wrote about it in this 2014 article for Optics & Photonics News. If you’d rather get your information by listening to it, researcher Harald Haas, who coined the term “Li-Fi,” gave a TED talk and demonstration about it in 2011.

Although that speech is four years old now, Li-Fi hasn’t made much of a dent in the marketplace … yet. Every wirelessly connected device you already own — smartphone, tablet, laptop, Fitbit, whatever — would need to have a second set of receivers and transmitters to communicate with Li-Fi as well as Wi-Fi “hot spots.” Still, it’s hard to imagine how the so-called “Internet of Things” will develop if we don’t increase the amount of electromagnetic bandwidth we use for communications — and Li-Fi would open up a lot of bandwidth for sure. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, flight attendants will hand out Li-Fi converters to airline passengers so that they can use their devices to communicate while traveling, the way they now hand out headphones (or used to hand out headphones, depending on your flight) and beverages.

Recently, Haas’ group, based out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has figured out how to make organic solar cells into Li-Fi receivers as well as power sources. That’s cool, because in our quest to endlessly miniaturize our devices, we don’t leave a lot of real estate open for transmitters and receivers — or for additional battery packs, for that matter. If you’re truly interested in the technical details, you can find the original article here.

A slightly different, more marketing-oriented twist on Li-Fi technology is offered by a Boston-based company called ByteLight, which was recently acquired by another company called Acuity Brands. We shall see how that shakes out and how OWC will evolve over the next few years.

(P.S. Please, can we come up with a better phrase than “Internet of Things”? That sounds way too much like the “information superhighway” you might have heard about back in 1990 or thereabouts.)

 

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