Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for March, 2011

You never know what will turn up…

When you Google yourself, you never know what you’ll find.

Specifically, I was looking to see if some of my old “clips” from my days at Government Computer News were still on the Web. Now, it’s no surprise to me that people have poached content from GCN and uploaded it to their own websites — heck, one of my GCN colleagues found that a product review he’d written had been translated into Ukrainian! But sometimes people comment on the most unusual details.

For instance, I found a reference to the headline of one of my GCN stories in this Usenet thread that discussed the phrase “bleeding edge.” (I didn’t use that phrase in the article itself — it came from the copy desk.) Some of that thread, with additional commentary, reappears here.

One blogger quoted me in June 2007 (nearly six years after I wrote an article on “energy vampires”) and another cited my work in a report criticizing the Federal Enterprise Architecture program (never my favorite topic of conversation, I must admit). I’m listed on page 16 of an engineering professor’s CV under the subhead of “media reporting about our research.” I’m even cited in a thesis done at the Naval Postgraduate School.

My, how my words have gotten around to some unexpected places.

Late-night thoughts (links, mostly) on radiation fears

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker has highlighted an article in which Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein explores Americans’ conflicted feelings about all things nuclear, from the duck-and-cover days to Homer Simpson and his arrogant boss. I’ve known Seth since my college journalism days and am always interested in reading his stuff.

Another longtime friend, Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report fame, has been using his Facebook account to post links to educational pages about radiation (since most of us don’t know our millisieverts from a meltdown). He lists a graphical radiation dose chart (with a pinch of humor), a slightly more mathematical page about radiation doses, and a physicist’s talk about the specific radiation situation in Japan.

Maybe this isn’t the right topic to be blogging about at bedtime. I remember a certain time in my youth when I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, or saw images from that nuclear-blasted city on a TV documentary, and ended up lying awake for hours, staring at the ceiling, and wondering what the bomb would look like as it crashed through the roof of my house a microsecond before exploding and vaporizing us all into instant oblivion.

Today I live a lot closer to a major city than I did then, but somehow I’m not as worried about The Bomb, at least not one launched by an enemy superpower. I’m more likely to worry about our collective dream-killing Great Recession, which in my mind won’t be over until other friends of mine get jobs.

More on the light bulb controversy

The CLEO conference blog has reprinted an entry by James Van Howe, of “Jim’s CLEO Blog,” summarizing the controversy over the new lighting regulations and — helpfully — pointing out some sessions at CLEO 2011 that address the technical challenges of making LED lighting better for all of us to use.

Incidentally, CLEO 2011 will take place during the first week of May in Baltimore, about an hour’s drive from Our Nation’s Capital. I wonder whether any lawmakers are going to show up?

The Incandescent Light Bulb Party

Near the end of 2007, then-President George W. Bush signed into law an energy bill that mandated new efficiency standards for light bulbs. When I blogged about it back then, I thought it was a relatively uncontroversial provision of the law. After all, everybody likes to shave a few bucks off their electric bill, don’t they? If my elderly mother could have seen the wisdom in “investing” in a few fluorescent bulbs back in the 1990s — some of which were still operating a decade after her death — wouldn’t the younger generations flock to the new technology?

Alas, making the simple light bulb more efficient is more politically complicated than it sounds.

Last year, I started reading news reports that the shift from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) was abetting the shift of manufacturing from the United States to other nations. U.S. factories that were making the type of bulbs invented by Thomas A. Edison were shutting down, and most of the CFLs that Americans buy are made in China or other Asian countries.

(I should insert a note here that the energy bill mandated STANDARDS in terms of lumens of output per watt of energy input — not the type of bulb that should produce this output. As a practical matter, though, CFLs and LEDs generate a lot less waste heat than incandescent bulbs. If anybody figures out how to up Edison’s ante by making a more efficient incandescent bulb that wastes less heat, he or she would become an instant zillionaire!)

As the clock ticks down to the implementation of the standards, starting in 2012 (a presidential election year!) and going through 2014, we will start seeing changes — and the inevitable confusion. Not everybody knows this is happening, of course. People who are used to thinking of the “100-watt bulb” now have to consider the output in lumens instead. (I do like the quote in this article: “What other industries can you find where the product developed a hundred years ago is still the number one seller?”)

Even though the current chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-Mich.), co-sponsored the lighting energy standards part of the 2007 law, the Washington Post has reported that he’s reconsidering those standards. His online bio certainly doesn’t mention them (even though the POTUS who signed the original energy bill was a Republican…).

Then last week the New York Times published an article that focused/highlighted/[insert your favorite “light” pun-word here] on the nay-sayers to the lighting efficiency regulators. The story is filled with tales of incandescent-bulb stockpiling and repeal efforts. Even the Easy-Bake Oven, which I remember fondly from my childhood, is getting a makeover. (Really, though, in this day and age, why would anybody want to give their kid a toy oven that requires a fragile, easily broken glass bulb as a heating element?) The NYT article garnered more than 250 comments, many of them fretting about the mercury content about CFLs or their possible effect on people with epilepsy or autism.

As you can see from today’s “Room for Debate” on, the light-bulb issue is getting politicized, with libertarians and Tea Partiers bleating loudly against federal standards. But I ask: If not the federal government, then who is going to draft the standards? A “free market” is going to make bulbs (or any other kind of widgets) to satisfy the needs of the biggest customer or market, so if California’s standards are tougher than North Dakota’s, then “tough toenails” to the residents of the latter state. (By the way, California is implementing the lighting-energy standards a year ahead of the feds.) And I don’t think it’s in anybody’s best interest to have a bazillion different non-standard, unregulated products on the market, so that (a) a lamp made by XYZ Company requires only bulbs made by XYZ Company because nothing else will fit, and (b) a lot of lamps on the market are just plain hazardous.

I’m certainly sympathetic to people with long-term physical and mental health challenges, and I dislike the fact that America hasn’t figured out how to manufacture CFLs in its own factories. But I think we all need to step back from our own little cocoons and see the long-term energy crisis that faces us all, and then do our part to ease the crisis. The recent news from Japan and the Middle East should have given us all a wider perspective.

Please read the “Room for Debate” essays, even though some of the material may set your teeth on edge, and then please feel free to comment below (keeping it polite, of course).

A Day with the Biophysical Society

In all my six years of full-time education in the physical sciences, I did not take a single biology class. In fact, my last biology class was in high school, which was … well, let’s not quantify how long ago that was. My lab partner in tenth-grade biology made me do all the slicing and dicing of specimens; she ended up going to law school. Still, several of my classmates went on to various biological/medical careers, so the education I received couldn’t have been too awful.

Now, this fact about my educational background might be good for a laugh line when I go to see my physician or when I get together with fellow science writers. “I know more about what goes on in the interiors of stars than about what happens inside me!” “Hey, the math would be so much easier if people were all spherically symmetric!” (One of my undergrad physics professors used to invoke “spherical cows” on a regular basis.)

Still, the intersection of biology and physics is a hot area of research, and I was happy to spend a day at the most recent annual meeting of the Biophysical Society up the road from me in Baltimore, Maryland. Mostly, what attracted me to the conference was a session on imaging and optical microscopy. I reported on some of the findings for the latest edition of the OPN Newsroom. (Once again, read my story while it is still available on an open-access basis.)

I went straight from the imaging session to a fascinating discussion of “The Future of Science Education in America,” on which I shall report separately. Then I checked out the exhibit hall. There I found a lot of the same exhibitors I’ve seen at OSA meetings — Agilent, Chroma, Thermo Scientific, Thorlabs, Stanford Photonics, Newport, Hamamatsu, Fianium, CVI Melles Griot, etc. That detail was fascinating in itself.

Sometimes I wish I knew more about the “bio” side of biophysics — to that end, I have a used college Biology 101 textbook sitting on my bookshelf, although I have yet to get past the first chapter. But with every article I write like this week’s OPN Newsroom brief, I get a little farther past my first taste of biophysics, when I shared an apartment with a graduate student in the subject (and another grad student in biochemistry). My interaction with the budding biophysicist was the occasional shared watching of a Star Trek rerun, followed by my coming home after working 40 hours in three days to find a note on the kitchen table: “Gone to Soviet Union to launch my crystal growing experiments to Mir. Please take care of Pyewacket [his cat].”

The “Anti-Laser” and Other News

Particle physics has “antiparticles,” but does laser physics have “anti-lasers”? Actually, it does, thanks to the folks at Yale University, who have come up with a proof-of-concept device that absorbs specific wavelengths of light in the reverse of the method for generating light at specific frequencies. I wrote about it for the Newsroom section of OPN’s website. Read it now, before it vanishes behind the OSA-members-only paywall.

In other news, this is the week that OFC/NFOEC happens in Los Angeles, Calif. It’s a huge conference devoted to all aspects of fiber optics and optical communications. I’ve attended the meeting a couple of times — in 2007 and 2008, I think. This year, OFC/NFOEC has a social media hub that links to the OFC/NFOEC blog. As of now, that blog contains mostly pre-conference musings, but I suspect that will change over the next few days.

Speaking of blogs … since this site is new, I’ll be adding links to the blogroll as I find them. I’m looking for good blogs on the optical sciences, astrophysics, and science journalism. If you have any nominees for my blogroll, please send me a link through the comment section below. Thank you in advance!

The “real” first post

Greetings! After I wrote the previous post, I had what some people would call an “attack of life” — namely, a conjunction of a case of the flu, an automobile that needed a new fuel pump in order to function, and a deadline on a 3,900-word freelance article. Now that I have jumped all three hurdles successfully, I would like to give myself a proper introduction.

I am a science writer and science editor. I hold a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University (greetings to the Daily Free Press alumni!), a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a master’s in astronomy from the University of Maryland at College Park. I like to write about cutting-edge scientific research.

Over the past five or six years, my main writing topic has been optics — specifically, things like lasers in ophthalmology, lasers in dermatology, lidar systems, fiber-optic communications, biomedical imaging, stuff like that. Sometimes I’ve been able to have a little fun with the topic. For example, for the issue of Optics & Photonics News (OPN) that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first laser (May 2010), I wrote “A Short History of Laser Light Shows” — possibly the only article that has ever mentioned both Charles Hard Townes and Pete Townshend. (The link, in case you’re curious: One of Townes’ Ph.D. students worked on some of the first laser-light shows in the early 1970s, and The Who was an early adopter of laser effects back in the mid-’70s — as well as the 2010 Super Bowl halftime show.)

I wish I could show you my OPN articles, but they’re locked up behind the magazine’s firewall. If you are a member of OSA — The Optical Society, you can log in to and search on my surname.

I will use this blog for several purposes: links to my publicly available professional writing, musings about scientific/technical topics that interest me, and the occasional rant. I welcome comments, but I will moderate them, if only to weed out links to dicey “Barely Legal Teens” websites and other spam.

Welcome, and please say hello!