Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for April, 2011

This British royal wedding brought to you by … British technological ideas

I’ll admit it … I’m a bit of an Anglophile. When I was 14 I started saving pennies in an old Band-Aid tin in the hopes of traveling to England someday. I finally got there when I was 29, just before I got my wisdom teeth pulled.

So I’m planning to rise incredibly early tomorrow, for at least long enough to switch on the second-hand VCR (it didn’t come with a remote control, so I can’t program it). But while I watch the magnificent splendor of the wedding of the future king of Great Britain, I will be thinking of the Brits who made it possible for us billions of worldwide viewers to see the ceremony progress in real time.

First of all, as everyone who’s ever cracked open a science-fiction novel knows, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) dreamed up the concept of a geostationary communications satellite in 1945, long before any country on Earth had the ability to launch an “artificial moon.” Though famously a resident of Sri Lanka for more than half of his life, Sir Arthur was born in England and studied mathematics and physics at King’s College London.

Back in the 1960s, Sir Charles Kao, then working at the U.K.’s premier industrial telecommunications laboratory, got

silica fibers courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

silica fibers

the idea for using fiber optics to transmit data. Kao was born in Shanghai, but his family moved to Hong Kong (then British) when he was a teenager, and he earned his Ph.D. at University College London. Kao and his British lab colleagues worked hard to study the structural and material properties of optical fibers, and then Kao became something of a scientific evangelist, advocating for the adoption of single-mode fiber and predicting that the world’s oceans would be crisscrossed by cables five years before the first transatlantic telecom cable was installed. He was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009.

So, whether the images of the lovely Kate and the dashing Prince Wills arrive at your “telly” via satellite or optical cable, you have someone with a British education to thank.

Incidentally, OSA’s first president from outside North America was a Brit — Sir Peter Knight of Imperial College London. Besides Imperial, several U.K. universities have distinguished programs in optics and photonics, including the University of Southampton — and William and Kate’s alma mater, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One week to CLEO:2011

One week from today, the CLEO:2011 conference in Baltimore (Maryland, U.S.A.) will have its first full day of programming (though there are a few happenings on Sunday). CLEO is OSA’s largest laser-related conference and has been held since at least 1981; it may have been called CLEA before then, although I’m a little foggy on the historical details.

Last year’s CLEO in Silicon Valley began with a big celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first working laser. This year’s meeting will have more “normal” programming (no bluegrass/rock concert, sad to say), but it should be no less interesting in terms of the new research being presented.

This gathering used to be called “CLEO/QELS and PhAST,” with the latter two acronyms standing for “Quantum Electronics and Laser Science” and “Photonic Applications, Systems and Technologies,” respectively. A couple of years ago, OSA got rid of the PhAST moniker for its applications- and business-related conference tracks, and now the QELS part seems to be de-emphasized. The themes are the same, though.

(Incidentally, when I say “OSA” here, I should specify that the three co-sponsors of this conference are OSA, the IEEE Photonics Society and the American Physical Society’s Division of Laser Science. However, the OSA event staff does the hands-on management, and the team works plenty hard to pull off CLEO ever year. Go Team!)

I’ll be covering CLEO:2011 for the OPN blog, so watch for my posts next week!

Things that are just plain cool.

Sometimes I just like to share nifty things that I’ve found online.

First off: continuing the space theme from two days ago, I bring you First Orbit, a brilliantly conceived high-definition film blending Yuri Gagarin’s taped words from his Vostok capsule (with subtitles) with gorgeous modern footage from the International Space Station and a sparkling musical score. Gosh, I would love to see this on a big IMAX screen!

It’s also interesting to hear how many times Gagarin repeated to his ground-based capcoms (when they were in range) that he was “alert” and “feeling great.” It may seem repetitious — until you realize that no one before this had any idea what the experience would be like, whether a human being could survive at all.

Next, the National Science Foundation posted a Web article on the latest results from the international XENON100 dark-matter experiment. After 100 days, the team found no particular evidence for the existence of weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs. (I didn’t make that name up!) Now, there is still plenty of observational clues to the existence of dark matter, especially from the motions of galaxies and the orbits of objects around galactic centers. But we still have no idea what this stuff is. Or, rather, scientists have some ideas, and WIMPs seem to be the best of the lot, but it won’t be the best hypothesis forever if the putative particles don’t start showing up in detectors.

I’ve been interested in science journalism since my college days — the first go-round in journalism, never mind the second time around in physics. The Nieman Journalism Lab muses on Quickish, a beta site that is supposed to “cut to the quick” of subjects without totally eschewing long-form stories. Quickish is all about sports, but one could speculate what a Quickish-like site focused on science, technology and health news would look like.

This week I also noticed that the Washington Post is using another beta site/app, Intersect, to allow readers to contribute to a photo project called “Recession Road.” Again, I see the potential for constructing multi-layered, multi-dimensional, multiple-timeline, complex stories. I just hope there are plans to create additional Intersect apps besides the one for the iPhone, because not all of us have iPhones.

Finally, from a Tumblr blogger … just click on these squares and makes some beautiful music of your own. Just play away, for the world needs more delight and dancing.

Yuri’s Day

I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention that today is the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight.

Yeah, it’s also the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch and the 150th anniversary of Fort Sumter. (Strange, those historical coincidences, huh?)

The idealist in me would like to think of those three big dates, the first human spaceflight would be the one that’s remembered thousands upon thousands of years from now. But we, as a civilization, have turned inward. We don’t put the “big bucks” into dreams anymore.

This part of the future, as I envisioned it when I was a kid, was to be filled with space outposts that became towns and cities and departure points for farther and farther exploration. As much as I’ve been happy to have had all the tools of computers and the Internet and e-mail and blogging and social media and digital photography to play with in my adulthood, I can’t help wondering where we as a society would have gone if we’d put some of that development money into safer, cheaper, more reliable access to space.

Many years ago, I regularly attended meetings of a space-activist group; it held monthly public lectures (and probably still does) on the MIT campus. Of course, one of the enduring debates was whether the U.S. government should continue to monopolize the space program or whether space exploration should be privatized. (Yes, this is still a debate in some circles — one reason why I drifted away from “space activism.”) Personally, I think both funding paradigms have their place. In the history of aviation development, there were instances where the government (Smithsonian, military, etc.) stepped in and made a difference financially; at other times and places, individual benefactors (Guggenheim) helped out, and other people (Howard Hughes) made their fortunes. The growth of privately owned airlines didn’t stop military test pilots from figuring out how to break the sound barrier and vice versa. In other areas of science, some research gets public funding and other research in the same field gets private funding, and the work gets done.

Anyhow … back to the title of this post….

I’m not old enough to remember Yuri Gagarin’s first flight, though I do recall hearing how he died in a plane crash in 1968. It’s too bad that his life was so short — he would be 77 years old if he were still alive. Of course, who knows what might have happened to him in the intervening years, particularly after the political upheavals of 20 years ago.

I know I’m going to spend the rest of the evening browsing through this set of links courtesy of today’s Google doodle.

The optical lattice clock

What’s the difference between an atomic clock and an optical lattice clock?

Actually, several new technologies are in the running to improve high-performance timekeeping. Traditional atomic clocks (if one can consider a technology developed in the 1940s to be “traditional”) rely on atomic transitions in the microwave region of the electronic spectrum. More recently, scientists are studying clocks based on transitions in the optical regime, where frequencies are higher.

Some optical clocks are based on a single supercooled atom, but the optical lattice clock uses a cloud of atoms confined in a regular “lattice,” sort of like a bunch of marbles on a sheet of egg-crate foam. The more atoms, the more accuracy, at least up to a point.

The Japanese physicist who developed the notion of the optical lattice clock a decade ago, and his colleagues at the University of Tokyo, have come up with a way to make such timekeepers more stable. Read about it in my article on the OPN website.

Today’s smorgasbord of links

In lieu of a “real” post, I present a few interesting links.

First, the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wisconsin, is hosting an exhibit called Satellites See Wisconsin, featuring weather-satellite images of the state. I’ve never been to the Badger State, but I adore views from space, and if these images were of my home region, I’d be studying them avidly to find my favorite landmarks.

Next, the National Science Foundation published an article on “Deciphering the Elements of Iconic Pottery.” What do ancient artifacts have to do with space-age materials science? More than meets the eye….

Finally, from MSNBC’s Photo Blog, I hope you enjoy this image of NGC 371 as much as I do, because you can’t have enough pretty pictures of H II regions, in my humble opinion.