Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for June, 2011

Who are your photonics superheroes?

I don’t normally plug individual private-sector companies and their occasional efforts to make the world a better place. (Companies pay other people to do that.) Recently, however, one announcement caught my eye and got me thinking. Edmund Optics, that company that makes lots of optical components and educational science-lab supplies (and which used to have such a nice factory-outlet store in New Jersey), is starting a Real-life Superheroes campaign to recognize photonics-industry innovators and leaders.

That got me to thinking: Who would I include in my own personal gallery of “photonics superheroes”?

I should have pretty high standards; during my five and a half years of working full-time at OSA, I got to meet half a dozen Nobel laureates, and they are truly all good people without fancy airs. Back in 1989, I actually took a class from one of them: Roy Glauber, who for a decade or so taught a version of his “Waves, Particles and the Structure of Matter” course for non-majors through Harvard Extension School. Glauber taught the class on the condition that Harvard make it free of charge for high-school students and teachers to attend, so when he met me again in 2005, he commented, “You must have been one of about four people who actually paid to take the class.” (The course, incidentally, was excellent and, unlike many other science classes for non-majors, it did not avoid trigonometric equations.)

How about that Charles Townes? Nearly half a century after his Nobel Prize, he’s still doing research in a totally different area from his Nobel — namely, astrophysics with infrared interferometry. I believe he’s going to be 96 years old next month.

I am also thinking of some people who are far less well known than the Nobel laureates. For instance, Jim Wynne of IBM Corp. Last year I blogged about Wynne’s efforts toward a potential dual-laser method for removing eschars from burn tissue. If it works out, the technique could be of great benefit to the two groups of people who most often suffer severe burns: children and soldiers. I really ought to follow up with Wynne — one of the pioneers of LASIK surgery — to see how his research is going.

There’s also Oxford University’s Joshua Silver, who announced a couple of years ago that he had developed adjustable eyeglasses for poor people in developing countries. He now heads the Centre for Vision in the Developing World at Oxford.

So, who do you think possesses “photonic superpowers” — saving lives, curing diseases, solving problems with new optical technologies? Tell me in the comment section below, or tell Edmund at


Crime-fighting glove, deaths of Nobel laureates, and other science news

Seen on CNN by way of Popular Science:  a crime-fighting armored glove equipped with taser, video camera, laser pointer and flashlight. Of course, when I first caught the mention of this glove on the news network, my first thought was about the laser pointer and basic eye safety.

Much has already been written about the potential eyesight hazards from laser pointers — a simple Google search on “laser pointer eye safety” yielded about 312,000 hits. The green laser pointers tend to pose a greater hazard than the red pointers because our eyes are much more sensitive to that 532-nm green light than to red wavelengths. The video clip on CNN definitely showed a green laser beam aimed at the “suspect’s” chest.

You can certainly debate whether this armored glove would be of any use to a SWAT-team member or a regular cop — in fact, there’s already plenty of debate on the page referenced earlier. I would certainly urge the product developers to consider whether the laser is needed at all (tasers don’t need pinpoint accuracy, do they?), and if it is truly necessary, to make sure that all glove wearers undergo proper training with the laser. Green lasers can damage eyesight permanently! And if law-enforcement officers don’t have a lot of sympathy for violent perps, they should at least show concern for innocent bystanders caught up in the crowd situation.

Now, speaking of the video camera included in the glove … no way could such a gizmo fit inside a glove if the team of Willard Boyle and George Smith hadn’t dreamed up the charge-coupled device more than four decades ago. Those little CCD chips changed video cameras from those giant hulking behemoths seen in old footage of NASA launches and political conventions to compact, portable recorders that can go anywhere from the middle of huge protest rallies to the depths of the ocean and the heights of Earth orbit. Oh, yeah, not to mention detectors that take long-exposure astronomical images in a fraction of the time required by photographic plates … and today’s ubiquitous digital cameras.

Boyle died last month at the age of 86, and his death was noticed by the U.S. press as well as in his native Canada. Intriguingly, his obituary in the New York Times was headlined “Father of Digital Eye,” but the first version of the article mentioned  that Boyle developed “a ruby laser,” which left me scratching my head — so then what was that big celebration of Ted Maiman’s work all about, then? Fortunately, the Times corrected the obit to match what the Washington Post got right to start with: Boyle worked on the first continuously operating ruby laser. Maiman’s invention was a pulsed laser, and everyone working in optics knows the difference between pulsed and CW lasers.

Speaking of Nobel laureates and the New York Times, I did a double-take when I saw the obituary headline describing Rosalyn Yalow as a “Nobel Physicist.” Because every female who studies physics knows that there have been only two women so far who have won a Nobel in physics: Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer. But, see, I didn’t know until I read her obituary that her academic training actually WAS in physics. Let this be a reminder that physics really is the most fundamental of all the sciences. (And Yalow wasn’t the only physicist to win a Nobel in medicine; for example, Allan Cormack and Godfrey Hounsfield won for developing computer-assisted tomography, or the CT scan, and Haldan Hartline and George Wald won for unlocking the secrets of the visual processes in the human eye — optics!)

News from OPN

The June issue of Optics & Photonics News is now online, so my May feature on Arthur Schawlow has gone behind the OSA members’ firewall. The new open-access feature is on cell identification with 3-D computational holographic micrography. (Try saying that fast three times!) Plus, I’ve got an OPN Newsroom article on a new technique for sending lots more data down a single-mode fiber.