Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for July, 2011

Roundup of science news

The weather’s hot out there, I’m working on a couple of articles under deadline, and I have a cat purring next to my desk. Nevertheless, I realize that I haven’t updated this blog in a while, so I will go ahead and post a few things.

First of all, July 18 was not only Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday, but also John Glenn’s 90th birthday. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think Glenn may be the oldest surviving U.S. astronaut. Certainly he and Scott Carpenter are the only two of the Mercury Seven left alive, and Carpenter is about four years younger. Most of the astronauts who joined NASA in the years between 1962 and 1966 were born in the first half of the 1930s.

Last week, I happened to see a CNN video segment about a British scientist who is making “bionic glasses” to help visually challenged people see. The glasses use LEDs and a couple of small cameras — really, the type of technology used in today’s smartphones. The scientist is Stephen L. Hicks of Oxford University; I found his home page and this science blog post from the Oxford press office.

News from the particle physics community: Scientists could be tantalizingly close to finding the Higgs boson, if it exists, according to Symmetry magazine’s blog.

The quest for the invisibility cloak continues to be a hot topic in optical physics. As my colleague Yvonne Carts-Powell reported, Columbia University scientists have devised a structure with an average refractive index of zero in the near-infrared. Also — no doubt tying in with the recent release of the last of the Harry Potter movies — several media outlets reported (see, for example, here, here and here) about the “time cloak” created at Cornell University. As the last of those three links states, the new cloak is reminiscent of the “spacetime editor” described earlier this year; I wrote about it for the March 2011 issue of Optics & Photonics News. The Cornell paper has only been submitted to Nature and not yet published there; however, you can check out the preprint.

Finally, I’m posting a link to this gorgeous image, taken from the International Space Station, of the space shuttle Atlantis heading home.


Can lasers zap the fungus among us?

Toenail fungus is gross, and nobody likes to contemplate it. Can medical lasers get rid of the disgusting stuff and make one’s toes pretty and painless again?

Maybe, maybe not. Today’s Washington Post describes the podiatric problem and the possible ways of de-FEET-ing it, from oral medication to two recently approved lasers, the PinPointe and the GenesisPlus. According to the FDA’s approval paperwork, the PinPoint is a pulsed solid-state laser operating at the standard wavelength of 1064 nm.

Apparently, some patients find relief through the laser treatment, whereas others do not. One thing I didn’t know beforehand: the PinPointe’s manufacturer says that some 100 different organisms — including yeast, mold and bacteria, as well as fungi — work together to gunk up our toenails. Perhaps the patients for whom the laser worked had different kinds of toenail beasties from the patients who experienced unsuccessful treatment. Now there’s a research project waiting to be done!

The laser treatment also isn’t usually covered by insurance. Still, at least lasers don’t have the potential side effects of the oral fungicidal medication: “diarrhea, headache, rashes and changes in taste,” and severe liver damage in some cases, according to the Post article.

Cool Photo #1: Shocking Shuttle Rainbow

I’m starting a new (and occasional) series of images that demonstrate some nifty optical or physical phenomenon.

This first photo comes via Twitpic from @Astro_Wheels, also known as STS-120 astronaut Douglas H. Wheelock. Here it is:

Atlantis condensation rainbow

Col. Wheelock describes the photo as follows:

Atlantis on the move! This view of shock-wave condensation collars backlit by the Sun occurred during the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on September 8, 2000. The primary effect is created by the forward fuselage of Atlantis, and secondary effects can be seen on the solid rocket booster (SRB) forward skirt, Shuttle vertical stabilizer and wing trailing edge, and behind the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME). T minus 70 hours…and counting…Light the fire!

(He posted this photo on July 5, so that accounts for the “T minus…” bit.)

Not only is it “cool” that you can see the condensation coming off the rapidly accelerating space shuttle, but also the camera was at just the right angle to catch the rainbow effect!

(Note: Original post of this photo is at


Between Canada Day (July 1) and U.S. Independence Day (today, the Fourth of July), lots of North Americans are going to see displays of fireworks this weekend. I absolutely love watching fireworks in person! Did you ever what makes them explode, whistle and sizzle? What makes a “chrysanthemum” different from a “Roman candle”?

Of course, it’s all chemistry. If you are interested in the subject, I’ve got a few links for your pyrotechnic pleasure.

Last night I was watching a National Geographic episode of “Naked Science” titled “Secret World of Fireworks.” (Note to self: Any title beginning with “Secret World of…” is bound to get attention!) The hour-long show focused on the Zambelli family of New Castle, Pa., one of the biggest names in the pyro business (in high demand on days like today). I thought the episode went into enormous detail about the chemicals needed for fireworks — though if you tried (without the appropriate license) to order these items yourself from a chemical supplier, you might find yourself being investigated. Don’t try this at home, kidderoonies.

(Disclaimer: Every summer I go camping in western Pennsylvania not too far from New Castle. In 2013, a campground right off Interstate 79 is going to host the annual convention of the Pyrotechnics Guild International, so if you are a fireworks enthusiast, mark it on your calendars now.)

Another excellent resource, with lots of good links, is the Scientific American “Observations” blog post on fireworks chemistry. In one of those links, science blogger Janet Stemwedel of San Jose State University goes into more detail about the chemistry, although she doesn’t care for the loud bangs that I adore (and my pets don’t either).

In other news … the Boston Globe takes a look at the master pyrotechnician behind the Esplanade fireworks on the Fourth of July. Boston’s annual Pops concerts at the Hatch Shell were my introduction to big-city fireworks way back when I was a Boston University student, although, in those Cold War days, I always used to wonder why the explosions went off to the “1812 Overture,” which of course was written to celebrate a Russian victory over the French, who helped us win our independence. Ah, well.

Finally, Wired Science delves into the DIY fireworks scene, as built by members of the earlier mentioned Pyrotechnics Guild International. Maybe I ought to check out that August 2013 meeting myself….


Now this is interesting. Lee Mather blogged at that low-level red laser light can activate certain kinds of tooth-whitening gel and thus increase the effectiveness of the whitening treatment. The first link in that blog post takes you to a longer Biophotonics magazine article about lasers in dentistry.

I have to admit that I’ve pretty much dodged writing about lasers in dentistry because I have that old-fashioned fear of the dentist. My own dentist, who is as calm and positive a presence as anyone in his profession, says I have too much old dental work in my mouth for him to use lasers to drill my teeth. So I guess I’m stuck with my nemesis, the mechanical drill.

But perhaps I could go in for a whitening treatment at some point, and it won’t be as bad as drilling. Sometimes it’s a shock to see an “ordinary person” appear on TV with non-whitened teeth, because we all get used to watching professional “talent” with blindingly brilliant choppers.