Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for November, 2011

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) update

First, a reminder: You have only a day or two left to read my OPN feature article (and cover story for the November 2011 issue), “Optical Innovations in the James Webb Space Telescope.” Soon, it will vanish into the OSA-members-only archives of the magazine.

Second, an important update: Since the article was published, the JWST has gotten the full funding that it needs. Huzzah! I predict that, once it’s in orbit and collecting data, the discoveries made from JWST data will be so dazzling and mind-blowing that people will forget that its funding was ever in doubt. (After all, when was the last time you heard “Hubble” rhymed with “trouble”?)

Beauty and fun

If you have a relatively cloudless evening sky in your area, don’t walk, RUN outside and take a look at the nearly full Moon in the same region of the sky (roughly) as bright Jupiter. By tomorrow the Moon will be full and hanging between Jupiter and the Pleiades, according to “This Week’s Sky at a Glance” from Sky & Telescope.

Also, I must admit that my colleague Yvonne Carts-Powell’s take on the whisky thing is so much more entertaining than mine. Check it out!

Fake limbs, OK — but fake whisky, no way!

One of Wired magazine’s blogs has reported that the military is investigating laser-powered prosthetic limbs for wounded soldiers. Tiny, squishy microsensors would detect nerve impulses from the patient’s body and transmit them through a network of optical fibers to and from the sensors and motors in the patient’s artificial limb. Since fibers can transmit a lot more information than wiring, they should be able to handle the complex signaling involved in simple tasks such as picking up a coffee cup.

In other news … where else but Scotland, home to the single-malt Scotch, would you find research on the spectroscopic properties of whisky? The BBC reports that researchers at St. Andrews University have developed a method for performing near-infrared Raman spectroscopy of tiny (20 microliters) samples of alcoholic beverages on a optofluidic chip. The method could lend itself to quality control — as well as rapid detection of counterfeit versions of the precious beverage. You can savor the full single-malt research paper in Optics Express.

News notes

I haven’t updated this blog in a few weeks, so here are a few things of note.

Past and Future OSA Presidents

A couple of weeks ago, at Frontiers in Optics 2011, OSA announced that Philip Bucksbaum of Stanford University was elected the 2012 vice president of the society. This means that he will serve as OSA president in 2014. Bucksbaum won in a two-way race; OSA vice-presidential elections usually have three candidates, but this year a third candidate, a Japanese scientist, decided to withdraw in favor of supporting his country’s scientific community in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami. One can hardly fault him for that.

One of the three incoming OSA board members elected this year is Jun Ye, an OSA Fellow known for his research in ultraprecise atomic clocks.

Last month, however, was also a sad month for former OSA presidents, as both Aden Meinel (1972) and Tony Siegman (1999) passed away. Meinel was best known in the astronomy community as the founder of Kitt Peak National Observatory and the architect of a number of large telescopes. However, the University of Arizona remembers him for starting its optical sciences program. While I worked at OSA, I had the opportunity to interact with Siegman several times, and I really enjoyed his talk on the 50th anniversary of the laser.

Finally, Duncan Moore of the University of Rochester, who served as OSA president in 1996, has become the fourth American to serve as president of the International Commission for Optics (ICO). This organization was founded in 1947 to help rebuild the devastated optics communities in Europe and Japan after World War II, but it has since turned its focus to developing countries, and Moore would like to expand the ICO’s reach in Africa. Moore has significant experience in government and business entrepreneurship besides optics; he chaired the independent panel that investigated the aberration in the Hubble Space Telescope’s mirror and found the right prescription to fix it. A few years ago, I took an Institute of Optics Summer School course that included his lecture on geometrical optics, so I can also say he’s an excellent teacher.

Other News Notes

Got an iPhone? You may be able to convert it into a medical imaging device for a few bucks. As I reported within the last month, a team based at the University of California-Davis figured out how to build cellphone camera attachments for medical imaging and spectroscopy out in the field. The results aren’t quite as good as those from a dedicated instrument, of course, but they’re good enough for a physician in the developing world to look at a blood sample and figure out whether the patient has sickle-cell disease or not.

Meanwhile, my colleague Yvonne Carts-Powell reported on the natural nanostructures that give birds their color, and how they’re inspiring new laser designs.

Both of the above stories, incidentally, came out of the Frontiers in Optics conference.

Small World Photos Hit the Big Time

With this stunning online gallery, the Washington Post took note of the results of the most recent Nikon Small World Competition for photographs of the microscopic world. Check out these images for a beautiful confluence of sciences and aesthetics.