Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for February, 2012

Some great source material for free

It’s a rare day, indeed. Happy Leap Year day, everyone!

I can’t write much today because I’m in the middle of writing another article for Optics & Photonics News (deadline: tomorrow). In the course of looking up other materials for that story, however, I stumbled upon ebook versions of oral history transcripts that I used for my May 2011 biographical article on Arthur L. Schawlow.

The Internet Archive provides free copies of the oral histories from both Schawlow and his brother-in-law, Charles H. Townes. I had found them on the Web initially, but now they can be downloaded in any number of electronic-reader formats: PDF, EPUB, Kindle and others. Go to and click on “Texts,” then search for the word “Schawlow.”

I never would have been able to write that article if Schawlow hadn’t done those oral history interviews while he was still alive. Reading the transcript was the next best thing to interviewing him personally. Kudos to the California Digital Library for getting this material in a more portable format.


Something eloquent to think about, and a powerful argument for science education.

Roger Launius's Blog

Ernst Stuhlinger wrote this letter on May 6, 1970, to Sister Mary Jucunda, a nun who worked among the starving children of Kabwe, Zambia, in Africa, who questioned the value of space exploration. At the time Dr. Stuhlinger was Associate Director for Science at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama. Touched by Sister Mary’s concern and sincerity, his beliefs about the value of space exploration were expressed in his reply to Sister Mary. It remains, more than four decades later, an eloquent statement of the value of the space exploration endeavor. Born in Germany in 1913, Dr. Stuhlinger received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Tuebingen in 1936. He was a member of the German rocket development team at Peenemünde, and came to the United States in 1946 to work for the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas. He moved to Huntsville in 1950 and continued…

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Old stories, new stories

I’ve had a bit of a burst of activity — some freelance work, some car issues, some pet-health issues, and my annual end-of-the-year holiday travel — all of which has conspired to keep me off this blog. But never fear, folks, I am still writing!

In fact, my very next feature article, on which I’m working right now, will be about photography in the American Civil War. We’re well into the sesquicentennial of this event (April 1861 to April 1865), and more people will be reading about the conflict, visiting battle sites, and watching Civil War-themed films and TV shows for the next few years. So they’ll be seeing these photographs.

But what went into making these photographs? After all, they were taken a couple of decades before Kodak came out with its famous slogan: “You press the button — we do the rest.” American Civil War photographers had to do it all … out in the field … in the mud, rain, baking sun, and stench from corpses.

Now, I learned the basics of 20th-century black-and-white darkroom work when I was a teenager, so I am confident in my ability to describe these antique photo processes. What will be really interesting (to me as a writer) is figuring out how much to write about the American Civil War itself. The magazine for which I’m writing has about 40 percent international circulation — meaning a pretty large fraction of my readership didn’t grow up learning about the American Civil War in school and may have only the foggiest notion of when it was and what it was all about. Any suggestions on how to deal with that are most welcome. Right now I’m thinking of adding four or five general books on Civil War history to the “References and Resources” section, and if they don’t fit in the print version, they can always appear online. Again, suggestions of good books are welcome.

In other news … I recently stumbled across some stunning new photorealistic rendering of human skin. The scientist who did this rendering has a website here. As I learned when writing my January 2009 OPN article on photorealistic rendering, making virtual skin look real is challenging because the rendering artist must take into consideration the fact that skin reflects different amounts of light from its different layers. If our skin reflected light only from its surface, like a mirror, we’d all look as shiny as marble statues … and obviously we don’t!

Looking for more information about various types of mid-19th-century photographic technology for my next feature article — details to follow, I promise!