Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for October, 2012

Good things to read

I’d like to draw your attention to a few articles that have caught my eye in recent days.

First up, an important analysis by Scientific American on how antiscience beliefs may jeopardize U.S. democracy. Author Shawn Lawrence Otto calls out the extremists on both sides — yes, lefties have their own brand of science denialism, not just the righties — but, he adds, “the Republican version is particularly dangerous because it attacks the validity of science itself.” (And as I write this blog post, I’m listening to a Frontline episode, number 3021, going behind the scenes of the climate-change skeptics who are working to publicize their message of doubt.)

On a more positive note, Nature recently published a supplement, “Physics masterclass,” which takes an expansive look at the most interesting questions in modern physics and the Nobel laureates who have addressed them. One of the laureates is Roy Glauber, from whom I once took a Harvard Extension School night course on “Waves, Particles and the Structure of Matter.”

Speaking of both PBS and Nobel laureates … On “Inside NOVA,” Seth Lloyd of MIT takes a much more informed look than I ever could on this year’s winners. I encountered Lloyd some years ago at a small high-performance computing conference in Rhode Island, both by listening to his talk and sitting at his table for a lunchtime discussion. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, GO! He has a magical ability to explain the quantum world. Even if you haven’t taken a physics class since high school, you will understand him. Trust me.

In May 2010, I heard Stanford University professor Steven Block deliver a plenary talk on his work with optical tweezers, or “the closest thing humans have made to a tractor beam.” (The night before, he was up late, playing country-bluegrass music at a special concert of scientist-musicians.) Block and one of his graduate students are now reporting the first real-time observations of RNA folding. The pair published their findings in the most recent issue of Science.

Finally, I wrote up a couple of interesting things that came out of OSA’s annual meeting last week, but if you want more, visit the Frontiers in Optics social media hub.

Don’t bet against optics

Once I woke up, I couldn’t get back to sleep because I was curious about the Nobel Prize in physics. So I booted up the computer and, sure enough, learned that Serge Haroche and David Wineland are this year’s laureates for their work in quantum optics. Congratulations to them both!

I also did a quick search on OSA’s website and found that Wineland and Haroche have both won the society’s Herbert Walther Award for quantum optics. It’s a relatively new award, and these two guys were its first winners. Also, Haroche won the society’s 2007 Charles Hard Townes Award for quantum electronics. And Wineland won OSA’s 1990 William F. Meggers Award for spectroscopy, as well as the society’s highest honor, the Frederic Ives Medal with Jarus Quinn Prize Endowment, in 2004.

For more on the quantum world, I am following science writer Alexandra Witze’s tweet and commending you to a special issue of Science News from 2010. I think it’s time for breakfast.

But one final postscript: Here in America, lots of people say terribly disparaging things about “lazy government employees.” Well, gee, Wineland is the fourth fifth “government employee,” and the third fourth from NIST, to win the physics Nobel in the last 15 years.

EDITED TO ADD: I forgot one of the NIST laureates in my original post, although John L. “Jan” Hall held a joint appointment with JILA and the University of Colorado in addition to NIST. Four Nobel prizes in the span of 15 years is truly something for NIST to be proud of!

About those Nobel Prize predictions…

Wondering why I haven’t spent time noodling over the possibilities for next week’s Nobel Prize announcements? My friend at Slate, Laura Helmuth, asked some of her friends to assess the competition. I definitely recommend reading the resulting article.

Bottom line in physics: It’s too early to give the nod to the Higgs boson crowd. But there are plenty of other contenders, some of whom are female (and it’s been 49 years since a woman won a Nobel in physics, hint hint). Personally, I’m rooting for the folks in optics and astronomy. But you already knew that, right?

Before Jobs, there was Land

Boston.com has posted an intriguing photo essay on Edwin Land and the history of Polaroid Corp. I’m no stranger to the basic story — I grew up in Massachusetts, and my first camera was a Polaroid. (Since the era was less celebrity-oriented than today, it took me a while to realize that the “Land” in the phrase “Polaroid Land Camera” referred to an actual person, rather than to the requirement that the camera operate on land instead of underwater.) Still, it’s not that much of a stretch to call Land the Steve Jobs of his day, as in the text accompanying the first picture.

Nevertheless, the photo essay contains some intriguing images I hadn’t seen before, including one of a wooden mockup of a prototype pre-SX-70 camera. (The caption says 1960, but the mockup strongly resembles the cameras sold in the late 1960s and early 1970s.) I also did not know that Land wanted his papers and correspondence burned after his death (he passed in 1991), and the rest of his stuff burned down with his house in 2005. What a loss to history. I prefer to err on the side of preserving too much rather than too little.

More proof of the importance of optics to civilization

Once again, the week before the Nobel Prizes come out, the MacArthur Foundation has announced the winners of its “genius grants.” (Technically, these people are known as MacArthur Fellows.) And once again, the foundation has implicitly recognized the importance of optics in our society by choosing at least one Fellow from the realm of the optical sciences.

This year, the “genius” scientist from optics is Olivier Guyon of the University of Arizona, an institution well known for both astronomy and optics — and, indeed, Guyon holds a joint appointment in those two fields. He’s keenly interested in the search for planets outside our solar system. To that end, he has been the lead developer of a new coronagraphic technique called “phase-induced aperture apodization,” which blocks the light from the central star of a potential  exoplanet system more efficiently than other systems. What’s even more exciting is that he wants to lower the cost of this technique (which involves some highly aspheric lenses) so that schoolchildren and amateur astronomers can join the hunt for other worlds. Very exciting stuff!

Other recent MacArthur Fellows whose research is related to optics and photonics:

  • Markus Greiner (2011), who created a “quantum gas microscope” to study 2D optical lattices.
  • Michal Lipson (2010), who studies silicon optoelectronics.
  • Nergis Mavalvala (2010), a quantum astrophysicist (yes, there is such a thing).
  • Richard Prum (2009), who applies optical physics to his ornithological studies.
  • Andrea Ghez (2008), who developed speckle imaging and has improved adaptive optics for ground-based telescopes.
  • Marin Soljačić (2008), who studies the fundamental principles behind electromagnetic waves (such as light).
  • Saul Griffith (2007), who invented a simple lens-making technique that could bring corrective lenses to the developing world.
  • Matias Zaldarriaga (2006), whose insights into the pitfalls of interpreting data have gone into the design of new telescopes.

I wrote about Mavalvala in this OPN blog post from 2011 and about Lipson in this post. (Oh, yes, don’t forget my contribution to the OPN “Bright Futures” blog: “For Women Scientists, Career Advice from a Certified Genius.”)

So, the next time somebody tries to tell you that optics is “old hat” or “just eyeglasses” … you know what to say!