Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for September, 2013

It’s been 50 years now…

Dear Nobel Committee for Physics at the Swedish Academy of Sciences:

I realize, of course, that by now you have probably already made your decision about this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. After all, the award is scheduled to be announced on October 8, which is a mere three weeks from today. Obviously it takes some time to prepare the gold medals and certificates and whatnot, and to write up the press release extolling the achievements of the winners — I’m using the plural here, because you choose more than one laureate in the vast majority of years. And I know you try assiduously to uphold the original intent of Alfred Nobel’s will.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of all the events that happened in 1963, from the good (the “I Have a Dream” speech, the early stages of Beatlemania) to the bad (the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the JFK assassination). The event that’s relevant to this discussion is the 50th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics to Maria Goeppert-Mayer (along with two male scientists) for her work on nuclear shell structure.

In other words, this year makes 50 years since a woman received a Nobel in physics. Chemistry and medicine/physiology have had several female laureates in the past half-century — from Dorothy Hodgkin to Carol Greider — but not physics. There have been women who were mysteriously left out (Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Chien-Shiung Wu) and at least one female physicist who won the medicine Nobel (Rosalyn Yalow).

I’m certainly not recommending that a woman get a Nobel in physics just because of her gender — duh! However, every year the world has at least a few more female physicists than the year before, and some of them, somewhere, must have done some Nobel-quality research by now. Please recognize her (or them). Please don’t wait another half-century to name a third physics laureate.

Sincerely yours,

A concerned female holder of a B.S. in physics


“Daddy almost broke the space telescope…”

I already retweeted the link I’m going to write about, but some stories are just so good that they deserve more than a tweet.

The website gave a great review of the new first-person Esquire story of how astronaut Mike Massimino “almost broke” the Hubble Space Telescope during the final repair mission to that spacecraft in 2009. I’ve been fascinated with Hubble for most of my adult life, and I wrote an article previewing the final repair mission in 2008 (just before the mission was postponed for a few months — doggone it!). In fact, when I was at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for “media preview day,” the four spacewalking astronauts went into the giant clean room to practice handling the actual tools that they would be using in space. I didn’t get to meet them, but from the observation window I could see them walking around in their masks, booties and garb. Needless to say, I thought that was extremely cool!

You can read the full Esquire story at this link.

Massimino, of course, has been a media-savvy astronaut for a long time; I think he was the first astronaut to use Twitter. And he played a bit role as himself in a few hilarious episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (well, aren’t all the episodes hilarious?).

Speaking of space, NASA is going to shoot for the Moon again tonight, albeit with a small, unpiloted spacecraft. Go here or here or here to find out if you will be able to glimpse the launch, which is going up from southern Virginia instead of Florida. My neighborhood is full of tall, mature trees, but if I walk up the street a half-block or so I might just be able to glimpse enough of the southeastern sky to see something. We shall see.

Most of the publicity surrounding this spacecraft has focused on its planned atmospheric and dust experiments, but the Office of Science and Technology Policy informs us that the craft will also test out a new kind of laser communications system that could potentially rocket-propel (metaphorically speaking, of course) the bandwidth from space.

Clear skies!

One more tale of Tingye Li

The September 2013 issue of Optics & Photonics News contains my feature article on Tingye Li, a pioneering optical scientist and beloved member of the OSA community. (Sorry, you need to be an OSA member in order to read the full text of the article.)

I wanted to include one more anecdote that came from Li’s two daughters, but I thought it might be a bit too risqué for the magazine. Besides, if I put everything into the article, I wouldn’t have anything to blog about, now would I? 🙂

Here’s the story. Since Li, who died last December, spent his entire post-doctorate career working at Bell Laboratories, he lived with his wife and children in Rumson, N.J. According to Wikipedia, Rumson is quite the upscale town, and it was that way in the 1960s and 1970s as well. Still, Li and his wife, both naturalized Americans who were born in China, found it a good place to raise their daughters.

One of Li’s hobbies was gardening, sometimes with his daughters and sometimes all by himself. He always wore his oldest, shabbiest clothes to mess around with the dirt and fertilizer.

One evening, he was working alone in the front yard when a car pulled up and stopped. The driver, who looked like a prosperous businessman, rolled down his window and told Li that he was doing an excellent job on the landscaping. Li thanked him for the compliment.

Then the businessman, in a tone of voice that suggested he was thinking of hiring Li to do his yard work, asked him what sort of compensation he was provided for his toil. With a slight smile and twinkle in his eye, Li promptly responded: “Oh, I get to sleep with the lady of the house.”

The businessman, who apparently still hadn’t figured out that somebody dressed in ratty gardening clothes could actually be a married Bell Labs executive and homeowner, mumbled some sort of farewell and could hardly roll up the car window fast enough. One can only imagine the look on that guy’s face as he drove off!