Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for March, 2014

Blog housekeeping

My blog has a brand-new look! I was tired of the small type of the previous theme, and WordPress.com had seen fit to retire it anyway, so I shopped around for a fresher design. Please let me know what you think.

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Keeping up with dark-sky issues

A couple of years ago, I said at the end of my OPN article on light pollution that I’d be blogging on that subject here. I’ll admit that I haven’t always done so, but I was heartened to read a couple of articles on the subject of dark skies this week, and I thought I’d pass them along to you.

Physics Central, a website run by the American Physical Society, posted an essay highlighting the push to create dark-sky reserves and to monitor the levels of sky brightness around observatories. The post includes a link to the trailer for the 2011 documentary The City Dark, which is absolutely required viewing if you have any interest at all in the subject (and for sharing at people who need to develop an interest!). The City Dark is now available on Netflix, so you no longer need to wait for a special film festival.

As a cover story in its Sunday magazine, the Washington Post covered the carnage caused by birds flying into brightly lit urban buildings — and the “Lights Out” groups who are trying to do something about it. The City Dark mentioned this as well, but this article brings the issue to people who would never go out of their way to watch a documentary about light pollution.

Let’s hope light pollution and the associated energy savings from proper lighting are finally getting into widespread public consciousness. Clear skies!

Looking for some cool images?

Hi, I’m Pat and I’m a social-media addict. I really enjoy Pinterest. If you haven’t already done so, please check out my “Science Photos and Images” board on that site:

http://www.pinterest.com/lilpatoodle/science-photos-and-images/

I add to the collection when I remember to do so (which isn’t every day … but I’m trying to get better at it). Of course, some of the images link back to my own writing, but others are just fascinating and beautiful in their own right.

Today I even added an image from the BICEP2 collaboration — you know, the so-called “smoking gun” of cosmological inflation theory. Polarization diagrams may not mean much to the average person, but that figure might be really famous someday. Heck, I even “pinned” the video showing Andrei Linde getting the news. It’s just so sweet.

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Into the valley of the shadow of death…

Please don’t be put off by the rather depressing title. I’ve just been thinking about the Crimea region of Ukraine recently, because … well, duh. And any mention of Crimea brings to mind a series of images.

Not images I took. Not images of people who are still alive.

You see, the Crimean War was the first war ever (kinda, sorta) photographed. Say “19th-century war photographs” to most people, and they will think of the American Civil War. The conflict in Crimea, however, predated the one on the U.S.; it ended five years before our Civil War began. And a Britishman named Roger Fenton (1819-1869) set out to immortalize his country’s fighting forces.

Photography back then wasn’t as simple as pushing a button and letting technology do the rest. Fenton made a type of picture called the calotype. The process involved making a wet-paper negative print and then contact-printing it onto another sheet of treated paper. Calotypes required really long exposure times, so Fenton had no chance to make “action shots,” and anyway the sensibility of the Victorian era would have rejected stark photographs of dead bodies, like those taken at Antietam and Gettysburg in the following decade. Fenton and his assistants had to cart along a whole wagon full of equipment (please click on that link — WordPress is giving me trouble with uploads).

Mostly Fenton took highly posed photographs of British officers, but he also captured some landscapes. One can only imagine how these images would have looked to people who had never seen the world like that before — indeed, who spent most or all of their lives within a hundred or so miles of their birthplace.

Fenton’s most famous image was dubbed “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” probably after that “shadow of Death” phrase in the famous Tennyson poem. It shows a landscape denuded of plants, with a depressed dirt road strewn with cannonballs. Some people say Fenton and his team faked the photo, because there’s another version of the photo without the cannonballs.

Which image came first? Does it matter? Should it matter? A writer and filmmaker named Errol Morris wrote a three-part meditation on that set of questions for the New York Times back in 2007, well before our 15oth-anniversary observances of the American Civil War — or our worrying about Ukraine and Russia.

Anyhow, whenever I hear about this current crisis, I can’t help visualizing these sepia-tone images of dry battlefields long past.