Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for the ‘astronomy’ Category

Just a few days to go…

Let the record show that, nearly a year ago, I predicted the hype over the Great Eclipse of 2017. I just thought it might start a little sooner than the week before the big event. However, we Americans have notoriously short attention spans. Eclipse on the 21st of August? By the 31st of August, it will have been completely forgotten, and everyone will be focused on Britain’s royal family.

I know that, come next Monday, I’m not going to be in the path of totality. Yeah, I wish I could. However, this past weekend my car decided that it could eat its own radiator and alternator for Sunday brunch. I paid the $773 bill, but I won’t have spare change until next Friday. I can do a lot of things, but changing the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon to suit my bank account isn’t one of them.

Once before, I was in the path of totality. You may recall the eclipse of July 11, 1991 — it passed right over Mauna Kea. That summer I had an internship at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, but I arranged to take a trip with three undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Arizona down to Mazatlán, Mexico, which is about as far south as the tip of Baja California, but on the mainland instead of the peninsula. Unfortunately for our traveling quartet, while the tip of Baja California had a grand view, Mazatlán seemed to be the only major Mexican city that was completely overcast. The thick clouds did get very dark for five and a half minutes around noon … but, yeah, it wasn’t the same as an actual view.

And since the closest part of the path of totality to my current Maryland residence is in South Carolina, which seems to have a pretty good chance of clouds and/or rain … yeah, I think I’m better off staying put and waiting for April 8, 2024.

Anyhow … before the eclipse hits Monday, I urge you to educate yourself about eclipse-watching safety, first and foremost … and also what to expect wherever you are, and where to find the cool pictures online. Here’s my curated list of links:

  • The two sites I mentioned last year, GreatAmericanEclipse.com and Eclipse2017.org, are still up and running.
  • The two major U.S. magazines for amateur astronomy, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy, each have a comprehensive guide to solar-eclipse viewing, eclipse science, and eye safety.
  • The American Astronomical Society (AAS), an organization primarily for professional astronomers, nevertheless has assembled an eclipse site for the general public.
  • Not to be outdone, NASA has another pretty comprehensive eclipse portal, and my local friendly space center’s visitors’ center will have programming for the masses.
  • One of the DC-area TV stations advises viewers on procuring those crucial solar-eclipse glasses.
  • Plug your zip code into this page to see what percentage of the Sun’s disk will be covered in your area.
  • Wondering whether the weather will give you the same totality-blocking heartbreak that I felt in 1991? My friend at the Associated Press summarizes the forecasts.
  • Somebody who knows how to use GIS software has figured out the eclipse traffic choke points. I like the notion of a “driveshed,” which is to roads what watersheds are to bodies of water, and wonder about its applicability to other events.
  • More solar-viewing safety tips. (I remember that my father brought home some welding glass from his workplace so that I could view a partial solar eclipse when I was a youngster. I don’t know the “number” of that glass, but it must have worked, because I don’t have eye damage from that experience.)
  • Courtesy of Newsweek and Mother Jones, a handy guide to eclipse photography.
  • Finally, if you want to watch the total eclipse from the comfort and safety of your television or computer, here’s a guide to that experience.

Remember, SAFETY FIRST!!!

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Broken cylinders and tiny satellites

I love it when I stumble across some news that pertains to one of the articles I’ve written in the past! In this case, I actually have two updates.

Back in January, OPN published my article on the IRENE project, which is using high-tech imaging techniques to preserve ancient audio recordings. (By “ancient,” of course, I mean everything from the earliest 19th-century phonographic cylinders to mid-20th-century transcription platters for saving radio broadcasts and ethnographic tales.) Somehow I missed this in real time, but in May, the Library of Congress — which is a big contributor to IRENE — hosted a lecture by one of its in-house chemists, Eric Monroe, who wanted to figure out why the broken cylinders whose recordings IRENE was trying to preserve were, in fact, broken. That led him to study the historical records of the hundreds of experiments that led to the original invention of wax cylinders, and then to perform his own experiments to try to reconstitute the stuff that went into these cylinders. You can go here for some additional material on Dr. Monroe and his work, plus a link to the video of the lecture.

Second is a follow-up to my Breakthrough Starshot piece. The Breakthrough Initiatives just announced today that last month it launched a bunch of the world’s smallest satellites, with a mass of only 4 g each. Of course, they’re in low Earth orbit, not a trans-stellar trajectory, but hey, it’s a start. And they seem to have the necessary components of a spacecraft, including power source (solar panel) and communications technology. We shall see how long they last in space.

The particular Starshot team member who led this project is Zac Manchester, who didn’t get back to me when I tried to reach him for my article, but oh well. You can read the press release here and here, but go here for Scientific American‘s take.

Catching up

I’m happy to report that I’m keeping busy with my writing. So far this year I’ve had three feature articles published in Optics & Photonics News — two of them open-access cover stories.

First, I wrote about the technology behind Breakthrough Starshot, the Yuri Milner-funded plan to send an army of tiny laser-powered satellites to the stars. Since this topic was more speculative than the usual OPN subjects, I half expected a barrage of letters complaining that a serious scientific publication should never publish such pie-in-the-sky tripe. But no. My editor did get one letter decrying the high cost of the proposal, but the author decided against allowing OPN to publish his missive. Oh, well.

I’m sure there’s a lot of doubt out there — to wit, a recent Popular Mechanics article on Starshot was subtitled “Inside the Ludicrous Plan to Send a Spacecraft to Our Neighbor Star.” That piece, however, ends on a far more hopeful note than the subtitle would lead you to believe.

By the time my Starshot article was published, I had already written my next cover story on the future of the optics workforce. My inspiration for this one was my idle wonderment about all the articles I’ve read about the displacement of manufacturing jobs by robots and offshoring and whatnot.

I’m finishing another OPN feature article this week — whether it will be on the cover is of course yet TBD. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention that this week marks the 48th anniversary of the first lunar landing by humans. You may choose to celebrate by rereading my article on optics in the Apollo program. I’ll leave you with an optics-related photo from the Apollo Archive:

Neil Armstrong watches as Buzz Aldrin practices using a camera during a geology field trip in Texas, early 1969. NASA photo via the Apollo Archive.

Women in Science 2016: Deborah S. Jin

In just a few hours, the world will know the names of the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. Sadly, we know one name that will almost certainly not be among them: Deborah S. Jin of JILA and NIST.

Dr. Jin died of cancer last month at the too-young age of 47. I don’t recall ever interviewing her, but I know she spoke at the CLEO 2005 conference, right around the time I started working at OSA.

She and her team made the first fermionic condensate, a new state of supercold matter, and as a result, she was on a lot of short lists for the Nobel Prize. For a long time I’ve been wishing, hoping, that some woman would be found worthy enough to join Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer on the list of Nobel physics laureates. It’s been more than half a century now since the latter won. Yes, I know that Dr. Jin won a slew of other awards, one even named for Goeppert-Mayer but for some reason, our civilization is stuck on the notion that the Nobel outshines them all.

And, yes, I fully realize that some worthy scientists somehow never got the Nobel. Human mortality has to do with that. The Nobel awarders have strict rules against posthumous prizes; there was a minor kerfuffle a few years back when one of the non-physics Nobel laureates had died just two or three days before the announcement, and the committee sincerely did not know about the fellow’s passing. News of Dr. Jin’s death has probably made its way to Stockholm by now, though, so we won’t see a repeat of that situation again.

One of the past presidents of the D.C. Science Writers Association has made a strong case for amending the Nobel Prizes to reflect today’s scientific reality, both in terms of the new fields that have emerged in the last century and the interdisciplinary nature of much modern research. (Never mind the collaborative nature of research — most teams have more than three members nowadays.) I’m a bit surprised at how traditionalist the online comments are trending. I would have expected a few more along the lines of “Yes, please, finally!” But even scientists (and science fiction fans, but that’s another story) can be among those most resistant to change.

Anyhow, let’s see whether the LIGO team gets honored already. Back in February, I was quietly pleased to learn that the first gravitational wave hit the detectors on September 14, 2015 — and September 14 is my birthday. The second gravitational wave arrived on December 26 — the birthday of one of my college roommates. Looking forward to many more detections, regardless of what Stockholm thinks.

Happy 50th Anniversary, Star Trek!

As I write this, the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek series is coming to an end. I can’t say I remember the original run — I’m not going to say how old I was, or whether I existed at all. I strongly suspect that my parents were watching something else at the time — my mother loved Westerns and crime dramas, and my father enjoyed variety shows (remember those?). Better to have come to Star Trek as a young adult, though, than to never have embraced it at all. I’m enough of a geek to admit that when I shared a three-bedroom apartment with a couple of other Trek fans many years ago, I was thrilled to learn that the last four digits of our ZIP+4 code were 1701. Perfect!

This evening, to celebrate, I watched (on demand) Building Star Trek, a documentary from the Smithsonian Channel. Lots of closeups of Original Series artifacts and clips from the Original Series. I remember seeing some of the props at the Air & Space Museum way back in the 1990s — I was then surprised at how wooden they looked up close, and how the costumes were made of the cheesiest polyester double-knit. (Bleah!) I was also pleased (though, given my work, not entirely surprised) that the “predicted-by-Trek” technology described in the show came almost entirely from optics: laser weapons, a nanoscale “tractor beam,” entangled photons, and the “invisibility cloak.”

Obviously the Internet has been filled with tributes all day long. My favorite is the one from NASA; it includes a team from NASA Goddard, just down the street from me.

And, speaking of NASA, how cool is it that the space agency launched OSIRIS-REx toward an asteroid tonight? The timing of the launch can’t be just coincidence, can it? Listen to the launch announcer — yep, he slips the phrase “to boldly go” in there. Of course.

One year to go — let the hype begin!

One year from today — specifically, the afternoon of August 21, 2017 — many of us in the continental United States will be treated to an awesome sight: a total solar eclipse. This celestial event is a lot briefer in duration than its cousin, the total lunar eclipse, so being in the right spot at the right moment is crucial. (And proper eye protection for the partial phases is even more crucial!)

Because this is America, I’ve already noticed a bit of commercialism creeping in, with websites like GreatAmericanEclipse.com and Eclipse2017.org popping up. (At least the latter seems to be focused on eye safety.) Over the course of the next 12 months, I won’t be surprised to see lots of countdown clocks, T-shirts, insta-books, calendars, posters, and other memorabilia flooding the market. Never mind themed “eclipse glasses”!

Anticipation…

OK, when you get invitations to five different press conferences on the same day, you might think something’s afoot, right?

One might think that indeed. Specifically, a few days ago, the people from LIGO put out a “media advisory” that they would be giving an “update” on their ongoing search for gravitational waves. It seems a little over-the-top to be organizing a simple “update” at the National Press Club, doesn’t it? Then, when you throw in simultaneous LIGO-related news conferences in London and Paris and Moscow, and you get a personal email encouraging you to attend a special seminar on gravitational waves at the Italian Embassy later in the afternoon … well, this doesn’t exactly sound like a routine assessment of the equipment functions, does it?

So, we have plenty of media speculation going on. Could this be the confirmation of the final piece of general relativity? Could a Nobel Prize be hanging in the balance?

I don’t know anything more than the next person, of course. (Sky & Telescope, which is much more plugged into the astronomical scene than I am, tried to track down the rumors already.) One scary word of caution: BICEP2. Remember that? Yeah, right.

I believe it was Carl Sagan who said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A prominent scientist pointed that out to me almost 20 years ago, when there was a flurry of reports that there might have been some fossilized bacteria found in Martian soil (remember THAT?!?), and I believe it is a good rule for all aspects of life, not just scientific research. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Think about that not just when you’re examining the results of your latest experiment, but also when you’re standing in line at the supermarket next to the screaming tabloid headlines, or when you’re debating whether to forward the latest shocking health claim that your old classmate posted to Facebook.

Incidentally, if LIGO (or its successor, Advanced LIGO) did find extraordinary evidence for gravitational waves, it will be a triumph not just for astronomy, but also for optics. I heard a talk on LIGO at my first OSA annual meeting a decade ago, and I was impressed with the awesome precision that each of the 4-km-long interferometers and their associated optics required. Measuring length changes of 10^-18 m? Optical coatings uniform to 1 atom of thickness? Whoa!

Yes, if LIGO has found something big, I hope the instrumentalists get due credit. We’ll all know in just a few hours.