Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for the ‘general optics’ Category

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.

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.

 

A new month, a new article

It’s September, which means that my article “200 Years of Fresnel’s Legacy” has appeared in the September issue of Optics & Photonics News. I’ll put up a link to the full PDF eventually, but since the issue just came out, I’ll respect the publication’s members-only firewall for now.

If you really liked my previous article on Apollo-era optics, you’ll certainly enjoy Gear Patrol’s gorgeously illustrated photo essay, “Hasselblad’s History in Space.” Even I hadn’t seen some of those images before. I think Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham looks a bit like Bono in those shades and earphones, but maybe that’s just me.

Finally … I’m getting close to the 10-year anniversary of the earliest pieces I wrote for OPN. I’ve been thinking of going back and following up on some of the experimental results and other topics I wrote about back then. Did a such-and-such new technique actually lead to advances in biomedical imaging or quantum computing or whatever was touted? How have subdisciplines in optics advanced over the past decade? Is anyone interested in knowing the answers?

Townes Symposium planned for October

Personal reminisces of Charles H. Townes’ long career are on the agenda of a special symposium that will take place at Frontiers in Optics/Laser Science 2015. Several of Townes’ past students from Columbia, MIT and Berkeley will share their memories, and other speakers will discuss his later-in-life contributions to astronomy and to projects such as the Townes Laser Institute at the University of Central Florida.

The organizer of the symposium is Elsa Garmire, who served as OSA’s second female president. If you are interested in her career, you can read about some of her early work in “A Short History of Laser Light Shows” — which is, perhaps, the only magazine article ever to mention both Charles Townes and Pete Townshend.

Optics in the Apollo Program

I can’t believe I let more than half the month of June go by without mentioning my article, “Optics in the Apollo Program,” in the June issue of OPN! I guess I was born without the gene for relentless marketing and self-promotion.

If you’ve been wondering how to read my article — because it’s not the featured “open access” article this months — then fear not: I have added it to my online clip file. Eventually I’m going to get around to uploading more of my work, but I thought it would be obviously better to start with the most recent work first.

If you’re ever at the National Air & Space Museum, you can see some of the Apollo-era optical equipment, or at least replicas of it. (Remember, the Apollo astronauts ditched quite a bit of gear on the lunar surface or just before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.) Back in January I visited the main Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and took a few photos.

Replica of Apollo 11 TV camera

Here’s a replica of the black-and-white television camera that Armstrong and Aldrin used to show us their Apollo 11 moonwalk.

Apollo spotmeter

The Apollo 11 astronauts used a spotmeter to judge the exposures for their film camera. Looks as if Minolta made this for NASA.

Apollo 7 camera

The Apollo 7 crew used this camera to make the first live telecast from space. This one’s the real McCoy.

Film magazine

Armstrong’s Hasselblad film magazine from Apollo 11. He had to bring this back because it contained all the unexposed film.

Command module camera

This camera flew in the Apollo 11 command module. And, yes, you can see the reflection of me and my digital camera.

Stereo camera

The stereo camera that Apollo 11 astronauts used to get closeups of rocks without bending over. This is probably a replica, because I don’t see any moon dust on it.

AOT

Replica of the Alignment Optical Telescope mentioned in the article. Apologies for the flash artifact.

Visor

Finally, a friend and I are reflected in a spacesuit’s visor.

The legacy continues

Last year at this time, I was working on an article for Optics & Photonics News about the late Stanford University professor Anthony “Tony” Siegman and his legacy of laser education. I’m pleased that the second installment of the international laser school named for him will take place this August.

The Siegman International School on Lasers began last year on the Stanford campus, where its namesake taught for many years. This year it is moving to Germany, to keep with its stated purpose of being a truly international school for young optical scientists. I’m sure it will be held in yet another country in 2016.

The 2015 school has lots of interesting programming lined up for its 102 accepted students. I wish all the attendees well and hope that the event results in many fruitful collaborations.

Welcome to the International Year of Light!

Yes, I know I haven’t updated this blog in a long, long time.

Back in November, I started to write a roundup of all the great things that had happened in optics and photonics during the previous month. I actually wrote this much:

What an exciting month for the field of photonics! Granted, I was often busy and didn’t have time to write cogent posts about the breaking news (I’ll come back to that later), but I was following everything avidly.

Of course, the major expected occurrence was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Every year I hope for one of two things: a female physics laureate (about which I’ve posted in the past) or a Nobel awarded for some optics-related discovery. Well, this year we got the latter: three scientists who invented blue LEDs, which in turn led to the development of white LEDs (the white diodes are blue diodes covered by a yellow phosphor). The very next day, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three men “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy” — optical imaging techniques that allow us to see the tiniest molecular details inside cells.

Some, but not all, of the laureates are members of OSA – The Optical Society, which fired off press releases about these prizes. OSA signed up one of the chemistry laureates to give some remarks…

I’m certain that I was about to write “… to give some remarks at Frontiers in Optics, the Society’s annual meeting,” or something like that. But then I got busy with my freelance writing and my job applications and all sorts of other things, and the days ticked by, and then my friend Yvonne Carts-Powell wrote an awesome post on the subject in her blog, The Science of Heroes. So I just put my draft post on the virtual shelf and dived into the usual end-of-year holiday craziness.

Now it’s a new year — a time for renewal under any circumstances. But this New Year’s Day marks the beginning of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. I’ve been excited about the IYL since I first heard about it, so of course I had to wrote a feature article all about it for Optics & Photonics News. I’m following the IYL team on Facebook and Twitter, and during 2015 I pledge to fill this blog with lots of exciting posts about the science of light. Happy New Year indeed!