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Archive for the ‘history of science’ Category

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.


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.

Apollo 17

When I first noticed on Twitter that today is the 43rd anniversary of humanity’s last presence on the Moon, I felt ineffably sad. But then I noticed in someone’s follow-up tweet that you can relive (virtually) the last lunar exploration mission at

I tuned in to that website — produced by a couple of programmer/techie space enthusiasts with the cooperation of the NASA folks who put together the Apollo Flight Journal and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, as well as the surviving Apollo 17 crew members themselves — just in time to watch the real-time “coverage” of the lunar module’s ascent from the Taurus-Littrow valley. You can watch the video feed, listen to the conversations between the astronauts and Houston, and read the transcript of those communications. (And when I say “coverage,” I mean the plain NASA video and audio, without any commentaries from broadcast anchors. No Walter Cronkite here.)

Whether you’re old enough to remember watching Apollo missions on the family television set or were born after the Apollo program, you will probably find something fascinating on this website. As I type this, the two spacecraft, America and Challenger (obviously not the similarly named shuttle), are on the other side of the Moon, and the color TV camera that Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt left behind is scanning the lonely surface. What was I saying about ineffable sadness?

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?

The centennial of Charles Townes

Today, July 28, would have been the 100th birthday of Charles H. Townes. Of course, he’s not here to enjoy it, because he passed away six months ago.

Optics & Photonics News marked the centennial by tweeting a link to the feature article I wrote about Dr. Townes for the May 2015 issue. The Charles Townes Center, a program for gifted students in his hometown of Greenville, S.C., posted a birthday remembrance on its Facebook page. A German website posted this message (in German) about Dr. Townes’ contributions to astronomy. And tonight the South Carolina State Museum will have special programs in honor of the state’s native son. From the museum’s website:

DID YOU KNOW? July 28th would have been the 100th birthday of laser pioneer and Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes. Townes, who passed away in January of this year, was a South Carolina native who won the Nobel Prize for his inventions of the laser and maser and helped build the foundation of laser technology.  Museum educators will be discussing his revolutionary work from 6 – 8 p.m. in front of the Townes exhibit, which houses his Nobel Prize among other laser-related artifacts.  At 7 p.m., experience the technology that Townes developed in Laser Fun, a 40-minute planetarium laser light show set to an assortment of family-friendly songs. In addition, from 7 – 8 p.m., author Rachel Haynie will be signing copies of her children’s book, “First, You Explore: The Story of the Young Charles Townes.” Activities are included with general admission, however there is an additional fee to see the planetarium laser light show.

My article on Charles Townes

As I mentioned earlier this year, I was working on an OPN article about Charles H. Townes, one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, when he passed away. My article came out in the May issue of OPN, which is traditionally about lasers because of the annual CLEO conference. It made the cover of the magazine, so the editorial staff made it “open access” for everybody!

CLEO, by the way, is next week in San Jose, California. I wish I could attend, but it’s not in this year’s cards. The conference program sounds awesome — you can’t beat plenary lectures by two Nobel Prize winners. There’s no memorial symposium for Dr. Townes, as far as I can tell, but such things take time to organize; I’ll bet one will be held sometime in the next 12 months.

A quarter-century of wonder

By now everybody has probably heard that today is the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. I couldn’t possibly put all the links to all the news coverage in this blog entry. We’ve got photos that show how HST changed the world, the breathtaking video made from the official 25th-anniversary Hubble photo, and the telescope’s amazing comeback story (with a mention of OSA to boot). The anniversary has its own website and you can even download a free ebook that will last as long as … well, as long as you have a device that can read and open the file and a storage medium that can save the file without corruption.

On and off, the Hubble Space Telescope has been a recurring theme of most of my adult life. I remember the initial anticipation, followed by the long wait in storage after the Challenger disaster (didn’t that storage cost $1 million per month, or something like that?). Somehow I don’t recall watching the launch, but I certainly knew it happened, and I certainly followed the headlines when the spherical aberration was discovered and the finger-pointing began. When I moved from Massachusetts to Maryland, I had to deal with a housemate who kept calling the orbiter “the Hubble Space Paperweight.”

But then I was at the AAS meeting in January 1994 when the “before” and “after” photos of a spiral galaxy (it might have been M101) were brought out to a hastily assembled brown-bag lunch crowd in one of the hotel ballrooms. When the “after” photo was revealed by someone lifting an opaque piece of paper over the second half of the viewgraph (remember viewgraphs, folks?), everyone broke into thunderous applause. Later, in the exhibit hall, I poured over an enlarged version of the photo mounted on a display board, and I marveled at the incredible detail.

Since then, of course, I’ve been as dazzled as anyone over the photos and the science that have come from Hubble. I’m proud to live a couple of miles down the road from one of the places that did so much work on the instrumentation. I did an article for Optics & Photonics News on the last Hubble repair mission, and I saw some of the last batch of instruments through the NASA Goddard clean-room window, and I even got to watch the astronauts go in there and handle some of the actual tools they would use during their spacewalks.

Recently I got a chance to attend a sneak preview of the National Geographic Channel’s documentary Hubble’s Cosmic Journey, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson (whose voice would thrill me if he were just reading the phone book…) — it looked fabulous on the big screen in the Nat Geo auditorium. I’ll leave you with a couple more links: reflections by one of the Hubble-repair astronauts and the Hubble 25th anniversary entry on the IYL blog.