Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for the ‘imaging’ Category

That old camera in the back of the closet … and other science stories

Old cameras fascinate me. I still have my father’s old Argus C3, my mother’s Kodak Brownie Starmeter, and a couple of vintage Instamatics, among others. Somehow I acquired an Argus 75 box camera and a busted Falcon Miniature — there’s a hole in the latter’s body where the shutter button used to be, so that the interior will never be lightproof again. I’m not sure whether those two were purchased by Dad or another family member, but I ended up with them.

My interest in old cameras is certainly not limited to my personal stash. I totally geeked out when I was doing that OPN article on “Photography in the American Civil War” and got to spend an entire Saturday afternoon watching a guy making tintypes in Gettysburg, Pa. And I’ve written about the use of cameras and other optical equipment during the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s; it’s in the hands of the OPN editors now and will probably appear later this year.

So, imagine my delight at recent news reports that the widow of the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, found a bag of his Apollo 11 memorabilia in the back of her closet — and, even better, lent them to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. Best of all, the 16-mm Data Acquisition Camera that was supposed to have been left behind on the lunar surface came back to Earth!

I will have much more about this in my future OPN article, but basically, Apollo 11’s Eagle lander carried both video and film cameras. The video camera, mounted on the lander’s base, was pretty low-definition even by the standards of 1969 (that was the year the charge-coupled device was invented, but it certainly was nowhere near ready for prime-time broadcasting). The 16-mm motion picture camera was mounted so that it could look out the window of Eagle‘s ascent stage. It took much sharper pictures than the TV camera, but of course, no one could see those images until Columbia brought the film canisters (and astronauts) back home and technicians developed the film.

Many video clips of the Apollo 11 landing, such as this one, combine the film from the Data Acquisition Camera from the audio recorded by the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. What many people, especially those born after 1969, don’t realize is that the worldwide audience back on Earth could not see the film images in real time.

What the viewing public actually saw looked more like the CBS footage that you can find here and here: the live NASA audio combined with the voices of the television anchors, canned prepared animations, and the occasional “live shot” of people watching the coverage on giant screens. Because Armstrong had to steer around a boulder-strewn field at the last minute, there was a scary lag between the matter-of-fact animation’s depiction of the touchdown and the actual moment of contact with the lunar soil.

I can hardly wait until Armstrong’s stash goes on display at the Smithsonian. It will be awesome to see the actual camera that took some of the most exciting motion-picture footage of my lifetime, even if it wasn’t broadcast in real time.

(NASA’s own inventory of the objects appears here.)

Before I sign off, I’d like to mention a few other science-related stories that I’ve recently found interesting. I think I’ve mentioned most of them on Facebook, either on my personal or my professional page.

  • First, a Pittsburgh startup company has gotten FDA approval for a new kind of internal tissue adhesive. I know someone whose husband could have really used this stuff after the abdominal surgeries he’s had over the past couple of years. The scientist who developed the adhesive is married to one of my high school classmates.
  • A handheld Raman spectroscopy probe could help neurosurgeons find sneaky, aggressive cancer cells within brain tissue. This too is rather near and dear to me at the moment, because a close friend of a close friend is in hospice care for glioblastoma, which is pretty much the worst kind of brain cancer you can get. She just turned 46 years old, which is way too young to die.
  • Finally, in March and September, you’ll have a couple of opportunities to help measure the brightness of the night sky where you live. You should have no trouble remembering the March date on which this citizen-science effort begins, because it falls on Super Π Day.

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:

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.


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.

The reclusive pioneer of Civil War photography studies

Today I was excited to see a front-page Washington Post story on William Frassanito, whom I first heard about when I was doing last year’s Optics & Photonics News article on photography in the American Civil War (available to OSA members — sorry).

At that time, I heard that Frassanito had been writing about Civil War photography since the 1970s and he was the pioneer in figuring out what the photographs tell us about the actual events that had taken place. Mostly, before then, historians had just treated the photographs as “window dressing” and didn’t care about them as important documents in their own right. Frassanito was the first to establish that Alexander Gardner had staged some shots, and he located the “split rock” that appeared in many of those photographs, so that the Park Service was able to correct the record that it presents to visitors.

While I was working on the story, I was told that Frassanito was pretty hard to get hold of, and I was fighting off a head cold too, so I didn’t spend a lot of time tracking him down. Plus, I try not to make phone calls to sources during the hours that Frassanito (according to the Post article) is actually awake, unless I’ve arranged an appointment beforehand via email with a scientist in a radically different time zone. And Frassanito doesn’t use email. But, hey, he’s got a Facebook page!

So I’ve signed up to follow his Facebook page, and if I ever decide to write anything more about Civil War photography, I’ll know where to track “Frazz” down.

Footnote unrelated to photography: This New York Post writer apparently believes that hardly anyone’s ever heard of Gen. George Meade, who “saved a nation.” Really? Ever driven through Maryland and seen signs for Fort Meade? Guess not.

Oh, those Victorian photographers again…

I just stumbled upon some online galleries of 19th-century “headless” photographs, in which the human subjects seem to be decapitated.

The first link came from Twitter, and then I started clicking away until I found this and this and this. Oh, and old-time “spirit” photographs and a collection of vintage kitty cats.

Now, earlier this year I learned from Rob Gibson how the “spirit” photographs were made: Two people would pose for the first half of an exposure, and then the photographer would put the lens cap back on while one of the people moved out of the field of view. Then the photographer would make the second half of the exposure. In the resulting image, one person would look “solid” and the other “ethereal.”

Some of the “headless” photographs definitely look like paper-image cut-and-paste jobs. Others … it’s a little harder to discern. I know one commenter wrote, “Glass plates or it didn’t happen!” But paper calotypes would have been easier to cut and manipulate, don’t you think?

At any rate, these historical photographs give us some insight into what our ancestors considered humorous, believable, shocking, or just plain bizarre.

Before Jobs, there was Land has posted an intriguing photo essay on Edwin Land and the history of Polaroid Corp. I’m no stranger to the basic story — I grew up in Massachusetts, and my first camera was a Polaroid. (Since the era was less celebrity-oriented than today, it took me a while to realize that the “Land” in the phrase “Polaroid Land Camera” referred to an actual person, rather than to the requirement that the camera operate on land instead of underwater.) Still, it’s not that much of a stretch to call Land the Steve Jobs of his day, as in the text accompanying the first picture.

Nevertheless, the photo essay contains some intriguing images I hadn’t seen before, including one of a wooden mockup of a prototype pre-SX-70 camera. (The caption says 1960, but the mockup strongly resembles the cameras sold in the late 1960s and early 1970s.) I also did not know that Land wanted his papers and correspondence burned after his death (he passed in 1991), and the rest of his stuff burned down with his house in 2005. What a loss to history. I prefer to err on the side of preserving too much rather than too little.

A graphic demonstration

A couple of entries ago, I alluded to the powerful storm that knocked out electrical power to more than 1 million customers in the mid-Atlantic region. A NASA imaging satellite has captured before-and-after pictures of the region at night — and the results reveal something about light pollution, too.

NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft, a project based right here in my current community of Greenbelt, Maryland, imaged the region just before and after the storm last Friday night. Be sure to click on the “View Image Comparison” button — it takes you to a layered image with a “slider” so you can “blink” between the two photographs.

Granted, after the storm the Philadelphia, Delaware and Eastern Shore (Maryland) regions were covered with clouds. But you can definitely see the widespread outages all over the area west of the Chesapeake Bay. Not everyone lost power — you can see where the cities are, but they looked “dimmer” from outer space.

Of course, we use electrical power for lots of things besides lighting. However, we Americans tend not to be models of prudence when it comes to outdoor lighting, and we end up sending an awful lot of lumens up into the sky, especially when we live close to each other. I wonder how many people looked up at the night sky after the storm (maybe very late Friday night/early Saturday morning, or Saturday evening) and noticed a difference. Was there indeed a difference? I’m curious whether anyone made reasonably quantitative measurements. (Sorry, I didn’t.)

Courtesy of my Google Alert, here are a few more news article on The City Dark from, the International Business Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Chicago Sun-Times. Also, Discovery News offers tips on how to view the Milky Way — that is, if you can get far away from the murk of the cities to detect it at all.