Here are some things I’ve been thinking about and reading about lately.
Giant lasers in trouble
Nature Photonics recently published an editorial highlighting the proposed elimination of two powerful U.S. lasers from the Energy Department’s budget. These are at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. In particular, the cutbacks at the LLE would hurt the research community.
Light-adapting contact lens
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently cleared the first contact lens that gets darker in bright light, the way some eyeglass lenses do. I don’t want to delve into the details here (I’m certainly not trying to provide corporations with free advertising), but I’m just wondering what these lenses will make the wearer’s eyes look like. I know that the darkening eyeglass lenses look darker on someone else than they appear to me when the glasses are on my face, if that makes any sense. (I have one pair of eyeglasses that darkens and one pair that does not.) It will be weird if these contact lenses make people look as if they have large dark holes where their irises are supposed to be.
A global crisis
My next feature article for Optics & Photonics News will be on optics in oceanography. It hasn’t been published yet, but I can tell you that it mentions the growing problem of plastic garbage in our oceans. The New Republic says that the problem is so big that it will take an agreement as large as the Paris climate accord to handle it.
Looking for extrasolar worlds
This week NASA and SpaceX are scheduled to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, better known as TESS. Back in January I wrote a newsbrief about TESS for OPN. Today was supposed to be launch day — and, as I write this, the countdown timer on the TESS website is still ticking away — but SpaceX tweeted earlier this afternoon that the launch has been postponed until Wednesday to review some guidance, navigation and control issues.
What I’m doing
Besides writing for OPN, I’m helping a colleague, OSA Fellow Jeff Hecht, with some photo research for his next nonfiction book. I’m mentioning this in case anyone who gets an email from me follows the link in my signature back to this website.
Women’s History Month began yesterday. This year, I would like to highlight the achievements of a number of amazing women whose work may not be known to the general public, but who are doing, or have done, important research. I won’t limit myself to the field of optics, but I shall start with it.
Elsa Garmire is currently a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College up in New Hampshire. She has had a five-decades-long career in physics, which included a year of service as OSA’s 1993 President (the second of five women to hold that position over the past century).
Garmire was only one of two students to earn her Ph.D. under Charles H. Townes during his stint at MIT in the mid-1960s. Obviously, women in physics were few and far between in those days, more so than now. However, Townes had four daughters of his own and realized that young women were perfectly capable of studying science. Plus, Maria Goeppert-Mayer received the Nobel Prize in physics the year before Townes did.
Once Garmire became a postdoctoral fellow out in California, though, she wasn’t taken as seriously as a scientist as she might have been. And she was living in the trippy, groovy era of the Sixties. So she explored her artistic side and ended up playing a major role in the creation of laser light shows [PDF].
Eventually, she became a professor at the University of Southern California before moving to Dartmouth. After a successful career in lasers and nonlinear optics, she has decided to retire this year. I wish her well and hope that she will continue to stay in touch with OSA.
Today a building blew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York, resulting in at least one death. Officials strongly suspect that a natural-gas leak was to blame, although of course the investigation is still going on.
For next month’s (November’s) issue of Optics & Photonics News, I’ve written an article about a possible new method for scanning city streets for gas leaks before they go kaboom. The technique doesn’t require entering buildings, and, as you might imagine, it involves a laser or two. Check out next month’s OPN for all the deets; it’s a special issue focusing on optics, energy, and the environment.
Gas mains deteriorate like the rest of our infrastructure. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix their leaks quickly?
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I awoke to the news that Charles Hard Townes, a 1964 Nobel laureate for fundamental work on maser and laser physics, had died on Tuesday, January 27. In six months and a day, he would have turned 100 years old, but you can still think of this as his centennial year, in my opinion.
During my years working at OSA, I met six Nobel Prize winners; five are still with us. But Dr. Townes always looked hale and hearty, even well into his 90s, and he always went to conferences with his beloved wife, Frances — I thought that was so sweet of them. He was always the gentleman and not the least bit overbearing. At the symposium on the exact 50th anniversary of the first laser, when Dr. Townes gave his talk on the history of laser physics, he took a red laser pointer out of his pocket and used it so matter-of-factly, without harping on the fact that it — and a huge amount of today’s optical technology — has its roots in the insight he once had on a humble park bench just a few blocks from the White House.
I was already planning to write an article about Dr. Townes for an upcoming issue of OPN, so his death adds a new poignancy. I have to get back to work now, so I’ll leave you with a few links to some of the obituaries that have come out.