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Archive for the ‘physics’ Category

Feynman 100

I know the day’s almost over, but it’s still important to recognize that today would have been Richard Feynman’s 100th birthday. Feynman doesn’t “feel” 100 years old in my mind; after all, cancer took him when he was still 69. He didn’t get to have an extended period of being a grand old emeritus professor, frail and stooped. No wonder we still remember the wisecracking young guy.

Physics Today put up a link to a 2017 story about the inside of the youthful Feynman’s calculus notebook. Another writer for that magazine admits that Feynman’s humor could be exasperating at times. My guess is that the #MeToo movement would have tripped him up at some point. (To be fair, though, he encouraged his younger sister to become a scientist in her own right.)

Physics World also has a block of Feynman-at-100 stories on its home page; this British publication’s best-of package includes a couple of reviews of past plays about Feynman, a more general piece about physicists and science writers, and — my favorite — Virginia Trimble‘s tale of posing au naturel for a Feynman drawing session. (She was actually on my second-year project committee when I was in graduate school, and she’ll hit her own three-quarter-century mark later this year.)

I’ve read books by Feynman and books about Feynman. When I was studying undergraduate physics, our campus physics club rented 16-mm copies of the Feynman lectures that went into his book The Character of Physical Law (YouTube hadn’t been invented yet). At one point, the camera operator cut to a closeup shot of someone in the audience, and we UMass students glimpsed our future professor, Eugene Golowich, then finishing up his doctorate at Cornell, leaning back in his seat with a slight smile on his face. He taught very well himself — and I can’t help thinking that Feynman had a bit of influence on him.

As I write this entry, the first part of Caltech’s Feynman 100 celebration is taking place in Pasadena (there’s that bit of time difference between East and West). His sister, at age 91, is still able to participate in the program. So wonderful!

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My Hawking number

So, what’s your Hawking number?

I’m referring, of course, to the notion that everyone is separated by no more than six degrees. The mathematicians really got the ball rolling with their concept of an “Erdös number,” based on collaborations with the prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös. In the early days of the public Internet (that is, when Usenet newsgroups were a big thing), a long series of posts linking Kevin Bacon to other Hollywood celebrities led to a popular game, and eventually a website, for calculating “Bacon numbers.”

Of course, I wanted to calculate my own Bacon number. Around that time, a couple of things happened: one friend from my college newspaper had a bit part in Ron Howard’s The Paper, and another friend had a major CGI credit in Howard’s next film, Apollo 13. Thus, if you limit the Bacon game to actors, my Bacon number is 3: me -> my friend -> Robert Duvall (who was also in The Paper) -> Kevin Bacon. But if you include crew members, my Bacon number is only 2: me -> my other friend -> Kevin Bacon, who was of course in Apollo 13.

When I learned of the death of Stephen Hawking, my first thought was of one friend who got his Ph.D. at Cambridge University: Jonathan McDowell, the “Jonathan’s Space Report” guy. I’ve known him for almost 30(!) years now; when our friendship was new, A Brief History of Time was just hitting the bestseller lists. I checked with Jonathan, who confirmed that his doctoral adviser at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy was Bernard Carr, whose doctoral adviser in turn was Hawking. So Hawking was Jonathan’s “academic grandfather.”

And thus, even though I’ve never met this distinguished scientist, my “Hawking number” is 3: me -> Jonathan -> Carr -> Hawking. (Strictly speaking, this number should include only published peer-reviewed journal articles. But in my mind, a friendship counts as much as a film credit or publication.)

Incidentally, Jonathan’s Erdös nuber is 5, so does that make my Erdös number 6?

I’ll leave you with a list of links to news and commentary about Professor Hawking’s passing.

I’m sure there are plenty more tributes out there, but if I spend any more time tracking them down, I’m definitely not going to get my own work done.

I’ll leave you with a couple more relevant tweets from Jonathan McDowell:

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.

It’s No-Belt Week! :-)

Today’s tongue-in-cheek headline comes from a conversation I had with a friend yesterday. After a brief break in the chat, I changed the subject (whatever the previous subject had been) and murmured, “Gee, this is Nobel Prize week.” My male friend replied, “How am I supposed to keep my pants up? I don’t want to wear suspenders every day!”

I had a good hearty laugh out loud, and then clarified what I meant. Silly guy, he thought I said “no-belt prize week”! I assured him that nobody will be giving out prizes for pant waistbands that sink down and expose underwear for all the world to see.

But it is the usual week during which the Nobel Prizes are awarded, and it’s only fair to get those predictions lined up before tomorrow morning, when the physics prize becomes public. (The physics prize, of course, is my main concern professionally.)

Last year at this time, I had been finishing up a feature article on the International Year of Light, which ended up as the cover story of the January 2015 issue of Optics & Photonics News. Even though I hope every year that the physics Nobel goes to an optics-related discovery, I was thinking then that we’d have to wait for 2015 for a light-related Nobel, because this year is the IYL. But then last year we got three physics laureates who were cited for their invention of blue LEDs — truly important photonic technology — plus a chemistry prize for super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. How can it get any better for optics than that, IYL or not?

Anyhow, here is a roundup of physics-Nobel predictions from Thomson Reuters Science Watch, from Physics World, and from Physics Central. Nature takes a look at the overall speculation and the delay between the winning work and the prizes. AIP’s Ben Stein, who correctly predicted last year’s physics Nobel, weighs in again. One chemist-blogger believes the physics prize should go to a scientific team, not to individuals, the way the Nobel Peace Prize is often bestowed upon an organization. Chad Orzel of Forbes has a few final thoughts.

So … will this year’s Nobel go to a woman, or someone I went to school with, or a friend’s childhood mentor, or someone else entirely? We’ll all know in about 11 or 12 hours from now. In the meantime: guys, keep those pants hitched up! We don’t want to know the answer to “boxers or briefs” from direct visual inspection!

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.

Football … and physics!

I’ve been meaning to write about the whole “Deflategate” thing with the New England Patriots, but I’ve been juggling a lot of other things the past couple of weeks. (See previous post about writing a feature article about a certain distinguished scientist who just died.)

Disclaimer: I am the daughter of a football fan who always rooted for the Patriots, but who passed away before the Patriots ever appeared in the Super Bowl, even that first appearance in January 1986 when the Pats got mashed to pieces by the Chicago Bears just two days before the Challenger disaster. I may not follow the NFL with my father’s intensity, but I’m a Massachusetts native to the core.

When the “scandal” first broke, I was going to write about the relationship between pressure, volume, and temperature, but then I did a Google News search on “ideal gas law” and found that a few other writers had beaten me to the PV = nRT punch. Here’s a link to one of those articles: http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2015/01/p-s-i-a-whodunit/.

Vox.com had a more recent analysis of the situation, noting this:

Healy [a Carnegie Mellon grad student] also pointed out a few mistakes made by many scientists quoted in the press on the matter. In citing the ideal gas law, some of them failed to take into account that the air pressure inside a 12.5 psi ball is actually twice as high, because the measurement also reflects the surrounding atmosphere pushing back against the ball. When you account for that, the balls can drop by about 1 full psi from the temperature difference alone.

Additionally, the effect of moisture was often ignored. After the leather absorbed a bit of water, however, it expanded slightly, led to an additional 0.7 psi decrease in air pressure in his experiments.

This give me (hardly unbiased toward the Patriots) some assurance that the whole thing was an honest matter of game-day weather physics, not some nefarious cheat.

Ultimately, everything boils down to this: Haters are gonna hate and people like to put dynasties in the crosshairs. But the Patriots got to be a dynasty by being very, very good at what they do. Photonic Pat says: GO PATS!!! 🙂

Charles Hard Townes, 1915-2015

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.

http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2015/01/27/nobel-laureate-and-laser-inventor-charles-townes-dies-at-99/

http://today.ucf.edu/ucf-mourns-nobel-laureate-laser-pioneer-charles-h-townes/

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/local/2015/01/27/dr-charles-townes-nobel-prize-winner-greenville-native-dies/22438001/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/charles-h-townes-nobel-laureate-and-laser-pioneer-dies-at-99/2015/01/28/73e65e04-a69d-11e4-a7c2-03d37af98440_story.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/29/us/charles-h-townes-physicist-who-helped-develop-lasers-dies-at-99.html

http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-charles-townes-20150128-story.html#page=1

http://www.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/Laser-co-creator-Charles-Townes-a-Nobel-6047889.php

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Charles-H-Townes-renowned-physicist-and-Nobel-6047011.php#photo-7450908

http://www.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/Nobel-laureate-Charles-Townes-laser-co-creator-6046795.php