Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for the ‘science and society’ Category

Catching up

I’m happy to report that I’m keeping busy with my writing. So far this year I’ve had three feature articles published in Optics & Photonics News — two of them open-access cover stores.

First, I wrote about the technology behind Breakthrough Starshot, the Yuri Milner-funded plan to send an army of tiny laser-powered satellites to the stars. Since this topic was more speculative than the usual OPN subjects, I half expected a barrage of letters complaining that a serious scientific publication should never publish such pie-in-the-sky tripe. But no. My editor did get one letter decrying the high cost of the proposal, but the author decided against allowing OPN to publish his missive. Oh, well.

I’m sure there’s a lot of doubt out there — to wit, a recent Popular Mechanics article on Starshot was subtitled “Inside the Ludicrous Plan to Send a Spacecraft to Our Neighbor Star.” That piece, however, ends on a far more hopeful note than the subtitle would lead you to believe.

By the time my Starshot article was published, I had already written my next cover story on the future of the optics workforce. My inspiration for this one was my idle wonderment about all the articles I’ve read about the displacement of manufacturing jobs by robots and offshoring and whatnot.

I’m finishing another OPN feature article this week — whether it will be on the cover is of course yet TBD. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention that this week marks the 48th anniversary of the first lunar landing by humans. You may choose to celebrate by rereading my article on optics in the Apollo program. I’ll leave you with an optics-related photo from the Apollo Archive:

Neil Armstrong watches as Buzz Aldrin practices using a camera during a geology field trip in Texas, early 1969. NASA photo via the Apollo Archive.

A tale of black and pink

Happy New Year to all my readers!

I’d like to start 2017 by passing along a story of black and pink. The color combination isn’t new — it was quite popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, echoing the famous “Silence = Death” AIDS protest poster. I still have a black jacket with a hot-pink lining that my late mother bought me 20 years ago.

Now, apparently, an artist that has restricted other artists from using a particular “black” has been banned from acquiring the “world’s pinkest pink.”

I have no idea why the pink pigment described in the Smithsonian article has that superlative attached to it. The little jar looks about as pink as the hat I’m knitting for the Women’s March on Washington, or perhaps the Hello Kitty lens-cleaning kit that a friend gave me. Perhaps most painters make their pinks by blending red and white paints together, rather than buying something explicitly labeled pink.

Anyhow, the artist who isn’t allowed to buy the pinkest pink had previously made some sort of deal that stated he was going to be the only person allowed to make artworks with Vantablack, also known as the world’s “blackest black.” It’s a pigment made out of carbon nanotubes, which are tiny rolled-up sheets of pure carbon. (If the “blackest black” seems to be something out of a military video game, you’re right — it was developed for military applications.) As I’ve written in several short articles in OPN’s newsroom archives, carbon nanotubes can absorb radiation strongly at lots of different wavelengths, extending into the infrared. The artist’s monopoly on Vantablack inspired the pink-pigment manufacturer to keep his creation out of that artist’s hands.

Note that the restriction on using Vantablack applies only to “art”; anyone who wants to use the carbon nanotubes to dampen reflections inside a telescope or make some piece of military hardware invisible to enemies is perfectly able to do so.

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.

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.

Women in Science 2016: Elsa Garmire

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.

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 Apollo17.org.

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?

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!