The New York Times finally published an obituary for Roy Glauber.
Also, a Washington Post opinion writer weighed in on a paradox: many Americans love technology but hate (or fear) science.
Last month, on the day after Christmas, I was on travel with family and friends. That was the day two influential scientists passed away — both at the age of 93.
I can honestly say that Roy J. Glauber is the only professor I’ve had — yet! — who won a Nobel Prize. Not that I’m a Harvard alum or anything, but many years ago, when I was contemplating going to back to college to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in physics (my first degree was in journalism), taking his Harvard Extension School night class titled “Waves, Particles, and the Structure of Matter” gave me confidence that I could hack physics at the college level. Unlike the Astronomy 100-101 courses at the University of Maryland, which used only algebra, Glauber’s course required an understanding of trigonometry for studying, y’know, wave motion.
Years later, when I was working for OSA and Glauber had just received the Nobel Prize, I told him over lunch that I took his evening course. His response? “You must have been one of about four people who actually paid to take it.” He taught the Extension class only with the stipulation that high school students and teachers could attend for free.
That was the kind of person Roy Glauber was. I’ve been told that when he attended OSA’s annual meeting, he would sit in on the symposium for undergraduate research. I wonder how many of the student presenters, particularly beginning in 2005, realized the significance of his presence in the audience.
I wish I could find the main text for “Waves, Particles, and the Structure of Matter.” Glauber wrote it himself and had it printed at the copy store, and it was well-written and entertaining. He modestly mentioned his own discovery about optical coherence, almost in passing, but did not dwell on it. Sometimes I wish I could have helped him edit that book just a bit and get it properly published.
Some obituaries and tributes for Dr. Glauber:
(Incidentally, why hasn’t the NY Times run an obituary of Dr. Glauber yet? I mean, he was a native New Yorker, he graduated with the very first class of the Bronx High School of Science, yadda yadda yadda.)
The other important scientist who died on December 26 was Nancy Grace Roman, an astronomer who has been called the “Mother of Hubble” for the work she did for the space telescope. I never met her, but I’m sure I would have enjoyed a conversation with her. It’s also important to note that she grew up in an era when far fewer women pursued careers in the physical sciences.
Obituaries and tributes for Dr. Roman:
(What, you were expecting something more from NASA during the partial government shutdown?)
Dr. Roman’s death came just a few weeks before the 25th anniversary of the 1994 AAS meeting at which the stunning results of the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission were revealed. I was there….
Here are some things I’ve been thinking about and reading about lately.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
I notice a characteristic SWH moment on page 4, where I noted: “at this point Stephen’s chair fell off the back of the dais, and after being rescued he joked that he had fallen off the edge of the universe”
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 14, 2018
Let the record show that, nearly a year ago, I predicted the hype over the Great Eclipse of 2017. I just thought it might start a little sooner than the week before the big event. However, we Americans have notoriously short attention spans. Eclipse on the 21st of August? By the 31st of August, it will have been completely forgotten, and everyone will be focused on Britain’s royal family.
I know that, come next Monday, I’m not going to be in the path of totality. Yeah, I wish I could. However, this past weekend my car decided that it could eat its own radiator and alternator for Sunday brunch. I paid the $773 bill, but I won’t have spare change until next Friday. I can do a lot of things, but changing the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon to suit my bank account isn’t one of them.
Once before, I was in the path of totality. You may recall the eclipse of July 11, 1991 — it passed right over Mauna Kea. That summer I had an internship at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, but I arranged to take a trip with three undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Arizona down to Mazatlán, Mexico, which is about as far south as the tip of Baja California, but on the mainland instead of the peninsula. Unfortunately for our traveling quartet, while the tip of Baja California had a grand view, Mazatlán seemed to be the only major Mexican city that was completely overcast. The thick clouds did get very dark for five and a half minutes around noon … but, yeah, it wasn’t the same as an actual view.
And since the closest part of the path of totality to my current Maryland residence is in South Carolina, which seems to have a pretty good chance of clouds and/or rain … yeah, I think I’m better off staying put and waiting for April 8, 2024.
Anyhow … before the eclipse hits Monday, I urge you to educate yourself about eclipse-watching safety, first and foremost … and also what to expect wherever you are, and where to find the cool pictures online. Here’s my curated list of links:
Remember, SAFETY FIRST!!!
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 stories.
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:
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.