Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Broken cylinders and tiny satellites

I love it when I stumble across some news that pertains to one of the articles I’ve written in the past! In this case, I actually have two updates.

Back in January, OPN published my article on the IRENE project, which is using high-tech imaging techniques to preserve ancient audio recordings. (By “ancient,” of course, I mean everything from the earliest 19th-century phonographic cylinders to mid-20th-century transcription platters for saving radio broadcasts and ethnographic tales.) Somehow I missed this in real time, but in May, the Library of Congress — which is a big contributor to IRENE — hosted a lecture by one of its in-house chemists, Eric Monroe, who wanted to figure out why the broken cylinders whose recordings IRENE was trying to preserve were, in fact, broken. That led him to study the historical records of the hundreds of experiments that led to the original invention of wax cylinders, and then to perform his own experiments to try to reconstitute the stuff that went into these cylinders. You can go here for some additional material on Dr. Monroe and his work, plus a link to the video of the lecture.

Second is a follow-up to my Breakthrough Starshot piece. The Breakthrough Initiatives just announced today that last month it launched a bunch of the world’s smallest satellites, with a mass of only 4 g each. Of course, they’re in low Earth orbit, not a trans-stellar trajectory, but hey, it’s a start. And they seem to have the necessary components of a spacecraft, including power source (solar panel) and communications technology. We shall see how long they last in space.

The particular Starshot team member who led this project is Zac Manchester, who didn’t get back to me when I tried to reach him for my article, but oh well. You can read the press release here and here, but go here for Scientific American‘s take.

Could your light bulb talk to you? (Update on Li-Fi)

A “talking light bulb” isn’t the product of some tin-hatted paranoiac — not if the light bulb in question is an LED model, and not if you’re using a Li-Fi signal in place of Wi-Fi.

What is Li-Fi, you may ask? Basically, it’s a type of optical wireless communications (OWC) in which a LED, not a radio-frequency router, gives off the signal that talks to your device. I wrote about it in this 2014 article for Optics & Photonics News. If you’d rather get your information by listening to it, researcher Harald Haas, who coined the term “Li-Fi,” gave a TED talk and demonstration about it in 2011.

Although that speech is four years old now, Li-Fi hasn’t made much of a dent in the marketplace … yet. Every wirelessly connected device you already own — smartphone, tablet, laptop, Fitbit, whatever — would need to have a second set of receivers and transmitters to communicate with Li-Fi as well as Wi-Fi “hot spots.” Still, it’s hard to imagine how the so-called “Internet of Things” will develop if we don’t increase the amount of electromagnetic bandwidth we use for communications — and Li-Fi would open up a lot of bandwidth for sure. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, flight attendants will hand out Li-Fi converters to airline passengers so that they can use their devices to communicate while traveling, the way they now hand out headphones (or used to hand out headphones, depending on your flight) and beverages.

Recently, Haas’ group, based out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has figured out how to make organic solar cells into Li-Fi receivers as well as power sources. That’s cool, because in our quest to endlessly miniaturize our devices, we don’t leave a lot of real estate open for transmitters and receivers — or for additional battery packs, for that matter. If you’re truly interested in the technical details, you can find the original article here.

A slightly different, more marketing-oriented twist on Li-Fi technology is offered by a Boston-based company called ByteLight, which was recently acquired by another company called Acuity Brands. We shall see how that shakes out and how OWC will evolve over the next few years.

(P.S. Please, can we come up with a better phrase than “Internet of Things”? That sounds way too much like the “information superhighway” you might have heard about back in 1990 or thereabouts.)


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.

Speeding up those dental appointments

One weird thing about me: I’ve got a phobia when it comes to dentistry. I don’t mind any other medical procedures — I made my first blood donation at the tender age of 17, and I have experience with the other end of the needle too (I had to give one of my cats insulin shots for the last 14 months of his life). But dentistry … give me the good (legal) drugs, please.

So I’m always happy to read of products that can reduce the time spent in the dentist’s chair, such as the report of a faster-hardening composite material for fillings. The Austrian researchers say that the new composite material contains a tiny amount of germanium and can be “cured” in thicker layers, which means that your dentist doesn’t have to alternate as much between packing the material into the tooth and holding up the little blue light that photoactivates the material.

I haven’t investigated this further, and I suppose that U.S. officials will have to approve the material before it can be offered to dentists on this side of the Atlantic. Still, I have some old fillings that will need replacement eventually, so I’ll keep this in mind.

(I really wish I could face the laser rather than the noise and vibration of the drill, but my dentist tells me that the presence of my old fillings makes it impossible to drill with a laser. Apparently, lasers are only for teeth that have never had cavities.)

Question for my readers

I’ve got a few things to say in another post. First, though, I want to pick your brains.

Readers, do you like my blog layout? What do or don’t you like about it? WordPress has so many different themes. Originally I picked one that has an astronomical “look” right out of the box, so to speak. But I’m tired of the tiny type. I also realize that more people may be reading this blog on mobile devices, either on a mobile browser or on the WordPress app, which strips away the themes for readability.

So I’m throwing the question to you: How would you like my blog to look? What would make it more convenient for you?

5 Tech Products That Will Be Dead in 5 Years

So, what do YOU all think about these five predictions? I think one will be spot-on, one will never happen, and the rest will be somewhere in between. But I’m not sure which is which….


With the speed of innovation in the tech industry, we can’t know every piece of technology that will fill our everyday lives in five years, but we can predict what won’t last.

View original post 891 more words