Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

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Blog housekeeping

Wouldn’t you know … as soon as I say I’m going to do something like a series of Women’s History Month posts, something gets in the way (like a late-winter head cold and various obligations to volunteer organizations), and then I don’t do it. Apologies to my readers.

I would still like to write a few posts related to living female scientists, though, even if they’re just “Women’s History” and not “Women’s History Month.” Watch for them soon.

In the meantime, if you’re an OSA member, please check out my latest feature article for OPN. I’ll add a PDF of it to my personal online library in a few weeks.

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Anticipation…

OK, when you get invitations to five different press conferences on the same day, you might think something’s afoot, right?

One might think that indeed. Specifically, a few days ago, the people from LIGO put out a “media advisory” that they would be giving an “update” on their ongoing search for gravitational waves. It seems a little over-the-top to be organizing a simple “update” at the National Press Club, doesn’t it? Then, when you throw in simultaneous LIGO-related news conferences in London and Paris and Moscow, and you get a personal email encouraging you to attend a special seminar on gravitational waves at the Italian Embassy later in the afternoon … well, this doesn’t exactly sound like a routine assessment of the equipment functions, does it?

So, we have plenty of media speculation going on. Could this be the confirmation of the final piece of general relativity? Could a Nobel Prize be hanging in the balance?

I don’t know anything more than the next person, of course. (Sky & Telescope, which is much more plugged into the astronomical scene than I am, tried to track down the rumors already.) One scary word of caution: BICEP2. Remember that? Yeah, right.

I believe it was Carl Sagan who said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A prominent scientist pointed that out to me almost 20 years ago, when there was a flurry of reports that there might have been some fossilized bacteria found in Martian soil (remember THAT?!?), and I believe it is a good rule for all aspects of life, not just scientific research. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Think about that not just when you’re examining the results of your latest experiment, but also when you’re standing in line at the supermarket next to the screaming tabloid headlines, or when you’re debating whether to forward the latest shocking health claim that your old classmate posted to Facebook.

Incidentally, if LIGO (or its successor, Advanced LIGO) did find extraordinary evidence for gravitational waves, it will be a triumph not just for astronomy, but also for optics. I heard a talk on LIGO at my first OSA annual meeting a decade ago, and I was impressed with the awesome precision that each of the 4-km-long interferometers and their associated optics required. Measuring length changes of 10^-18 m? Optical coatings uniform to 1 atom of thickness? Whoa!

Yes, if LIGO has found something big, I hope the instrumentalists get due credit. We’ll all know in just a few hours.

 

Awaiting my OptIPuter…

I’ve been writing about optics and photonics professionally for more than a decade now. One of the continuing themes has been the ongoing quest to integrate optical technologies with existing silicon-based electronics to create all sorts of wonderful devices that could run a whole lot faster than their equivalents of today.

To that end, a team of researchers at three U.S. universities has created a prototype of a CMOS optical chip. (CMOS is the type of silicon technology that powers our computers and other devices that contain tiny processors.) If you want to know all the technical details behind this work, the short article I wrote for OPN contains a link to the original Nature paper, but you need a subscription to access it. (Or you could go to your local friendly university library, but I’m writing this post on New Year’s Eve, and I sincerely doubt any university libraries are open at the moment.)

Writing this newsbrief resonated with me because a friend recently asked me whether I have any plans to buy a new laptop computer, as the one I’m now using will be three years old next month. Just for grins and giggles, I gave a cursory glance to the Sunday-newspaper ad from a big-box store that sells tech stuff. Basically, the advertised laptops have the same range of processors as they did three years ago. Many of them have twice as much RAM and storage capacity as they did in January 2013, and of course they’re running Windows 10 (which, as humorist Dave Barry notes, “turns Windows 8 back into Windows 7”). Still, the laptops seem like the “same old, same old,” although I’m sure they don’t have half the letters worn off the keyboard from massive amounts of typing, as mine does. The excitement has moved to smartphones, fitness watches and other tiny gadgets.

It’s been about 20 years since I started following the field of high-performance computing, also known as supercomputing. I remember writing about the first computer that could operate at 1 teraflops, or 1 trillion floating-point operations per second. Today, the 10 fastest computers on planet Earth run at some multiples of 1 petaflops, or 1 quadrillion floating-point operations per second. Now, my 2013 laptop is a lot better than the 2004-era Windows XP machine that it replaced, but I don’t think it’s a thousand times faster.

Optics has been part of high-performance communications — and high-performance computer interconnects — for a while now. I would really like some of this optical (or optoelectronic) technology to filter down to the level of individual microprocessors and motherboards for desktop and laptop computers, never mind the smartphones and tablets that we all crave these days. However, given that humans were supposed to be living on Mars by now according to all those Apollo-era predictions, I’m not holding my breath.

A new ‘Medium’

I just published in, literally, a new medium for me: the website Medium.com. I stumbled upon the website some months ago, probably because one of my hundreds of Facebook friends linked to an article there. Ever since, I’ve been itching to try it out, and the stars finally aligned for me to do so (sorry about the astrology reference).

I have no idea how to gauge readership of a piece, so I’ll just have to post a bunch of links to it in all the usual social-media outposts and see what happens.

Since the event that inspired me to write the piece happens tomorrow (Wednesday, May 21), I had really wanted to publish this several days ago. However, I had a weekend stomach bug that made it difficult for me to think 1,500-word thoughts and make them semi-coherent.

Anyway, please feel free to check out my tale of a small town auctioning off its prized Norman Rockwell painting: https://medium.com/p/78f084c621b4. Enjoy!

Coming up for air…

Things have been busy around here for a while now, as I juggle my freelance assignments with the acquisition of some gently used furniture from a retiring couple who are moving out of state (and all the rearranging and cleaning that goes with the latter). However, I am absolutely glued to the TV for one hour every Sunday night, the exact duration of an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I hope you’re watching Cosmos as well, and I promise I’ll write more about it before the series comes to an end. In the meantime, I “reposted” that Annie Jump Cannon essay from another blog — WordPress.com makes it entirely TOO easy to “reblog” someone else’s work, so I just wanted to emphasize that I did not write it; I just enjoyed reading it.

Annie Jump Cannon, Featured On Last Week’s Cosmos, As Profiled In “Wonder Women of History”

STRAITENED CIRCUMSTANCES: Tim Hanley on Wonder Woman and Women in Comics

cosmos

If you’re not watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey every Sunday on Fox, you are seriously missing out. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is everybody’s favourite scientist, and the show is both gorgeously shot and does a fantastic job explaining big scientific concepts. It’s a lot of fun to watch.

Last weekend, Cosmos profiled Annie Jump Cannon, famous for counting and classifying thousands of stars. It was great to see Cosmos spotlight female scientists, and it reminded me that Annie Jump Cannon was profiled decades ago in Wonder Woman as part of the regular “Wonder Women of History” feature.

In the Golden Age, each issue of Wonder Woman profiled a notable historical woman in a 3-4 page strip. There were several astronomers spotlighted, including Cannon, Caroline Herschel, and Maria Mitchell; the latter two are famous for their work in comets. In Wonder Woman #33, dated January 1949, Annie Jump Cannon was the…

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Blog housekeeping

My blog has a brand-new look! I was tired of the small type of the previous theme, and WordPress.com had seen fit to retire it anyway, so I shopped around for a fresher design. Please let me know what you think.