Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life


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.

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

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!

Today a building blew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York, resulting in at least one death. Officials strongly suspect that a natural-gas leak was to blame, although of course the investigation is still going on.

For next month’s (November’s) issue of Optics & Photonics News, I’ve written an article about a possible new method for scanning city streets for gas leaks before they go kaboom. The technique doesn’t require entering buildings, and, as you might imagine, it involves a laser or two. Check out next month’s OPN for all the deets; it’s a special issue focusing on optics, energy, and the environment.

Gas mains deteriorate like the rest of our infrastructure. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix their leaks quickly?

A new month, a new article

It’s September, which means that my article “200 Years of Fresnel’s Legacy” has appeared in the September issue of Optics & Photonics News. I’ll put up a link to the full PDF eventually, but since the issue just came out, I’ll respect the publication’s members-only firewall for now.

If you really liked my previous article on Apollo-era optics, you’ll certainly enjoy Gear Patrol’s gorgeously illustrated photo essay, “Hasselblad’s History in Space.” Even I hadn’t seen some of those images before. I think Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham looks a bit like Bono in those shades and earphones, but maybe that’s just me.

Finally … I’m getting close to the 10-year anniversary of the earliest pieces I wrote for OPN. I’ve been thinking of going back and following up on some of the experimental results and other topics I wrote about back then. Did a such-and-such new technique actually lead to advances in biomedical imaging or quantum computing or whatever was touted? How have subdisciplines in optics advanced over the past decade? Is anyone interested in knowing the answers?

Today, July 28, would have been the 100th birthday of Charles H. Townes. Of course, he’s not here to enjoy it, because he passed away six months ago.

Optics & Photonics News marked the centennial by tweeting a link to the feature article I wrote about Dr. Townes for the May 2015 issue. The Charles Townes Center, a program for gifted students in his hometown of Greenville, S.C., posted a birthday remembrance on its Facebook page. A German website posted this message (in German) about Dr. Townes’ contributions to astronomy. And tonight the South Carolina State Museum will have special programs in honor of the state’s native son. From the museum’s website:

DID YOU KNOW? July 28th would have been the 100th birthday of laser pioneer and Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes. Townes, who passed away in January of this year, was a South Carolina native who won the Nobel Prize for his inventions of the laser and maser and helped build the foundation of laser technology.  Museum educators will be discussing his revolutionary work from 6 – 8 p.m. in front of the Townes exhibit, which houses his Nobel Prize among other laser-related artifacts.  At 7 p.m., experience the technology that Townes developed in Laser Fun, a 40-minute planetarium laser light show set to an assortment of family-friendly songs. In addition, from 7 – 8 p.m., author Rachel Haynie will be signing copies of her children’s book, “First, You Explore: The Story of the Young Charles Townes.” Activities are included with general admission, however there is an additional fee to see the planetarium laser light show.