Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘biomedical optics’

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.

Here comes Glowin’ Cottontail…

As one TV station reported yesterday, fluorescent green bunnies have researchers hopping with excitement. Scientists from Hawaii and Turkey transferred a jellyfish gene into the rabbits when they were still embryos, and the gene for producing that fluorescent protein expressed itself in the baby rabbits. Fluorescence, of course, means that the protein absorbs ultraviolet photons and gives off visible light.

The researchers have other goals for the gene transfer method, such as producing new or better drugs for human use. This is just one of those “proof of concept” experiments. It doesn’t hurt the rabbits. However, I wouldn’t let a fluorescent bunny loose in the wild, as that glow might make it an easy target for nocturnal predators.

Links to other coverage:

Good things to read

I’d like to draw your attention to a few articles that have caught my eye in recent days.

First up, an important analysis by Scientific American on how antiscience beliefs may jeopardize U.S. democracy. Author Shawn Lawrence Otto calls out the extremists on both sides — yes, lefties have their own brand of science denialism, not just the righties — but, he adds, “the Republican version is particularly dangerous because it attacks the validity of science itself.” (And as I write this blog post, I’m listening to a Frontline episode, number 3021, going behind the scenes of the climate-change skeptics who are working to publicize their message of doubt.)

On a more positive note, Nature recently published a supplement, “Physics masterclass,” which takes an expansive look at the most interesting questions in modern physics and the Nobel laureates who have addressed them. One of the laureates is Roy Glauber, from whom I once took a Harvard Extension School night course on “Waves, Particles and the Structure of Matter.”

Speaking of both PBS and Nobel laureates … On “Inside NOVA,” Seth Lloyd of MIT takes a much more informed look than I ever could on this year’s winners. I encountered Lloyd some years ago at a small high-performance computing conference in Rhode Island, both by listening to his talk and sitting at his table for a lunchtime discussion. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, GO! He has a magical ability to explain the quantum world. Even if you haven’t taken a physics class since high school, you will understand him. Trust me.

In May 2010, I heard Stanford University professor Steven Block deliver a plenary talk on his work with optical tweezers, or “the closest thing humans have made to a tractor beam.” (The night before, he was up late, playing country-bluegrass music at a special concert of scientist-musicians.) Block and one of his graduate students are now reporting the first real-time observations of RNA folding. The pair published their findings in the most recent issue of Science.

Finally, I wrote up a couple of interesting things that came out of OSA’s annual meeting last week, but if you want more, visit the Frontiers in Optics social media hub.

My latest news articles for OPN

I write news briefs for the Optics & Photonics News website roughly every other week, with some slight schedule variations due to holidays and such. Here’s your invitation to read the last three articles while they’re still online.

Read this article first, because it’s been up there the longest: The folks at JILA (the place that used to be called the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics) have developed a tabletop-sized device that is a source of coherent X-rays. Coherence, of course, means that the light waves are “marching in step.” The beams that come from the medical X-ray device in your doctor’s or dentist’s office are no more coherent than the light from an incandescent bulb. (I hadn’t realized that before I did this article, but there you have it.)

Also, before this JILA invention, if you wanted an X-ray laser beam, you had to go to a particle accelerator facility. There aren’t too many sufficiently powerful particle accelerators out there, and you can’t exactly fit them into a doctor’s office.

Now, coherent X-ray beams aren’t going to be used in emergency rooms anytime soon. However, they could be extremely useful in studying the ultrafast details of chemical and biological processes, so it might be handy to have one in those kinds of laboratories. You can read more about this device and the scientists who built it in Nature, on and on JILA’s own website.

In the second newsbrief, I wrote about a new type of solar cell made from carbon nanotubes, developed at MIT. These tubes are just tiny bits of rolled-up graphene, which in turn is a two-dimensional lattice of carbon atoms. Both graphene and carbon nanotubes are extremely hot research topics right now, and I have been interested in solar technology for many years, so I enjoyed writing this one. You can see the actual solar-cell material in the photo accompanying this MIT press release, though I think the image looks like not-very-impressive orange mush.

My most recent article took me back to the “world’s fastest camera” that I wrote about three years ago, while I was still a staff writer at OPN. The UCLA team that invented that camera answered the question “What is it good for?” by demonstrating that it can scan blood samples for rogue cancer cells that break off a primary tumor and move through the bloodstream to metastasize elsewhere in the body. Of course, many, many clinical trials will be needed before it can be used on actual cancer patients, but any potential new tool in the battle against cancer makes me hopeful for the future.

Fake limbs, OK — but fake whisky, no way!

One of Wired magazine’s blogs has reported that the military is investigating laser-powered prosthetic limbs for wounded soldiers. Tiny, squishy microsensors would detect nerve impulses from the patient’s body and transmit them through a network of optical fibers to and from the sensors and motors in the patient’s artificial limb. Since fibers can transmit a lot more information than wiring, they should be able to handle the complex signaling involved in simple tasks such as picking up a coffee cup.

In other news … where else but Scotland, home to the single-malt Scotch, would you find research on the spectroscopic properties of whisky? The BBC reports that researchers at St. Andrews University have developed a method for performing near-infrared Raman spectroscopy of tiny (20 microliters) samples of alcoholic beverages on a optofluidic chip. The method could lend itself to quality control — as well as rapid detection of counterfeit versions of the precious beverage. You can savor the full single-malt research paper in Optics Express.

Can lasers zap the fungus among us?

Toenail fungus is gross, and nobody likes to contemplate it. Can medical lasers get rid of the disgusting stuff and make one’s toes pretty and painless again?

Maybe, maybe not. Today’s Washington Post describes the podiatric problem and the possible ways of de-FEET-ing it, from oral medication to two recently approved lasers, the PinPointe and the GenesisPlus. According to the FDA’s approval paperwork, the PinPoint is a pulsed solid-state laser operating at the standard wavelength of 1064 nm.

Apparently, some patients find relief through the laser treatment, whereas others do not. One thing I didn’t know beforehand: the PinPointe’s manufacturer says that some 100 different organisms — including yeast, mold and bacteria, as well as fungi — work together to gunk up our toenails. Perhaps the patients for whom the laser worked had different kinds of toenail beasties from the patients who experienced unsuccessful treatment. Now there’s a research project waiting to be done!

The laser treatment also isn’t usually covered by insurance. Still, at least lasers don’t have the potential side effects of the oral fungicidal medication: “diarrhea, headache, rashes and changes in taste,” and severe liver damage in some cases, according to the Post article.


Now this is interesting. Lee Mather blogged at that low-level red laser light can activate certain kinds of tooth-whitening gel and thus increase the effectiveness of the whitening treatment. The first link in that blog post takes you to a longer Biophotonics magazine article about lasers in dentistry.

I have to admit that I’ve pretty much dodged writing about lasers in dentistry because I have that old-fashioned fear of the dentist. My own dentist, who is as calm and positive a presence as anyone in his profession, says I have too much old dental work in my mouth for him to use lasers to drill my teeth. So I guess I’m stuck with my nemesis, the mechanical drill.

But perhaps I could go in for a whitening treatment at some point, and it won’t be as bad as drilling. Sometimes it’s a shock to see an “ordinary person” appear on TV with non-whitened teeth, because we all get used to watching professional “talent” with blindingly brilliant choppers.