Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘chemistry’

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.


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.

Beauty and fun

If you have a relatively cloudless evening sky in your area, don’t walk, RUN outside and take a look at the nearly full Moon in the same region of the sky (roughly) as bright Jupiter. By tomorrow the Moon will be full and hanging between Jupiter and the Pleiades, according to “This Week’s Sky at a Glance” from Sky & Telescope.

Also, I must admit that my colleague Yvonne Carts-Powell’s take on the whisky thing is so much more entertaining than mine. Check it out!

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.


Between Canada Day (July 1) and U.S. Independence Day (today, the Fourth of July), lots of North Americans are going to see displays of fireworks this weekend. I absolutely love watching fireworks in person! Did you ever what makes them explode, whistle and sizzle? What makes a “chrysanthemum” different from a “Roman candle”?

Of course, it’s all chemistry. If you are interested in the subject, I’ve got a few links for your pyrotechnic pleasure.

Last night I was watching a National Geographic episode of “Naked Science” titled “Secret World of Fireworks.” (Note to self: Any title beginning with “Secret World of…” is bound to get attention!) The hour-long show focused on the Zambelli family of New Castle, Pa., one of the biggest names in the pyro business (in high demand on days like today). I thought the episode went into enormous detail about the chemicals needed for fireworks — though if you tried (without the appropriate license) to order these items yourself from a chemical supplier, you might find yourself being investigated. Don’t try this at home, kidderoonies.

(Disclaimer: Every summer I go camping in western Pennsylvania not too far from New Castle. In 2013, a campground right off Interstate 79 is going to host the annual convention of the Pyrotechnics Guild International, so if you are a fireworks enthusiast, mark it on your calendars now.)

Another excellent resource, with lots of good links, is the Scientific American “Observations” blog post on fireworks chemistry. In one of those links, science blogger Janet Stemwedel of San Jose State University goes into more detail about the chemistry, although she doesn’t care for the loud bangs that I adore (and my pets don’t either).

In other news … the Boston Globe takes a look at the master pyrotechnician behind the Esplanade fireworks on the Fourth of July. Boston’s annual Pops concerts at the Hatch Shell were my introduction to big-city fireworks way back when I was a Boston University student, although, in those Cold War days, I always used to wonder why the explosions went off to the “1812 Overture,” which of course was written to celebrate a Russian victory over the French, who helped us win our independence. Ah, well.

Finally, Wired Science delves into the DIY fireworks scene, as built by members of the earlier mentioned Pyrotechnics Guild International. Maybe I ought to check out that August 2013 meeting myself….