Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘cool stuff’


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.


Looking for some cool images?

Hi, I’m Pat and I’m a social-media addict. I really enjoy Pinterest. If you haven’t already done so, please check out my “Science Photos and Images” board on that site:

I add to the collection when I remember to do so (which isn’t every day … but I’m trying to get better at it). Of course, some of the images link back to my own writing, but others are just fascinating and beautiful in their own right.

Today I even added an image from the BICEP2 collaboration — you know, the so-called “smoking gun” of cosmological inflation theory. Polarization diagrams may not mean much to the average person, but that figure might be really famous someday. Heck, I even “pinned” the video showing Andrei Linde getting the news. It’s just so sweet.


Happy New Year!

First of all, I would like to wish my friends and readers a very Happy New Year! I wish you inner peace, good health, much happiness, and at least enough prosperity to keep the metaphorical wolf away from the door.

I also wish you much light, especially in the darkness of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s easy to feel the “winter blahs” without actually connecting them to the shortened hours of daylight and the increased time spent indoors under artificial lighting. Here’s a New Year’s resolution you may not have thought of making: Get in touch with your circadian rhythm; make sure you get some natural light into your eyeballs during daytime hours, and sleep in a nice dark room (after you’ve done some stargazing, of course!).

Some six or seven weeks ago, I wrote a short Optics & Photonics News article about a small Norwegian town that, for its entire existence, has gone without direct sunlight for six months in every year, because it is located in a deep valley. That’s right — for six months, every day feels like a cloudy day, even if the sky is clear overhead. To brighten up the town square, the town of Rjukan installed a mirror array atop one of the nearby mountains, with solar-generated electricity running a computer system to move the mirrors to track the sun.

When I did the article, I must have gotten on Rjukan’s press mailing list. Just before the winter solstice, I got this notice:

52 days of winter sun in Rjukan.
Since the unveiling of the sun mirror 30th of October this year, the sun mirror has brought light and attention to Rjukan. For the first time the sun shines on the Christmas tree at the market square.

The square has become a meeting place for both young and old residents, as well as for tourists. Several shops and cafes have increased sales. Krossobanen, the cable car that still carries people up to the sun, drove filled carriages the first weekends after the sun mirror opening. It is not usual in November.

– People have been curious about the small town between Gaustatoppen and Hardangervidda ,” says tourist manager Karin Roe. We hope the curiosity takes over and that they visit us as well. – Because we have so much to offer to visitors, especially our exciting history now nominated for UNESCO World Heritage List, she concludes.

Mayor Steinar Bergsland has been busy on other areas after the opening. In late November he presented the news that Green Mountain Data Centre establishes in Rjukan. 2 weeks later the mayor and Rjukan population mobilized against plans to close down parts of the local hospital. However, he still has the great pleasure of the sun mirror.

 – The Sun mirror has become a natural part of life. Even when the clouds are low down the mountainside we are looking up at the sun mirror as we walk past the square, says the mayor who believe that citizens have been more proud of their city and what they have managed to achieve.

Here is a photo of the sun mirror shining down on the Christmas tree in Rjukan’s town square:

Photo credit: Terje Prestaarhus

Photo credit: Terje Prestaarhus

I think that’s a beautiful image, don’t you? I hope the people of Rjukan are having their happiest winter ever.

“Daddy almost broke the space telescope…”

I already retweeted the link I’m going to write about, but some stories are just so good that they deserve more than a tweet.

The website gave a great review of the new first-person Esquire story of how astronaut Mike Massimino “almost broke” the Hubble Space Telescope during the final repair mission to that spacecraft in 2009. I’ve been fascinated with Hubble for most of my adult life, and I wrote an article previewing the final repair mission in 2008 (just before the mission was postponed for a few months — doggone it!). In fact, when I was at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for “media preview day,” the four spacewalking astronauts went into the giant clean room to practice handling the actual tools that they would be using in space. I didn’t get to meet them, but from the observation window I could see them walking around in their masks, booties and garb. Needless to say, I thought that was extremely cool!

You can read the full Esquire story at this link.

Massimino, of course, has been a media-savvy astronaut for a long time; I think he was the first astronaut to use Twitter. And he played a bit role as himself in a few hilarious episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory (well, aren’t all the episodes hilarious?).

Speaking of space, NASA is going to shoot for the Moon again tonight, albeit with a small, unpiloted spacecraft. Go here or here or here to find out if you will be able to glimpse the launch, which is going up from southern Virginia instead of Florida. My neighborhood is full of tall, mature trees, but if I walk up the street a half-block or so I might just be able to glimpse enough of the southeastern sky to see something. We shall see.

Most of the publicity surrounding this spacecraft has focused on its planned atmospheric and dust experiments, but the Office of Science and Technology Policy informs us that the craft will also test out a new kind of laser communications system that could potentially rocket-propel (metaphorically speaking, of course) the bandwidth from space.

Clear skies!

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:

Great citizen science

Want to bring the science of light to the masses? This week I found a fascinating example of demonstrating Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment with a big cardboard box, an eyepiece and bright sunlight. The ScienceDump blog got the video from Veritasium.

Yes, to those of us who actually have studied physics, the competing theories of light as waves and particles might be old hat. But, as you can see in the video, it’s not old hat to the passersby  who haven’t thought about the subject since grade school.

I’m certainly going to check out these websites to see what other interesting demonstrations of “citizen science” are out there. If you have had a chance to bring science to the masses, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Two weeks later

It’s been two weeks since a “freaky space rock” blasted out of the sky above Chelyabinsk, Russia. At the time, the worldwide press breathlessly reported the extent of the amateur video footage and the ground-level damage and then moved on to other flavors of the moment. Meanwhile, what have we learned about our cosmic visitor?

A week after the event, Sky & Telescope reporters blogged about the composition and trajectory of the Chelyabinsk meteoroid. The recovered fragments are “ordinary chondrites,” the most common type of stony meteorites. These ordinary chondrites do contain flecks of metals, but also lots of silicates, as opposed to iron meteorites, which really are chunks of iron. The space rock was moving in a completely different direction from the asteroid that nearly missed the Earth the same day, so the events were unrelated, as much as our pattern-seeking human brains would like to deny.

S&T also reported that a scientist at the University of Western Ontario calculated that the near-Earth object (NEO) was cruising at 20 km/s when it hit the atmosphere. The “infrasound” detectors that are supposed to enforce the nuclear test-ban treaty picked up the blast waves — equal to about 30 Hiroshima bombs — from as far away as Antarctica.

Scientists suspect that the space rock came from (or was) an Apollo asteroid, a specific class of minor planets that cross Earth’s orbit. So, yeah, this should really point out the need to keep watch on the other Earth-crossers that may be whizzing by. The University of Hawaii is developing a “last-alert system” to complement PanSTARRS. And, as Chelyabinsk cleans up, local officials are figuring out how to market the newly famous city as a hot tourist destination. (It even has a travel agency called Sputnik!)