Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘education’

The legacy continues

Last year at this time, I was working on an article for Optics & Photonics News about the late Stanford University professor Anthony “Tony” Siegman and his legacy of laser education. I’m pleased that the second installment of the international laser school named for him will take place this August.

The Siegman International School on Lasers began last year on the Stanford campus, where its namesake taught for many years. This year it is moving to Germany, to keep with its stated purpose of being a truly international school for young optical scientists. I’m sure it will be held in yet another country in 2016.

The 2015 school has lots of interesting programming lined up for its 102 accepted students. I wish all the attendees well and hope that the event results in many fruitful collaborations.

The answer to a boy’s question

Way back when I was a graduate student in astronomy, a schoolboy asked me a question that I never forgot. It took scientists only another 20 years or so to come up with a reasonable answer to it.

For part of my teaching assistantship during my first year of grad school, I was assigned the public observatory program. I had to recruit faculty members and postdocs to give twice-monthly public talks, handle reservations for school and Scout groups who wanted their own private presentations, and corral fellow grad students into running the slide projector (before the days of PowerPoint) and helping with the telescopes. (I used to suggest that all grad students in astronomy should get an automatic master’s degree in slide projectorology.)

One evening a school group showed up for its talk an hour before the public lecture, and for some reason I gave them a presentation. I can’t remember why — perhaps someone had got sick or even forgot to show up. And I don’t even remember what I talked about — maybe the solar system or something really basic like the differences between stars and planets.

Anyway, when I was fielding questions after the talk, one boy — maybe about 10 years old — asked: “How many planets are there in the entire galaxy?”

“Ooh,” I said, trying to stall for my time while my mind raced. This happened to be after the discovery of a planet around a pulsar, but before the teams of Mayer & Queloz and Marcy & Butler had found any planets around “normal” (that is, main-sequence) stars. At the time I was really, really interested in the possibility of finding extrasolar planets.

“That’s a really good question,” I told the kid. “In fact, it’s such a good question that scientists are still trying to answer it!” I explained that astronomers were very busy trying to search for extrasolar planets but the search was really difficult, and maybe, just maybe, in future years they would be able to start answering that question.

Well, the exoplanet discoveries started to roll in a couple of years after that evening’s Q&A session. Currently, astronomers know of more than 1,000 actual extrasolar planets, with thousands more candidates awaiting confirmation.

Finally, just this week, astronomers came up with the first reasonable estimate of just how many Earth-like planets may occupy our galaxy: 40 billion. That’s 40,000,000,000. That’s how many potentially habitable worlds may be out there, in our own little spiral clump of stars, without even crossing intergalactic space to get to the billions and billions of other galaxies out there.

The thought takes my breath away.

And I keep thinking of that boy’s question. I have no idea what this kid’s name was, or where he went to school. Doubtless he is an adult by now, and wherever he is, I hope that he read that news story and realized that, after all these years, he finally got his answer.

You can read the full scientific paper here and New York Times writer Dennis Overbye’s coverage of it here.

An anniversary to note

It’s a bit late in the day for me to be mentioning this (sorry, I had other things to do), but today is the 30th anniversary of Sally Ride’s historic flight. (Which, of course, follows by two days the 50th anniversary of Valentina Tereshkova’s flight.)

At the time, Ride was the center of a huge media circus, with practically everything about her life up for scrutiny. But the thing that struck me was that, as an undergraduate, Ride was both an English and a physics major. It’s hard to imagine two undergrad majors that are more dissimilar than those two, although I will admit that some of the quantitative courses probably serve as “core distribution requirements” for the liberal arts major, and vice versa.

Over the past three decades, I’ve come to know many other STEM-educated people who have interests and skills in the arts and humanities. From the physics professor who once told me that she’d go crazy if she couldn’t play classical piano on a regular basis, to the astronomer who has become a landscape photographer in his retirement, to the Ph.D.’d electrical engineer who translates fantasy stories into her native Turkish, to the pediatric oncologist who plays a mean fiddle … all are human beings who use both sides of their brain to great joy.

With all the fuss nowadays about encouraging/urging/coercing young people to go into STEM careers, I think it’s important to point out to the young that studying something quantitative does not preclude your finding joy in the liberal or fine arts. From my own experience, though, I’d heartily recommend studying the STEM stuff when you’re young and picking up the humanities as you go along through life. I did it in the reverse order and have the scars to show for it.

I’ll end this little musing with a link to Mashable’s list of 10 badass quotes from Sally Ride. Ride on, and remember: The title of “first woman to walk on the Moon” is still up for grabs.

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.

Another GLOBE at Night observing period starts soon

GLOBE at Night, a worldwide effort to measure light pollution in the night sky, starts another observing period tomorrow night (March 13).

Participating in GLOBE at Night couldn’t be simpler. Just find one of three constellations an hour or so after local sunset. (I’ll probably pick Orion, but you could also look for Leo or Crux, depending on your location.) Match what you see of that constellation to the pictures that show how the constellation is affected by varying levels of light pollution. Then report your findings to the GLOBE at Night program. (Be sure to report your location too — that is, your latitude and longitude.)

For people equipped with smartphones and tablets, GLOBE at Night provides apps in English, Spanish, German and Polish. You can also download “teacher activity packets” and “family activity packets” in nine additional languages.

This observing session runs through March 22. The final session will be open April 11-20.

Clear skies!