Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘history’

Update to my previous post

The New York Times finally published an obituary for Roy Glauber.

Also, a Washington Post opinion writer weighed in on a paradox: many Americans love technology but hate (or fear) science.

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Two passings

Last month, on the day after Christmas, I was on travel with family and friends. That was the day two influential scientists passed away — both at the age of 93.

I can honestly say that Roy J. Glauber is the only professor I’ve had — yet! — who won a Nobel Prize. Not that I’m a Harvard alum or anything, but many years ago, when I was contemplating going to back to college to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in physics (my first degree was in journalism), taking his Harvard Extension School night class titled “Waves, Particles, and the Structure of Matter” gave me confidence that I could hack physics at the college level. Unlike the Astronomy 100-101 courses at the University of Maryland, which used only algebra, Glauber’s course required an understanding of trigonometry for studying, y’know, wave motion.

Years later, when I was working for OSA and Glauber had just received the Nobel Prize, I told him over lunch that I took his evening course. His response? “You must have been one of about four people who actually paid to take it.” He taught the Extension class only with the stipulation that high school students and teachers could attend for free.

That was the kind of person Roy Glauber was. I’ve been told that when he attended OSA’s annual meeting, he would sit in on the symposium for undergraduate research. I wonder how many of the student presenters, particularly beginning in 2005, realized the significance of his presence in the audience.

I wish I could find the main text for “Waves, Particles, and the Structure of Matter.” Glauber wrote it himself and had it printed at the copy store, and it was well-written and entertaining. He modestly mentioned his own discovery about optical coherence, almost in passing, but did not dwell on it. Sometimes I wish I could have helped him edit that book just a bit and get it properly published.

Some obituaries and tributes for Dr. Glauber:

(Incidentally, why hasn’t the NY Times run an obituary of Dr. Glauber yet? I mean, he was a native New Yorker, he graduated with the very first class of the Bronx High School of Science, yadda yadda yadda.)

The other important scientist who died on December 26 was Nancy Grace Roman, an astronomer who has been called the “Mother of Hubble” for the work she did for the space telescope. I never met her, but I’m sure I would have enjoyed a conversation with her. It’s also important to note that she grew up in an era when far fewer women pursued careers in the physical sciences.

Obituaries and tributes for Dr. Roman:

(What, you were expecting something more from NASA during the partial government shutdown?)

Dr. Roman’s death came just a few weeks before the 25th anniversary of the 1994 AAS meeting at which the stunning results of the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission were revealed. I was there….

The centennial of Charles Townes

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.

Charles Hard Townes, 1915-2015

Yesterday I awoke to the news that Charles Hard Townes, a 1964 Nobel laureate for fundamental work on maser and laser physics, had died on Tuesday, January 27. In six months and a day, he would have turned 100 years old, but you can still think of this as his centennial year, in my opinion.

During my years working at OSA, I met six Nobel Prize winners; five are still with us. But Dr. Townes always looked hale and hearty, even well into his 90s, and he always went to conferences with his beloved wife, Frances — I thought that was so sweet of them. He was always the gentleman and not the least bit overbearing. At the symposium on the exact 50th anniversary of the first laser, when Dr. Townes gave his talk on the history of laser physics, he took a red laser pointer out of his pocket and used it so matter-of-factly, without harping on the fact that it — and a huge amount of today’s optical technology — has its roots in the insight he once had on a humble park bench just a few blocks from the White House.

I was already planning to write an article about Dr. Townes for an upcoming issue of OPN, so his death adds a new poignancy. I have to get back to work now, so I’ll leave you with a few links to some of the obituaries that have come out.

http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2015/01/27/nobel-laureate-and-laser-inventor-charles-townes-dies-at-99/

http://today.ucf.edu/ucf-mourns-nobel-laureate-laser-pioneer-charles-h-townes/

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/local/2015/01/27/dr-charles-townes-nobel-prize-winner-greenville-native-dies/22438001/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/charles-h-townes-nobel-laureate-and-laser-pioneer-dies-at-99/2015/01/28/73e65e04-a69d-11e4-a7c2-03d37af98440_story.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/29/us/charles-h-townes-physicist-who-helped-develop-lasers-dies-at-99.html

http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-charles-townes-20150128-story.html#page=1

http://www.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/Laser-co-creator-Charles-Townes-a-Nobel-6047889.php

http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Charles-H-Townes-renowned-physicist-and-Nobel-6047011.php#photo-7450908

http://www.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/Nobel-laureate-Charles-Townes-laser-co-creator-6046795.php

Into the valley of the shadow of death…

Please don’t be put off by the rather depressing title. I’ve just been thinking about the Crimea region of Ukraine recently, because … well, duh. And any mention of Crimea brings to mind a series of images.

Not images I took. Not images of people who are still alive.

You see, the Crimean War was the first war ever (kinda, sorta) photographed. Say “19th-century war photographs” to most people, and they will think of the American Civil War. The conflict in Crimea, however, predated the one on the U.S.; it ended five years before our Civil War began. And a Britishman named Roger Fenton (1819-1869) set out to immortalize his country’s fighting forces.

Photography back then wasn’t as simple as pushing a button and letting technology do the rest. Fenton made a type of picture called the calotype. The process involved making a wet-paper negative print and then contact-printing it onto another sheet of treated paper. Calotypes required really long exposure times, so Fenton had no chance to make “action shots,” and anyway the sensibility of the Victorian era would have rejected stark photographs of dead bodies, like those taken at Antietam and Gettysburg in the following decade. Fenton and his assistants had to cart along a whole wagon full of equipment (please click on that link — WordPress is giving me trouble with uploads).

Mostly Fenton took highly posed photographs of British officers, but he also captured some landscapes. One can only imagine how these images would have looked to people who had never seen the world like that before — indeed, who spent most or all of their lives within a hundred or so miles of their birthplace.

Fenton’s most famous image was dubbed “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” probably after that “shadow of Death” phrase in the famous Tennyson poem. It shows a landscape denuded of plants, with a depressed dirt road strewn with cannonballs. Some people say Fenton and his team faked the photo, because there’s another version of the photo without the cannonballs.

Which image came first? Does it matter? Should it matter? A writer and filmmaker named Errol Morris wrote a three-part meditation on that set of questions for the New York Times back in 2007, well before our 15oth-anniversary observances of the American Civil War — or our worrying about Ukraine and Russia.

Anyhow, whenever I hear about this current crisis, I can’t help visualizing these sepia-tone images of dry battlefields long past.

A very scientific Thanksgiving

I hope all my U.S. readers had an excellent Thanksgiving yesterday, and I hope you all have an excellent weekend, whether you are getting an adrenaline rush out of the Black Friday sales or you are trying to dodge commercialism altogether.

This year we got a reminder that the eye surgery known as LASIK descended from some experiments on Thanksgiving turkey leftovers. I already knew about this, of course, but it’s great to hear that the tale will be going into the OSA Centennial History Book so that future generations will know the origins of this procedure, which has enormously benefited some of my highly nearsighted friends.

Yesterday afternoon, part of Greenbelt, Maryland, was hopping as Comet ISON passed close to the Sun. NASA hosted a Google+ hangout from Goddard Space Flight Center, just a couple of miles from my computer desk, and I was watching along and retweeting things on Twitter. At the time it really looked as if the comet had vaporized entirely when it grazed our local friendly star, but perhaps part of it survived the close passage. I guess that makes ISON a “zombie” comet! Hey, zombies are extremely popular these days.

This year, for my Thanksgiving dinner with friends, I made my from-scratch creamed corn with cornstarch instead of wheat flour, because a couple of the folks at the dinner table are gluten-intolerant. And I hurried home to do a Skype interview with a researcher in Australia. Yes, we used today’s optical communications technology to talk about tomorrow’s optical communications technology. We live in fascinating times indeed.

What I’ve been up to

November is almost half over, so if you have access to Optics & Photonics News, please hop on over to my feature article on the 150th anniversary of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and learn something new about this venerable institution.

The OPN editor assigned me this feature; I didn’t dream it up myself. At first, I worried that I would be able to connect NAS to OSA and the world of optics and photonics in only the most vague and general way, and I would leave my readers scratching their heads and wondering, “Why the heck is this in my magazine?”

Fortunately, just around the time I started my background research for this article, the NAS held a historical symposium at Woods Hole in Massachusetts. While listening to the live webcast, I learned that three of OSA’s most famous Honorary Members — George Ellery Hale, A.A. Michelson, and Robert A. Millikan — had played significant leadership roles within the Academy at various times in its existence. Hale, a solar physicist and observatory impresario, spurred the NAS to start publishing a Proceedings journal and served as the first chair of the National Research Council (NRC); Michelson, the first American Nobel physics laureate, served a term as NAS president in the 1920s, when the Academy opened its first headquarters building in Washington, D.C.; and Millikan, first to measure the electric charge of the electron, edited the Proceedings through the 1940s. Those connections helped me frame the story and make the history of the NAS relevant to today’s optical scientists. (After all, who hasn’t had to recreate either the Michelson-Morley speed-of-light experiment or the Millikan oil-drop experiment, or both, in undergraduate physics classes?)

In between my longer articles for OPN, I have been writing some short pieces as well: on a superfast quantum light switch, improved detection of high-frequency UV light, and a compound that can hide from infrared cameras at some temperatures.

Finally, back in April I mentioned that I had a “day job” working for some sort of educational center that hadn’t yet opened, but I didn’t get into details. However, now that the parent institution has started to advertise it, I can do The Big Reveal!

One month from today, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History will open Q?rius, a new hands-on learning center for ages 10 and up. I wrote a series of REALLY short (i.e., one-paragraph) essays about geological specimens that will reside in the Q?rius collection. Other museum staff members have been developing novel interactive experiments and demonstrations covering all aspects of the research going on at the museum. I can hardly wait for Q?rius to open, and I hope to see you all there!