Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘history’

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.

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!

Happy 98th Birthday, Dr. Townes!

Today is the 98th birthday of Charles Hard Townes, the American physicist who developed some of the key theoretical underpinnings of masers and lasers. He won the Nobel Prize 49 years ago, when he was 49 years old.

Sadly, he has now outlived one of his most noted graduate students, James P. Gordon, who developed the maser with Townes back at Columbia University in 1953. For the May 2010 issue of Optics & Photonics News, a special issue on the 50th anniversary of the laser, Gordon wrote a first-person account of the work leading up the maser. (If you are able to read OPN online, I highly recommend checking it out.)

Fortunately, some of Townes’ other grad students — Ali Javan, Robert Boyd and Raymond Chiao — are still with us. So is Elsa Garmire, a past OSA president and current Dartmouth College professor, who studied under Townes during his tenure as MIT provost and, a few years later in her postdoc days, helped to start the modern laser light show industry. (She wasn’t being taken very seriously as a scientist, and it was the late 1960s and early 1970s, so….) I wrote about laser light shows for that same May 2010 issue of OPN.

I’ve been fortunate to have met Townes and his wife, Frances, at several optics-related events over the years. I hope they are still doing well.

I think that Townes may now be the oldest living Nobel laureate. I’ve been trying to figure that out. If anyone has any information on that, please comment on this post.

The reclusive pioneer of Civil War photography studies

Today I was excited to see a front-page Washington Post story on William Frassanito, whom I first heard about when I was doing last year’s Optics & Photonics News article on photography in the American Civil War (available to OSA members — sorry).

At that time, I heard that Frassanito had been writing about Civil War photography since the 1970s and he was the pioneer in figuring out what the photographs tell us about the actual events that had taken place. Mostly, before then, historians had just treated the photographs as “window dressing” and didn’t care about them as important documents in their own right. Frassanito was the first to establish that Alexander Gardner had staged some shots, and he located the “split rock” that appeared in many of those photographs, so that the Park Service was able to correct the record that it presents to visitors.

While I was working on the story, I was told that Frassanito was pretty hard to get hold of, and I was fighting off a head cold too, so I didn’t spend a lot of time tracking him down. Plus, I try not to make phone calls to sources during the hours that Frassanito (according to the Post article) is actually awake, unless I’ve arranged an appointment beforehand via email with a scientist in a radically different time zone. And Frassanito doesn’t use email. But, hey, he’s got a Facebook page!

So I’ve signed up to follow his Facebook page, and if I ever decide to write anything more about Civil War photography, I’ll know where to track “Frazz” down.

Footnote unrelated to photography: This New York Post writer apparently believes that hardly anyone’s ever heard of Gen. George Meade, who “saved a nation.” Really? Ever driven through Maryland and seen signs for Fort Meade? Guess not.