Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘history’

What did that week feel like?

So many of my friends were either in diapers or yet unborn 50 years ago this week. Their memories are blank where mine are etched in gray dust, burned with kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Words can’t fully capture the electric tingling that ran through my nervous system, the rumbling of my young heart. We were going to the Moon! Never mind that “we” consisted of three American men (with help from thousands of other humans). After the years-long unrelenting drumbeat of bad news, something representing an indisputable good was about to take place. Yes, the mission was all planned out, but that didn’t ease the suspense.

The morning of the Apollo 11 launch, I stayed home from my unpaid “job” to watch the liftoff on TV. (Since I was so advanced in reading skills and was generally a well-behaved child, the teachers at my elementary school arranged for me to come in every other week and tutor the first-graders who had to attend summer school because they were behind in reading.) My family’s living room was in chaos because my parents were redecorating it, but I pulled up a chair in front of the color TV and gripped the armrests and, afterward, kept a grin on my face, like a rictus. At dinnertime, I heard a distant rumble and thought it might be the phenomenal roar of the Saturn V as it dissipated over the entire Eastern seaboard. (I vastly underestimated the speed of sound. If any sound made at the Kennedy Space Center could be heard in central Massachusetts — and I sincerely doubt that — the wave would have rolled in at lunchtime.)

Not until I was an adult living in Maryland did I realize that the voice of Launch Control belonged to a fellow from Boston. Back then, he was speaking in my native accent.

I spent the next few days in a buzzy state of anticipation. I was vaguely aware of bad things that happened in parts of New England that I’d never visited — a big fire in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and a car accident on some Massachusetts island named Chappaquiddick. Mostly, my ears and eyes were laser-focused on any nugget of news about the three brave astronauts rising out of one gravity well and falling into another. Especially exciting: the local paper reported that a fellow who grew up in my hometown actually pushed the button to start the Apollo 11 liftoff! How cool was THAT?!?

By Sunday my parents strongly wanted me to help my father with the yard work (raking up the freshly mown grass that he cut). But I nervously kept an eye on the time — I’d worn a watch for a couple of years already — and I dragged Dad into the kitchen as the possible landing time drew near. We sat in front of the little black-and-white TV and watched as the primitive animation depicted Eagle landing on the Moon … but the soundtrack indicated that Armstrong and Aldrin were still on their way. What was happening? It was the most suspenseful moment of the week. We held onto every spoken number and word and beep and, once we heard “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” we hugged each other.

The actual moonwalk was SO late! My mother made sure I was in my pajamas and bathrobe beforehand. Once again, I pulled the Boston rocker in front of the TV and munched popcorn and breathed so hard and happy when Armstrong uttered his immortal first words. I could feel the history. It was as tangible as writing one’s name into wet concrete.

Of course, little girls were not meant to stay up past midnight. I dozed off around the time President Nixon phoned the astronauts on the lunar surface. The excitement had worn me out, but it was the happy kind of tiredness. I felt secure in a vision of a spacefaring future.

I insist that John F. Kennedy’s full charge to our nation — “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” [emphasis mine] — was not fulfilled until July 24, 1969. Those Apollo command modules needed to hit the atmosphere at just the right angle, at a violent speed. Much could have gone wrong. Safety was not assured until those red and white striped parachutes popped out against the azure sky.

* * * * * * *

At first I hesitated over writing this, because admitting that one remembers something half a century ago marks the admittee as an oldster, a geezer, someone who should get out of the way of the younger generations. But in this day and age, anyone with access to a search engine can type in my name and figure out my approximate age anyway. Age discrimination will happen to me whether or not I bear witness to having watched the first moonwalk.

The highlight of my personal commemoration of Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary was visiting the National Mall to see the awesome high-definition project of a Saturn V rocket on one side of the Washington Monument. It’s true that the gantry was missing, but the rocket itself looked gorgeous!


Why, yes, I do have a Saturn V rocket perched atop my head. Doesn’t everybody?? 🙂

My visit to the Mall was Thursday, July 18. I would have liked to see the special show on Friday and Saturday nights, but I went on a road trip to Delaware to visit a high school classmate. I’ll just have to content myself with the video.

Apollo 50 Launch in 4k: Washington Monument Projection Mapping from Drew Geraci (District 7 Media) on Vimeo.



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.

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.

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.