Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘imaging’

Optics in the Apollo Program

I can’t believe I let more than half the month of June go by without mentioning my article, “Optics in the Apollo Program,” in the June issue of OPN! I guess I was born without the gene for relentless marketing and self-promotion.

If you’ve been wondering how to read my article — because it’s not the featured “open access” article this months — then fear not: I have added it to my online clip file. Eventually I’m going to get around to uploading more of my work, but I thought it would be obviously better to start with the most recent work first.

If you’re ever at the National Air & Space Museum, you can see some of the Apollo-era optical equipment, or at least replicas of it. (Remember, the Apollo astronauts ditched quite a bit of gear on the lunar surface or just before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.) Back in January I visited the main Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and took a few photos.

Replica of Apollo 11 TV camera

Here’s a replica of the black-and-white television camera that Armstrong and Aldrin used to show us their Apollo 11 moonwalk.

Apollo spotmeter

The Apollo 11 astronauts used a spotmeter to judge the exposures for their film camera. Looks as if Minolta made this for NASA.

Apollo 7 camera

The Apollo 7 crew used this camera to make the first live telecast from space. This one’s the real McCoy.

Film magazine

Armstrong’s Hasselblad film magazine from Apollo 11. He had to bring this back because it contained all the unexposed film.

Command module camera

This camera flew in the Apollo 11 command module. And, yes, you can see the reflection of me and my digital camera.

Stereo camera

The stereo camera that Apollo 11 astronauts used to get closeups of rocks without bending over. This is probably a replica, because I don’t see any moon dust on it.


Replica of the Alignment Optical Telescope mentioned in the article. Apologies for the flash artifact.


Finally, a friend and I are reflected in a spacesuit’s visor.

My latest news articles for OPN

I write news briefs for the Optics & Photonics News website roughly every other week, with some slight schedule variations due to holidays and such. Here’s your invitation to read the last three articles while they’re still online.

Read this article first, because it’s been up there the longest: The folks at JILA (the place that used to be called the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics) have developed a tabletop-sized device that is a source of coherent X-rays. Coherence, of course, means that the light waves are “marching in step.” The beams that come from the medical X-ray device in your doctor’s or dentist’s office are no more coherent than the light from an incandescent bulb. (I hadn’t realized that before I did this article, but there you have it.)

Also, before this JILA invention, if you wanted an X-ray laser beam, you had to go to a particle accelerator facility. There aren’t too many sufficiently powerful particle accelerators out there, and you can’t exactly fit them into a doctor’s office.

Now, coherent X-ray beams aren’t going to be used in emergency rooms anytime soon. However, they could be extremely useful in studying the ultrafast details of chemical and biological processes, so it might be handy to have one in those kinds of laboratories. You can read more about this device and the scientists who built it in Nature, on and on JILA’s own website.

In the second newsbrief, I wrote about a new type of solar cell made from carbon nanotubes, developed at MIT. These tubes are just tiny bits of rolled-up graphene, which in turn is a two-dimensional lattice of carbon atoms. Both graphene and carbon nanotubes are extremely hot research topics right now, and I have been interested in solar technology for many years, so I enjoyed writing this one. You can see the actual solar-cell material in the photo accompanying this MIT press release, though I think the image looks like not-very-impressive orange mush.

My most recent article took me back to the “world’s fastest camera” that I wrote about three years ago, while I was still a staff writer at OPN. The UCLA team that invented that camera answered the question “What is it good for?” by demonstrating that it can scan blood samples for rogue cancer cells that break off a primary tumor and move through the bloodstream to metastasize elsewhere in the body. Of course, many, many clinical trials will be needed before it can be used on actual cancer patients, but any potential new tool in the battle against cancer makes me hopeful for the future.

Cool Photo #4: Lena and 204,500 Other Cool Images

OSA, my primary freelance customer these days, has debuted the Optics ImageBank, a handy-dandy place to look up graphs, photos and computer-rendered images that have appeared in OSA’s peer-reviewed journals in the not-so-distant past (from 2006 onward). The society put out a press release that listed this and other upgrades to Optics InfoBase.

Every time you go to the Optics ImageBank home page, you see a random collection of the 204,500-plus images in the database. One time I did this and caught a glimpse of the famous — if a bit faded with age — portrait of Lena!

Who’s Lena? As I blogged in 2008, she was a comely young Playboy model who since November 1972 has been the pictorial standard against which image-processing algorithms are measured. Yes, it’s sexist, but it’s at least a more memorable image than a plain old test pattern, and she’s not really showing anything X-rated in the cropped portrait that has been making the rounds of the optical industry for nearly 40 years.

In this case, Lena’s picture came out of a 2009 Optics Express article. You can read the full article on tomographic scanning imaging here.

OSA says that the images will be free of charge through 2012 and available on a subscription basis starting in 2013. The images are all copyrighted by OSA and may be used for non-commercial purposes — read the details before downloading or exporting anything.

Just by random clicking around, I found some interesting things to look at:

  • Variously colored images of a mask acquired by a color CCD camera and its RGB components;
  • This neat swirly thing, which is the phase distribution of a diffraction pattern;
  • Decomposition of the Mona Lisa into its Fourier components (I believe I wrote about that for OPN last year); and
  • This all-too-cute depiction of “ghost imaging” of entangled photons.

So, if you are giving an educational talk on optical science and you need some pictures to liven up your PowerPoint presentation, you have a new source.

Old stories, new stories

I’ve had a bit of a burst of activity — some freelance work, some car issues, some pet-health issues, and my annual end-of-the-year holiday travel — all of which has conspired to keep me off this blog. But never fear, folks, I am still writing!

In fact, my very next feature article, on which I’m working right now, will be about photography in the American Civil War. We’re well into the sesquicentennial of this event (April 1861 to April 1865), and more people will be reading about the conflict, visiting battle sites, and watching Civil War-themed films and TV shows for the next few years. So they’ll be seeing these photographs.

But what went into making these photographs? After all, they were taken a couple of decades before Kodak came out with its famous slogan: “You press the button — we do the rest.” American Civil War photographers had to do it all … out in the field … in the mud, rain, baking sun, and stench from corpses.

Now, I learned the basics of 20th-century black-and-white darkroom work when I was a teenager, so I am confident in my ability to describe these antique photo processes. What will be really interesting (to me as a writer) is figuring out how much to write about the American Civil War itself. The magazine for which I’m writing has about 40 percent international circulation — meaning a pretty large fraction of my readership didn’t grow up learning about the American Civil War in school and may have only the foggiest notion of when it was and what it was all about. Any suggestions on how to deal with that are most welcome. Right now I’m thinking of adding four or five general books on Civil War history to the “References and Resources” section, and if they don’t fit in the print version, they can always appear online. Again, suggestions of good books are welcome.

In other news … I recently stumbled across some stunning new photorealistic rendering of human skin. The scientist who did this rendering has a website here. As I learned when writing my January 2009 OPN article on photorealistic rendering, making virtual skin look real is challenging because the rendering artist must take into consideration the fact that skin reflects different amounts of light from its different layers. If our skin reflected light only from its surface, like a mirror, we’d all look as shiny as marble statues … and obviously we don’t!

Crime-fighting glove, deaths of Nobel laureates, and other science news

Seen on CNN by way of Popular Science:  a crime-fighting armored glove equipped with taser, video camera, laser pointer and flashlight. Of course, when I first caught the mention of this glove on the news network, my first thought was about the laser pointer and basic eye safety.

Much has already been written about the potential eyesight hazards from laser pointers — a simple Google search on “laser pointer eye safety” yielded about 312,000 hits. The green laser pointers tend to pose a greater hazard than the red pointers because our eyes are much more sensitive to that 532-nm green light than to red wavelengths. The video clip on CNN definitely showed a green laser beam aimed at the “suspect’s” chest.

You can certainly debate whether this armored glove would be of any use to a SWAT-team member or a regular cop — in fact, there’s already plenty of debate on the page referenced earlier. I would certainly urge the product developers to consider whether the laser is needed at all (tasers don’t need pinpoint accuracy, do they?), and if it is truly necessary, to make sure that all glove wearers undergo proper training with the laser. Green lasers can damage eyesight permanently! And if law-enforcement officers don’t have a lot of sympathy for violent perps, they should at least show concern for innocent bystanders caught up in the crowd situation.

Now, speaking of the video camera included in the glove … no way could such a gizmo fit inside a glove if the team of Willard Boyle and George Smith hadn’t dreamed up the charge-coupled device more than four decades ago. Those little CCD chips changed video cameras from those giant hulking behemoths seen in old footage of NASA launches and political conventions to compact, portable recorders that can go anywhere from the middle of huge protest rallies to the depths of the ocean and the heights of Earth orbit. Oh, yeah, not to mention detectors that take long-exposure astronomical images in a fraction of the time required by photographic plates … and today’s ubiquitous digital cameras.

Boyle died last month at the age of 86, and his death was noticed by the U.S. press as well as in his native Canada. Intriguingly, his obituary in the New York Times was headlined “Father of Digital Eye,” but the first version of the article mentioned  that Boyle developed “a ruby laser,” which left me scratching my head — so then what was that big celebration of Ted Maiman’s work all about, then? Fortunately, the Times corrected the obit to match what the Washington Post got right to start with: Boyle worked on the first continuously operating ruby laser. Maiman’s invention was a pulsed laser, and everyone working in optics knows the difference between pulsed and CW lasers.

Speaking of Nobel laureates and the New York Times, I did a double-take when I saw the obituary headline describing Rosalyn Yalow as a “Nobel Physicist.” Because every female who studies physics knows that there have been only two women so far who have won a Nobel in physics: Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer. But, see, I didn’t know until I read her obituary that her academic training actually WAS in physics. Let this be a reminder that physics really is the most fundamental of all the sciences. (And Yalow wasn’t the only physicist to win a Nobel in medicine; for example, Allan Cormack and Godfrey Hounsfield won for developing computer-assisted tomography, or the CT scan, and Haldan Hartline and George Wald won for unlocking the secrets of the visual processes in the human eye — optics!)

News from OPN

The June issue of Optics & Photonics News is now online, so my May feature on Arthur Schawlow has gone behind the OSA members’ firewall. The new open-access feature is on cell identification with 3-D computational holographic micrography. (Try saying that fast three times!) Plus, I’ve got an OPN Newsroom article on a new technique for sending lots more data down a single-mode fiber.

Today’s smorgasbord of links

In lieu of a “real” post, I present a few interesting links.

First, the Dane County Regional Airport in Madison, Wisconsin, is hosting an exhibit called Satellites See Wisconsin, featuring weather-satellite images of the state. I’ve never been to the Badger State, but I adore views from space, and if these images were of my home region, I’d be studying them avidly to find my favorite landmarks.

Next, the National Science Foundation published an article on “Deciphering the Elements of Iconic Pottery.” What do ancient artifacts have to do with space-age materials science? More than meets the eye….

Finally, from MSNBC’s Photo Blog, I hope you enjoy this image of NGC 371 as much as I do, because you can’t have enough pretty pictures of H II regions, in my humble opinion.