Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘lasers’

Anticipation…

OK, when you get invitations to five different press conferences on the same day, you might think something’s afoot, right?

One might think that indeed. Specifically, a few days ago, the people from LIGO put out a “media advisory” that they would be giving an “update” on their ongoing search for gravitational waves. It seems a little over-the-top to be organizing a simple “update” at the National Press Club, doesn’t it? Then, when you throw in simultaneous LIGO-related news conferences in London and Paris and Moscow, and you get a personal email encouraging you to attend a special seminar on gravitational waves at the Italian Embassy later in the afternoon … well, this doesn’t exactly sound like a routine assessment of the equipment functions, does it?

So, we have plenty of media speculation going on. Could this be the confirmation of the final piece of general relativity? Could a Nobel Prize be hanging in the balance?

I don’t know anything more than the next person, of course. (Sky & Telescope, which is much more plugged into the astronomical scene than I am, tried to track down the rumors already.) One scary word of caution: BICEP2. Remember that? Yeah, right.

I believe it was Carl Sagan who said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A prominent scientist pointed that out to me almost 20 years ago, when there was a flurry of reports that there might have been some fossilized bacteria found in Martian soil (remember THAT?!?), and I believe it is a good rule for all aspects of life, not just scientific research. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Think about that not just when you’re examining the results of your latest experiment, but also when you’re standing in line at the supermarket next to the screaming tabloid headlines, or when you’re debating whether to forward the latest shocking health claim that your old classmate posted to Facebook.

Incidentally, if LIGO (or its successor, Advanced LIGO) did find extraordinary evidence for gravitational waves, it will be a triumph not just for astronomy, but also for optics. I heard a talk on LIGO at my first OSA annual meeting a decade ago, and I was impressed with the awesome precision that each of the 4-km-long interferometers and their associated optics required. Measuring length changes of 10^-18 m? Optical coatings uniform to 1 atom of thickness? Whoa!

Yes, if LIGO has found something big, I hope the instrumentalists get due credit. We’ll all know in just a few hours.

 

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Gas leak ‘strongly suspected’ in NYC explosion

Today a building blew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York, resulting in at least one death. Officials strongly suspect that a natural-gas leak was to blame, although of course the investigation is still going on.

For next month’s (November’s) issue of Optics & Photonics News, I’ve written an article about a possible new method for scanning city streets for gas leaks before they go kaboom. The technique doesn’t require entering buildings, and, as you might imagine, it involves a laser or two. Check out next month’s OPN for all the deets; it’s a special issue focusing on optics, energy, and the environment.

Gas mains deteriorate like the rest of our infrastructure. Wouldn’t it be great if we could fix their leaks quickly?

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.

Townes Symposium planned for October

Personal reminisces of Charles H. Townes’ long career are on the agenda of a special symposium that will take place at Frontiers in Optics/Laser Science 2015. Several of Townes’ past students from Columbia, MIT and Berkeley will share their memories, and other speakers will discuss his later-in-life contributions to astronomy and to projects such as the Townes Laser Institute at the University of Central Florida.

The organizer of the symposium is Elsa Garmire, who served as OSA’s second female president. If you are interested in her career, you can read about some of her early work in “A Short History of Laser Light Shows” — which is, perhaps, the only magazine article ever to mention both Charles Townes and Pete Townshend.

My article on Charles Townes

As I mentioned earlier this year, I was working on an OPN article about Charles H. Townes, one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, when he passed away. My article came out in the May issue of OPN, which is traditionally about lasers because of the annual CLEO conference. It made the cover of the magazine, so the editorial staff made it “open access” for everybody!

CLEO, by the way, is next week in San Jose, California. I wish I could attend, but it’s not in this year’s cards. The conference program sounds awesome — you can’t beat plenary lectures by two Nobel Prize winners. There’s no memorial symposium for Dr. Townes, as far as I can tell, but such things take time to organize; I’ll bet one will be held sometime in the next 12 months.

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

Minerals to watch

I thought I knew about perovskite. After all, it’s a mineral, and I spent my spring and summer writing about rocks and minerals for a Smithsonian project, didn’t I?

Well, this is a different twist. Science magazine reports that synthetic perovskites, which have properties that could lead to cheap solar cells, also can generate coherent light. As in laser light.

Idealized perovskite crystal. Public-domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Idealized perovskite crystal. Public-domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Apparently the researchers who figured that out have demonstrated it in an optically pumped laser. They’ll have to devise an electrically pumped laser to get anything commercially viable. But if that works out, who knows what new applications these inexpensive lasers will lead to?