Women’s History Month began yesterday. This year, I would like to highlight the achievements of a number of amazing women whose work may not be known to the general public, but who are doing, or have done, important research. I won’t limit myself to the field of optics, but I shall start with it.
Elsa Garmire is currently a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College up in New Hampshire. She has had a five-decades-long career in physics, which included a year of service as OSA’s 1993 President (the second of five women to hold that position over the past century).
Garmire was only one of two students to earn her Ph.D. under Charles H. Townes during his stint at MIT in the mid-1960s. Obviously, women in physics were few and far between in those days, more so than now. However, Townes had four daughters of his own and realized that young women were perfectly capable of studying science. Plus, Maria Goeppert-Mayer received the Nobel Prize in physics the year before Townes did.
Once Garmire became a postdoctoral fellow out in California, though, she wasn’t taken as seriously as a scientist as she might have been. And she was living in the trippy, groovy era of the Sixties. So she explored her artistic side and ended up playing a major role in the creation of laser light shows [PDF].
Eventually, she became a professor at the University of Southern California before moving to Dartmouth. After a successful career in lasers and nonlinear optics, she has decided to retire this year. I wish her well and hope that she will continue to stay in touch with OSA.
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.
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.
Yes, I know I haven’t updated this blog in a long, long time.
Back in November, I started to write a roundup of all the great things that had happened in optics and photonics during the previous month. I actually wrote this much:
What an exciting month for the field of photonics! Granted, I was often busy and didn’t have time to write cogent posts about the breaking news (I’ll come back to that later), but I was following everything avidly.
Of course, the major expected occurrence was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics. Every year I hope for one of two things: a female physics laureate (about which I’ve posted in the past) or a Nobel awarded for some optics-related discovery. Well, this year we got the latter: three scientists who invented blue LEDs, which in turn led to the development of white LEDs (the white diodes are blue diodes covered by a yellow phosphor). The very next day, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three men “for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy” — optical imaging techniques that allow us to see the tiniest molecular details inside cells.
Some, but not all, of the laureates are members of OSA – The Optical Society, which fired off press releases about these prizes. OSA signed up one of the chemistry laureates to give some remarks…
I’m certain that I was about to write “… to give some remarks at Frontiers in Optics, the Society’s annual meeting,” or something like that. But then I got busy with my freelance writing and my job applications and all sorts of other things, and the days ticked by, and then my friend Yvonne Carts-Powell wrote an awesome post on the subject in her blog, The Science of Heroes. So I just put my draft post on the virtual shelf and dived into the usual end-of-year holiday craziness.
Now it’s a new year — a time for renewal under any circumstances. But this New Year’s Day marks the beginning of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. I’ve been excited about the IYL since I first heard about it, so of course I had to wrote a feature article all about it for Optics & Photonics News. I’m following the IYL team on Facebook and Twitter, and during 2015 I pledge to fill this blog with lots of exciting posts about the science of light. Happy New Year indeed!
Even as I type this on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, folks are making their way to Baltimore for the SPIE Defense, Security, + Sensing conference. Since the recent bombings in Boston — terrible news that I, as a Massachusetts native, have been following closely — terrorism prevention is back on the front burner, and, in the wake of those thermal images of the suspect hiding in the boat, I wouldn’t be surprised if the conference garnered some attention from the general press as well as the trade press.
Because this is an odd-numbered year, I’m wishing that CLEO would be held in Baltimore too, but alas, it will be on the West Coast again. This year, it will take place in June in San Jose, Calif. , and will have some mighty impressive plenary speakers.
I won’t be at either of these conferences because … well, I’ve got myself a day job, at least for the next few months. I’m doing some educational writing for a center that hasn’t yet opened. When it makes its debut in six months or so, I’m certainly going to plug it here!
I’d like to draw your attention to a few articles that have caught my eye in recent days.
First up, an important analysis by Scientific American on how antiscience beliefs may jeopardize U.S. democracy. Author Shawn Lawrence Otto calls out the extremists on both sides — yes, lefties have their own brand of science denialism, not just the righties — but, he adds, “the Republican version is particularly dangerous because it attacks the validity of science itself.” (And as I write this blog post, I’m listening to a Frontline episode, number 3021, going behind the scenes of the climate-change skeptics who are working to publicize their message of doubt.)
On a more positive note, Nature recently published a supplement, “Physics masterclass,” which takes an expansive look at the most interesting questions in modern physics and the Nobel laureates who have addressed them. One of the laureates is Roy Glauber, from whom I once took a Harvard Extension School night course on “Waves, Particles and the Structure of Matter.”
Speaking of both PBS and Nobel laureates … On “Inside NOVA,” Seth Lloyd of MIT takes a much more informed look than I ever could on this year’s winners. I encountered Lloyd some years ago at a small high-performance computing conference in Rhode Island, both by listening to his talk and sitting at his table for a lunchtime discussion. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, GO! He has a magical ability to explain the quantum world. Even if you haven’t taken a physics class since high school, you will understand him. Trust me.
In May 2010, I heard Stanford University professor Steven Block deliver a plenary talk on his work with optical tweezers, or “the closest thing humans have made to a tractor beam.” (The night before, he was up late, playing country-bluegrass music at a special concert of scientist-musicians.) Block and one of his graduate students are now reporting the first real-time observations of RNA folding. The pair published their findings in the most recent issue of Science.
Finally, I wrote up a couple of interesting things that came out of OSA’s annual meeting last week, but if you want more, visit the Frontiers in Optics social media hub.
Once I woke up, I couldn’t get back to sleep because I was curious about the Nobel Prize in physics. So I booted up the computer and, sure enough, learned that Serge Haroche and David Wineland are this year’s laureates for their work in quantum optics. Congratulations to them both!
I also did a quick search on OSA’s website and found that Wineland and Haroche have both won the society’s Herbert Walther Award for quantum optics. It’s a relatively new award, and these two guys were its first winners. Also, Haroche won the society’s 2007 Charles Hard Townes Award for quantum electronics. And Wineland won OSA’s 1990 William F. Meggers Award for spectroscopy, as well as the society’s highest honor, the Frederic Ives Medal with Jarus Quinn Prize Endowment, in 2004.
For more on the quantum world, I am following science writer Alexandra Witze’s tweet and commending you to a special issue of Science News from 2010. I think it’s time for breakfast.
But one final postscript: Here in America, lots of people say terribly disparaging things about “lazy government employees.” Well, gee, Wineland is the
fourth fifth “government employee,” and the third fourth from NIST, to win the physics Nobel in the last 15 years.
EDITED TO ADD: I forgot one of the NIST laureates in my original post, although John L. “Jan” Hall held a joint appointment with JILA and the University of Colorado in addition to NIST. Four Nobel prizes in the span of 15 years is truly something for NIST to be proud of!