Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘photonics’

Nobel week 2011

So … the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics went to, not the photonics researchers who had been mentioned in some predictions (see previous post), but to three astronomers who have been speculated about in recent years: Saul Perlmutter, Brian G. Schmidt, and Adam Riess. They are all fairly young guys, ranging in age from 52 to 41, and, one hopes, should be around to enjoy their Nobel fame for many years to come.

The only one of the trio whom I’ve seen in person is Perlmutter, who gave a talk at a conference I attended a few years back. However, I can’t remember exactly which conference it was, since I go to several a year. It could have been held by the AAS (American Astronomical Society), AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), or something else entirely. (Here I pause to scratch my head.)

The current AAS president noted that this is “the third time in 10 years” that astronomers have received the Nobel nod. Historically, however, the astro-folk haven’t been all that successful with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Before this past decade, Hulse and Taylor received the 1993 Nobel not just for their discovery of a binary pulsar, but for using it as a test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. A decade earlier, Chandrasekhar and Fowler won for their studies of stellar evolution and chemical formation, respectively (and many years after their work was published).

The 1970s were another big year for the Nobel in astronomy, as Ryle and Hewish (but not Jocelyn Bell Burnell!) won in 1974 for pulsars and Penzias and Wilson won in 1978 for their discovery of the cosmic microwave background.

But before the 1970s? Just Hans Bethe in 1967 (stellar nucleosynthesis, although he did an awful lot of work elsewhere in nuclear physics) and Victor Hess way back in 1936 (discovery of cosmic rays). Other than that … many more Nobels have been bestowed for atomic and particle physics in particular. Even Einstein got the Nobel not for something that is noticeable on astronomical scales, like general relativity, but for the photoelectric effect, which is useful if you need night-vision goggles.

See, Alfred Nobel specified that his money should be awarded “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” He did add that the physics award, in particular, could go to discoveries or inventions, although the prize-awarders tend to focus more on the former than the latter. (But not exclusively on the former — hence the recent nods for the CCD, fiber-optic communications, and the integrated circuit, all of which have benefited civilized society tremendously.)

Still, there are some huge figures in 20th-century astronomy who never heard from the Nobel committee. Edwin Hubble, who originally figured out the expansion of the universe. Karl Jansky and Grote Weber, who found radio waves coming from space. Vera Rubin for the galaxy-rotation “problem” and dark matter. The planet-hunters … the team that pinned down the value of the Hubble constant …  you get the picture.

Someone on the Physics Buzz blog wrote in more detail about Vera Rubin’s contributions and why her omission from the list of Nobel laureates is puzzling.

In other news this week … the Nobel Prize in chemistry went to Dan Shechtman for his discovery of quasicrystals — structures that are ordered but not periodic. I’m less of an expert on this topic than on astronomy, but quasicrystals have some use in photonics. A search of Optics InfoBase yields 26 hits on the word “quasicrystal” — photonic quasicrystals, extraordinary light transmission by a quasicrystal, diffraction, spectroscopy, etc. etc. All these papers were published in the last eight years. Clearly this is still an area of active investigation.

Finally, for anyone who is interested in media coverage of the Nobel Prizes, you can check out the Knight Science Journalism Tracker (in reverse chronological order) here, here and here. (Oh, and about those predictions…)

Who are your photonics superheroes?

I don’t normally plug individual private-sector companies and their occasional efforts to make the world a better place. (Companies pay other people to do that.) Recently, however, one announcement caught my eye and got me thinking. Edmund Optics, that company that makes lots of optical components and educational science-lab supplies (and which used to have such a nice factory-outlet store in New Jersey), is starting a Real-life Superheroes campaign to recognize photonics-industry innovators and leaders.

That got me to thinking: Who would I include in my own personal gallery of “photonics superheroes”?

I should have pretty high standards; during my five and a half years of working full-time at OSA, I got to meet half a dozen Nobel laureates, and they are truly all good people without fancy airs. Back in 1989, I actually took a class from one of them: Roy Glauber, who for a decade or so taught a version of his “Waves, Particles and the Structure of Matter” course for non-majors through Harvard Extension School. Glauber taught the class on the condition that Harvard make it free of charge for high-school students and teachers to attend, so when he met me again in 2005, he commented, “You must have been one of about four people who actually paid to take the class.” (The course, incidentally, was excellent and, unlike many other science classes for non-majors, it did not avoid trigonometric equations.)

How about that Charles Townes? Nearly half a century after his Nobel Prize, he’s still doing research in a totally different area from his Nobel — namely, astrophysics with infrared interferometry. I believe he’s going to be 96 years old next month.

I am also thinking of some people who are far less well known than the Nobel laureates. For instance, Jim Wynne of IBM Corp. Last year I blogged about Wynne’s efforts toward a potential dual-laser method for removing eschars from burn tissue. If it works out, the technique could be of great benefit to the two groups of people who most often suffer severe burns: children and soldiers. I really ought to follow up with Wynne — one of the pioneers of LASIK surgery — to see how his research is going.

There’s also Oxford University’s Joshua Silver, who announced a couple of years ago that he had developed adjustable eyeglasses for poor people in developing countries. He now heads the Centre for Vision in the Developing World at Oxford.

So, who do you think possesses “photonic superpowers” — saving lives, curing diseases, solving problems with new optical technologies? Tell me in the comment section below, or tell Edmund at