Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘science journalism’


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.



I haven’t forgotten where I was 10 years ago today, when the space shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry into the atmosphere.

The evening before, I’d fallen asleep with my boom box playing one of the local National Public Radio stations softly in the background. Since it was a Saturday morning, I could keep to my own schedule instead of letting the alarm clock jar me into consciousness. When I drifted awake, I could hear voices speaking on the radio, but not in the same pattern as a normal “Weekend Edition” program. It took me maybe 10 minutes to pierce through the mental fog and figure out that there was some sort of trouble with Columbia. I turned on the little bedroom TV set — the little Motorola B&W portable that was one of my Dad’s last gifts to me before he died — and there I first saw the images of shuttle debris streaking across the southern sky.

Today in the news, Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein posed the question: If a space shuttle is doomed, do you let the crew know of their fate? We know what happened to the seven astronauts of Columbia. Even though the shuttle program has ended, the question is worth pondering for future generations of space travelers.

Speaking of NASA … last month I went to a memorial service for one of the scientists who joined NASA when it opened the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1959. Bertram D. “Bert” Donn, the first head of NASA Goddard’s astrochemistry group, also was the Ph.D. adviser to one of my grad-school advisers, making him my “academic grandfather” in a sense. I certainly quoted a lot of “Nuth and Donn” and “Donn and Nuth” papers in my master’s thesis. “Nuth” refers to Joseph A. Nuth III, who still works at NASA Goddard, a couple of miles from where I sit.

The rabbi who delivered the eulogy said that in his college application essay, Bert Donn said that he wanted to understand the universe and to reform the world. He certainly worked at both, because in addition to his scientific work, he was a peace activist who worked tirelessly to desegregate apartment complexes and schools back in the civil rights era, even when racial desegregation was unpopular. (I should add that his wife, Marj Donn, is a social activist and writer too, and a friend.)

Bert Donn’s favorite quote was also one of mine:

SCAN0002 - Bert Donn program

You can read more about Bert Donn in this NASA tribute, co-written by Joe Nuth, with links to other obituaries and photographs. Following the service, I enjoyed talking with Joe and with another NASA astrochemistry scientist, Regina Cody, despite the sadness of the occasion that brought us back together.

A “point of view” you absolutely must see

As if someone at PBS headquarters was reading Optics & Photonics News (I wish!), PBS has scheduled the wonderful documentary The City Dark for its “POV” summer documentary series.

I saw The City Dark earliest this year at an environmental film in Washington, D.C. Why, yes, I just happened to be working on my OPN article at the time, but I would have appreciated the movie even if I had no plans to write about light pollution. It’s just more lyrical and expressive than I can manage. (I used to think I was pretty eloquent, but that was back in the day when electric typewriters still set the standard for individual written communication.) And it had Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve seen Neil deGrasse Tyson in person a couple of times, most recently (well, a couple of  years ago) at a retirement “roast” for longtime American Astronomical Society press officer Steve Maran. When it comes to communicating astronomy to the public, Neil deGrasse Tyson rocks my world.

Anyhow, you can watch the trailer for The City Dark on the PBS website and check the local listings for the film, because PBS stations often do their own thing. Supposedly, “POV” is a Thursday night feature, but here in the Washington area, WETA is airing the documentary on Saturday, July 7, at 11:15 p.m. Also check out for information where you can see it possibly on a larger screen than you have at home and/or with a bunch of like-minded people besides your own family.

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…)

The plagues of August are over

August has been a whirlwind month — I burned out a crucial part of the automatic transmission of my car, requiring major repairs and scuttling a camping trip I had been planning. Then we got a rare East Coast earthquake, followed by a glancing blow from a storm named Irene.

Fortunately, the brick walls of my condo building weren’t cracked, the lights have come back on, and I got my wheels back from the transmission shop (a small-but-expert business operating since 1968). And we have turned the calendar page into September.

Lately I’ve been working on two feature articles for Optics & Photonics News, and if you’re an OSA member, you’ll be able to read them soon. The October issue will contain my article titled “Light in Flight: Optical Applications in Civilian Aviation.” The article that’s tentatively scheduled for November will have a more “spacey” theme  — I shall divulge the topic as the publication time approaches.

In other news, I now have a Facebook page that’s devoted to interesting topics in science. Most are things forwarded from other Facebook pages, but still, reposting them there is faster than switching over to WordPress. Here is the link:

Patricia Daukantas, Science Writer/Editor

If I can get 25 people to “Like” me on Facebook, I can customize the URL for the page, I believe. Anyway, please do check it out! I’ve got some optics news up there, and everything else from helium-poor stars to Ned Kelly’s bones.

Additional note about the East Coast earthquake

One of the most knowledgeable writers about last month’s earthquake — which I felt while sitting at my desk a few miles northeast of Washington, D.C. — has been Callan Bentley, a geologist who blogs for the AGU. Check out this entry for an interesting blend of hard science and personal experience.

Back in March, I visited the town of Mineral, Va., to attend an event at Louisa County Middle School. I remember Mineral as a small town, way off the interstate, so when I heard where the temblor’s epicenter was, I instantly recognized the location. I can’t seem to find a permanent link to the video of the Louisa County High School ceilings falling down (shown on CNN recently), but if I recall correctly, the middle school is right next to the high school complex. Even though I was only with an organization that was renting space in the middle school for a day, I feel a certain connection with the people of Louisa County.

Late-night thoughts (links, mostly) on radiation fears

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker has highlighted an article in which Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein explores Americans’ conflicted feelings about all things nuclear, from the duck-and-cover days to Homer Simpson and his arrogant boss. I’ve known Seth since my college journalism days and am always interested in reading his stuff.

Another longtime friend, Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report fame, has been using his Facebook account to post links to educational pages about radiation (since most of us don’t know our millisieverts from a meltdown). He lists a graphical radiation dose chart (with a pinch of humor), a slightly more mathematical page about radiation doses, and a physicist’s talk about the specific radiation situation in Japan.

Maybe this isn’t the right topic to be blogging about at bedtime. I remember a certain time in my youth when I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, or saw images from that nuclear-blasted city on a TV documentary, and ended up lying awake for hours, staring at the ceiling, and wondering what the bomb would look like as it crashed through the roof of my house a microsecond before exploding and vaporizing us all into instant oblivion.

Today I live a lot closer to a major city than I did then, but somehow I’m not as worried about The Bomb, at least not one launched by an enemy superpower. I’m more likely to worry about our collective dream-killing Great Recession, which in my mind won’t be over until other friends of mine get jobs.