Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘scientists’

Update to my previous post

The New York Times finally published an obituary for Roy Glauber.

Also, a Washington Post opinion writer weighed in on a paradox: many Americans love technology but hate (or fear) science.

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Two passings

Last month, on the day after Christmas, I was on travel with family and friends. That was the day two influential scientists passed away — both at the age of 93.

I can honestly say that Roy J. Glauber is the only professor I’ve had — yet! — who won a Nobel Prize. Not that I’m a Harvard alum or anything, but many years ago, when I was contemplating going to back to college to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in physics (my first degree was in journalism), taking his Harvard Extension School night class titled “Waves, Particles, and the Structure of Matter” gave me confidence that I could hack physics at the college level. Unlike the Astronomy 100-101 courses at the University of Maryland, which used only algebra, Glauber’s course required an understanding of trigonometry for studying, y’know, wave motion.

Years later, when I was working for OSA and Glauber had just received the Nobel Prize, I told him over lunch that I took his evening course. His response? “You must have been one of about four people who actually paid to take it.” He taught the Extension class only with the stipulation that high school students and teachers could attend for free.

That was the kind of person Roy Glauber was. I’ve been told that when he attended OSA’s annual meeting, he would sit in on the symposium for undergraduate research. I wonder how many of the student presenters, particularly beginning in 2005, realized the significance of his presence in the audience.

I wish I could find the main text for “Waves, Particles, and the Structure of Matter.” Glauber wrote it himself and had it printed at the copy store, and it was well-written and entertaining. He modestly mentioned his own discovery about optical coherence, almost in passing, but did not dwell on it. Sometimes I wish I could have helped him edit that book just a bit and get it properly published.

Some obituaries and tributes for Dr. Glauber:

(Incidentally, why hasn’t the NY Times run an obituary of Dr. Glauber yet? I mean, he was a native New Yorker, he graduated with the very first class of the Bronx High School of Science, yadda yadda yadda.)

The other important scientist who died on December 26 was Nancy Grace Roman, an astronomer who has been called the “Mother of Hubble” for the work she did for the space telescope. I never met her, but I’m sure I would have enjoyed a conversation with her. It’s also important to note that she grew up in an era when far fewer women pursued careers in the physical sciences.

Obituaries and tributes for Dr. Roman:

(What, you were expecting something more from NASA during the partial government shutdown?)

Dr. Roman’s death came just a few weeks before the 25th anniversary of the 1994 AAS meeting at which the stunning results of the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission were revealed. I was there….

Feynman 100

I know the day’s almost over, but it’s still important to recognize that today would have been Richard Feynman’s 100th birthday. Feynman doesn’t “feel” 100 years old in my mind; after all, cancer took him when he was still 69. He didn’t get to have an extended period of being a grand old emeritus professor, frail and stooped. No wonder we still remember the wisecracking young guy.

Physics Today put up a link to a 2017 story about the inside of the youthful Feynman’s calculus notebook. Another writer for that magazine admits that Feynman’s humor could be exasperating at times. My guess is that the #MeToo movement would have tripped him up at some point. (To be fair, though, he encouraged his younger sister to become a scientist in her own right.)

Physics World also has a block of Feynman-at-100 stories on its home page; this British publication’s best-of package includes a couple of reviews of past plays about Feynman, a more general piece about physicists and science writers, and — my favorite — Virginia Trimble‘s tale of posing au naturel for a Feynman drawing session. (She was actually on my second-year project committee when I was in graduate school, and she’ll hit her own three-quarter-century mark later this year.)

I’ve read books by Feynman and books about Feynman. When I was studying undergraduate physics, our campus physics club rented 16-mm copies of the Feynman lectures that went into his book The Character of Physical Law (YouTube hadn’t been invented yet). At one point, the camera operator cut to a closeup shot of someone in the audience, and we UMass students glimpsed our future professor, Eugene Golowich, then finishing up his doctorate at Cornell, leaning back in his seat with a slight smile on his face. He taught very well himself — and I can’t help thinking that Feynman had a bit of influence on him.

As I write this entry, the first part of Caltech’s Feynman 100 celebration is taking place in Pasadena (there’s that bit of time difference between East and West). His sister, at age 91, is still able to participate in the program. So wonderful!

My Hawking number

So, what’s your Hawking number?

I’m referring, of course, to the notion that everyone is separated by no more than six degrees. The mathematicians really got the ball rolling with their concept of an “Erdös number,” based on collaborations with the prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös. In the early days of the public Internet (that is, when Usenet newsgroups were a big thing), a long series of posts linking Kevin Bacon to other Hollywood celebrities led to a popular game, and eventually a website, for calculating “Bacon numbers.”

Of course, I wanted to calculate my own Bacon number. Around that time, a couple of things happened: one friend from my college newspaper had a bit part in Ron Howard’s The Paper, and another friend had a major CGI credit in Howard’s next film, Apollo 13. Thus, if you limit the Bacon game to actors, my Bacon number is 3: me -> my friend -> Robert Duvall (who was also in The Paper) -> Kevin Bacon. But if you include crew members, my Bacon number is only 2: me -> my other friend -> Kevin Bacon, who was of course in Apollo 13.

When I learned of the death of Stephen Hawking, my first thought was of one friend who got his Ph.D. at Cambridge University: Jonathan McDowell, the “Jonathan’s Space Report” guy. I’ve known him for almost 30(!) years now; when our friendship was new, A Brief History of Time was just hitting the bestseller lists. I checked with Jonathan, who confirmed that his doctoral adviser at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy was Bernard Carr, whose doctoral adviser in turn was Hawking. So Hawking was Jonathan’s “academic grandfather.”

And thus, even though I’ve never met this distinguished scientist, my “Hawking number” is 3: me -> Jonathan -> Carr -> Hawking. (Strictly speaking, this number should include only published peer-reviewed journal articles. But in my mind, a friendship counts as much as a film credit or publication.)

Incidentally, Jonathan’s Erdös nuber is 5, so does that make my Erdös number 6?

I’ll leave you with a list of links to news and commentary about Professor Hawking’s passing.

I’m sure there are plenty more tributes out there, but if I spend any more time tracking them down, I’m definitely not going to get my own work done.

I’ll leave you with a couple more relevant tweets from Jonathan McDowell:

Women in Science 2016: Elsa Garmire

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.

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.