Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘scientists’

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!

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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.

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