Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘technology’

A tale of black and pink

Happy New Year to all my readers!

I’d like to start 2017 by passing along a story of black and pink. The color combination isn’t new — it was quite popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s, echoing the famous “Silence = Death” AIDS protest poster. I still have a black jacket with a hot-pink lining that my late mother bought me 20 years ago.

Now, apparently, an artist that has restricted other artists from using a particular “black” has been banned from acquiring the “world’s pinkest pink.”

I have no idea why the pink pigment described in the Smithsonian article has that superlative attached to it. The little jar looks about as pink as the hat I’m knitting for the Women’s March on Washington, or perhaps the Hello Kitty lens-cleaning kit that a friend gave me. Perhaps most painters make their pinks by blending red and white paints together, rather than buying something explicitly labeled pink.

Anyhow, the artist who isn’t allowed to buy the pinkest pink had previously made some sort of deal that stated he was going to be the only person allowed to make artworks with Vantablack, also known as the world’s “blackest black.” It’s a pigment made out of carbon nanotubes, which are tiny rolled-up sheets of pure carbon. (If the “blackest black” seems to be something out of a military video game, you’re right — it was developed for military applications.) As I’ve written in several short articles in OPN’s newsroom archives, carbon nanotubes can absorb radiation strongly at lots of different wavelengths, extending into the infrared. The artist’s monopoly on Vantablack inspired the pink-pigment manufacturer to keep his creation out of that artist’s hands.

Note that the restriction on using Vantablack applies only to “art”; anyone who wants to use the carbon nanotubes to dampen reflections inside a telescope or make some piece of military hardware invisible to enemies is perfectly able to do so.

Happy 50th Anniversary, Star Trek!

As I write this, the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek series is coming to an end. I can’t say I remember the original run — I’m not going to say how old I was, or whether I existed at all. I strongly suspect that my parents were watching something else at the time — my mother loved Westerns and crime dramas, and my father enjoyed variety shows (remember those?). Better to have come to Star Trek as a young adult, though, than to never have embraced it at all. I’m enough of a geek to admit that when I shared a three-bedroom apartment with a couple of other Trek fans many years ago, I was thrilled to learn that the last four digits of our ZIP+4 code were 1701. Perfect!

This evening, to celebrate, I watched (on demand) Building Star Trek, a documentary from the Smithsonian Channel. Lots of closeups of Original Series artifacts and clips from the Original Series. I remember seeing some of the props at the Air & Space Museum way back in the 1990s — I was then surprised at how wooden they looked up close, and how the costumes were made of the cheesiest polyester double-knit. (Bleah!) I was also pleased (though, given my work, not entirely surprised) that the “predicted-by-Trek” technology described in the show came almost entirely from optics: laser weapons, a nanoscale “tractor beam,” entangled photons, and the “invisibility cloak.”

Obviously the Internet has been filled with tributes all day long. My favorite is the one from NASA; it includes a team from NASA Goddard, just down the street from me.

And, speaking of NASA, how cool is it that the space agency launched OSIRIS-REx toward an asteroid tonight? The timing of the launch can’t be just coincidence, can it? Listen to the launch announcer — yep, he slips the phrase “to boldly go” in there. Of course.

Could your light bulb talk to you? (Update on Li-Fi)

A “talking light bulb” isn’t the product of some tin-hatted paranoiac — not if the light bulb in question is an LED model, and not if you’re using a Li-Fi signal in place of Wi-Fi.

What is Li-Fi, you may ask? Basically, it’s a type of optical wireless communications (OWC) in which a LED, not a radio-frequency router, gives off the signal that talks to your device. I wrote about it in this 2014 article for Optics & Photonics News. If you’d rather get your information by listening to it, researcher Harald Haas, who coined the term “Li-Fi,” gave a TED talk and demonstration about it in 2011.

Although that speech is four years old now, Li-Fi hasn’t made much of a dent in the marketplace … yet. Every wirelessly connected device you already own — smartphone, tablet, laptop, Fitbit, whatever — would need to have a second set of receivers and transmitters to communicate with Li-Fi as well as Wi-Fi “hot spots.” Still, it’s hard to imagine how the so-called “Internet of Things” will develop if we don’t increase the amount of electromagnetic bandwidth we use for communications — and Li-Fi would open up a lot of bandwidth for sure. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, flight attendants will hand out Li-Fi converters to airline passengers so that they can use their devices to communicate while traveling, the way they now hand out headphones (or used to hand out headphones, depending on your flight) and beverages.

Recently, Haas’ group, based out of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has figured out how to make organic solar cells into Li-Fi receivers as well as power sources. That’s cool, because in our quest to endlessly miniaturize our devices, we don’t leave a lot of real estate open for transmitters and receivers — or for additional battery packs, for that matter. If you’re truly interested in the technical details, you can find the original article here.

A slightly different, more marketing-oriented twist on Li-Fi technology is offered by a Boston-based company called ByteLight, which was recently acquired by another company called Acuity Brands. We shall see how that shakes out and how OWC will evolve over the next few years.

(P.S. Please, can we come up with a better phrase than “Internet of Things”? That sounds way too much like the “information superhighway” you might have heard about back in 1990 or thereabouts.)


5 Tech Products That Will Be Dead in 5 Years

So, what do YOU all think about these five predictions? I think one will be spot-on, one will never happen, and the rest will be somewhere in between. But I’m not sure which is which….


With the speed of innovation in the tech industry, we can’t know every piece of technology that will fill our everyday lives in five years, but we can predict what won’t last.

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The “demise” of scientific journals

I’m sitting here, working on a feature article that required me to do a lot of research in scientific journals going way-back-when. And I notice that one of the articles I’m citing, from an issue of Nature back in December 1970, is followed on the same page by another essay titled “Demise of Scientific Journals.”

Now, I don’t have the full journal-related essay, because I didn’t think to download the whole thing while I was at the library, and my in-home access to Nature doesn’t let me go back that far. Still, I am intrigued.

The “Demise” article is not credited to an author by name, just to “our Washington Correspondent.” He (I’m assuming the correspondent was a “he” — this was in 1970, after all) quotes a then-recent study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The NAS committee predicted that “journals will eventually be rendered obsolete by the computer console, although it may take ten years before each major research centre in the United States possesses a suitable terminal, a further decade for small groups of scientists to come to own consoles and yet another ten years to provide links with other continents.”

Hmm, let’s think about that. This article was written about 18 months after humans first landed on the Moon. I’m sure that people back then were still making pretty optimistic projections about Moon bases and Mars expeditions.

Ten years after the NAS committee … that would be 1980, and mainframe terminals (think VAX) were in colleges and universities, I’m sure. However, students still typed up their term papers on typewriters and went to the library to make photocopies of journal articles.

Ten years after that … takes us to 1990, and scientists certainly had their own personal computers on their desks at work, and probably at home too. Or they might have had Sun Microsystems workstations that were networked together. There was even a way to send “electronic mail” or “e-mail” messages to colleagues at other institutions, although the protocols for getting messages from one computer network to another could be cumbersome. (Quite a few pages in the 1993 membership directory of the American Astronomical Society were devoted to translating addresses to and from ARPAnet, Bitnet, JANET, NSFnet, SSL, etc.)

Ten years after that … by 2000, communications “with other continents” was definitely old hat!

And scientific journals still exist. I think there are more of them than ever before. If you’re already a journal publisher, it’s easy to start a “virtual journal” that’s online-only and/or aggregates articles from related journals in the field. Scientists all over the world are publishing up a storm, and the “information superhighway” gets bigger every year.

So … Nature‘s prediction turned out to be way too conservative. However, while we were advancing the computing and communications technologies much faster than anticipated, we didn’t get around to building those Moon bases and exploring Mars. What happened there?