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  • SPIE O+P Blog: Hornet's Nest
Aug 2009
San Diego, Aug. 6, 2009

"Wait a second." I put down my fork, thus signaling the severity of my protest. "Why does it even matter how thick the walls of the hornet's nest are?"

If my neighbor at the dinner table was becoming impatient with me, he wasn't showing it. "I will come to that," he said, somewhat paternally, I thought. "But first, how do you think the hornet can determine the thickness of the walls, and thus ensure it is entirely uniform throughout each layer of the nest?"

"I will tell you," he continued, waiting only half a second for me to respond (or stare blankly, as the case happened to be). "It is acoustic resonance."

Features editor Lynn Savage was seated a table or two over in the Marina Ballroom of the San Diego Marriott. I knew he was taking notes about the winners of the 2009 society awards, snapping photos of the scholarship recipients, absorbing the finer points of the presentation by Charles M. Vest, "Why Science and Engineering Matter in the 21st Century." You know, covering the event.

I, in the meantime, was being schooled in the construction of hornets' nests.

I wouldn't have had it any other way, though. One of the things I like about meetings and trade shows is that they afford the opportunity to meet and talk with people from throughout the community. Not necessarily about business or science - though neither of these is not out of the question - but about whatever topic tickles them. For instance, I had a very nice chat about roller coasters over lunch today. This allows me to get to know them in a way I never could through brief e-mail exchanges or phone interviews. And I appreciate that.

I'll leave it to Lynn to tell you what happened onstage at the SPIE 54th annual awards banquet. I'm going to sign off now. I'll see you next time.

Gary Boas  

Teach Your Children Well

San Diego, Aug. 5, 2009

Neal C. Gallagher worries he might fail as a father.

Not in any of the usual ways. The retired professor of engineering and current SPIE fellow has enrolled his children in an excellent school system, and he clearly dotes on them otherwise. No, what keeps Gallagher up at nights is the possibility that, one day, his kids might decide to get jobs in finance.

To be sure, he has cause for concern. In a talk he gave at the SPIE Fellows Luncheon yesterday, "Where Have All the Engineering Students Gone?," he noted that enrollments in engineering programs have dropped from roughly 80,000 in 1985 to somewhere in the area of 50,000 today. So the likelihood of his children following in his footsteps has in fact decreased.

Why is this? Gallagher, who emphasized that he is simply a concerned parent, has a few ideas. The first, he admitted, has proved somewhat controversial. After looking at programs designed to interest children in engineering, he determined that many of these - certain remedial programs, for example - target kids who may not be good enough students to get into engineering programs. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, he said. He feels, however, that the programs are neglecting the very best students, those who could make the most impact in the field.

Another possible reason for the decline in interest is that typical classroom science experiments are "weak, really pretty boring." Small wonder, he said, that kids are staying away in droves.

To remedy this in his own backyard, at least, Gallagher volunteered to go into his children's school to try to get second-graders excited about science and engineering. He developed lessons about states of matter and energy of phase change, siphons (using a flush toilet) and electricity and magnetism, demonstrating the various principles using Newton's Cradle and other engaging props and activities. The children had no trouble grasping these advanced concepts, he said; one little boy even arrived at his own understanding of relativity.

It's impossible to measure the impact of Gallagher's efforts without any sort of systematic study. Anecdotally, though, he has seen a number of children get fired up about science in ways they might not have otherwise. And if just one of them chooses to study engineering rather than some more sordid career path…

***** It was getting to be that point in the afternoon where time seems to slow. I was wandering the exhibition floor cradling a small, plastic cup filled with tepid press room coffee, and had just passed the California NanoSystems Institute booth when a woman called out: "Hey, how are YOU?"

I'll be honest, I was a bit startled. When I got to talking to her, though, I found her totally charming. She told me all about the Institute, a research center at UCLA charged with encouraging university collaboration with industry and enabling rapid commercialization of discoveries in nanosystems. Its scope is broad, she said. In addition to the eight core labs facilitating collaborative research, the Institute offers summer training programs, educational outreach to underserved schools in Los Angeles, incubator space for startup companies…

"Wait, back up," I interjected. I took another sip of my coffee. "Did you say outreach?"


Education is a tremendously important concern for the optics community, and we at Photonics Media have decided to take a more proactive stance in addressing it. The August issue of Photonics Spectra includes the first in an ongoing series of "Education Wavefront" columns. This month, I look at the so-called "CSI Effect" in education: the combination of misunderstandings about and increased expectations of forensic science brought on by the popular TV show. And I've already submitted the next column, examining the gender gap in science and math achievement.

I'm currently exploring the role of informal learning - at museums and aquariums, for example - in science education. I recently visited the California Science Center in Los Angeles and spoke with many of the good people there - not just about the interactive optics exhibit on the museum floor, which totally sparked the interest of the children I saw at the exhibit, but also about the Center's educational and professional development efforts.

When I was in San Francisco for the Human Brain Mapping meeting in June, I visited the Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum much like the California Science Center, and had a similar conversation about that institution's community outreach programs.

In both cases, I wanted to know: did those at the museum view its outreach efforts as complementing public school science curricula or as somehow plugging holes in the curricula? The difference is more than semantic, I think. The California education system is in crisis, and I'm curious as to what the landscape will look like even in the near future: what role non-profit organizations, for example, will play in meeting these basic needs for children.

I asked the same questions of the woman from the California NanoSystems Institute. She said - not surprisingly, given that they target underserved communities - that the Institute's efforts are a response to a perceived lack in the schools: a lack of funding, a lack of teachers, a lack of enthusiasm. The professor who spearheads the efforts hopes to get students excited about science - and especially about nanosystems, which aren't on the tips of everyone's tongues now but may very well be when the students enter the workforce.


From Orange County, Fla., where Neal C. Gallagher's children go to school, to the Compton area of Los Angeles, alarms have been raised about our ability to interest kids in science. This is not just an academic concern, so to speak. We live in an innovation economy, and if we are to remain competitive we need to cultivate future generations of researchers and engineers.

Now, of course, is the time to do so.



Star Gazing

San Diego, Aug. 4, 2009

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is tucked away in a small building on a nondescript stretch of Venice Boulevard in the Culver City section of Los Angeles. Although the setting might suggest otherwise, the contents of the building are actually quite remarkable: The museum claims to be a “specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities.”

Volunteers from the San Diego Astronomy Club set up telescopes at the Monday welcome reception, allowed attendees to view the night sky and enthusiastically answered any questions they had. (Photonics Media photos by Gary Boas)  

I wandered into the museum on Saturday, pretty much on a whim. I had a couple of hours to kill before a friend was to read from a recent anthology at a Glendale bookstore, and another friend had suggested this place would be sufficiently quirky for me if I ever found myself in the area.

As it happened, the first exhibit I stumbled upon was a collection of letters sent to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena between 1915 and 1935. Among these was a yellowed scrap of paper dismissing the laws of gravitation as “a contemptible lie.” And my favorite, an unsigned postcard beseeching of “Mr. Wilson”: "PLEASE SHOW MR EINSTEIN YOUR BIG TELESCOPE SO HE CAN TELL US ALL ABOUT IT HE HAS NO BIG TELESCOPE YOU KNOW BUT WE KNOW HE IS A BIG SCIENTIFIC MAN IN EDUCATION HE IS CONSIDERED EVEN GREATER THAN CHARLEY CHAPLIN.” (If you can get your hands on the book “No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again,” which compiles these letters, I heartily recommend you do so.)

It would be a bit too easy, perhaps, to read these letters and dwell on the pathos of, for example, a woman in Auckland, New Zealand, writing to men in California whom she had never met to explain that the planet Mars is inhabited by human spirits who work our gramophones and moving pictures. I'll admit, I spent part of Sunday afternoon on the veranda behind the convention center doing just that.

The goal of the exhibit was not to condescend, however. Rather, the curators sought to convey the explosion of interest in astronomy in the early decades of the 20th century, not long after the observatory went live with what was then the largest actively used telescope in existence.

Findings from the observatory were published in scientific journals and eventually picked up by the popular press, where they clearly fired the imaginations of readers. By the beginning of the 1920s, the observatory was welcoming 20,000 visitors every year. Tens of thousands of others followed its progress in the papers. And no small number of those contacted the observatory with theories and observations of their own.

Professor John Greivenkamp of the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences is displaying more than 60 of the antique telescopes he has collected for the university.

We may be in the midst of another such moment. With the 400th year of the telescope, the 40th anniversary of the moon landing and the Hubble telescope continuing to provide spectacular images, astronomy is as much in vogue as ever. As before, the public is embracing new findings about the heavens and lettings its collective imagination run wild with the possibilities they suggest.

The 2009 Optics + Photonics show is a part of this moment. In commemoration of both the 400th anniversary of the telescope and the International Year of Astronomy, SPIE has planned an array of special events, including an antique telescope display, an astro-photo wall and astro-photo workshops, a live data feed from an Australian observatory, “Star Gazing” with volunteers from the San Diego Astronomy Club.

The antique telescope display comes courtesy of professor John Greivenkamp and the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences. It features more than 60 telescopes and associated items from the 17th to the mid-20th centuries. Greivenkamp purchased the first antique telescope only five or six years ago, when he realized that students of optical technology were losing any connection with the history of the field, and has since built a world-class collection. The collection is open to visitors to the University of Arizona, and portions can be viewed online at

He showed me a number of the telescopes yesterday as he and several others put the finishing touches on the SPIE display: from an early 18th-century Italian telescope with a paper barrel – brass tubing was not yet available, he explained – to a circa 1750 mahogany telescope with a reverse taper barrel, to accommodate the very small diameter objective lens needed to limit the blurring due to longitudinal chromatic aberration. And as an optical engineer, he provided a relatively unique perspective as to the history of the telescope, discussing the optical materials available in a given period, for instance, and how they affected the design.

He is thrilled to be able to share this knowledge. Understanding the past can help us appreciate the technology of today, he said, and better envision the instruments of tomorrow. The Optics + Photonics show provides a tremendous opportunity for people to discover the collection and to delve into the history of the telescope. 


Worlds (Nearly) Collide

Aug. 3, 2009

I was elbowed aside as I negotiated the 3300 aisle of the San Diego Convention Center. I turned and glared at the owner of the elbow. He was dressed all in black and sporting a gas mask. “TIE fighter pilot,” I thought, although his resemblance to the character from the “Star Wars” movies was mostly confined to an air of jackbooted thuggishness and an apparent disregard for human life.

I spotted my friend a few feet ahead of me, stalled, as a bunch of gawkers had stopped to greet a hulking robot holding court in the center of the thoroughfare. She looked at me and smiled a wry little smile. I could guess what she was thinking: “Really, Robot? In the middle of the aisle?”

The Riddler and The Penguin as seen at Comic-Con International. (Image: Gary Boas)

All around us the crowds surged, rising and falling like a sea of eager faces and T-shirts emblazoned with logos and epigrams decipherable only by an elect few. Lines formed, snaked around corners and intersected with other lines, contributing to a general sense of pandemonium and leading people to wonder what exactly they were waiting for. Somewhere off in the distance the rataplan of mechanized warfare issued forth from a state-of-the-art sound system.

This was last Sunday at Comic-Con International, a sort of pop culture mecca where upcoming movies, TV shows, comics, toys and video games are previewed for the multitudes who descend on San Diego every year about this time. To call it bedlam would be a bit of an understatement. The Convention Center could barely contain the tens of thousands in attendance, and many of those numbers spilled out into the streets, streaming into the Gaslamp District in their sci-fi and fantasy costumes.

The scene was slightly different yesterday. The SPIE Optics + Photonics meeting kicked off in the morning with a full slate of courses, talks and professional development events. The exhibition doesn’t begin until tomorrow, however, so the hall itself was quiet. I peeked in after completing my registration and saw only boxes and the skeletal outlines of vendors’ booths. Of the dozen or so people milling about, not one was wearing tights and a cape.

After a time, I tramped upstairs to join the technical conferences already in progress. I began with a series of talks about focal plane arrays and inorganic nano solar cells. Solid stuff there.

Later, I attended the excellent plenary sessions. SPIE is celebrating both the 400th anniversary of the telescope and the International Year of Astronomy, and yesterday’s sessions included talks devoted to adaptive optics and astronomy, segmented mirror telescopes and direct imaging of exoplanets.

The keystone of the evening may have been the plenary talk “Four Hundred Years Through the Eye of the Telescope,” given by Jerry Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Nelson walked us through each of the past four centuries, outlining the major developments and discoveries in astronomy: in the 17th century, Galileo’s initial studies with the telescope and the Copernican revolution, and early attempts to measure the speed of light; in the 18th century, the discovery of binary stars orbiting one another and the realization that our own solar system is moving through space.

The 19th century introduced external spiral galaxies and spectral measurements of stars. Finally, in the 20th century, we came to understand that the universe is ever expanding, and acquainted ourselves with the Big Bang, black holes and dark stars.

Nelson noted also that much of the knowledge acquired with the telescope has forced us to redefine our place in the universe. From Galileo demonstrating that the heavens do not circle the Earth, he said, to the discovery that our solar system is itself drifting through space, it has provided us with a steady stream of “new and humbling insights” about the part we play in the eternal celestial dance.


It occurred to me as I listened to the talks that the Comic-Con crowd wasn’t so different from those assembled yesterday evening. We all want to know what’s out there. Some of us look to the stars, hoping to see ourselves reflected back in them, or perhaps some better version of ourselves, evidence of what we could be. Just ask the legions of fans who came last week to pay tribute to “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galactica” and the British sci-fi classic “Dr. Who.”

Others seek to unlock the mysteries of the stars themselves. One speaker yesterday, for instance, examined the explosion mechanism that produced the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, yielding insight into a type of event that results in the heating of galaxies and enrichment of the interstellar medium with heavy elements – the very building blocks of life, she explained.

Underlying all of this, of course, is a deeply entrenched sense of wonder, a need to peer beyond the confines of everyday existence, to glean some small understanding of what it all means. And if this turns out to be the one thing we all hold in common … I think I’m OK with that.

Gary Boas  

adaptive optics
Optical components or assemblies whose performance is monitored and controlled so as to compensate for aberrations, static or dynamic perturbations such as thermal, mechanical and acoustical disturbances, or to adapt to changing conditions, needs or missions. The most familiar example is the "rubber mirror,'' whose surface shape, and thus reflective qualities, can be controlled by electromechanical means. See also active optics; phase conjugation.
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
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