Science or Sentiment, Generalized

Career “trophies”, coffee mugs, one of which was created by dye printing technology (depicting our development team), the other a memento commemorating the issue of an arcane patent.

There is a more general problem related to the “what to do with old lab notebooks” that some of us face.  It is what to do with our shoeboxes of photos (virtual digital shoeboxes and real ones).  And written correspondence.  Love letters.  Birthday cards and holiday cards that caught our attention enough that we saved them.  The trophies, actual physical trophies, or the certificates of commendation for a job well done.  Birth and death announcements.  Souvenirs of our travels, the mementos of the high points of our lives. 

All of them carry great meaning to us, invoking a romantic haze of fond memories from those times and places, for those people and events.  Yet those memories are internal to us; they are not shared, even with the persons we may have shared the moment with—at least not exactly. Each of them has his or her own version of those scenes.  And they are not shared in the same way with our children, and certainly not their children.  Our lives are an abstraction to them.  They weren’t even around when the main story was unfolding.

I have come to realize this in the last few years as I have processed the items left behind by my parents after their deaths.  I have a high regard for my father’s technical acumen and his many projects.  Some of them were to gather and archive family history, others documented his personal interests.  He was always an early adopter of technology and embraced digital photography well before I did.  He acquired a large collection of both film and digital pictures, organized in shoeboxes and digital folders.  He worked to digitally scan historic family photos that dated back to the 19th century. 

There is a treasure trove of history here, some even recent enough to overlap with my own, yet I do not find myself compelled to explore it.  And therein lies the problem.  If I am not inspired to carry forward the artifacts of prior generations, why would I expect subsequent generations to propagate mine?

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Science or Sentiment

The title page of my grandfather’s PhD thesis, a thick volume of scientific discovery, each page typewritten in carbon-paper triplicate by my grandmother during their time at Harvard. Interestingly, it was submitted on his (54th) birthday.

“Long before the term ecology became a part of the vocabulary of the scientist, primitive man, looking out over the expanse of blue-green water which characterized his favorite fishing haunt, was probably aware of the fact that notable alterations in the color and clarity of this body of water would occur as the seasons changed.”

The introductory sentence of Theodore Olson’s PhD thesis on algae blooms.

I was witness to my grandparents’ transition to an assisted living apartment from the home they had kept for more than half a century.  Though modest, it was the center of a busy family’s activities, and had accumulated the corresponding mementos through the decades.  It had also collected the technical artifacts of my grandfather’s scientific career, specimens of insects and fish and algae from his ecological and entomologist specialties.  He kept copies of his and his peers’ published works, along with those of his doctoral students, who carried on these disciplines, with the scientific rigor and methods that he taught them over their years in his tutelage.

I was there on the day when he had to empty the ‘wall of books‘ in his home library, which included the dissertations of his students.  There was no space for everything at the new apartment.   A few important reference volumes could be retained, but the others?  What to do with them?  Here were the compiled and distilled understandings of pioneers in biology, acquired through years of painstaking research, building upon the pyramid of human knowledge.  These breakthroughs of their time have now been incorporated into our general understanding of modern biology. 

What should happen to the first-ever photomicrographs of blue-green algae blooming to produce cyanobacterial toxins?  What should become of the tabulated counts of seasonal species of mosquitos that were the vectors of mosquito-borne diseases?  What should be the fate of that first chart correlating taconite processing and asbestos-like fibers in Lake Superior?  All of these new discoveries had been first reported in his research and in the dissertations of his PhD students. 

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When Given Cold Weather…

A flash-frozen soap bubble.

When given lemons, make lemonade. 

When given subzero temperatures, freeze soap bubbles. 

This is one of those things that I have wanted to do for some years.  Living in a place where the temperatures drop to levels well below those in your freezer that solidify water and can preserve slabs of reindeer meat, each year I enjoy a few days of dangerously cold weather.   One can throw a pot of hot water up in the air and it turns into a spectacular cloud of steam and snow; no liquid lands on the ground!  It is also possible to blow soap bubbles that freeze into gossamer ice globes.  They are delicate and beautiful, and I have long wanted to photograph them.

Each year when the outdoor temperatures drop sufficiently, I have tried to do this.  Invariably, there is too much wind—any wind is too much—and the bubbles wander away.  The ones I can catch, usually burst before I can take their picture.

This year however, I had a new strategy.  We recently installed windows on our outdoor screen porch.  The temperature remains cold, but the wind is completely blocked.  I can now make soap bubbles and they won’t get away!

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The Wall of Books

This is adapted from a tribute that my father made at the memorial of his father, Theodore Olson, after whom we are both named, who died in 2002 at the age of 97.  I post it here for the online access of posterity, and to provide a portrayal of the scientific mindset of a family patriarch that influenced not only his students, but his entire family and several generations beyond.  Here is my father’s rendition of our family history.


The start of this story goes back almost 150 years. In about 1860 in Norway, Hans Opjörden left home and went to Oslo. Hans had the misfortune to be the second son in his family, and that meant that his older brother would inherit the family farm. Hans left home and headed off to Oslo, where he went to work in a shipyard building boats. After a while he decided he really wanted to sail on the boats instead of just building them. At this time Norway was a province of Sweden.  Shrewdly, Hans changed his name from Opjörden to Olson (with a Swedish spelling) and got Swedish sailing papers.

He went on several voyages and along the way befriended a shipmate named Peter Magnus Peterson.  We can imagine a conversation between them based on what subsequently happened.  Hans confided that he’d really wanted to be a farmer but had no prospects of getting land—and that being a sailor was not his “dream job”, but was good paying employment. 

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A New Home for Nightscapes

“Climber Trails”, from my gallery of film startrail classics.

The internet has evolved tremendously since its early days when I first tried to use web pages to show the results of my nighttime photography.  Back then, our (dial-up) Internet Service Provider (ATT) offered a home page and a URL subspace to their customers.   I took advantage of it and crafted some pages to hold my pictures and stories.  Later, I acquired my own domain, nightscapes.net, found a host, loaded my stuff onto it and even got some professional help to re-organize when it became unwieldy. 

I learned that maintaining a website can be a lot of work; the technology evolves, links and scripts break, web page conventions, html standards and visitor expectations change.  I’m not a programmer (despite a lifetime of doing it), and my interests are in the art and science of images, not the latest network and browser technologies for supporting the latest desktop/laptop/tablet/phone displays.

So I was excited to discover a website service oriented toward photographers, a platform with a small army of support people who maintain it, with features that display photographs at their best, regardless of display or browser, keeping up with the latest updates to internet programming standards.  They offer additional services for professional photographers (“buy print”, etc), and at an earlier time I might have subscribed to them.

But I am happy now to keep the shopping cart icons suppressed and not distract from the images themselves.

I have transferred my collection of nightscapes accumulated over the last two decades, over to smugmug, where you can find it at thorolson.smugmug.com.  I know people don’t power-browse through large collections of pictures, so I consider this to be really more of an archive, to continue my project of making a digital coffee table book of my favorites.

But I will also use the site to display my more recent work, as I complete it.  It will be a relief to have a way to do so without the overhead of manually creating and integrating new web pages for them. 

I intend to make posts to this, my personal website, when I add new photographs.  I invite you to subscribe or “follow” me, which will send you an email when new posts are made.  I am not very prolific in my art, so you will not be inundated, and if you are intrigued by the types of pictures I like to take, well, I take enjoyment in sharing them and would love to have you as a follower.