The Roving Photons (warning: nerd humor)

The Roving Photons on the steps of the Physics Building (now the Tate Laboratory of Physics) ca 1975.
Standing, left to right: Kevin Loeffler, Richard Dorshow, Thor Olson, Jeffrey Harvey, John Bowers, Kevin Thompson.  Squatting: Greg Hull, Curt Weyrauch.

I first attended the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1971.  I was accepted to the Institute of Technology, IT (now College of Science and Engineering, CSE) but faced the difficulty of narrowing my interests which ranged from science to art, from mathematics to theater.  My initial major, architecture, was inspired by a desire to combine art and science, romanticized by the Ayn Rand novel “The Fountainhead”.  That idealistic goal was punctured by the first lecture of Architecture 101, where in retrospect, I recognize that the professor portrayed the profession in its worst possible light in order to weed out students who were not fully and utterly devoted, focused, and dedicated to the field. 

It worked.  I changed majors the next day. 

But I was still registered for all the courses required for training in architecture, including math and physics, important for structural analyses to guarantee the strength and safety of buildings.  I continued these courses, and even while shifting my major to Fine Arts, I still wanted to learn “the secrets of the universe”.  Eventually, I found the reliability of science to be more aligned with my internal quest than the apparent arbitrariness of the art world.  Don’t get me wrong, I admire artists and consider them to be explorers, and the reports from their journeys inspire and motivate me.  But I realized that I did not have the qualifications to lead or undertake those journeys.

Instead, I focused on how Nature works; this is the domain of physics.  And I found myself in a small group of classmates that were similarly enthused.  Somehow (I don’t remember the details), we became members of an informal club, “The Roving Photons,” whose motto was “A roving photon gathers no mass”.  We attended the same classes; were confronted with the same contradictory anomalies of quantum physics and we all struggled to make sense of it.

I like to brag about the classmates I studied with.  One of them, John Bowers, went on to become a leader in the field of photonics (appreciate your fiber optic internet connection) .  Another, Kevin Thompson, contributed to the corrective optics for the Hubble Telescope.

My freshman dormitory colleague Craig Holt, discovered an important physics-mathematical relationship, now named after him, as is an endowment for a scholarship at the University of Minnesota.  My roommate during our junior and senior year, Jeff Harvey, went on to become a physics professor and contributor to string theory.  Others became teachers and engineers, extending our knowledge of the universe and demonstrating how to utilize it, to the next generations.  It all started in our undergraduate classes at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s.

Here is the recollection of one of my classmates and Roving Photon member Richard Dorshow (who later contributed to the development of medical devices and pharmaceuticals), as reported in 2010 by the newsletter of the School of Physics and Astronomy.

…One of my favorite memories was from my sophomore year.  A small group of us formed an undergraduate physics club, The Roving Photons.  I was elected Executive Director, mainly because I wrote the rules for election and eliminated the competition.  It was a very friendly group of comrades (Greg, two Kevins, Jeff, John and Thor).  We were given a small, narrow room in the sub-basement of the Physics building. 

“There was an exit sign in the hallway outside the door.  Thor, who was also an art major, somehow put the club name on two pieces of glass and we replaced the exit sign with the glass such that we had a lighted club sign.  I think the sign lasted less than one night as it apparently violated the fire safety code.  We had a refrigerator in the club room and arranged a delivery of pop every so often. 

“Our main impact was a faculty lecture we sponsored and arranged.  We would take the faculty speaker out to lunch on the day of the presentation.  I remember we used to go to Sammy D’s.  I think our first speaker was Professor Gasiorowicz.  [He was] a favorite, whose explanations of probability usually involved some sort of food analogy: a tablespoon of peanut butter spread over a cracker, many crackers, and then the entire universe to explain probabilities.  I still have an autographed copy of his book written and completed during my time at the university. 

“The school used to get audited by the American Physics Society and a group of distinguished physicists came to do the audit.   This included William Fowler, then president or president-elect of the APS, and also the famous physicist Herman Feshbach.  Because there was an undergraduate physics club, the distinguished group talked to us too.  Here we were with this group of esteemed physicists and we were telling them about the lunches at Sammy D’s, and the soda pop delivery.  In hindsight, this seems a very surreal event.” 

Rick’s description captures only a small portion of our experience as students during the 1970s, a turbulent but productive time in physics.  A “zoo” of new subatomic particles were being discovered, all of which would be clues leading to the now famous “Standard Model” of quantum mechanics.  We were in the middle of it all but didn’t really know.  To me, it made little sense.

And it is still challenging.  Although I was distracted from my study of physics by the exploding field of electronics brought on by miniaturized transistors (and because just about any physics experiment requires electronic instrumentation), I continued to follow the developments in physics throughout my career.  Reading their Wikipedia entries, the inspiration from my superstar classmates of 1975 is part of why I am still curious enough to engage in online courses for learning how to program a quantum computer. 

The quantum “measurement problem” has not yet been resolved to my satisfaction, but Schroedinger’s cat is being cornered.  The recent measurements of gravitational waves, the unexpected acceleration of the universe, dark matter, dark energy and other fascinating observations may be today’s equivalent of those confusing 1970 particle zoo clues, pointing us to a “New Standard Model”.  I hope someday to learn about it!

What to do with (really old) home movies?

Short (50 feet) reels of 16mm home movies in their Kodak mailing boxes

I have written before about the treatment of family photos and other artifacts from previous generations.  I recently re-encountered the collection of old 16mm home movies made by each of my grandfathers, which span a time range from the 1930s to the 1960s.  I had sort of decided that I didn’t want to invest the time and expense of converting them to modern digital media just to look through them maybe once, wondering who these unknown people are, at events and places that have no particular meaning to me.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to discard them, ending their life in some landfill.  So I made a final effort to find someone who might actually be interested in them, perhaps as props for period theater productions, or as some old-timey footage to place in a modern film project.  A google search did not find such uses, other than to mention that there is a market for old movies, without really listing many.  But one suggestion was to check with local historical societies, who are sometimes interested in them for research and documentary purposes.

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Holiday Card History

My grandparents’ Christmas card, circa 1950

I grew up watching my father, following his father’s example, coming up each year with handmade Christmas cards that nearly always included a family photograph.  They were both avid amateur photographers and would corral and cajole my siblings and me into a studio-like set in the living room with carefully positioned lights and a camera mounted on a tripod that would be aimed at a scene of dressed-up children surrounding their proud parents.   This often occurred at our family Thanksgiving gathering, allowing just enough time for my mother to get prints made, mounted into cards (often with her hand-stenciled or stamped cover designs), personal greetings inscribed, and envelopes addressed and stamped, all before the week of Christmas.

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Discovered: Harvard Biology Labs

A photograph taken by my grandfather in the 1930s. Where is this unusual entryway?

In recent weeks I have been reviewing old family photos in preparation for a covid-delayed memorial. Among the too many pictures of unidentified people and places are some intriguing treasures. The relatives who could tell me more about them are now gone. I can’t ask them, which is one of the more frequent and sad experiences I have these days.

But sometimes it is possible to follow clues in the photos to find the answers. In this case it is a photo that my grandfather took, possibly back in the 1930s. It shows a beautiful composition of light and shadow of a building entrance/lobby. I liked the lighting, but I really enjoyed discovering the detail on the door panels that were casting the shadows: insects and plants. What building would host such artwork?

Google search is an amazing technology. A response to “door panels insects plants” did not yield anything useful, but by adding “Harvard” to the terms (knowing my grandfather had studied biology there) and looking for image results, I found a unique building: the Harvard Biology Laboratory.

The building was built in 1931 and obviously impressed my grandfather, where he likely spent considerable time in it pursuing his doctorate. It continues to impress, as recent posts attest. As I look at the pictures of the outside of the building, who wouldn’t find it intriguing?

It turns out that there are three doors to the entry; my grandfather’s shot depicted two. But there is a hint of another– a bicycle is parked there, and sure enough the current pictures show a third door, adorned by sea creatures. All of them, and the sculptures outside, created by Katherine Lane Weems.

All of this makes me want to visit. I now have a memento from the past that would be fun to re-create!

Horseshoe Bend Meets its Future

It was a cold night on the rim of the Colorado River canyon as I waited for my camera to record the passage of stars and clouds.  I passed the time making notes and reading with my red headlamp.

In 2006 I was given a travel tip by a coworker:  there was a dramatic view of the Colorado River available to those willing to hike a half-mile to the canyon rim from a roadside rest area just south of Page, Arizona.  While on a trip to the state, I searched for it and found the barely marked spot described by my friend, and then found hints of a lightly used footpath across a barren expanse of desert to a rocky crest that hid the sudden drop-off behind it.

It was indeed a grand view, and I returned that night with my camera to attempt some long exposure star trails.  The conditions were not optimal: the moon was lighting the sky, but worse, clouds were interfering.  Still, it was a beautiful setting and I have learned that unexpected results sometimes occur, so I stayed several hours to record whatever happened. 

The results were not “stellar”, but the composition was strong enough that I include it among my nightscape favorites.

I have not had the opportunity to revisit that site until this year, when I looked forward to showing this hidden treasure to Poldi on our road trip through the area.  As we traveled toward Page, the obscure rest area sign we were looking for had been replaced by huge billboards. I was stunned to find that the parking area, previously able to accommodate a dozen cars at most, now had a capacity for hundreds!  And tour buses!  There was an admission gate where fees were collected by multiple lanes of toll workers!  Horseshoe Bend had been “Disneyfied”!

No longer was it a broken footpath to an exposed canyon ridge; a paved sidewalk had been installed to a fenced overlook, with benches at shade stations along the way.  Hundreds of visitors flocked to the viewpoint and took selfies with the same backdrop I had used fifteen years earlier (before “selfie” was a word).

I flowed with the crowd, amazed at the transformation.  I guess this is what happens at natural wonders as they become discovered and shared.  And I guess it could be worse.  It is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service.  For an example of “could be worse” look to Niagara Falls, the south bank managed by our NPS, preserving a beautiful park, but the northern Canadian side, with arguably a better visual vantage, is spoiled by unrestricted vendors catering to tourist sideshows and amusement parks.

The Horseshoe Bend overlook today (May 2021)

It is no longer possible to take the picture I made in 2006.  The expansive parking lot, which overfills during the day, must be empty by sunset according to Page city ordinance (which owns the land outside the national recreation area).  There is no easy access at night.

Although I feel like I have witnessed a historic change, a 15-year transition from patch of desert to parking lot is much less than a blink-of-an-eye in the geologic time scale that created this wonder.  In another million years, I expect the parking lot and the fenced overlook will be condensed to just another narrow but colorful band among the sedimentary layers displayed along the canyon walls.

Salt Flat Tracks

1968 was a big year for me.  I turned 15 and I went on a date, my first, with a girl who would later–45 years later, become my late-life partner and constant companion, road trips included.  But that is another story.  Earlier in that big year I experienced my very first road trip adventure.

My uncle Bob had completed his medical school training and had been accepted for the next stage on his path towards becoming a practicing physician:  an internship at Oakland Medical Center.  In 1968, Oakland California was a long way from Minneapolis Minnesota.  Yes, an expensive plane ride could get you there in three hours, but if you needed to bring more than a weight-limited suitcase, a three-day overland drive was required.

And Bob was fully ready for it, having recently acquired a 1968 model year Ford Mustang convertible, into which he packed the possessions that would support him for the next year in a remote setting.  The car was symbolic, a vehicle to take him to that next phase of his career.  It was freeing.  With the top down, the wind in his hair evoked that sense of traveling to far off destinations holding unknown new experiences.  It was a big year for him too.

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A Night on the Playa, Part 2

A sailing stone, the path behind it showing the route it took to get here.

There was a second wide spot in the road at the south end of the playa; we parked and continued our explorations.  This time we found stones sitting on the surface of the lakebed.  There were not many, and we had to hike a mile or so to find them.  Some sat happily contemplating their position in the uniform semi-infinite plane of mud cracks.  Others showed a faint trail of disturbed, and now solidified mud, leading to their current position.  These were the famous sailing stones! 

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A Night on the Playa, Part 1

Life highlights are those you can list on a single hand.  They are indelible events that exceed the normal range of our experience.  They may include a first kiss, the birth of a child, recognition of a career accomplishment, or the challenging hike to reach a beautiful mountain pass.  This is the story of adding one more of those outlier life experiences to my list.

Years ago, I had read about the geologic mystery of the “sailing stones” on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley.  Death Valley is an intriguing place and not just because of its ominous (and deserved) name.  It is a geology and biology classroom, displaying the impacts of volcanoes intruding on sedimentary layers that have been shape-shifted into ribbons of colorful escarpments with water and wind-eroded features.  Somehow, the valley has fallen below sea level, and the water, when there is water, dissolves minerals from the mountains and finds its way to the bottom, where it evaporates and leaves the residue behind as a salt flat.

In the spring, the water also nourishes an intense flowering of desert plants, desperate to reproduce. For a few brief weeks, colorful plants and flowers adorn the roadsides and cover the otherwise barren hills.  I have been to Death Valley during this season, during a “superbloom” following an unusually wet winter.  It was a stunning display of flowers in this otherwise arid and nonviable setting, something I had never expected to see.  As impressive as this floral show was, I had really hoped to visit the famous sailing stones on the playa.

Flowers during the 2005 superbloom, in front of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west of Death Valley.
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Stonehenge and Solitaire

My visit to Stonehenge in 1994

When Management Graphics adapted their film recording technology to support motion picture film formats, it was quickly adopted by movie studios to bring special effects from their computer memory images on to film.  There were some problems however, and one of the most serious was the difficulty in obtaining the full brightness range found in typical scenes, especially when they included lights—candle light, desk lamps, car headlights, streetlights.  Any light source, even a glimpse through a window to the bright outdoors, would cause a large flare in the final film frames, washing out detail in the scene.  Our customers complained, and we started down a path to research and solve the problem.

We understood what the fundamental issue was: halation, an effect caused by the glass faceplate of the cathode ray tube used for creating the image.  The bright spot on the phosphor screen was internally reflected at the glass surface which then illuminated the phosphor coating.  If phosphor were black, this would not be a problem, but phosphor coatings are white, as are most materials made of fine powder, and it resulted in this internal reflected light overexposing the film.  In the absence of a black phosphor, there were few other ways to mitigate the halation effect.

An example of halation on a photographic film plate.  The circular haloes and flare are apparent around the street lights in this 1910 image.

One of our customers was incorporating our film recorder into a full workstation system.  Quantel, a company in Newberry, England, had become successful in the early years of digital video and was looking for a way to expand its editing tool offerings into the motion picture market.  Quantel’s engineers understood the halation problem as well, but they didn’t want to rely on our figuring out a solution: they had an aggressive development schedule. 

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