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!

Trivia du Annuel

A sample question at a New Year’s party trivia station

In an earlier life I hosted an annual New Year’s Eve party.  It had the usual party elements: holiday decorations, elaborate food, and refreshing beverages.  It also featured a trivia game, something that started as a simple mixer to help our eclectic set of friends from the different avenues of our life to meet and engage, with the intent of adding to the good will and good cheer of the evening.

We created a series of “stations” throughout the house, each with a set of questions.  Our guests were organized in teams of two and they would do their best to answer them.  The questions were selected and designed to fall in the category of “common knowledge” and “things everyone should know”. It was surprising how many we don’t, and the newly formed duos would try their best to compete for the “fabulous prizes” (usually a trophy coffee mug) presented to the team that got the most right.

The annual trivia game was often described as a frustrating or humbling experience, but as embarrassing as it might have been to our guests when they could not answer our simple questions, they kept coming back each year.  Perhaps they thought that next year they would be partnered with someone who would actually know the figures featured on each bill of US currency, or the numbering convention behind the interstate highway system, or the counties that make up the metropolitan mosquito control district.  I eventually learned that everyone wanted to partner with my friend Rich, who may not be up on the latest trends, but seemed to know the other questions on topics we all learned in grade school but somehow forgot.

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Notes for Ninety

I was a teenager when asked to help stage this photo for my grandparent’s 1967 Christmas card.

I recently ran across some speaker notes that I used almost 30 years ago on the occasion of my grandfather’s 90th birthday (1994). I recall that a large white party tent had been set up on a backyard lawn and was filled with four generations of my grandparents’ descendants and their remaining lifelong friends. Here are my comments for that day.

I’ve been blessed by not only knowing, but sharing in my grandparents’ lives for many years (I am over 40!)  Many of my friends and colleagues do not even remember their grandparents.

They told me I would be speaking at this gathering, but did not tell me what to talk about, so I just picked something that appealed to me.  I’m going to tell you a little about an activity that my grandfather undertakes each and every year and we are all the beneficiaries of—their annual Christmas greeting card.

He’s been making photographic Christmas cards for over… well, I don’t know how many years.  I was planning to make copies of some of the great ones over the years as a slide show, but then I found out that this party would be in the afternoon, outside! 

So instead, I made some posters, and if my assistants will help hold them up I will describe them… 

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16mm Home Movies from Mid-20th Century

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I inherited a collection of 16mm movies made by my two grandfathers, each an enthusiastic amateur and early adopter of photo technology.  I have been struggling with their fate, as they consume a not-inconsiderable amount of space in my archives.  Space that could be used to store other useless artifacts.

They have now been (mostly) digitized. And one can find them summarized at this page.

I have great difficulty getting rid of things.  As someone who respects the historical path that brought us to our current time, place, and relations, it is hard to discard mementos, especially (for me) photographs that captured moments along that path.  As a scientist, I am loathe to delete “data”, that might someday be valuable.

I have to acknowledge the slim likelihood of such artifacts becoming valuable.  I hold no conceit that some biographer will ever be looking for scraps and clues identifying the influences on my own childhood.  I like to think that my contributions to society have been positive, but probably not worth much more than an oblique reference in an obituary (“he was a curious man”).  But maybe there were things in those movies that would be of interest to someone else. I didn’t know how to find that audience.

So the movies, spooled on metal reels of various sizes, lay dormant for years.  When I wondered about their ultimate fate, I realized that eventually, they would have NO meaning to anyone, even if it were possible to view them.  If there was any value to be extracted, it would have to be now, by me. 

I described that initial effort in the previous post on this topic.  Here is what has happened since.

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LEGOs for Life

Grace and Hoan, with mom Poldi, after presenting me with this terrific gift.

I recently received a most unexpected gift, an extravagant thank-you gesture from newlyweds for being part of their marriage (as driver and other small supporting roles).  Somehow, they found something that would appeal to me on many levels, something I would never consider for myself:  a LEGO set!  And not just any LEGO set, a large and elaborate architectural depiction of an A-frame cabin, with thousands of parts.

It had been inspired by a LEGO enthusiast from Italy, who enjoyed creating Lego models of houses in his spare time.  Evidently, there is a large community of LEGO fans, large enough that there is a program for them to submit ideas and models for the pleasure and approval of other fans.  Those with the highest votes are selected to become an actual LEGO product.  How brilliant!  Let fans come up with cool ideas, and then manufacture the most popular, knowing that it has already passed the “will they like it?” test!  The A-Frame Cabin was the most recent of such crowd-sourced concepts, released just days earlier.

My step-son and his new wife did not know of my past LEGO history.  They did not know that I had been a member of the LEGO Builder’s Club with my son in the 1990s.  Or that his LEGO model of the Eiffel Tower had been featured in their newsletter.  They did not know that I had authored a software program, LegoShop, to create models on a computer screen in a time before computer graphics, video games and virtual reality had been fully invented.  They were unaware of how much time I had spent with a micrometer, reverse-engineering the basic LEGO brick and many other parts to make my virtual models.  They did not know, using that program, I had created a Christmas card featuring a LEGO ice castle with Santa and a reindeer.  They did not know that I had insisted on visiting LEGO Land during a visit to Malasia.  They knew none of this personal LEGO history.

Yet they somehow knew that I would fully appreciate this gift. I’m impressed.  

The LEGO Builder’s Club featured my son’s Eiffel Tower as a Member Masterpiece, circa 1992

LegoShop, an application that allowed the creation of LEGO models from a library of virtual parts.  Some older readers may recognize the window format of early Apple computers.

Our 1990 Christmas card, highlighted by virtual LEGOs

In LEGO-Land Malaysia, 2015

I have been a dormant LEGO builder for many years and have not kept up with the latest sets and themes.  But the skills to assemble LEGOs don’t go away, and even if they did, the remarkable instructions provided with the kits can be followed in any language, even by builders who, like some of my grandchildren, cannot yet read (but you DO need to know your numbers).

In the case of an enormous set like this one, the instructions run to 333 steps, requiring two books to contain all of the illustrations.  The thousands of parts are partitioned into 16 bags, opened one at a time while following the next series of steps to assemble them.  The process is much like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, finding the next target pieces, and mating them in correct position with the previous ones.  Eventually, the parts that tumble out of the bag are all in place, and I can take a moment to appreciate the growing model.

A view of the partially built cabin. The front door opens into an area with bookshelves, a guitar, and an umbrella stand. The owner appreciates rocks; a geode is prominently displayed next to the record player.

What a pleasure to receive a gift like this.  Something created by a LEGO fan and endorsed by a global LEGO community of enthusiasts!  I am savoring the construction steps as I go through them, but have recruited the assistance of other LEGO experts.  I plan to post photos of the completed project!

Grandsons Arthur and Teddy, reenacting the extinguishing of a dangerous fire with a LEGO firetruck.

AI for 3D

Rendering a photo in a particular artistic style with the help of artificial intelligence

New artificial intelligence (AI) portals such as DALL-E2 that can conjure an image to match a text description, DeepDream, that applies an artistic style to a photograph to turn it into a painting, and plenty of others, are changing the world; here is a fascinating survey

I recently stumbled upon an AI application that I would have loved to have been part of–  creating depth maps from standard, non-3D, non-stereo images.  Why didn’t I think of this?  What a brilliant idea!

A depth map of course, provides that third dimension of distance from the photographer.  And with that information, one can (almost) make a stereoscopic image, a scene in a virtual reality world.

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Repair or Replace?

The underbelly of a Kenmore Elite model 665.1393xx dishwasher.

Well, I have to admit defeat in my attempt to repair our dishwasher.  I was confident that I could fix it, consistent with my philosophy that it is better maintaining and repairing, than discarding and replacing (a tenet of the “steady state economy”).  But after weeks in this broken condition, while ordering candidate replacement parts, watching dozens of YouTube repair videos, with hours on the floor trying to access, test and replace components, and after dozens of wash and diagnostic cycles, not to mention the dishes I broke while tipping the (still loaded) unit on its side, I am giving up.   

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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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A Steadfast Computer Gets Upgraded

After some close calls with my primary tool, constant companion and security blanket, a 2014 MacBook Pro, I decided it was time to replace it with a new model. That was two years ago.

When I discovered that MBPs had “advanced” since 2014 by ditching the mag lock power connector and the SD card slot, and had incorporated a questionable keyboard technology and a touch strip that no one seemed to know how to use, I held off. These seemed like big steps backward to me and so, I waited.  My old laptop wasn’t broken, it was just showing some limitations as I took on new projects, including time lapse movies.  

Finally, a new model of MacBook Pro was announced that restored the mag lock, the SD card, and used the older keyboard without a touch bar.  I was excited to order one.

In all of my previous computer purchases, I had never regretted configuring it with the most memory and the largest disk drive available, following the example of my grandfather who once had to choose between a standard speed CPU or the faster option, priced at a premium.  His reasoning was simple:  he was 87, and didn’t know how many years he had left, but he certainly didn’t want to be waiting on a slow computer!

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Relay Resurrection

The restored relay clock, in its original glass case

I have renovated the components of my nearly 50-year-old digital clock. The next step was to assemble it all back together. Would it actually work?

The old broken and abused internal plexiglass chassis was replaced by new plexiglass, providing an opportunity for me to learn the technique of plastic welding, where a syringe injects solvent into the edge of a surface-to-surface joint and spreads by capillary action to the full contact area, partially dissolving the plexiglass, which then forms new polymer bonds between the pieces. It takes a few minutes for it to start hardening, which gives some time to prop the parts in the desired position (use a square to get the angles right). It is completely cured in 24 hours and is truly “welded”. Like a good metal weld, a good plastic weld will break elsewhere if enough force is applied.

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