The main “act” on Monday at the conference was the Plenary Session/Awards Ceremony. Lots of scientists I’m familiar with (and whom I’ve met at one point or another) were given awards, including Joseph Goodman (known to students for his books on Fourier and statistical optics), Anthony Siegman (known to students for his Lasers book), and Roland Winston (a pioneer in the development of solar concentrators). Victor Vesalago, whose 1968 paper on negative refractive index ushered in the era of metamaterials, was given an award for this contribution. (I was surprised; with apologies to Dr. Vesalago, I always assumed he was dead.) The OSA Student Chapter of Laval University won an award — if only there was somebody from Laval here at the meeting that I could congratulate!
Roy Glauber, who was a joint winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005, was awarded honorary membership in the optical society. He gave a charming short speech in which he described his early (pre-age 14) experiments in optics. Among other things, he built his own refracting telescope, and thought for a while that he had discovered “rainbows on the moon”!
Although the Physics Nobel this year went to three optics researchers, and Society members, none of them could come to the meeting. Apparently a podcast with one of the winners is available on the OSA website, but I haven’t been able to dig it up yet.
The winner of the Frederic Ives Medal (the highest award conveyed by the society) was Robert L. Byer, a pioneering researcher in laser technology. He gave a very nice talk about the historical development of the laser, from devices which could produce milliwatts of power with an electrical to light conversion of 0.2% to current devices which can produce megawatts of power and have 70% conversion efficiency. Such powerful lasers have applications which are both practical and scientific. On the scientific size, such powerful beams are to be used to accelerate electrons to ultra-relativistic speeds at the SLAC linear accelerator for particle physics research. On the practical side, such beams are being used in attempts to generate nuclear fusion, at the National Ignition Facility. Such attempts have been going on for years without success, so it was eyebrow-raising to hear that they think that they will actually achieve fusion in October of 2010! If accurate, the implications for the world’s energy needs is huge.
The first plenary lecture was by Andrea Ghez, an observational astrophysicist at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her talk, “Unveiling a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy,” was quite fascinating. Certain galaxies, known as active galaxies, radiate massive amounts of energy, a process which we are confident is due to mass accretion by one of these supermassive black holes (SGHs). But active galaxies are rather uncommon, which raises the question: do all galaxies have SGHs in their center, just “quiet” ones? Our own galaxy is the best place to look, since we’re obviously in it. The trick is to look near the very center of the galaxy. An SGH would be an object with 4 million times the mass of the sun in a very tiny, planet-size or smaller area. By looking at the orbit of stars near the galactic center, one can estimate the amount of mass at the center and a lower limit of the area contained by that mass. Work by Ghez has shown that 4 million masses of the sun is contained in an area the size of the solar system; this is not quite small enough to prove that it is a black hole in the center, but it is unlikely to be anything else at that scale. Future experiments to make more precise measurements will require larger telescopes, with even staggering 30m aperture telescopes proposed! (The Keck observatory has a 10m aperture.)
The second plenary was a talk on X-ray microscopy by Janos Kirz. It was interesting, but couldn’t compare to black holes, and I found my mind wandering during the talk and myself not recalling much of the details.
Later in the day, I went and listened to Victor Vesalago’s talk on negative refractive index. There was nothing much new in the talk — the original research was done 40 years ago — but it was really neat to hear the original “inventor” of negative refraction describe his ideas.