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Aging Nobel Winner and Spacecraft
CHAPTER 97 Aging People and Spacecraft
Make it Nobel Prize number nine for Bell Labs. My October 3 newspaper The Star=Ledger featured a banner headline "In 1970, a theory; in 2018 a Nobel" with a big picture of Arthur Ashkin at work in his lab at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey back in 1988. This Nobel Prize in Physics was notable in two respects. The 96-year-old Ashkin was told he was the oldest person to win the Nobel Prize and one of the two people he shared the award with, Canadian Donna Strickland, was the first woman to win the Nobel in Physics in over 50 years! Not only that, she is only the third woman in history to win in Physics. The other one sharing the award with Ashkin is Gerard Mourou of France. Strickland and Mourou worked together at The University of Rochester and they share half the million dollar prize while Ashkin gets the other half. Hey, it's not like winning a billion dollar lottery but these Nobel winners will know their names will be enshrined forever as being among the world's top scientists.
In 1970, Ashkin wrote a paper suggesting that lasers could be used to pick up and move objects. In 1986, he actually managed to do just that, inventing optical tweezers that can manipulate such things as atoms, molecules and biological cells. So it was a mere 32 years before getting his Nobel for an idea he thought of 48 years ago! The optical tweezers can lift and hold bacteria and other living organisms without damaging them. Ashkin was a truly productive worker at Bell Labs, with 47 patents and a host of honors and awards. At 96, he still works in his lab at home but it is doubtful, due to health issues, that he will make it to Sweden to receive the award in person. The newspaper article said that he did plan to tell his wife she wouldn't have to cook and they would have dinner at a nice Jersey shore restaurant but he wouldn't say where so they wouldn't make a fuss! That's my kind of guy.
What Strickland and Mourou did was to invent something called chirped pulse amplification, which allows shorter and more powerful laser pulses. Their work has apparently benefitted millions of people who've had eye surgery using lasers. The technique may also have uses in the treatment of cancer and in basic science.
Another 96-year-old Nobel laureate was in the news last month. Leon Lederman, a giant in the world of physics and a leader in educating people about science, died a few days after the Nobel Physics prizes were announced. Lederman won his Nobel in 1982 for discovering a subatomic particle known as the muon neutrino. You may remember all the excitement some time ago when the Higgs boson was found. The Higgs boson is responsible for giving everything mass. Lederman was the one who termed the Higgs boson "The God Particle".
Speaking of God, my wife entered into in-home hospice care a few weeks ago and was asked if she would like to have a chaplain stop by to give her communion. Based on past hospital experiences, I assumed that he would probably spend about 5 minutes with her and be on his way. Turns out that he and my wife are both of Slovak heritage, that he had worked for a computer oriented company and had interactions with Bell Labs people and that he and I were also rabid baseball fans in our youths. We talked for two hours! I told him about the stupidest thing I'd ever dome - turning down the opportunity to meet Bob Feller when he signed a baseball that I was purchasing for my son Brian (our StocksandNews editor) while attending an Electrochemical Society meeting in Cleveland. I told the hotel gift shop clerk that I had to listen to a paper at the meeting when Bob would sign the ball. I have no memory at all of that paper.
My newfound buddy, the chaplain, said he wasn't trying to top me but as a kid in Manhattan he was peering through a hole in the wall surrounding some sort of ball park, not one of the Big League parks. However, the attraction was definitely Big League. Babe Ruth was there for an event hitting some balls, one of which came over the wall and my friend got it. Either his father or someone else managed to get to Ruth, who signed the ball. Sometime later, the kids in the neighborhood decided they wanted to play baseball but nobody had a ball. OK, you guessed it. My friend said "I have a ball." The kids used that ball until the cover came off!
When I found out that the chaplain was a rabid Mets fan I told him that Brian and I had been to the final playoff game with the Atlanta Braves in 1969. Winning that game put the Mets into the World Series. I remarked that the crowd was out of control when the game ended, pouring onto the field, and how disgusted I was that some fans were digging up the turf in Shea Stadium for souvenirs to take home. Of course, the chaplain turned out to have been at that same game 49 years ago and he too was disgusted with the crowd's behavior.
How to segue into something scientific? We've just finished celebrating Halloween, which brings to mind a recently announced dwarf planet orbiting way out in the far reaches of our solar system. This new dwarf planet, officially named 2015 TG387, was first observed three years ago around Halloween in 2015 by a team of workers using the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. They nicknamed the object "The Goblin" and continued their observations to confirm that it truly is a dwarf planet. The Goblin is small, a mere 190 miles in diameter, compared to the 1500 mile diameter of Pluto, the planet recently demoted to dwarf status.
Normally, finding such a small object might not be exciting but it turns out that the huge extended orbit of The Goblin fits in with the belief that there is a Planet 9 way out there that is affecting the orbits of other objects that astronomers have detected in the very distant regions of our solar system. The reason some astronomers feel there is a 9th planet is that the orbits of a number of those smaller objects seem to be influenced in a manner consistent with a large body out there that has aggregated a bunch of smaller objects such as the Goblin into huge orbits extending way beyond Neptune. Hopefully, someday we will find such a planet to bring us back to the nine-planet solar system I knew as a kid.
Another, much smaller body, a lot closer to us, is in the news. It's the rocky asteroid Ryugu, the first asteroid to host a landing by a mission from Earth. The Japanese space mission Hayabusa2 carried three little landers that have been successfully deployed on the surface of Ryugu. Two of them, Minerva-II-1A and Minerva-II-1B, are about the size of a round cookie tin while the third, called MASCOT is about the size of a shoebox. These little rovers don't have wheels; rather than roll on the surface of Ryugu they hop. Because the asteroid is so small, less than a mile long, gravity on its surface is so small that if they started rolling the rovers would just fly off into space.
After dispatching the hoppers to the surface of Ryugu, the Hyabusa2 mother ship now in orbit is itself was scheduled to land on the surface sometime in the last couple of weeks. However, in the October 19 issue of Science I saw a brief item saying that they now hope to land the spacecraft in January 2019 and take samples of the asteroid back to Earth for future study. The landing was postponed because they need more time to find a suitable landing spot. The asteroid's surface is so rocky that they're having a hard time finding an area flat enough to support the spacecraft to allow it to do whatever blasting or digging is needed to obtain the samples. They had hoped to find a flat plain a hundred meters wide but now they'll be happy to find just 20 meters wide.
In the same issue of Science I found two sad reports, one by by Daniel Clery headlined "Planet hunter nears its end", the other by Paul Voosen titled "NASA's asteroid explorer Dawn soon to go dark". The planet hunter is Kepler, which has been fantastically successful since its launch in 2009. Focused on just one small patch of sky it has found around 2650 confirmed planets and some 3000 more that remain to be confirmed. Among those thousands of planets are 30 rocky planets less than twice the size of Earth that orbit in zones that could contain liquid water. Indications are that Kepler may soon run out of fuel, ending one of NASA's most productive missions.
The other spacecraft running out of fuel is NASA's Dawn, launched in 2007. Dawn's mission was to take a close look at the two largest members of the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres. Dawn spent a year orbiting around Vesta before heading to Ceres, which is termed a dwarf planet, being some 900 kilometers wide. Together, these two bodies account for almost half (45%) of the total mass in the asteroid belt. I was intrigued that Dawn showed that some meteorites that fell to earth were actual chunks of Vesta. Of the two, Ceres proved to be the most interesting in that it has the remains of a frozen ocean and some ammonia, a chemical that shouldn't have formed in Ceres' present location. Scientists believe that Ceres was formed farther out in our solar system and that it was drawn into its current location by the gravities of the two large planets Jupiter and Saturn. Other Dawn findings on Ceres include a volcano oozing brines of water, salt and other stuff. There were also signs of organic molecules. Dawn's discoveries make it likely that another mission to this dwarf planet is in its future.
Finally, we've talked about the upcoming ends of lives of a couple of space missions and I mentioned my wife has entered hospice care. Next month will mark her 93rd and my 91st birthdays. I may have mentioned that among the walkers at our local mall is a 94-year-old fellow who, about a year and a half ago, was wheelchair bound in hospice care and today walks with or without a cane, goes on cruises and on extended trips with his wife. I certainly don't expect anything like that for my wife but you never know.
Next column, hopefully, November 1
Allen F. Bortrum