Archive for April 2010

Happy Birthday, HST!

April 27, 2010

posted by: Damon Diehl

It’s been twenty years since the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was launched on April 24, 1990. The Connecticut Post has a really nice article describing how the engineers who designed HST still remain emotionally attached to the project.

As is well known, when the first images arrived from HST, it was discovered that the primary mirror was flawed. The flaw was caused because of an error in the reference optics used by Perkin-Elmer to test the mirror. Rochester, NY has two notable connections to fixing this problem. First, Eastman Kodak’s Commercial and Government Systems Group (now a part of ITT Space Industries) had independently manufactured a back-up mirror for the HST. Unfortunately it was not feasible to replace the primary mirror while the HST was in orbit. Second, Jim Fienup (now a professor at the University of Rochester Institute of Optics) developed “phase retrieval” computer algorithms that were able to diagnose and digitally correct the images Hubble was sending back. This information was later helpful in designing the Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement (COSTAR) that was added to Hubble to correct the spherical aberration.

Giants’ Shoulders #22

April 19, 2010

posted by: Damon Diehl

The Giants’ Shoulders (originally organized by a colleague over at Skulls in the Stars) is a monthly event in which bloggers from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds all write about science history on the same day (more or less). It’s always an interesting read, and this month it’s hosted at The Lay Scientist. You can see a list of the articles here.

One more day to submit research “Grand Challenge” ideas to the White House!

April 14, 2010

posted by: Damon Diehl

Peter Emmel just notified me that the White House has put forth a request for information (RFI) for new “Grand Challenges” for the 21st Century. In essence they are soliciting ideas for a new “Moon Shot.” There are no formal formatting instructions, and anyone can participate. It is essentially a public opinion poll on how research dollars will be spent… So speak up! The main PR site is here, but more detailed information is available from the original press release


“Essential Engineering” on Groks Science

April 5, 2010

posted by: Damon Diehl

I just caught an interesting interview with Dr. Henry Petroski over on the Groks Science Radio Show (a quirky show that I loved long before its co-producer, Charles Lee, moved to my undergraduate alma mater). Petroski is a professor of civil engineering over at Duke, and he’s got a new book out entitled Essential Engineering, which deals with why engineering is essential in the modern world, and how engineering is different from basic science. The subtitle of the book is “Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.” That phrasing may sound critical of basic science, but that certainly isn’t the intent. Rather Petroski is seeking to elevate the importance of engineering in the public eye so that science and engineering are seen as a partnership and not as a hierarchy. In particular he takes issue with the common misconception that engineering is “just applied science.” On the contrary people often engineer a device before the scientific principles underlying it are understood. This is certainly true in optics. For example magnifying lenses have been used for thousands of years (for example Aristophanes mentions a “crystal lens” in his play The Clouds, circa 420 BCE), but the theory of refraction was not described mathematically until around 1000 CE. (As to who first devised the laws of refraction… I’ll let the debate continue to rage on Wikipedia.)