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Lighter Side of Adaptive Optics
Author(s): Robert K. Tyson
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Book Description

Adaptive optics has been under development for well over 40 years. It is an indisputable necessity for all major ground-based astronomical telescopes and is the foundation for laser and wavefront sensor design. Lighter Side of Adaptive Optics is a nontechnical explanation of optics, the atmosphere, and the technology for "untwinkling" the stars. While interweaving a fictional romantic relationship as an analogy to adaptive optics, and inserting satire, humor, and philosophical rants, Tyson makes a difficult scientific topic understandable. The "why" and "how" of adaptive optics has never been more enjoyable.

"Robert Tyson's numerous puns and anecdotes form a continuous stream of silliness that made me laugh and wonder what was coming next....The technical discussions on adaptive optics are not too deep, but they are really perfect for this type of book. In a very entertaining way, he describes the fundamentals of the technology. For people who are not too technical, it is very understandable, and for people with a background in the science, it's still a fun read."
--Josh Cobb, Optical systems designer and coauthor of Light Action! Amazing Experiments with Optics

"This book is fun, it is memorable and it represents superb teaching; of course the aspiring professional will need one of Tyson's many other books with their 1000 or so up-to-date references but Lighter Side awakens the interest and will be part of my library as well as that of my high school. Everything is there in a condensed and accurate form and the power of this technology is evident; it is well indexed and the references are sufficient and up-to-date."
--R. S. Shorter, "Lighter Side of Adaptive Optics, by Robert K. Tyson," Contemporary Physics, 52:4, 370, 2011 [doi: 10.1080/00107514.2011.558924].

Book Details

Date Published: 7 January 2009
Pages: 122
ISBN: 9780819475619
Volume: PM191

Table of Contents
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Table of Contents

1 Love Is in the Air
What is adaptive optics?
Summary of the first chapter
2 The Atmosphere Has Gas
The speed of light through stuff
The wedding day
Untwinkling the stars
Seemingly random thoughts about statistics
Big blobs and little blobs
Summary of the second chapter
3 Adaptive Optics Systems and Some Cool Things About Light Beams
How a relationship is like adaptive optics
It doesn’t phase me anymore
Summary of the third chapter
4 Clever Wavefront Sensors
Shearing interferometer
Shack-Hartmann wavefront sensor
Curvature sensor
Pyramid sensor
Summary of the fourth chapter
5 Laser Guide Stars, the Beacons in the Night
Scattering is the problem
Send in the cavalry!
Scattering is the solution
Thank you, sodium
The strange case of atmospheric tilt and laser guide stars
Summary of the fifth chapter
6 Mirrors that Get Bent Out of Shape
Segmented mirrors
Continuous-faceplate deformable mirrors
Bimorph mirrors
Micro-electrical-mechanical systems
Summary of the sixth chapter
7 Computers That Shouldn’t Crash
A daunting problem
Marriage counseling may work
Summary of the seventh chapter
8 Other Ways To Do It
Image sharpening
Phase diversity
Multidither and other hill-climbing doodads
Summary of the eighth chapter
9 Putting the System Together
Professor Smythe builds a system
Barbara, Kenneth, and bananas
The f-number dilemma
The irreducible problem of multiconjugate adaptive optics
The alphabet soup of adaptive optics acronyms
Summary of the ninth chapter
10 Getting the Blasted Thing to Work Right or Even Work at All
It’s not over until it’s over
Summary of the tenth chapter
11 Fun with Shining Lasers into Your Eyes
Summary of chapter the eleventh
12 A Happy Ending
Backword: The Leslie B. Smythe Story
Bibliography (Some other books about adaptive optics that aren’t nearly as funny as this one)


A few months ago I received an email from Tim Lamkins whose official title at the time was Content Acquisition and Development Specialist, Publications for SPIE. SPIE used to be called SPIE—The International Society for Optical Engineering, but now it is called SPIE.

Tim was inquiring whether I would like to write another book on adaptive optics. My immediate reply was “No!”

Tim was persistent, especially with the job title “Content Acquisition and Development Specialist.” I told him that there were plenty of good books on adaptive optics already, some of which I wrote myself, and some of which were written by others who copied all my best ideas, but wrote them under their own names. I told Tim that there wasn’t much need for another book yet. “Maybe in a few years,” I said.

Tim was not taking “No!” for an answer. He explained that the book was to be for a wider audience than the one-billionth of one percent of the population of the world who normally would buy an optics book. His vision for this book was “for the masses.” No math was to be involved.

I was still reluctant. I know Tim was just getting ready to offer a large advance for the book, much like Stephen King would get I presume, but he didn’t need to cut the check he told me that it could be “humorous.”

His argument was persuasive. I could write a funny book about adaptive optics! So, here it is. If you don’t find it greatly informative, technically perfect, and somewhat amusing, tell Tim.

Bob Tyson
November 2008
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

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