Scientific tutorials reveal ‘how stuff works’

June 1, 2005
Before the advent of the Internet, information was usually found by taking a specialized educational course, going to the library, or obtaining literature through the mail.

Every other month, associate editor Gail Overton presents her view of what the World Wide Web offers optics and photonics engineers, researchers, and technical professionals. Topics will help readers identify Web sites that provide links to tutorials, software and design resources, tips on locating employment opportunities or research grants, and countless other online resources of interest. To share your best Web site finds with our readers, please contact Gail Overton at [email protected].

Before the advent of the Internet, information was usually found by taking a specialized educational course, going to the library, or obtaining literature through the mail. Now, a world of information is available on the Internet, not only in its original form, but often in a condensed format and sometimes, less commonly, as a tutorial. Of course, there is no substitute for a formal education, but for many senior scientists and academics, the fast pace of technology advancement means that many subjects are too new for curricula to be developed, which makes the online tutorial even more significant to the scientific community.

As an editor tasked with writing about new developments in lasers and optoelectronics, I salute those institutions and individuals that have taken the time to develop these online tutorials and post them to cyberspace free of charge. The depth of the information available and the unique way it is presented on some Web sites may surprise you.

Did you ever wonder how a DVD player works? Of course, you may know all too well in agonizing detail, but how many people outside the scientific community know this? An excellent place for the science beginner to start is ­

HowStuffWorks, a Convex Group property, was created in 1998 by Marshall Brain (yes, that’s his real name) as a way to merge his own curiosity, his hobby of pulling things apart to see how they work, and his writing skills (he had already published several books). Through the flagship Web site, a popular series of books, and an acclaimed kids’ magazine, the award-winning company has helped explain the world for millions of curious people through tutorials in computers, automobiles, electronics, science, home, health, money, travel, people, and more.

The electronics and science sections are surprisingly vast, with tutorials on everything imaginable, from how stem cells work to how nuclear bombs work (and even how crop circles and UFOs work). Using a surprisingly objective and factual style of writing, HowStuffWorks is entertaining while being informative. Each tutorial is embedded with multiple links to additional information that guides the beginner to more intermediate discussions and tutorials.

Sometimes, amid the pressures of a tedious ­laboratory experiment, or when finalizing a complex thesis paper, the right amount of humor can enable a scientist to persevere. That is precisely what Carl Hepburn from the University of Essex (Essex, England) has done with his “Britney Spears’ Guide to Semiconductor Physics.”

This site offers surprisingly exhaustive tutorials covering semiconductor crystal structures and junctions, edge-emitting vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs), crystal growth/fabrication, and photolithography. Hepburn says, “I started writing these pages to help me consolidate some of the information I had been reading while studying for my MSD in experimental physics. I would like the site to be a useful reference to anyone who wants to know about the semiconductor physics of ­lasers and VCSELs.” The strange addition of Britney Spears to the guide has made the Web site stand out from the crowd.

While its subject matter is quite specialized, this Web site is visited by more than 180,000 individuals per year, according to the site’s author, Joe Eck. As Eck notes, “I just focus on getting beginners up to speed on the subject of superconductors. . . while providing news and links for those who want more.”

Swamp Optics (Atlanta, GA) is a manufacturer of ­laser-pulse measurement equipment. Its tutorials cover such measurement techniques as intensity autocorrelation, ­frequency-resolved optical gating (FROG), and Grenouille. Also included are tutorials on spatio-temporal distortions and dispersion and Grenouille specifications. Swamp Optics is following the model of other companies that are including tutorials as a major part of their web services: if a company can educate an individual and solve a problem, that individual will most likely become a future customer.

The Molecular Expressions Web site was started ten years ago by Michael W. ­Davidson, assistant in research at the ­National High Magnetic Laboratory at Florida State University (Tallahassee, FL), as a portal for posting the numerous microscope images that were being collected by the University; in fact, the site is funded largely from royalties received by licensing these images. In 1998, with the help of other researchers and for the benefit of students and faculty worldwide, the site grew into a collection of educational tutorials in microscopy, optics, and science. Currently, the staff is completing tutorials for K-12 students and adding materials on electricity and magnetism.

Be sure to check the site periodically; information is frequently updated. And check out the Cocktail Collection in the photo gallery for fascinating photomicrographs of your favorite crystallized beverage, or order a coordinating necktie from the online store.

A subset of the complete works from the Molecular Expressions Web site, this site was ­created by Florida State University and licensed to Olympus. The home page of the Olympus Microscopy ­Resource Center is less like a corporate Web site and more like a portal into advanced ­microscopy tutorials.

In addition to the many Java tutorials, its microscopy primer includes tutorials on the physics of light and color, the anatomy of a microscope, specialized microscopy techniques, and digital imaging in optical microscopy, just to name a few. Each subject is the trunk of a tree that branches out into other associated tutorials: clicking the Special Techniques link takes you to additional tutorials in microscopy contrast, darkfield microscopy, differential interference and Hoffman modulation contrast, oblique illumination, phase contrast, and polarized light, confocal, near-field scanning, and fluorescence microscopy.

The Educypedia (which stands for educational encyclopedia) Web site was started in 2000 to make Internet access easier for educators, students, and anyone wanting to learn more about information technology and science. The Educypedia portal is not a tutorial itself, but is a searchable data­base of primarily noncommercial information and hyperlinks to online resources and tutorials all over the world. Author and publisher Gino De Beer, who has a personal interest in electronics and their applications, maintains the collection of selected hyperlinks and says 60,000 people visit the site every month.

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