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25 January 2016

The photonics of Star Trek: 6 ways sci-fi imagined the future that is today


Sci-fi meets reality in this 1975 NASA photo: The Shuttle Enterprise rolls out of its Palmdale, California, manufacturing facilities with Star Trek television cast members on hand for the ceremony. From left to right are James Fletcher (NASA), DeForest Kelley (“Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy”), George Takei (“Mr. Sulu”), James Doohan (“Chief Engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott”), Nichelle Nichols (“Lt. Uhura”), Leonard Nimoy (“Mr. Spock”), Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, an unnamed NASA official, and Walter Koenig (“Ensign Pavel Chekov”).



Fifty years after Gene Roddenberry launched the Star Trek series on American television, many of the then-futuristic devices and ideas on the award-winning show have become commonplace on Earth.

Roddenberry’s creativity and extensive homework in consultation with scientists and engineers of his day infused the show with technology such as photodynamic therapy, laser weapons, and handheld sensors and communication devices. In the process, his sci-fi world colored our expectations, inspiring more than a few young people with a level of interest that led to STEM careers.

The short list that follows notes photonics-enabled ideas and props from the initial series (1966–69) that have become reality. See the January 2016 SPIE Professional magazine article for more.

1. The Replicator: today’s 3D printer

Star Trek’s replicator synthesized food, water, and other provisions on demand.

Today, the company 3D Systems sells consumers a popular 3D printer based on stereolithography, a solid-imaging technology for which company founder Chuck Hull received a patent in 1986. General Electric uses laser-powered 3D printers to create jet-engine fuel nozzles and other complex components

In space, a 3D printer from the company Made in Space was delivered to the International Space Station to test the effects of microgravity on 3D printing.

2. The Communicator: the first flip phone

Captain Kirk and other Enterprise crew members flipped open their personal communicators to speak to someone elsewhere on the starship or on a planet below.

Motorola engineer Martin Cooper, who invented the first mobile phone, told Time magazine that his invention was inspired by the Star Trek communicator.

The flip phone already has been succeeded by smartphones and tablets; photonics devices with displays, lenses, cameras, and more. Lasers are used to manufacture the processors, cases, and batteries and to mark a serial number on each device.

3. The Long-Range Scanner: today’s space-based sensors

Scanners on the Enterprise could detect atmospheric chemistry and presence of water on faraway planets, and even count life forms.

All of this is possible today via satellites or aircraft equipped with photonics sensors.

This year, the European Space Agency will launch a spacecraft equipped with sensors that optical engineers developed to search Mars for evidence of methane and other trace atmospheric gases that could be signatures of active biological or geological processes, using two infrared and one ultraviolet spectrometer.

4. The Tricorder: tomorrow’s Tricorder!

The Star Trek tricorder (a TRI-function reCORDER) was a black rectangular device with a shoulder strap with three functions: to scan a person or unfamiliar area, record technical data, and analyze that data.

For today’s Tricorder, contestants for the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE are competing in developing a consumer-friendly device capable of diagnosing 15 medical conditions and capturing metrics for health. Consumer testing of finalist teams’ solutions is scheduled for this September, with the winner to be announced in early 2017.

5. Invisibility Cloak: object cloaking

Metamaterials have been demonstrated to effectively cloak objects by manipulating the paths of lightwaves through a novel optical material, demonstrating the basic physics used to make Romulan and Klingon spacecraft invisible in Star Trek.

Sir John Pendry of Imperial College is one of the real-life pioneers of invisibility cloaking with negative-refractive-index metamaterials, and many others report on their research at various SPIE conferences on metamaterials and plasmonics.

6. Healing with light: photodynamic therapy

Star Trek’s chief medical officer, “Bones,” used light for surgery, wound care, accelerated bone healing, and as a dermal regenerator to rebuild skin -- all of which will be discussed at SPIE BiOS during SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco next month.

Lasers and specific wavelengths of light are used today to treat cancer and help skin heal faster, and for for aesthetic treatments, dentistry, and eye surgery. Transcranial near-infrared laser therapy (NILT) has been used to reduce the severity of stroke. Complex skin cancers have been treated at University of Lund and elsewhere using light-activated (photodynamic) medicine.

What fueled your dreams?

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking once wrote that "Science fiction such as Star Trek is not only good fun but it also serves a serious purpose, that of expanding the human imagination.” With a nod to such inspiration, the SPIE Photonics West 2016 welcome reception will celebrate the Star Trek anniversary.

What other light-based technologies depicted by Star Trek or elsewhere in science fiction serve a real purpose today or inspired your STEM career?

15 December 2015

Pigeon vision: ‘flocksourcing’ cancer detection

Researchers are learning more about how to improve cancer
detection through teaching pigeons like the two above
to identify images of cancerous cells.
Pigeons have been taught how to detect breast cancer -- with an accuracy rate that surpasses humans -- and in the process have inspired ideas about how to better teach humans how to visually detect cancer.

Researchers from the University of California Davis, the University of Iowa, and Emory University published a paper last month detailing how they trained pigeons -- Columba livia, commonly called rock doves, to be precise -- to detect cancerous cells. The birds attained an accuracy rate of 85%, higher than the accuracy of humans doing the task (84%), the Chicago Tribune reported. (Also see the Wall Street Journal for more coverage.)

And when four pigeons were tested on the image and their results combined (“flocksourcing”?), the birds were 99% accurate in identifying cancerous cells.

The researchers also found that while the pigeons had high-accuracy results when looking at slides from tissue samples, they were not able to learn how to accurately identify signs of cancer when looking at mammograms. Unlike biopsied cells viewed under magnification, mammogram images show neighboring tissues such as blood vessels, a factor which affects human accuracy as well.

Because a pigeon’s vision works much the same as a human’s, the research could help scientists improve the results in teaching humans how to visually identify cancer.

“Pathologists and radiologists spend years acquiring and refining their medically essential visual skills, so it is of considerable interest to understand how this process actually unfolds and what image features and properties are critical for accurate diagnostic performance,” the researchers wrote in their article in PLoS ONE.

The research team included Edward Wasserman, Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Iowa; Elizabeth Krupinksi, professor and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at Emory University; Richard Levenson, professor and Vice Chair for Strategic Technologies in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California Davis Medical Center; and Victor Navarro, a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa.

30 November 2015

Improve and carry on, use the fear: advice from women in STEM

SPIE Women in Optics 18-month
planner for 2016-2017.
Interest in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) can lead to a wide variety of careers. A few examples:
  • exploring photonic nanostructures that can improve the efficiency of solar energy generation
  • observing micro-organisms in the Arctic ice to learn more about lifeforms of all sorts
  • developing optical systems for noninvasive diagnosis of tumors inside the body
  • assessing the radiation hazard to be incurred by humans travelling to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
The paths to all careers include some challenges. For anyone looking at a career in STEM, the latest edition of a free annual publication offering insights on those paths has just been released.

The 12th edition of the Women in Optics Planner published by SPIE contains more insights from more than 30 women discussing their interests and occupations and offering advice. Among their stories:

Viera-Gonzalez
Perla Marlene Viera-Gonzalez, a PhD student at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, specializes in optical design applied to solar illumination systems.

Her biggest career obstacle is “swimming upstream and (meeting) resistance to change. I sometimes encounter people who prefer to always do things the same way. The solution? I never give up. Believe in yourself. Try new ideas, and if you fail, learn from that. Improve and carry on.”

Viera-Gonzalez shares her inspiration and passion with her community, organizing STEM conferences for students, workshops for kids, basic education for teachers, science fairs, and other events, with support from SPIE and her university.

Mikkelsen
Maiken Mikkelsen, now an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and of physics at Duke University, grew up in Denmark and  found physics to be her favorite subject in school.

Now she leads a research group exploring the behavior of novel nanoscale structures and materials by studying their interaction with laser light, which may lay the foundation for future quantum- or nano-based technologies. Her advice? “Follow your heart and do what you love!”

Lukishova
Svetlana Lukishova earned degrees through her PhD at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and is now a senior scientist at the University of Rochester leading a group in quantum nanophotonics.

As an undergrad, she followed the advice of a professor to select the strongest research group with an outstanding leader and ended up carrying out her master’s and PhD research under  Nobel Laureate Alexander Prokhorov.

As a working professional, she says, her biggest obstacle is that she is “too modest. In a competitive environment, it is necessary to defend your rights.” She advises young girls “to set the highest goals in your life and your scientific and engineering career; work hard, but with inspiration; and don’t forget that you are women.”

James Asirvatham
"Dream first, try next, and do your best," Juanita Saroj James Asirvatham, research associate at Lancaster University, advises young women who wish to pursue a career in optics and photonics.  

As a research associate at Lancaster University, Asirvatham explores novel photonic nanostructures to improve the efficiency and economy of solar energy production. "STEM is for creative thinkers," she says. "Choosing a career in STEM will provide lifelong professional development.”

Greenwood
Born in Germany and educated in Scotland, Bernadette Greenwood, the director of clinical services at Desert Medical Imaging, advises young women in STEM fields to overcome barriers to success by applying logic, sensibility, and patience to any situation.

"Sometimes it's impossible not to feel discouraged, but stay strong and believe in yourself. Use fear as fuel for action," she says.

Greenwood oversees an MRI-based prostate cancer clinical trial, delivering laser interstitial thermal therapy to prostate cancer using thermal mapping with MRI.

Wang
For Hui (Catherine) Wang, deputy director of the Department of International Cooperation at the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics, and Physics, the biggest challenge is not having a scientific background. She holds a master’s degree in English literature. Wang works at continually increasing her knowledge through reading books and journals, having discussions with colleagues, and attending academic conferences.

Do not to be afraid of difficulties and mistakes, Wang advises. "Facing these can make you stronger."

All the stories are available online; copies of the planner are free for the asking via the same link.

Thanks to all for the inspiration!

17 November 2015

Six dramatic advances in solar energy

Harvesting, collecting, and deriving usable energy from the Sun and other sustainable sources for people around our planet has made important leaps forward of late. Whether it is summer or winter in your part of the world, that’s excellent news for our future energy needs.

The dual nature of light, recently demonstrated
in an image from the Carbone group at École
Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and featured
as Figure 1 in a review paper in the Journal of Photonics
for Energy
: "Energy-space photography of light
confined on a nanowire simultaneously shows both
spatial interference and energy quantization."
doi:10.1117/1.JPE.5.050997
An open-access article in the Journal of Photonics for Energy co-authored by nine international experts* details some of those advances. Here’s a short list from their review of the state of the art, titled "The role of photonics in energy."

1. Making cheaper and more efficient solar cells

Today’s solar cells are based on inorganic semiconductors -– particularly silicon, the second most abundant material in the Earth’s crust. However, silicon solar cells, although relatively expensive to manufacture, are not the most efficient at converting solar energy into electrical energy.

Solar cells based on other semiconductors are more efficient at conversion but also cost more to make.

A new generation of solar cells in development promises the advantages of low-cost materials, high-throughput manufacturing methods, and low-energy expenditure. These very new emerging cells are still less efficient than more established inorganic solar cells, but they have been improved dramatically over the last few years. Particularly promising are technologies using organic-inorganic hybrid materials such as perovskites.

2. Limiting lost light

Researchers are also working on methods of trapping light within a solar cell more effectively, to limit the amount of energy lost due to reflection off the silicon crystals or layers of protective glass. Existing antireflective coatings have performance limitations, often minimizing the reflection for only a select region of the solar spectrum, and are also dependent on the angle of incidence.

One possible solution is adding nanostructured surfaces (e.g., micro- or nanopillars or nanowires) to minimize reflection.

3. Directing and driving

An alternative to converting sunlight into electricity is harvesting the thermal energy of sunlight directly. Sunlight can be focused onto long pipes coated with an optically absorbing material and filled with a high-thermal-capacity fluid, which is used to drive a turbine. Coatings such as carbon-nanotube and metallic-nanowire arrays with high absorption capabilities are helping toward the goal of creating nearly perfect absorbers.

4. Storing it for later

Research is also being done on storing solar fuels as an energy source, via water-splitting, a process which occurs naturally during photosynthesis. Splitting separates water into its oxygen and hydrogen elements, and can be induced in a photochemical reaction. The induced process of sunlight-driven water splitting is as yet not efficient. But with that solved, the hydrogen produced could be stored in fuel cells and later used for local electricity generation, for example as a transportation fuel for electric vehicles.

5. Following the Sun

Optical and photonic sensors are widely used to make existing technologies that harvest energy and produce power more effective. Tracking systems adjust the positioning of solar collectors to ensure a continued optimum angle relative to the Sun (perpendicular to solar radiation). Sun trackers have the potential to increase the energy collected by solar energy systems by 10% to 100%, depending on factors including the time of the year and geographical position.

6. … or the wind

Wind farms utilize light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, which determines wind speed by measuring the Doppler shift of light backscattered by aerosols in the atmosphere. The accurate measurements of wind speeds and turbulence make it possible to more effectively survey potential wind farm sites, optimize their design, and make dynamic adjustments to their operation.

Want to know more? Read the two-part synopsis of the review article in the SPIE Newsroom:



*The paper is authored by Zakya Kafafi, the journal’s editor-in-chief, and Nelson Tansu of Lehigh University; Raúl Martín-Palma of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid; Ana Nogueira of the University of Campinas; Deirdre O’Carroll of Rutgers University; Jeremy Pietron of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory; Ifor Samuel of the University of St Andrews; Franky So of North Carolina State University; and Loucas Tsakalakos of General Electric–Global Research Center.

04 November 2015

Speaking out about climate change is urgent in our ‘crucial century’

The approach of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in early December has global leaders from every sector thinking about technology opportunities to help meet greenhouse-gas-emissions reduction goals in an effort to mitigate climate change.

Photonics at work: A schematic illustration of
electromagnetic characterization and detection of
pollutants on a sea surface, in an SPIE Newsroom
article by researchers at Lab-STICC, CNRS, ENSTA Bretagne.
Photonics technologies play an important part in enabling and driving applications that support sustainable development and the green economy. Researchers, engineers, and developers in the optics and photonic community are continually finding new ways to enhance our lives with these technologies.

But there is another sort of opportunity for the photonics community to take up: speaking out about the urgency to take action, particularly in the face of climate-change skepticism or denial.

UK Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees is among scientists who are doing so. Framing the issue in a recent commentary in the Financial Times, he characterized this century as the first in the Earth’s 45-million-year history when “one species -- ours -- can determine the fate of the entire biosphere.”

While there may be some uncertainties in climate science, Rees said, it is certain that future generations will be affected by existing public policies and others implemented in our lifetimes.

Anyone who cares about those generations -- the grandchildren of today’s young children and others living in the next century and beyond -- “will deem it worth making an investment now to protect them from worst-case scenarios,” Rees said.

Given that, he said, the conversation needs to be based on “the best knowledge that the 21st century has to offer.”

Today’s knowledge includes work toward photonics-driven prospects such as:


Policy makers and non-scientists are supporting efforts to grow our knowledge even further, and working to strengthen the investment for future generations.

Governmental agencies and university departments collaborate in competitions such as the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. Teams design, build, and operate houses powered by solar energy, and that are affordable, energy efficient, attractive, and easy to live in. Congratulations to this year’s winner, Stevens Institute of Technology!

Citizen scientists get involved through activities such as the recent iSPEX-EU project. Using an add-on optical sensor with their smartphones, people across Europe measured and reported on aerosols during a 45-day period. The crowd-sourced approach provided information at times and locations not covered by current air pollution monitoring efforts.

As the world gears up for the climate conference in Paris next month, it will be wise to consider, as Rees has said, that “Whatever happens in this uniquely crucial century will resonate into the remote future and perhaps far beyond the Earth.”

23 October 2015

People's Choice Award: Light for education

The photograph "Studying" by Handi Laksono captured in a home in
Wae Rebo, Flores NTT, Indonesia, on  1 September 2014,
is the People's Choice Award winner in the
SPIE International Year of Light Photo Contest.
A photo of a 5-year-old boy studying in a dark hut, with only natural morning light streaming through a small window, has been selected for the People's Choice Award in the SPIE International Year of Light Photo Contest.

The contest was sponsored by SPIE Professional, the quarterly magazine of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, as part of the International Year of Light observance. SPIE is a Founding Partner.

Captured by Javanese travel and landscape photographer Handi Laksono, the winning photo was taken after Laksono hiked three hours to the remote village of Wae Rebo on Flores Island in Indonesia.

Wae Rebo's only lighting source is solar, either direct sunlight or a few small solar panels, Laksono said. He noted that the solar panel in the house he visited powers a single light bulb that is used only for a few hours in the evening.

"For the children who wish to study in their houses in the morning, the light from the small windows is the option," he said.

See more of his work in Laksono’s portfolio.

See all the People's Choice contestants' photos in previous posts:

22 October 2015

Cars on Mars: following Curiosity and getting excited about science

Mars Curiosity Rover scientist Melissa Rice inspires
the next generation with talk of exploring the
Red Planet: see the video on SPIE.tv [23:55].
(Above, Rice at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab
with a model of the Curiosity.)
If it wanted to, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover could stretch its 7-foot arm up from its 10-foot-high body and slam-dunk a basketball.

Admittedly, it isn’t likely that any of NASA’s Rovers -– cars on Mars, as some call them –- will find any basketball hoops on the Red Planet.

But the space agency’s newest robotic Mars explorer, the Curiosity, has found evidence of ancient lakes, captured images that reveal the composition of rocks on the planet’s surface, and done something many of us have done: taken selfies to post on FaceBook.

Curiosity’s discoveries are far from over. The robot is just now reaching the foothills of the lofty (5.5 km, or 18,000 feet) Mount Sharp, with its mission to scale the peak and report back about what it finds along the way.

That in itself is amazing. On top of that, the telling of that story by scientists such as Melissa Rice, a member of the Curiosity team and a professor at Western Washington University, turns out to be a powerful way to get kids interested in science -- and perhaps to inspire them to pursue careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

In an International Year of Light event in Bellingham, Washington, USA, this week, Rice told how light-based science and technology are used by the Curiosity Rover, now in its third year of exploration on Mars.

Curiosity uses solar panels to keep its batteries charged, sophisticated cameras not extremely different in concept from those in our ubiquitous smartphones to navigate and record the scenery, and lasers to vaporize tiny bits of rock that other cameras using special filters image to determine how the rocks were formed.

Wrapping up her talk, Rice noted that Curiosity has been such a success that NASA said “let’s build another.”

Now under construction, Mars 2020 is scheduled to land on Mars in 2021. Some of Rice’s students are involved in selecting the landing site, from which the robot will step out on its mission to drill into rocks and collect rocks to be studied on Earth with even more sophisticated experiments than Curiosity’s.

Rice concluded by reaching out to the younger set among the audience of nearly 1,000 who gathered to hear her and to experience the spellbinding laser show by Prismatic Magic that followed.

“Some of you in the audience tonight are the right age to be the first generation to go to Mars” she said, evoking images from the new book and movie The Martian in many minds. “In the 2030s and 2040s, I hope you look back and give us all a wave.”

After the applause died down, a 10-year-old boy was heard telling his father, “That’s definitely on my ‘bucket list.’ I have to go to Mars.”

Images from the laser show: