26 January 2015

Photo Contest winners celebrate International Year of Light

When SPIE Professional magazine invited submissions to the SPIE International Year of Light Photo Contest last summer, organizers had no idea what to expect. They asked amateur and professional photographers to celebrate the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies by submitting photographs depicting light and light-based technologies in everyday life.

Would the judges have to sift through dozens and dozens of rainbow and sunset pictures? Selfies? Would optics and photonics researchers send images of their laser experiments or retinal scans? Perhaps the astrophotography community would want the world to see their latest scientific images from far out in the solar system?

When contest submissions closed at the end of September, organizers and judges were blown away by the creativity, artistry, diversity and thoughtfulness of photographers from all over the world. There were a fair number of rainbows, sunsets, shadow scenes, and naturally occurring optical phenomena among the nearly 800 photographs submitted. And hundreds of other gorgeous photos showing solar panels, LEDs, lasers, medical procedures and other ways that light plays a central and daily role in linking cultural, economic, and political aspects of global society.

There was only one selfie, and it depicts so much light-based technology that it was selected as a finalist for the People's Choice Award.

The winner of the photo contest is Paul Reiffer, a UK professional photographer currently based in Asia. He titled his photo (above) "Over the Rainbow," but it actually is a 2013 New Year's Eve scene of the three-layered elevated ramp to the Nanpu Bridge in Shanghai. Shot from a building rooftop, the photo shows a dazzling display of colorful LED lights long after the sun had set. Reiffer used a long exposure (35 seconds) on his camera to capture the light moving with the traffic on the bridge.

The second-place prize was awarded to Susanta Mukherjee, an electric welder from Bengal, India, who has dreamed for years of becoming a photographer. "For over 1.5 billion people around the world, night time means either darkness or poor lighting," Mukherjee says. Mukherjee traveled to Sundarban, India, in March 2014 where a non-government organization called ARCHI invited him to photograph a large group of children who had just received solar-powered LED study lights from One Child One Light, another NGO working to help rural residents without access to electricity. Mukherjee captioned his photograph (above) "Joy of Light."

The third-place winner is Ian Bell, a photography and business major at Montana State University (USA) who submitted his prize-winning photo as part of his senior project just days after he was notified of his award. Bell also photographed LED lighting, a revolutionary technology that was central to the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics and that has delivered safety, security, health and productivity to citizens all over the world. In Bell's photo (above), an athlete on a stand-up paddle board uses the LEDs attached to his paddle to "paint" with light on still water after sunset off Lopez Island, Wash.

Judges for the photo contest included SPIE Student Chapter leaders, art students, and an executive panel that selected the top three from a group of 35 finalists for prizes. The remaining 32 images will be eligible for the People's Choice Award later this year.

SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs says he was "impressed by the quality, variety, and large number of submissions."

Not only do the top three photos highlight the diversity of applications for LEDs, but the people who took these photographs are also representative of the diverse people of the world celebrating this International Year of Light and light-based Technologies.

Stunning images .... Beautiful use of an optics and photonics technology in daily life ....

Photonics, indeed, does make for a better world.

14 January 2015

Hot technologies at CES are powered by photonics

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which kicks off each year in Las Vegas and did so again last week, is a mega-event that identifies trends and gives some of the biggest gurus in technology a platform. The mainstream media covers it all with gusto. Of course the tech media is all over it too, with everything from product specs to analysis of tweets to see who the biggest “influencers” are.

The good thing about CES is that there is something for everyone – but that’s also the bad thing. Significant developments or important new products might just be overshadowed by something with a bigger flash, but possibly not much substance. And there’s also the paradox of constant monitoring. As Junko Yoshida says in EE Times: “While consumers see the Orwellian implications of constant monitoring, they can’t resist the temptations to see or hear things that wouldn’t be on the radar without embedded cameras or microphones.”

Of course photonics plays a big role in just about everything touted at CES. LEDs were big again this year, as were wearables, drones, and smart cars. Our colleagues at optics.org highlighted some of the automotive photonics-enabled bling – from Ford, BMW, and Volkswagen. Their article on sensors and wearables included optical pulse oximeters, live thermal imagery and gesture-sensing 3D cameras for controlling devices. They covered the emergence of quantum-dot-enhanced TVs as well.

Some of this stuff does indeed improve our world – anything that makes driving safer, our health more easily monitored, or energy more efficient is great. But really, the exciting developments and the ones with the most potential for improving the lives of millions are probably not likely to be hyped in Las Vegas. A quick test for the dengue virus could impact a half billion people. LEDs can replace kerosene for lighting and let children study after dark. That’s what the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies is intended to highlight.

The lives we save and the minds we develop with photonics will be able to grow and learn – and maybe in 20 years, they’ll be in Las Vegas for CES showing us the future generations of photonics-enabled miracles.

19 November 2014

Century of the Photon: 9 predictions for 2065

Looking into the proverbial crystal ball is a risky endeavor.

  • "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X rays will prove to be a hoax." William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, president of the British Royal Society 1890-1895.

  • "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM 1914-1956.

But we humans seem to find the urge to do so to be irresistible on certain occasions, particularly anniversaries. At the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste recently, optics and photonics experts offered a few guesses as to what may happen over the next 50 years.

What new capabilities will technology offer us two-thirds of the way into the Century of the Photon? Fast-forward to 2065, when …

  1. Solar energy provides 50% of the world’s still increasing energy demand.
  2. A second laser fusion power station has just been completed.
  3. More than 90% of humanity has Tb/second photonic communications connections.
  4. Room-size 3D holographic displays strain the photonic internet.
  5. Lighting has become smart and personalized as a result of coming to understand the interaction of various wavelengths with human biology.
  6. Genomics, proteomics, or metabolomics, all affordably optically determined, define customized therapies on an individual basis.
  7. The completed super-resolution brain map, quantum computing, early detection with eye exams, and photonics neuro-therapy promise end to dementia.
  8. The count of planets with “life signatures” is now at 1,849 -- no communication as yet.
  9. Networked hyperspectral home food inspection sensors immediately identify local e coli and other contamination, preventing 100% of food poisoning.
For the here and now, they also considered some concerns facing the scientific community in particular – challenges that need to be solved.

  1. We face a worrying lack of translation of scientific advances into useful outcomes. Knowledge is important, but application is what makes a difference in people’s lives.
  2. While basic science is a key element of the innovation infrastructure, by itself, it is not sufficient -- public funding programs need to reflect that symbiosis.
  3. Science increasingly is measured by criteria that are taking it away from innovation, for example, journal publication’s impact factor with its inverse relationship to practical application of the research reported.
  4. There is a growing scientific illiteracy in the public and politicians in many nations. The science, technology engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community needs to continue its concerted efforts to raise awareness of the need to support education and advances for the benefit of individuals and human society as a whole.
Want to help address the challenges? Get involved with the International Year of Light in 2015, support the National Photonics Initiative in the U.S., find out what Photonics21 is doing in the EU, look into other options where you live -- and post a comment about what you’re doing to raise awareness of photonics and gain more support for science.

29 October 2014

Scientific freedom award the latest honor for Omid Kokabee; calls for his release growing

We're sure he would have preferred a different path, but the contributions of Omid Kokabee to awareness of scientific responsibility are unmistakable. Last fall, he was named a recipient of the Andrei Sakharov Prize from the American Physical Society, and now the American Association for the Advancement of Science has announced Omid as the winner of the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award for 2015.

Kokabee, a laser physicist and a member of SPIE, was imprisoned in his native Iran as he attempted to return to his PhD studies at the University of Texas at Austin after a visit to his family in Tehran, in February 2011. He was accused of conspiring with enemies of Iran, and convicted in a trial in May 2012. He was not allowed to meet with his lawyer.

Omid has continued his studies from prison, where he has written papers and submitted abstracts to professional meetings. Of course, he was not allowed to attend to present them. He's also been teaching -- English and physics -- to fellow prisoners. This selfless activity earned him some further unpleasant attention, according to Hebert Berk, chair of the American Physical Society Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists, in a nomination letter for Kokabee. "In the spring, the prison guards allowed an attack by Iranian religious thugs who beat up many inmates in Omid's section, Ward 350, where political prisoners were held."

SPIE has supported the efforts on Kokabee's behalf, and was a signer of a letter from three optics organizations to Iran's supreme leader calling for his release.

Omid maintains, and his awards have reinforced, that he is being punished for refusing to use his laser expertise for the benefit of Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, awareness of his case continues to grow, and Iranian missions to the United Nations have repeatedly been presented with letters and petitions for his release. In September, 31 Nobel Prize winners were among the signers of the latest batch.

He recently sent a letter to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University, winner of the Fields Medal and the first woman ever so honored. He said her win was the "happiest news I have heard in prison over the recent years."

The photo of Omid was taken during SPIE Photonics West a few years ago. It is our fervent hope that through international attention to his case -- and your activism (click here for more information on where to send letters), we'll have another opportunity soon to see him in San Francisco. Our photonics world would be a better place if the only award Omid had received lately was his PhD from the University of Texas. But by keeping his situation in the public eye, his prospects for release are much improved. When Kokabee's new trial was announced, Elise Auerbach, the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International commented that the Iranian government "would never have [made] this decision in the absence of a lot of pressure."

20 October 2014

Nine lessons from ‘clever’ nature that inspired photonics engineering

The great horned owl's eyes are among pheonomena from
nature that have helped inspire photonics engineering.
Spiders, fireflies, and pythons have all been responsible for inspiring solutions to challenges facing engineers working in light-based science and technology.

As Joseph Shaw, director of the Optical Technology Center at Montana State University, put it, “Nature has developed, very cleverly, some lessons on how to create the features that we desire in optical design.”

A highlight of the conference on Bioinspiration, Biomimetics, and Bioreplication at SPIE Smart Structures and Nondestructive Evaluation early each year in San Diego is a visit from an animal ambassador and handlers from the San Diego Zoo’s Centre for Bioinspiration. The center’s mission is to advance the creation and development of nature-inspired products and processes that benefit humanity, wildlife, and habitats. Past years’ animal visitors have included:

  • Monty the Python [video 6:46], whose heat-seeking olfactory structures and hooked underside scales have helped inform engineering of thermal sensors and of mechanical propulsion systems for robotic and other equipment.
  • Shaman the Great Horned Owl [video 12:56], whose large eyes are densely packed with receptors -- 1 million in each square millimeter, compared with 200,000 in the human eye – rendering the owl's daytime vision 6 times better and its night vision 10 times better, and providing ideas for improved optical displays.

A conference on The Nature of Light: Light in Nature chaired by Shaw and colleague Rongguang Liang of the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences last August at SPIE Optics and Photonics offered more examples:

  • Some insect wings have antireflective cone-like structures of a few nanometers that absorb virtually the entire visible spectrum, a team from the University of Namur (Louis Dellieu, et al.) reported, suggesting possible applications for camouflage.
  • Another team at Namur (Annick Bay, Alexandre Mayer) has developed a firefly-inspired structure for improving efficiency of LED lighting, using observations from how the bioluminescent organ of the firefly functions.
  • Using spiders, Bor-Kai Hsiung and other researchers at the University of Akron are studying how colors evolve to serve different functions, and how those colors are produced within a relatively simple system. They explored questions such as whether spiders use fluorescence as a mechanism to protect themselves from UV radiation, and what functions color serves for nearly blind tarantulas, outside of sexual selection.

In other recent research looking to nature for inspiration:

  • At the recent SPIE/COS Photonics Asia conference in Beijing, researcher Min Gu from Swinburne University of Technology talked about biomimetic photonics inspired by a recent finding in the study of butterfly-wing scales. By mimicking the microscopic structures, researchers from Swinburne and Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg have developed a device smaller than the width of a human hair that could help make optical communications faster and more secure.
  • Malte Gather of St. Andrews University explains how the DNA blueprint of fluorescent proteins in the cells of bioluminescent jellyfish [video 6:18] can be introduced into other organisms or structures, for example in micro lasers to speed up measurements being made by chemical sensors, and in future to create nontoxic cell markers for microscopy and add in disease diagnosis and treatment monitoring.
  • A team from Pennsylvania State University is developing decoys to blunt the spread of tree-killing emerald ash borer beetles. Their larvae feed on the sap of ash trees, killing by depriving trees of nourishment. Entomology professor Thomas Baker teamed up with the research group of engineering science and mechanics professor Akhlesh Lakhtakia to replicate biological structures such as fly eyes and butterfly wings. The groups developed a decoy that visually replicates the female borer, enabling researchers to trap the males to decrease breeding and thereby larvae.
  • Virginia Tech College of Engineering researchers have built a man-size, autonomous robotic jellyfish, a larger model of a previous robotic jellyfish built by the same team headed by Shashank Priya, professor of mechanical engineering. Jellyfish are attractive candidates to mimic because of their ability to consume little energy owing to a lower metabolic rate than other marine species, the researchers said. With no central nervous system, jellyfish instead use a diffused nerve net to control movement and can complete complex functions. "A larger vehicle will allow for more payload, longer duration, and longer range of operation," said Alex Villanueva, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering working under Priya.

More to think about as the photonics world gears up to observe the International Year of Light!

15 October 2014

Wanted: photonics ambassadors

Being an ambassador for the
International Year of Light
is easy -- and we hear that
it's fun as well.
Solving the challenges of the 21st century will depend as much on photonics as the 20th century's solutions depended on electronics.

Particles of light are the key ingredients for science and technology, from smartphones to medical imaging to synchrotrons. The United Nations’ International Year of Light initiative will show the world how optical and photonic technologies are vital to their futures and development of the whole society.

Some very big names have already gotten behind the initiative, and will be investing much time and considerable money in the effort. In addition to several professional societies who are Founding Partners, two companies and a professional society have signed on as Patrons, and a very long list of companies, research institutes, publications, universities, and associations are giving their support as well.

Even the Duke of York is getting involved, having declared his support as Patron in the UK.

And you, too, can be an ambassador for the International Year of Light! Here are a few ideas:

Nice IYL tie --
how can I get one?
  • Get your organization involved: Create an exhibit using a gallery of dazzling images displaying examples of the myriad wonderful things that light can do, and how it plays a critical role in our lives every day.
  • Give a presentation to a service group, classroom, youth group, or peer group, using a ready-built slide deck – and top it off with eight minutes of “terror” via the short video, “A Day without Photonics: a Modern Horror Story.”
  • Wear an IYL t-shirt, tie, or scarf. They’re not only attractive, but they'll help you tell the photonics story as well, by sparking conversation about why and how light plays such important roles in our lives.
  • Download the IYL bookmark and give one to all of the people in your life who read print-on-paper books – and drop off a supply at your local library or bookstore.
  • Print out an IYL poster for your workplace, dorm room, or classroom.

There are many other materials and resources available at www.spie.org/iyl to help you start your new ambassadorship – have fun! and keep it light ….

19 September 2014

Photons for inspiration, fuel -- and light!

The many properties of light have long provided
inspiration for SPIE CEO Dr. Eugene Arthurs.
Editor’s note: A green laser lighted the early career path of then-physics-graduate Eugene Arthurs, now CEO of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. Light from many sources continues to provide him with inspiration and direction, Dr. Arthurs writes in this blog post originally published in the International Year of Light blog, www.light2015blog.org.

Looking back, my career path was not determined by some grand plan, but rather by the beauty of the light from an argon ion laser in our Applied Physics department at Queen’s University Belfast. It wasn’t the science that the laser was bought for, Raman spectroscopy, or an understanding of how the laser would change the world, that drew me.

At the time I was soon to graduate with a physics degree – the first in my family history to get a science degree – and was interviewing with a local branch of IBM where my love of mathematics might give me an edge and where I might find stimulating work in Northern Ireland.

But fate intervened and I was seduced by the light, by the pure intense green beam, and lasers became my thing. Mentioning lasers also gave some sort of defense against the many enquiries from caring relatives on when was I going to get a real job.

Another indelible memory; an important insight came to me in 1980 when I was at the home of my boss at the time, Dick Daly, founder of an early laser company. It was the fall (autumn to some) on Long Island, New York, which meant leaves everywhere. Dick pointed to one of his huge piles of leaves and said with his characteristic grin, “One of my photon stores.”

The concept of storing photons was of great interest to laser jocks like Dick and me. Short-pulse high-power lasers benefit greatly from materials that can hold a lot of energy. But Dick’s observation was way beyond the world of lasers and has caused me to think since about the profound relationship between light and life.

The chloroplasts in leaves use the photons from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon. All of our forests, our plants have been busy “sequestering” carbon dioxide for hundreds of millennia, while tuning our atmosphere to be human-friendly.

It takes the energy from many photons to grow a leaf, but at the end of the day, what a leaf is, is mostly a carbon-based organic structure built by light. This lesson from one of my many mentors led me to realize that as all fossil fuels started as vegetation, we are burning our way through Earth’s store of photon energy from the sun, accumulated over 300 million years or more.

With many processes and great lengths of time, nature has stored this photon energy from leaves, wood and other biomass in high-density forms such as oil and coal. The high density is key to modern transportation, and collection of fuel for large centralized power plants.

Now we have a formidable challenge to capture and store solar energy arriving today in ways that will challenge nature’s gifts. Nature had all that time to store photons; our version of solar energy is more “real time.” But the sooner that solar becomes a significant part of the global energy mix, the better for our planet, for all of us.

Aside from SPIE, Dr. Arthurs is also a member of the Photonics21 Board of Stakeholders, where he is directly involved in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 and the entity for a public-private partnership (PPP). Prior to these responsibilities, Eugene has held many positions at esteemed scientific technology organizations in both the US and Europe, and has served on several boards in the realm of optics, photonics, and scientific development.