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21 December 2012

Vertigo: on the edge of the fiscal cliff

Vertigo -- a dizzy, confused, disoriented state of mind -- is a nearly universal response when looking out over the edge of a cliff.

But the managers and researchers at labs and universities across the United States don’t have time for vertigo as they contemplate the brink of the impending “fiscal cliff.” With 10 days (and a major holiday week) before a deadline that would among other things substantially reduce federal funding for scientific research, the House of Representatives has adjourned until after the first of the year, delaying or eliminating the opportunity for a different resolution.

After the first of the year, more than $500 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts will begin to take effect, threatening to undermine the sluggish recovery and prompt a new recession, a Washington Post article noted yesterday. (The New York Times provides detailed analysis as well.)

So, labs and universities are reviewing contingency plans for worst-case scenarios while hoping for better news.

For example, Oak Ridge Today reported earlier this week that the Oak Ridge National Lab “says it’s as well-prepared as it can be.” Based on an Office of Management and Budget report, the automatic spending cuts, which are also known as sequestration, would result in 8-9% in funding of National Nuclear Security Administration facilities such as ORNL.

Beyond defense-related research cuts, the article said, spending for the U.S. Department of Energy’s science activities could be cut by $400 million, and energy efficiency and renewable energy programs could be reduced by $148 million. Funding for DOE’s nuclear energy activities could drop $63 million.
 

Slowing science, slowing growth
 
The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that “the stakes could hardly be higher for research universities, which are the engines that power much of the country's scientific, technological, and economic growth” -- but also that the real impact is much larger:

“Universities account for more than half of the basic research conducted in the United States, work that often serves as the backbone of commercial research-and-development efforts by private-sector companies. Those companies, which already collectively invest $250-billion a year in such efforts -- much of it focused on the development side -- simply don't have the resources to devote to pure research on a scale needed to keep the United States at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation.

“That funding void has been filled to a large extent by the U.S. government, which pays for about 60 percent of the basic research conducted by American universities. The historical return for that federal investment has been spectacular by any measure—jobs created, economic output, contributions to the well-being of people around the world.

“University faculty and students are every day engaged in work that has the potential to save lives and improve the standard of living of Americans today and well into the future.

“This significant economic force for societal good is being jeopardized by sequestration, which would require across-the-board spending cuts of as much as 9 percent from 2011 levels for most federal agencies. The result in 2013: A $12.5-billion reduction in federally financed research, which could cost the U.S. economy an estimated 200,000 jobs, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation."

A letter to Congress and President Obama from some 120 science, engineering, and STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) organizations including SPIE earlier this month detailed some of the fruits of that research: the Global Positioning System, the laser, and the Internet, diagnostics and treatments for heart disease, cancer, epilepsy and diabetes, among others. Almost every national priority -- from health and defense, to agriculture and conservation -- relies on science and engineering, the letter notes.

 
'Crippling'
 
In a word, The Atlantic called the potential of the fiscal cliff “crippling”:

“If the U.S. Congress fails to act, the now clichéd across-the-board tax cuts on discretionary spending -- the so called "sequestration" clause of the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- will kick in. One might argue that this could trigger a recession; but there is almost no denial that it will cripple U.S. scientific enterprise."

Just now, science in the U.S. is on the verge of what the Fiscal Times called “America’s Wile E. Coyote moment." Like the indomitable Mr. Coyote, the economy may have a chance to recover when Congress is back in session on 3 January.

14 December 2012

A Congressional pledge for science? Respect could only help

In the face of recent comments by lawmakers and others in the public eye suggesting that accepting scientific evidence is akin to the decision to believe in a particular religion or political dogma, NPR commentator Adam Frank has suggested a clarifying solution.

Congress, he said in a Cosmos & Culture post on 11 December, should consider making a pledge to science -- not to wholesale acceptance of all published research, but simply to “uphold the integrity of basic scientific research and take no actions to undermine the broadest public education in empirically verifiable scientific truths."

Volunteers from SPIE are among hundreds
of scientists and engineers who visit
Congressional offices every year to stress
the contributions of STEM research to
society and the economy.

His underlying point that science and technology are “the engines of our economic competitiveness” echoes the words of leaders of 120 science, engineering, and STEM education organizations in a letter last week to Congress and President Obama urging them to avoid the “fiscal cliff” deadline. If policymakers are unable to work out a solution by the end of the year, blunt budget cuts will accelerate a trend toward decline in U.S. research and R&D funding.

The problem with that is that technology R&D is a major force in building the economy and creating new, highly skilled jobs. And besides spawning the Global Positioning System, the laser, and the Internet, technology has enabled countless medical advances that have helped save the lives of millions of heart disease, cancer and diabetes patients, among others. Almost every national priority -- from health and defense, to agriculture and conservation -- relies on science and engineering.

In short, cutting the funding cuts the flow of progress.

As SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs noted, while financial problems are in a dire state, “It would be utterly foolish to damage the best hope for economic health: our science and technology capability."

Solar panels provide clean energy in
remote places. United Nations
Development Programme. UN photo.

Adam Frank puts it this way: “Standing up for science should be a no-brainer for us. We are a nation that has shown, many times, how much we value the endless possibilities flowing from the pursuit of knowledge, not the least of which include a lasting peace and a generous prosperity for everyone.”

“Standing up for science” doesn’t require a formal pledge on the part of policymakers, although it is an intriguing idea. But basic respect for responsible science and technology is crucial. With that respect comes support for many vital needs. For example:
  • Improving healthcare capabilities, such as detecting cancer earlier and increasing the odds of patient survival
  • Retaining the most highly skilled workforce rather than sending graduates out of the country as soon as they complete their degrees
  • Creating new highly skilled jobs in manufacturing and engineering
  • Developing energy production that will meet the needs of the future without creating new damage to the environment, or exacerbating existing pollution and global warming
  • Ensuring safe communities
  • Improving storm- and flood-monitoring capabilities
  • Bringing new-generation lighting systems and communications networks to developing areas, improving health and educational prospects
  • Ensuring food safety and adequate clean water around the world.
That's all worth standing up for.

10 December 2012

'Sky at Night' host Sir Patrick Moore: astronomer, writer, inspiration

Sir Patrick Moore, who introduced generations to the wonders of astronomy through his BBC TV show “The Sky at Night,” died 9 December. According to news reports, Moore was the longest-running host of the same television show ever. “The Sky at Night” began its run in April 1957. Moore appeared on its most recent episode, which aired last week, on 3 December.


Sir Patrick Moore: 1923-2012.
(Credit: Paul Grover, by exclusive permission)
"He counted himself as a writer and broadcaster first and foremost. But as Britain's most recognisable scientist for more than 50 years, he inspired countless people to take up astronomy as a hobby or astrophysics as a career,” said colleague Chris Lintott in a tribute published on the BBCwebsite.

Among those many who Moore inspired is Nobel Laureate John Mather, Senior Project Scientist and chair of the Science Working Group for the James Webb Space Telescope and a Fellow of SPIE. Remembering Moore this week, he spoke of his enjoyment of Moore's writings, from childhood on.

Moore was entirely self-taught, passing up an opportunity to enroll at Cambridge. Instead he lied about his age and enlisted in the Royal Air Force at the beginning of World War II.

Moore was noted for the trademark monocle he wore, and for his enthusiasm for scientific subjects. He interviewed guests including astronauts and astronomers, and was instrumental in BBC coverage of moon landings, eclipses, and astronomical events.

In his 1997 book, Exploring the Night Sky with Binoculars, he expressed his frustration with those who questioned the need for expenditures on space exploration. When he heard such questions, he said, “I know that I’m dealing with an idiot.”

Moore passed away at home, surrounded by friends and his cat, Ptolemy. The astronomer, a noted animal lover, had indicated that any memorial donations should go to the UK group Cats Protection.

A statement from the organization called Moore “a dedicated, lifelong cat lover and friend, supporting the charity in many ways over the years.”

See The Sky at Night website for past episodes of the television show, and for more about this "man of extraordinary gifts."

28 November 2012

Manipulating nanoscale ‘rainbows’ for solar cells and TV screens

The manipulation of light is a core photonics activity performed in numerous ways for numerous practical effects. For example, consider the design of lasers for purposes as diverse as repairing a retina to restore vision and downloading a movie over the internet onto a tablet for viewing.

Anatoly Zayats and his team at King's College
London have created artificial "rainbows" at
the nanoscale. The technology has potential
for use in solar energy generation, optical
computing, and more.
Amazing as those human-scale applications are, imagine manipulating multiple colors of light on a structure about 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair -- and then applying that for the very practical effects of sensing toxins, improving solar cell efficiency, enabling optical circuits for tele- and data communications, and improving flat-screen display.

A team of researchers led by Anatoly Zayats in the Biophysics and Nanotechnology Group at King’s College London reported recently in Nature’s Scientific Reports that they had demonstrated how to separate and even rearrange a spectrum of colors and create artificial “rainbows” using nanoscale structures on a metal surface.

The researchers trapped light of different colors at different positions at a dimension on the order of a few micrometers, an unprecedented scale in previous research, on a gold film.

"Nanostructures of various kinds are being considered for solar cell applications to boost light absorption efficiency," Zayats said in a King’s College press release. "Our results mean that we do not need to keep solar cells illuminated at a fixed angle without compromising the efficiency of light coupling in a wide range of wavelengths. When used in reverse for screens and displays, this will lead to wider viewing angles for all possible colors.”

The group’s nanoscale rainbows differ from actual rainbows in the sense that researchers were able to manipulate where the colors would appear by controlling the nanostructure’s parameters. They also discovered the possibility of separating colors on different sides of the nanostructures.

The effects demonstrated could also provide color sensitivity in infrared imaging systems for security and product control and enable construction of microscale spectrometers for sensing applications.

Zayats, who is a Fellow of SPIE, told about other applications of plasmonic effects and nanostructured metals in a recent SPIE Newsroom video interview. He will have further updates in an invited paper titled “Integrated nanophotonic devices based on plasmonics” to be presented next February at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco.

13 November 2012

Heating up: remote sensing and global warming

Two polar bears on an iceberg. ©Eric Lefranc/Solent

After droughts, floods, and a “superstorm” this year, people everywhere are talking about the weather. Some people taking the long-term view are urging us all to not only talk but to think much more deeply -- and even to do something -- about climate change.

"Something extraordinary is going on in the world,” noted New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof as Hurricane Sandy began to dissipate. In a column headlined, “Will climate get some respect now?” Kristof recalled the amazement of Eskimos in Alaska toward the changes they were seeing: "from melting permafrost to robins (for which their Inupiat language has no word), and even a (shivering) porcupine."

Across the Atlantic, Fiona Harvey wrote last week in The Guardian under the headline “Climate change 'likely to be more severe than some models predict'” that the latest climate models predict higher temperature rises along with more extreme weather. In other words, expect more droughts such as the UK and the USA saw last summer, more disruptions of the Indian monsoon, and more intense hurricanes like Katrina in 2005 and last month’s Sandy.

Doing something, with photonics

Photonics is playing an enormous role in climate modeling and in our understanding of what is entailed in managing climate-related changes.

On the other side of the world from where Hurricane Sandy was wreaking havoc, a group of scientists and engineers whose work is to develop and build tools that read weather systems, predict and track storm activity, and model climate change were reporting at SPIE Asia-Pacific Remote Sensing on their latest work.

As symposium chair Toshio Iguchi of Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology noted in welcoming conference attendees, they were meeting in the very same facility where the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1997.

Reports last month in Kyoto covered projects such as:
  • ground-based observation of dust aerosols and their impact on climate over northwest China
  • monitoring surface climate using satellite measurements in the USA
  • connections between vegetation activity and local climate in East Asia mutual verification in Japan between satellite data and climate model simulation results
  • modeling CO2 fluctuations on the surface of the Earth via observations from the GOSAT Project (Global Greenhouse Gas Observation by Satellite).

More reports were heard in September in Edinburgh at the SPIE Remote Sensing conference. Plenary speaker Mitchell Roffer (Roffer’s Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service) talked about applications of satellite visualization and data fusion products for assessing the health of ocean fisheries such as tuna, mackerel, squid, and marlin, as well as mapping oil-dispersant-and-water mixtures in oil spills, notably in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

Conference papers in Edinburgh discussed:
  • impacts of climate change on Romanian mountain forests
  • instruments used in projects in China, Canada, Russia, and USA to monitor the forces of climate and their impacts on numerous human and environmental factors
  • the amount and rate of evaporation of moisture from the land surface
  • ocean salinity and the consequent change in which creatures and plants can live in those habitats.

Read all about it

The SPIE Newsroom regularly publishes updates from researchers. A sample of recent papers on remote sensing and climate change includes:

Monitoring global precipitation using satellites: Floods caused by extreme precipitation are one of the most frequent and widespread natural hazards, and more costly and dangerous than ever as population in urban areas increases and the global climate becomes more extreme and variable.
University of California, Irvine, Center for Hydrometeorology and Remote
Sensing (CHRS) Global Network for Water and Development Information for
Arid Lands server for monitoring near-real-time global precipitation distribution.

Improved remote sensing of surface soil moisture: Surface soil moisture plays an important role in the exchange of water and energy between land and the atmosphere, so is important to quantify for use in weather and climate models, flood forecasts, and irrigation management during droughts.

Investigating sensitivity in a Central European landscape: Studies of precipitation and biomass production in the Carpathian Basin that indicate warmer summers in the next century.

Rising lake levels indicate accelerated glacier melting: Satellite-measured elevation data was used to quantify the water levels of the largest lakes in the Tibetan Plateau.

What else needs to be done?
The New York Times noted in a post-Sandy analysis that infrastructure and city planning need attention. "The cost of that single hurricane may well be more than five times greater than that of a usual full year’s worth of the most expensive regulations, which ordinarily cost well under $10 billion annually. True, scientists cannot attribute any particular hurricane to greenhouse gas emissions, but climate change is increasing the risk of costly harm from hurricanes and other natural disasters. Economists of diverse viewpoints concur that if the international community entered into a sensible agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the economic benefits would greatly outweigh the costs."

05 November 2012

Why bother with STEM ed?

Experts in STEM education (science, technology, education, and mathematics) point out that in teaching, the “how” of science is more important that the “what.” As Shannon Warren, director of a science education partnership grant program in Washington State, noted in a recent magazine feature, learning science means exploring and analyzing, not just memorizing facts and listening to lectures.

The “why” is an equally key question, and one that evokes very personalized responses.
Professor Jin Kang in his lab at Johns Hopkins University
Take Jin Kang’s story, for example. Twenty years ago, Kang was an undergraduate physics student discovering that while he found the theory behind optics and photonics interesting, what he really loved was building lasers and other optical devices.

Kang is now a professor and the chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Johns Hopkins University. He conducts research in biophotonics, fiber optics, and optoelectronic devices for applications in medicine and communications.

One of his primary areas of focus areas is developing 3D imaging and sensing systems for guided surgical intervention. He described one of his latest devices ― a “smart” tool with sensors to help guide the surgeon’s eye and hand in microsurgery in a recent SPIE Newsroom video interview.

“I got into optics because I had two great professors,” Kang said. “Under their supervision I built a pulsed ruby laser for holography and other optical devices, which was an indispensable experience that taught me the fundamentals. It made me really appreciate the science."


Photonics enables entertainment, too:
The Grammy-nominated 3D music video
"All Is Not Lost" by OK Go featuring
the dance group Pilobolus was among
presentations shown at the 3D cinema
session at IS&T/SPIE Electronic Imaging

2012 in January in San Francisco, California,
USA. (Photo provided by Eric Kurland, 3D
director and editor of the video.)
The question of “why teach science” also is one with huge implications. Here are just a few answers:

  • Smarter voters, better government: “Exploring and analyzing” defines independent, fact-based thinking ― the driver behind developments such as the polio vaccine, life-saving AIDS treatments, and harnessing solar energy as well as a requirement for healthy democratic government.
  • Jobs: Education is inextricably linked to innovation, and innovation in high technology creates jobs, a message clearly spelled out in the National Research Council report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation,” and the Photonics21 report “Photonics – Our Vision for a Key Enabling Technology of Europe.”
  • Longer, safer, healthier lives: Science solves important problems, such as detecting infrastructure flaws so repairs can be made before a bridge collapses, or identifying exactly where plaque is clogging arteries to aid the surgical team in extending both quality and length of the patient’s life, for just two of thousands of possible examples.

Say it with lasers: Students are experts at sharing photonics.
SPIE Centro de investigaciones en Optica Student Chapter
members in León, Mexico, sent this laser-"drawn" photo
message along with a report on how they spent an education
outreach grant awarded by the society. CIO students present
optics workshops to children and teenagers in isolated
communities situated from 30 to 200 miles from León. More
than 5,000 children and teenagers in 100 communities have
been reached by the chapter's outreach efforts in recent years.
One of the most eloquent answers to the question "why teach science" is found on the website of Photonics Explorer, a program that is progressing toward its goal of bringing photonics education and thereby a greater understanding of science to 2.5 million secondary students across the European Union:

“Every day, our society depends more and more on science and technology. This is not only due to our personal convenience, which often relies on internet access, electrical power or just basic things like clean, drinkable water from the tap. The great challenges we all face together, such as global warming and demographic developments, demand us to (re)search for new answers."

Without a knowledgeable public engaged in the discussion, the website asks, “Who will set the direction and boundaries for research and development? On what basis will citizens decide for or against a specific science policy or a consumer product? Without a basic understanding of scientific facts and reasoning, the public as well as the individual consumer can be easily misled."

27 October 2012

'At the origin of all life': UNESCO backs International Year of Light!

"Light is at the origin of all of life," proponents of the declaration of 2015 as the International Year of Light (IYOL) told the UNESCO Executive Board last week.

The board agreed at its meeting in Paris, giving its enthusiastic support to an international effort to recognize optics and photonics technologies through a year-long observance in 2015.

Rainbow photo
The rainbow is expected to be the symbol for
the International Year of Light.
Although a final declaration by the UN General Assembly is not quite a done deal, the UNESCO support paves the way for a large-scale effort to raise awareness of the essential role light-based technologies play in driving industry and enhancing life.

Why is awareness so important?.

"The science and technology of light have revolutionized medicine, have opened up international communication via the Internet, and are central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of global society," SPIE Fellow Paul Buah-Bassuah of Ghana’s Laser and Fibre Optics Centre at University of Cape Coast told the UNESCO board. Representatives from Mexico, the Russian Federation, and New Zealand also participated in the presentation.

Further, Buah-Bassuah, said "Industries based on light are major economic drivers; they create jobs, and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health. Light is also important to our appreciation of art, and optical technologies are essential in understanding and preserving cultural heritage.".

Looking forward, photonics technologies are crucial for enabling sustainable development and addressing climate change, he stressed.

SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, and more than 40 scientific societies and institutions under the leadership of the European and African Physical Societies have been pushing for the initiative since 2009.

The activities of the IYOL will be coordinated by an International Steering Committee which will ensure effective action at both national and international levels.

"Through this action, UNESCO has joined in advocacy of the profound importance of light in every facet of life," said SPIE Executive Director Eugene Arthurs, who serves on the international advisory board for the IYOL Steering Committee. SPIE is continually working to raise awareness of photonics technology, he said, especially the many high-value jobs it creates and its numerous applications that have and will solve pressing problems in communications, healthcare, food and water source management, and other vital areas.

As examples, Arthurs cited inexpensive solar-powered solid-state lighting that has replaced toxic kerosene for indoor use in some developing regions and remote-sensing instruments that can track crop health, major storms, and underground water sources from space.

EPS President-Elect John Dudley
(above, speaking at SPIE
Photonics Europe last April)
serves as secretary of the IYOL
Steering Committee.
European Physical Society President-Elect John Dudley, an SPIE member, professor at Université de Franche-Comté, and secretary of the IYOL Steering Committee, said that the 2015 program would go beyond the celebratory nature of the 2010 Laserfest events that marked the 50th anniversary of the laser. One of the key goals, Dudley said, is to address the fact that despite the widespread influence of these essential optical technologies, they remained little understood or appreciated outside of the photonics field.

Want to get involved as a partner? Check out the prospectus for contact information.

Help ensure increased awareness around the world of the value of light-based technologies in meeting the needs of humankind.

18 October 2012

Mixing it up: science and politics


Roger Angel's prototype solar module
based in a spaceframe to continuously
track the sun. Image © REhnu
Sitting in a conference room, listening to Roger Angel (REhnu and College of Optical Sciences, University of Arizona) talk about how he is refocusing astronomical instrumentation to build highly efficient, cheaper solar cells, or watching Eva-Marie Sevick-Muraca (University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston) show the first-ever video of lymphatic flow inside a human being, or hearing Mario Paniccia (Intel) talk about the amazing advances in computing speed that are around the corner in silicon photonics … well, politics is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind.

But politics definitely does come to mind at some point, and most scientists recognize the importance of the relationship between the two spheres. Today’s endorsement by 68 Nobel Prize winners in science of the candidacy of President Barack Obama for re-election is one illustration.



You can read what they said about their endorsement in a story in the NewYork Times.

Cut science first?

As to why they felt inspired to do so, consider this:

Recent polling in the United States indicates that in a time of tight federal budgets, a majority of people would cut science budgets first.

It is not a trust issue: People said they believe that scientists are “good people."

But, while people value medical and energy research, they see little value in science beyond that: they don’t recognize the benefits.  So when science is stacked against other federal priorities, public support for science erodes.

Photonics-enabled

Clip from UT HSC lymphatic flow video.
As many as 65 million people watched the second round of Presidential debates on Tuesday. The complete transcript was available to download within a few hours, and photos and video clips were instantly share-able throughout the live broadcast. Voters and pundits have been responding since the broadcast opened with blog posts, email messages, news reports and commentary, and text messages.

All of this is enabled by photonics.

Without photonics-enabled cameras, communications systems, computers, phones, and other devices, only a roomful of people, their friends and neighbors, and local newspaper readers would have the information by now.

Development of much of this technology has been supported by federal funds for research and engineering -- notably the Internet, on which many of those messages travelled.

From NIST: Artist's conception of JILA's
advance in atomic force microscope
(AFM) design.  To measure picoscale
forces in liquid, a AFM probe attaches
to a molecule such as DNA and pulls,
and the deflection of the probe is measured.
JILA researchers found that probes
with the gold coating removed (purple
in the illustration) make measurements that
are 10 times more stable and precise
than those made with conventional gold-coated
probes. Gold helps reflect the laser light
but it can also potentially crack, age,
and creep, which degrades its mechanical
properties and reduces measurement
precision. Credit: Baxley/JILA
That’s just one example of an area of daily life that is directly impacted by federally funded research and engineering in optics and photonics. Among others:
  • A team at University of Texas, Dallas, will be using a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to engineer flexible solar cells that can be produced more cost-effectively, and can even be used on portable devices or clothing.
  • Five companies working to develop trusted electronic identity technologies to combat identity theft, protect online transactions, and secure information sharing have received support from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST-funded projects also help keep bridges and othe infrastructure safe through non-destructive measuring technologies, and advance computing through work by scienists such as David Wineland, the 2012 winner of NIST's fourth Nobel Prize in physics in the past 15 years..
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been a major sponsor of research at the University of California, Irvine, where biomedical research includes projects such as non-invasive imaging techniques to detect cancers and heart disease at much earlier stages, and more accurately.
  • A long list of products and innovations ranging from invisible braces and scratch-resistant eyeglass coatings, to digital cameras and medical imaging technologies, to satellite communications systems, the internet, and many more have been derived from inventions patented by NASA, the European Space Agency, and other agencies and organizations as a result of space exploration.

Follow the money

Summary of NRC report.
And don’t forget the economy. Public companies focused on optics and photonics enable an estimated 7.5 million jobs and create more than $3 trillion dollars in the U.S. annually. These are primarily high-value jobs. (Look for more on the economic impact of the field in follow-up on the release of the National Research Council report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation.")

The idea of putting future technology development and tomorrow's economic vitality at risk as a result of cutting science budgets deserves careful scrutiny.

04 October 2012

Green —and universal — photonics: 'Sustainable Energy for All'

October 2012 issue
of SPIE Professional
It's estimated that three billion people — more than 40% of the world’s population — use wood, coal, charcoal, and other matter for cooking and heating and that 1.5 billion people lack access to electricity.

The human, social, economic, and environmental costs of this inequity are tremendous because energy is fundamental to health, safety, comfort, and progress for all seven billion people on Planet Earth.

Yet access to energy varies widely depending on whether people live in a wealthy or a poor country.

But more attention is being paid to this growing problem.

As Steve Eglash (Stanford University Energy and Environment Affiliates Program) and Kara Fisher (Duke University) write in the October issue of SPIE Professional, the optics and photonics community are finding sustainable ways to generate, convert, store, and use energy without destroying the planet.

The importance of sustainable energy was reinforced when the United Nations declared 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

SPIE is a supporter of this initiative and its members are addressing the problem by finding opportunities in both developed and resource-poor parts of the world to build better and cheaper solar cells. They are also getting industry and academia to work together on sustainable energy for all; and they have devised new business models so that solar cells, batteries, and LED lights reach some of the world's poorest people.

Eglash and Fisher discuss some of the ways that optics and green photonics are helping to create universal access to energy, make energy use more efficient, and expand the use of renewable energy.

"Light-management techniques are making thin-film solar cells more efficient and less expensive. Better light emitters, phosphors, and lenses are making LEDs brighter and more efficient. Wind turbines use LIDAR to 'see' wind gusts and lulls moments before they arrive," they write.

"Improved display screens using LCDs or OLEDs are expanding the functionality of cell phones, which are often a person’s primary or only access to the modern information economy. Video cameras enable smart energy-efficient-buildings. Optical sensors are used to monitor air, water, and food quality."

The pay-as-you-go business model seems to be doing great in poor countries. Under this concept, organizations such as Eight19, Simpa Networks, and others buy the energy infrastructure (PV systems, etc.) and provide it to users who then pay on a daily or weekly basis for only the electricity they use. After a while, the equipment is fully paid for, and the users own their own small power plants.

"Changing the world requires the right technology and a means for deploying that technology where it is needed," Eglash says.





26 September 2012

Gender bias? In photonics?

Yes, this excerpt from a study on gender bias in science is from this year, 2012:

“Despite efforts to recruit and retain more women, a stark gender disparity persists within academic science."

The recent study from Yale University involving several institutions investigated gender bias on the part of faculty in biology, chemistry, and physics, and found that male and female faculty were just as likely to:
  • judge a female student to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than an identical male student
  • offer her a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring
  • appear to be affected by “enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence” that translate into biases in student evaluation and mentoring
  • and yet … report liking the female more than the male student.

“I think we were all just a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were -- that not only do the faculty express these biases quite clearly, but the significance and strength of the results was really quite striking,” Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, and the senior author on the paper told The New York Times. Subtle gender bias is important to address, the study said, because “it could translate into large real-world disadvantages” such as not being hired, mentored, or promoted.

“Whenever I give a talk that mentions past findings of implicit gender bias in hiring, inevitably a scientist will say that can’t happen in our labs because we are trained to be objective. I had hoped that they were right,” Handelsman told the Times.

While the Yale study looked specifically at biology, chemistry, and physics, the bias behind the trend has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the world of science.

One trackable metric is pay. In a survey by SPIE of photonics professionals earlier this year, median salaries for women trail those of men in every region, with the greatest gap in higher-income Asia, and the lowest in the Middle East.

A significant effort to overcome the bias was launched last year in the European Union. SPIE Fellows Zohra Ben Lakhdar and Jürgen Popp were among speakers at the inaugural European Gender Summit in Brussels, which signed a policy manifesto urging gender equality in European research programs. The 2012 summit will be held 29-30 November at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Stories of success from women in science
are featured in the Women in Optics planner.
There is much at stake, both in opportunities for women and, as European Commission Director General for Research and Innovation Robert-Jan Smits notes, "for the full realization of European innovation potential.” And it’s a timely issue for Europe, as policy makers at EU and national levels are deciding on the future of the European research and innovation landscape, and on the implementation details of the initiatives such as HORIZON 2020, European Research Area, and Innovation Union.

Looking for inspiration? Each year, stories of women finding success in optics and photonics are published by SPIE in a “Women in Optics” planner. When launched several years ago, the planner was intended to promote the work of women in the field. It has also become a tool for introducing girls and young women to the possibilities of careers in all sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), with sound advice from successful women scientists all over the world.

Regarding the salary differences shown in the SPIE salary survey, Society Executive Director Eugene Arthurs said that the data point up the need for the industry to look more closely at pay equity. "It is disappointing that such a forward-looking and innovative sector mimics the historical injustice in this," he said. "We hope to see more women quickly realize the leadership positions in the field that their work and capabilities deserve."

18 September 2012

‘Golden Geese’ and essential technologies: optics and photonics!

Photonics enjoyed the spotlight in Washington, D.C., last week

First, on Wednesday morning leaders from the optics and photonics community give an enthusiastic launch to the new National Research Council report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation,” aided by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and former Intel CEO Craig Barrett.

Chu and Barrett were featured speakers at a briefing for agency leaders. Their remarks included references to several important benefits enabled by photonics:
  • economic strength
  • sustainable energy sources
  • new methods for medical detection and treatment of diseases and chronic conditions
  • more efficient lighting, computing, manufacturing, automobiles, and very much more.
Wednesday afternoon, the House R&D caucus heard from leaders of four societies in the sector about the report’s findings on economic impacts of optics and photonics, the importance of improved STEM education, and the committee’s recommendations on particular technology directions.

The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs; Milo Winter
"The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs,"
illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919.
Then, on Thursday, came the Golden Goose Awards.

If you’re familiar with European folklore, you’ll recall two stories related to gold and geese. In one, a goose lays eggs of gold that bring her owner wealth; in another, a goose with golden feathers helps secure a poor peasant lad the life of a happily married king.

But the name of these awards actually is related to a bit of 20th-century Americana.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, a U.S. Senator named William Proxmire instituted what he called the “Golden Fleece” awards to call out what he considered to be research projects of dubious value.

The problem with such judgments is that it isn’t necessarily clear what the ultimate value of research will be -- what looks dubious today may save lives tomorrow, in fact.

Enter the Golden Goose Awards. Initiated by U.S. Representative Jim Cooper and supported by several scientific and educational associations and institutes, the awards celebrated "researchers whose seemingly odd or obscure federally funded research turned out to have a significant impact on society," in the words of the organizers.

The winners of the first Golden Goose Awards are excellent examples -- and not surprisingly, optics and photonics were central to all three efforts:
  • Charles Townes ,a physicist whose work in the 1950s led to the invention of laser technology, which at the time had no known application and was even called “a solution in search of a problem,” but without which much of modern technology would be impossible. His work earned him a Nobel Prize in 1964, along with Russian researchers Aleksandr Prokhorov and Nicolay Basov.
  • Eugene White, Rodney White, Della Roy, and the late Jon Weber, whose study of tropical coral in the 1960s led serendipitously to the development of an ideal material for bone grafts and prosthetic eyes that is used commonly today.
  • Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien, and Osamu Shimomura, whose research, following Dr. Shimomura’s work on how certain jellyfish glow in the dark, led to numerous medical research advances and to methods used widely by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. They won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2008.
Also not surprising: The same agencies who funded research on the maser, green fluorescent protein, and coralline ceramics were among those with representatives in the room Wednesday  for the launch of the new NRC report.

As SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs noted at the caucus briefing, "Opportunity calls, and its name is 'photonics'."

Hear in their own words what two speakers had to say about the NRC report “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation” in this brief video:


.

05 September 2012

Photonics for fun and games -- and serious business!

A clear and present interest in using optical sciences and photonics to better our world shone through (no pun intended) at the Photonics for a Better World pavilion and other activities at SPIE Optics and Photonics last month in San Diego. Organizations are making dedicated efforts to improve the future of photonics, increase awareness in science education and improve the global community, and even to teach us how to have fun with photonics!

The other Olympics: Optics Outreach!

Nearly 220 people attended the Optics Outreach Olympics on Sunday 5 August. Teams from 16 Student Chapters from 9 different countries competed against each other by presenting their best optics outreach demonstrations that they use to teach children at schools about optics. The goal was to showcase effective, original educational activities that promote science education. In 2011, SPIE Student Members promoted science outreach to over 9,000 young students.

This year, the winning demonstrations included “The Magic of the Human Eye,” from the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon Student Chapter; “Light!” from the National Institute of Technology Tiruchirappalli; and “Laser Propagation Demonstration,” from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology.
A green glow captured the attention of judges and visitors at the Optics Outreach Olympics.


Essential Technologies

On the industry side, the heavily anticipated results of the National Academies Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation report were available at the Photonics for a Better World pavilion and discussed  with report co-chairs Alan Willner (Univ. of Southern California) and Paul McManamon (Univ. of Dayton and Exciting Technolgies) in the first post-release public briefing Wednesday afternoon during the event.

Key take-aways from the briefing are the need for everyone in the industry to promote science education -- do whatever you can to ensure that kids are interested and stay engaged in math and science and are aware of lucrative career opportunities in the future -- and to spread the word among policy makers, legislators, voters -- everyone -- about the importance and impact of optics and photonics technologies.

Fun with lasers ... and much more

At the Photonics for a Better World pavilion, photonics for betterment of the global community and STEM education (in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) were hot topics … and included a bit of fun with lasers!


● Several tables were set up for playing the Khet Laser Game 2.0, which combines the science of lasers with classic strategic games like chess. The objective is to use lasers and mirrors to illuminate your opponent’s pharaoh while shielding yours from harm!


At left, Michael Larson,  Professor and Vice Chancellor for Research at the
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and CEO of Innovention Toys
(makers of the Khet game), demonstrates the game at the Optics Outreach Olympics
with the help of Dirk Fabian of SPIE Student Services staff.


● With the new release of the National Academies report, STEM education has never been more important for the young minds in our global community. One effort to promote STEM education is LASER Classroom, which brings products, curriculum, and resources for teaching and learning about light, lasers, photonics and optics to kids in grades 9-12.

The program offers products called LASER BLOX, which contains magnets, apertures, range in wavelengths to vary colors, and even stack! Not only does LASER Classroom offer standalone products, they provide learning modules for use in the classroom which contain approximately 6-10 hours of teaching and learning material. LASER Classroom offers several other products that allow children to have fun while learning about optics and photonics.

Photonics Explorer demonstrates the efforts of STEM education and aims to equip science teachers in Europe’s secondary schools with up-to-date educational material that really engages, excites, and educates students about optics and photonics. And the best part: it’s totally free! Their strategy is to provide hands-on experiments with an inquiry- and exploratory-based framework in order to really engage students and provoke problem-solving skills.

The minds behind Photonics Explorer -- a group of teachers, scientists in pedagogy, and experts in photonics including sponsors such as SPIE Europe -- believe that the best place to raise interest and recruit future scientists that will solve our technical problems in the future is at schools.

● Also in the pavilion was another of today’s game-changers in the promotion of optics and photonics within the scientific community: InSPIRE, the Institution for Solar Photovoltaic Innovation, Research, and Edu-training. This non-profit organization’s objective is to promote research, development, workforce training, and commercialization within the solar and renewable energy industry.

InSPIRE seeks to raise money through grant-seeking opportunities from the government and lay the foundation for a solar and renewable energy industry in Illinois that will have potential economic benefits. The organization plans to provide a platform upon which specialists and scientists can share knowledge and experience through networking and events.

They also plan to match job-seekers with potential employers, assist researchers attempting to gain financial support in their projects, and introduce innovators with companies that have the ability to commercialize their products. On every spectra of the solar and renewable energy industry, InSPIRE will surely have a large and lasting impact in the future of optics and photonics.