04 April 2012

Pho-what-nics?

That's it! Science teachers in Nepal (above) learned more about teaching optics and photonics during a recent workshop presented through the Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) program. The program is one of the ways volunteers sponsored by UNESCO, SPIE, and other organizations help share an understanding of the field and its importance.

Lasers cut the fabric for our clothing, and etch communication pathways on the chips in our computers and mobile devices. We make phone calls and send data over the internet via wireless broadband and fiber optic networks. LEDs light our streets and rooms, remote sensing systems assess ocean health and monitor water tables, disasters, and weather systems, and light diagnoses and treats diseases.

The fruits of photonics are everywhere. The products of optics are omnipresent. And yet, if you have ever been introduced as an optics and photonics researcher or developer, you know that blank looks are also common.

The terms simply are not household words, certainly not in the way that, say, “biology,” “chemistry,” and “physics” are.

Beyond the slight awkwardness inherent in explaining what “photonics” means (and the irony, when explaining “photonics” to someone who has just been accessing the internet on his mobile tablet …) the real problem is that a lack of understanding on the part of taxpayers and policy makers can impede progress toward new solutions for the challenges facing the world.

If the value is not understood, an endeavor is not likely to earn public funding and resources. And without the public side engaged in the vital public-private partnership, the pace of innovation slows and its vision is narrowed – and a major source of economic vitality is desiccated.

Photonics innovations feed economic growth through enabling new products and business sectors, and the industry is responsible for a significant number of high-value jobs.

In Europe, for example, the number of photonics jobs is estimated at approximately 290,000. The Photonics21 2011 Leverage Report details how many more related jobs are enabled by photonics technology and what that activity contributes to the economy. Extrapolate those numbers around the world, and you see some very impressive impacts.

Organized efforts are one way to promulgate an understanding of optics and photonics technology.

Last week, Photonics21 members at their annual meeting in Brussels talked with European Commission officials about the importance of photonics innovation.

Later this month, volunteers sponsored by SPIE will join hundreds of others to lobby in Washington, D.C., as part of the Science-Engineering-Technology Working Group Congressional Visits Day program. (View the video below for a look at last year's event.)



But you don’t have to go to Brussels or Washington or anywhere out of town to help share an understanding of the importance of the field of optics and photonics.

Tell your friends and family about your work, offer to speak at your Rotary Club or in your child’s classroom, judge or launch a science fair. Use your own stories, and find more in resources such as the Photonics for a Better World series in the SPIE Professional magazine.

Like photonics, inspiration is everywhere.