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.


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.