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20 February 2014

As inspiring as the Olympics: photonics!

Records are broken, new tricks are introduced, new stars step onto the world stage -- there is a lot of inspiration generated when the Olympic Games are on. Feats of athleticism are being demonstrated that were not imagined to be possible, and possibly not even imagined, as recently as 10 years ago.

It’s the same with photonics -- you can decide whether it is as flashy or as exciting as the Olympic Games. But feats are being demonstrated that were not possible until now, by people we may or may not have heard of before. And the results are definitely life-changing, for more than just those who perform them.

For example, in separate talks at SPIE Photonics West last month, Michal Lipson of Cornell University and Ashok Krishnamoorthy of Oracle described new tricks with light that could help solve one of the most profound problems facing our increasingly digitally plugged-in world: data storage capacity, or more precisely, the projected lack of it sometime in the next 5 or 10 years.

The data that won’t be savable unless something major changes isn’t just old email messages. It’s your medical records, bank account, family photos; your research records, copyrights, company payroll; essentially anything computer-generated that you would ever like to see again.

Photonics engineers across the globe are at work on that problem, and on many others.

More examples? Rox Anderson of Harvard and Jim Fujimoto of MIT, two of the established stars among the sparkling crowd at Photonics West, opened a session where several other stars told about their latest work in biomedical optics -- engineering with light, to heal and cure. A few of the speakers were:

  • Bruce Tromberg (Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic University of California Irvine) presenting on optical methods of assessing the effectiveness of cancer therapy to provide feedback in time to improve the treatment.

  • Eric Seibel (University of Washington) talking about using a scanning fiber endoscope to provide high-contrast imaging in small ducts and the cardiovascular system, to improve biopsy procedures, diagnostics, and stent deployment.

  • Gary Shambat (Adamant Technologies) describing using nanometer-sized probes that insert a nanobeam into a single cell without damaging the cell, and functionalizing the beam to essentially take the lab to the biological system instead of extracting the biological system for study in a lab.

That’s photonics engineering, one aspect of what is being celebrated in the U.S. this week as DiscoverE and a major aspect of what will be celebrated around the world in 2015 as the International Year of Light.

True, there are very few clothing endorsement contracts for photonics engineers. But there are records broken, impressive new tricks introduced, and new stars stepping onto the stage to help improve and even save lives.