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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 ….