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What's in a name: light and photonics

Light: you need it, you use it. But do most people know how much we use it -- and why should they?

Helping to tell that story, the 2 posters at right anticipating an International Year of Light (IYL) celebration in 2015 were among more than 30 on display in the Photonics for a Better World pavilion during the exhibition last month at SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Diego. The posters were designed by supporters of a proposal before the United Nations to establish the IYL to raise awareness about the initiative.

Yes, that’s right: a year especially set aside for the contemplation and celebration of light – and along the way, plenty of opportunity to talk about photonics.

Hardly a household word now, "photonics" refers to science and technology involving the manipulation of photons -- light. One of the goals of an International Year of Light is, essentially, to make “photonics” a household word, in the same way that “electricity” and “chemistry” are.

This is important, not just to the photonics industry, for a simple reason. Not having a word to name or describe something goes hand-in-hand with not understanding it, and perhaps not even noticing it.

But applications of photonics technologies are everywhere these days. The modern world is stocked with objects and experiences supplied by cross-disciplinary R&D enabled by light.

Ignoring photonics would be a big drawback for inventors trying to create new products (think of the smartphone) or improve services (social media feeds run by mass transit systems to help travelers avoid delays). It would hamper researchers looking for a better way to treat disease (blood testing without pricking the skin), or keep our food supplies safe (sensors to detect e coli).

The list goes on and on. Take a look around wherever you’re reading this, and add your own.

Policy makers need to understand the word “photonics” as well, for the sake of the economies they help steward. Depending on where and how the counting is done, somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of economic growth over the last 50 years is the result of technology innovation.

Today’s major innovators and market leaders are focusing on photonics -- the most driven and organized are even calling it by name. They’re using it in systems to defend their regions from military and cyber attacks, to ensure clean water supplies for their people, to diagnose disease in the remotest regions as well as hospitals and clinics, to light communities in more efficient ways and conserve energy supplies … once again, the list goes on and on.

The IYL initiative would celebrate and educate about light in science, technology, nature and culture. Groups supporting the IYL have already received an endorsement from UNESCO and are optimistic that the proposal will be put before the full U.N. General Assembly by the end of the year.


And learn more about those striking posters and the book in which they're featured at http://magic-of-light.org/iyl2015/index.htm.

Here's to an ...

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