Last year, UNESCO proclaimed the International Day of Light – or IDL for short – as an annual celebration of the role of light and light-based technologies in society. The first ever IDL is happening soon, on 16th May, and on your wavelength will join in the celebration with a series of light-related blog posts spread across the whole month of May.
To start our ‘month of light’, Nina Meinzer spoke to John Dudley from the Université de Franche-Comté, who is the Chair of the IDL 2018 Steering Committee, to hear more about his experience of working with UNESCO to get the IDL off the ground.
Why is it important to have an International Day of Light?
After the International Year of Light in 2015, it became clear that the task of raising awareness of the importance of light and its central place in science (and many other fields) was something that had really only just begun. Although 2015 saw over 10,000 events worldwide, we had really only scratched the surface in linking together different communities that needed to talk together. For example, events that involved politicians, scientists, industry, NGOs and students were a great success, yet they were rare. I thought that there was untapped potential to do more. Bringing communities together is the only way that we can solve pressing humanitarian concerns – whether it is the lack of safe light that reduces educational opportunity for children, or the lack of access to simple optical technologies such as eyeglasses that reduces the quality of life. An International Day of Light now gives us an annual focal point to raise these problems amongst the different sectors that – by working together – can solve them.
Moreover, the world has changed a lot since the idea of the International Year of Light was first mooted in 2009. The whole notion of science as an arbiter of truth is under threat, and the negative consequences of bad science and the inability to distinguish fact from fiction are becoming evident in all spheres of society. Promoting science and the scientific method via an annual International Day provides us with the chance to do something about this directly. We all complain about the direction the world is taking – well, here is our chance to do something concrete about it through education.
The 16th May was chosen to celebrate the first operational laser. Why is the laser so significant?
Lasers have had a truly revolutionary effect on society. This sounds like a cliché I know, but it’s hard to think of a comparable technology in optics that has had a similar influence in so many different fields. Lasers underpin communications and the internet, are used in manufacturing, navigation, medicine and many, many other applications. They also kicked-off digital entertainment with CDs and DVDs – there is actually an interesting paradox here that most people don’t appreciate: for many years when CDs were the dominant way to listen to music, one of the most important markets for lasers was actually an audio product!
And for me personally, the story of the laser illustrates a much more powerful lesson. You can’t put it better than Charles Townes did. It’s a long quote, but this is one that cannot be repeated too often: “As a striking example of how important technology applied to human interests can grow out of basic university research, the laser’s development fits a general pattern. As is often the case, it was a pattern which could not possibly have been planned in advance. What research planner, wanting a more intense light, would have started by studying molecules with microwaves? What industrialist, looking for new cutting and welding devices, or what doctor, wanting a new surgical tool as the laser has turned out to be, would have urged the study of microwave spectroscopy? The whole field of quantum electronics is almost a textbook example of broadly applicable technology growing unexpectedly out of basic research.”
How did you get involved with the proposal for the IDL? And what is it like to work with UNESCO?
I coordinated the International Year of Light in 2015, and during a progress meeting in June 2015, we discussed how to continue the gains already made, and UNESCO mentioned to us that they may support an annual follow-up in the form of an International Day. The problem of course is getting such an initiative on the political agenda of an inter-governmental organisation such as UNESCO. And to this end, we needed to persuade a number of its member states to place the International Day of Light formally before UNESCO governance. We were greatly helped by local scientists who made contact with their own academies and ministries, but it still took two years of work, with many meetings and discussions and drafts and modifications. Even in the final plenary session in November 2017 when the IDL was being proclaimed, there were still proposals being made from the floor to change the date! But in the end, they decided to stick with the initial proposal of 16th May which as I said above, I think is an excellent choice.
How can the IDL help researchers to engage with the general public?
Light is a great theme for outreach. The youngest are attracted to the many visual aspects of light, colour and shadows, and adults are interested in the underlying science and the career opportunities for their children. Clear answers to everyday questions about the colour of leaves, the sky, clouds and rainbows never fail to interest people, and they then open up many interesting avenues to talk about the latest results in optics and photonics and the impact they have on society.
It is also possible to attract many more people to an event if we combine science outreach with some entertainment or cultural performance that uses light – and there are many exciting advances in how that light is being used in this way, from dynamic projection to light painting. Importantly, the theme of light also allows us to raise awareness of what we can see when the lights are turned off, and the need to reduce unwanted light pollution so that we can appreciate the stars in the night sky, as well as save energy.
What are you working on in your own group and what do you hope will be the impact of you research?
My research spans a few fields: nonlinear fibre optics, ultrafast optics and nonlinear science in general. Right now I am working on applying real-time measurement techniques to get new insights into the nonlinear dynamics of supercontinuum generation in fibres and fibre laser sources. Both supercontinuum and fibre laser sources can show both highly stable and highly unstable regimes of operation, and I am hopeful that by better understanding the instabilities, we can create better and more stable sources for applications (in many areas – from material processing to spectroscopy to imaging).
What made you want to be a physicist? Why did you choose to specialise in optics?
I always loved science growing up, and no doubt terrified my family doing many dangerous experiments with chemistry and electricity at home. I read science fiction, watched the original Thunderbirds, saw the original Star Wars in the cinema on its first release, and was incredibly inspired by the writings of Carl Sagan. I suppose it was natural I ended up doing physics at university, although I was initially planning to specialize in nuclear science. But when it came to choosing a research project, I was really impressed with a new activity that had just started using picosecond lasers to study molecular dynamics, in what we would now call the field of biophotonics. In the end, I found that the laser operation itself was raising some extremely interesting questions, and so that ended up being my PhD. That said, it was only when I started teaching optics as a lecturer that I really discovered the field in general, its beauty and its possibility to be used as a key to unlock students’ interest in many other areas.
If you weren’t a physicist, what would you like to be – and why?
A historian. It would allow me to justify buying expensive old books and learning about other times and cultures and the rise and fall of different societies. I’d like to think though that I’d be involved in bringing more tools of science into the field to remove as much speculation as possible.
Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?
Of course there are many famous physicists to choose from, but I’m going to go a little off the beaten track and choose Edmund Halley. I suppose I should say that I’d like to have dinner with Isaac Newton instead, but I’m not sure Newton would be much fun. On the other hand, Halley knew Newton well (and would certainly have tales to tell) and yet Halley also had his own fair share of major discoveries. He also had some interesting controversies – for example, he got into trouble at one point for suggesting that the story of Noah’s flood might be an account of a cometary impact. And even the account of his death suggests he was a very interesting chap: he was 85 years old and sitting in a chair, when the story goes that he felt he was finally passing away; but he made sure to pour himself a glass of wine (and drink it) before he did. I think he would be excellent company.