On your wavelength

Spreading the love of light

Post by Nina Meinzer and Heather Partner

If you have been following this blog for the last few weeks you will already know that some of us at Nature Research really love the science of everything light and its applications. But we didn’t want to stop at talking about different wavelength ranges on the internet, we also wanted to go out there and talk to people directly; and this being the International Day of Light (IDL), we didn’t limit our outreach events to only one country either.

Enlightening the next generation

In London, we went on a journey to the (for us editors) fairly undiscovered country of schools outreach. Thankfully, we found a great partner in UCL who soon took the lead in organising the lectures and the hands-on science stations.

The three short lectures nicely showcased the interdisciplinarity of the IDL. For the first one Andrea Sella joined us from the chemistry department and, after asking the house lights in the lecture theatre to be turned down completely for a moment, talked about how light is generated by fluorescence. But instead of reaching into the chemicals cabinet, he reached into the kitchen cupboard and demonstrated fluorescence from olive oil, chlorophyll (extracted from greens) and even Marmite. The archaeologists Charlotte Friersen and Anne de Vareilles then recapped a million years of humans controlling light, which until the late 19th century meant light from fire. Finally, we delved underwater with Danbee Kim to learn about the vision and the variable colouring of cuttlefish, who can see polarization and whose skin pattern shows their success in hunting shrimp.

Of course, 240 11- to 13-year-olds won’t sit in lectures for a whole day, and science isn’t that much about listening to other people telling facts anyway. The lectures were therefore embedded in two interactive sessions where the students could get more involved in a range of demonstrations: changing the colour of an LED to one of their choice, learning about spectroscopy and its uses for astronomy, getting their brain imaged while doing some maths, and playing with reflection, diffraction and polarization (among other things). Here, they could also speak to active scientist and — unknown to them — a few of our editors who revisited their own research days by helping out on a station. The students also found out that they could get more involved with science themselves in one of the many citizen science projects at UCL.

The day was an enormous success and both the teachers and students told us that they enjoyed themselves greatly and at the same time learned a lot. For us volunteers, seeing the fascination on their faces when they heard about some of the fun and interesting things scientist can do with light, was the best reward we could have wished for.

Bright lights, bright people

Volkhard Kempter — True Lite Standard II (1998) and Don’t look now! – 50 Hz (2017)

In Berlin, we celebrated the Day of Light with an evening at the Springer Nature building. The main event was a public lecture A Closer Look: Seeing atoms with a Laser by Professor Oliver Benson of the Humboldt University of Berlin. He shared his knowledge about lasers with us by first discussing some of the history of their development and the basic concepts behind coherent light. He went on to explain how we use lasers to see the basic pieces of matter — atoms and molecules — including an acoustic analogue demonstration of how monochromatic waves can be coupled resonantly into an atom. Finally, during the questions, Professor Benson shared his views about which future technologies could become as influential as the laser.

As a pre-programme, 5 PhD students met our challenge for them to describe their PhD projects to the audience in 3 minutes each, which as one organiser pointed out, is equivalent to reducing the novel War and Peace to a few words. From research on magnetic memories, biological imaging and flexible displays to measuring gravity and recycling plastic — all using light as a key ingredient — the students managed to explain the essence of their work in only a few minutes. The most popular pitch, selected by the audience via smartphone voting, was Juggling atoms to measure gravity presented by Bastian Leykauf of the Humboldt University of Berlin. As a thank you, all speakers received the very fitting memoir of Theodore Maiman.

Light is not only a topic of science; it also influences our daily lives and culture. To complement the scientific programme, through the Centre for International Light Art in Unna, Germany we joined forces with an artist, Volkhard Kempter, based in Berlin. His work uses light and darkness, and the question of how one evokes the other, as a central element. He brought two installations to our venue for the event: True Light Standard II, a circle of irregularly flashing fluorescent tubes facing inward to form a flickering, very bright source which attracts attention, but is too bright to look into, and Don’t look now! – 50 Hz, a photomontage of 6 different states that a fluorescent tube goes through while being switched on, that we wouldn’t usually notice in the brief moment it takes for the light to arise. These displays provided an opportunity to contemplate how pervasive artificial light is in our lives, which we hope our guests took home with them after they left.


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