As Editor of Physics World magazine, the member magazine of the Institute of Physics (IOP), I come across all sorts of stories involving the science and application of light. But often it’s the stories involving people that make the longest and deepest impression on me.
Perhaps my favourite article in recent times, which really shows what the International Year of Light is all about, is a piece by Louise Mayor ‒ Features Editor of Physics World ‒ in which she describes how simple, low-cost, adjustable spectacles, pioneered by a physicist from the University of Oxford in the UK, are helping people with sight problems in the developing world. It’s a great example of how science and technology can work hand in hand to tackle global problems.
If you live in the developed world, being a bit short- or long-sighted might be a bit of an inconvenience. But not having perfect vision is unlikely to crush your life’s ambitions as a trip to the optician is usually all it takes to bring your world back into focus.
In many parts of the developing world, however, poor sight can have much more serious consequences. Eye-care professionals are scarce, and spectacles are rare and often extremely expensive. Machinists, carpenters or others who rely on good vision for their income may therefore find that as their sight changes with age they can’t work effectively, if at all. Poor eyesight can also affect schoolchildren who are unable to see the blackboard properly. In fact, figures suggest that as many as three billion people around the world need their vision corrected.
Help could, though, be at hand from Josh Silver. While working as an atomic physicist at Oxford in the 1980s, he came up with a brilliantly simple but effective invention: glasses that can be self-tuned to one’s own prescription. Each lens consists of two flexible membranes filled with liquid. By adding or removing fluid to make the lens more convex or concave, the shape and therefore the power of each lens can be set by the wearer.
The glasses aren’t just simple to use, they’re cheap too. What’s more, while fitting the glasses in the presence of an optometrist is ideal, it is by no means essential. Silver is now director of the Centre for Vision in the Developing World – a charity with a mission to bring full sight back to as many people as possible.
For me, it’s a great story that shows that the physics of light isn’t a complicated, esoteric endeavour but has a great relevance in the real world. And if you want to find out more about Silver’s efforts, you can do so via a great, free-to-read edition of Physics World that we’ve compiled containing 10 of our very favourite feature articles on the science and applications of light.
In the issue, which you can read online here or via an app on your smartphone or tablet, you’ll be able to find out everything from the physics of rainbows and the science of “smart holograms” to how butterflies, beetles and other living creatures are inspiring new photonic technologies that exploit the power of light. There’s also a feature by Shuji Nakamura, who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics, about blue light-emitting diodes, as well as an intriguing tale about the life of Ibn-al-Haytham ‒ the Egyptian scholar who revolutionized our ideas of optics a thousand years ago.
Presented using our brand new digital-magazine technology, the issue is available by downloading the Physics World app onto your tablet or smartphone, available for iOS and Android from the App Store and Google Play.
I hope you like it and feel inspired by the contributions that physics – and physicists – make to tackling global light-based challenges.