Light stories on film

As a science journalist, one of the crucial questions I regularly ask myself is: “why should my audience care about this story?” Of course there are many factors that determine whether or not something is news-worthy. But one of the fundamental requirements is that stories must connect with people on some form of emotional level. That may be intrigue, excitement, awe, shock, anger, or any other of the remarkable array of human responses. The one thing you must avoid is indifference. With science being abstract at times, it is the job of the science journalist to show their audience how and why the thing you are communicating matters to people.

Fortunately, the International Year of Light and Light=based Technologies (IYL 2015) is a veritable treasure trove of great stories. At its core, this year is about people doing fascinating things with light that can have profound effects on other people’s lives.  To me, this became clear at the opening ceremony of IYL 2015 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. I met a diverse cast of characters doing all manner of intriguing and important things with light and light-based technologies. That included Nobel laureates, aid workers, artists, engineers, and many more. I even learned a new word when I met a “speleologist” (aka cave scientist) presenting a photo collection of caves in Haiti. The images demonstrated how light and shadow can reveal the geological richness of these environments in stunning detail.

One of the people I met, William Phillips who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, summed up his vision of the year very succinctly. “The Year of Light is a chance to focus on some of the amazing things that we’ve learned about light and using light. But more importantly, about some of the amazing opportunities we have to learn new things about light”.

I recorded video interviews with a number of these people and produced this short film to introduce IYL 2015.

Having established that a story is worth covering, the next question that a journalist faces is “how should I cover this story?” Again, IYL 2015 is a journalist’s dream because light and its applications are inherently visual, so the stories lend themselves perfectly to still and moving imagery. At Physics World magazine, we wanted to capture light stories on film while embracing the international and collaborative dimensions of IYL 2015. With that in mind, we have commissioned a series of short documentaries from film-makers around the world that tell personal stories relating to some of the core themes of the year. Each film will reflect the geography and culture of where it has been produced.

Here is the first of these films, produced in New York City by the filmmakers Lucina Melesio and Aman Ahzar. It tells the story of how new legislation in New York State to curb light pollution will change the urban landscape of NYC and hopefully make it easier to see the night sky above. The film brings a personal story to the Dark Skies Awareness campaign, by following the amateur astronomer Irene Pease as she struggles to find a patch of darkness amid the dazzling lights of the Big Apple.

Over the coming months, we will be publishing more of these commissioned films on our website. The next documentary – scheduled for later this month (April) — will turn to the health and medical themes of IYL2015. It will explore the vital role light and darkness plays in regulating the circadian rhythms that influence the physical and mental conditions of human beings. Please keep an eye out for that and for more films later in the year that will illustrate how other strands of IYL 2015 matter to people’s lives.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out our free-to-read digital collection of 10 of the best Physics World features related to the science and technology of light, spanning everything from the physics of rainbows to a new type of glasses that could bring improved vision to millions.


James Dacey2James Dacey is the Multimedia Projects Editor at Physics World magazine.

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