In celebrating and honoring the International Year of Light, it behooves all of us to take a moment out of our busy schedules and think of the significance of Light in our day to day lives.
As a professional in the field of light for more than a decade now, I never tire from the much clichéd use of “approaching light at the end of the tunnel” when implying the nearing closure of a project, albeit in a much more literal sense than an engineer or physicist of any other discipline might use it in!
Light represents hope and all that’s good in the world; but not just figuratively!
Hi Mom, Hi Dad, Good to see you!
I remember the time in mid to late 90’s, when my Dad worked on a different continent, and we would eagerly await his 5 minutes phone call, every once in 2 weeks. Only when the call came, his voice sounded so faint and cracked up that the gulf of distance between us became more apparent than ever! Fast forward to today… multiple video sharing programs allow us to share with parents simple everyday pleasures, including the new sofa at home or the flowering jasmine bush in the garden or the new tactics of the kids. Although one may certainly wish that planes and airline fares and loyalty programs would show similar promise and trends, improved communication through mobile phones or internet certainly ease the discomfort that huge distances create.
Light “breaks through”!
This has only been possible because of multiple breakthroughs in the field of optics and photonics, complemented by advances in other areas such as networking and digital signal processing. Submarine Trans-Atlantic (~8000km) and Trans-Pacific (~10,000km) fibers and associated technology have been implemented in the past two decades (1, 2). More and more data is pushed through fibers allowing more people to get a larger share of these communication channels.
Availability of such large capacities has spawned new trends and industries, such as social media, video streaming and cloud storage. Gigantic data centers (3), the largest being nearly 1 million square feet in area, store all the data generated and high speed fiber optics provide superior connectivity across these distances too. Rampant adoption of the applications mentioned above, to the extent of near addiction, has increased demands for optical communications exponentially and inspire engineering innovations for several years to come.
Let’s switch gears and look at the interface for most of our personal communications – the all-pervasive smartphones and tablets in our hands. A completely different skillset and technology is required to image light from the scenes we see, or project a captured image back to our eyes from a screen with the highest perceivable resemblance to the original scene captured. There has been much ado about an image capturing wave-particle duality (4, 5) lately but every day images (maybe even the blue and black/ white and gold dress?! (6)) are not trivial to capture either…
Smartphone and component makers today deal with the challenge of designing high dynamic range, high sensitivity and high frame rate image sensors that are as thin as possible (7). Likewise, creating bright and high resolution displays without hogging up electrical power to enhance battery life is no game in the park. Technologies such as Organic LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) (8) compete with more traditional LCDs (Liquid Crystal Displays), both pushing their respective performance for the best viewing pleasures (9). And remember, we are talking about phones and the like, where these technologies must be integrated with sophisticated touch sensors (10)!
And thus the present has evolved from the past, changing our lives forever, as Light has found its way through… But what “hope” does Light provide for the generations to come? Now that deserves another blog altogether!
Juthika Basak is a professional in the field of Photonics, specializing in Optical Communications. She currently works at Infinera Corporation, where she designs and builds InP photonic chips for metro and long haul communications. Earlier she worked at Intel Corporation, researching for and building silicon based optical devices and systems for data center communications as well as optical sensors. She completed her B. Tech. from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and her M.S. and Ph.D. from University of California, Los Angeles. Watching and reveling in the natural displays of light and capturing them on her Nikon DSLR, whether from the premises of her home or through her hikes and travels, provide for the therapeutic retreats from the humdrum of life.