International Year of Light Blog

Innovation without Bounds

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Exactly one hundred years after Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of gravitational waves, the multinational research and collaboration of more than 1,000 scientists culminated this year in the stunning observation of the phenomenon. Such an inspiring breakthrough did not happen overnight; rather, it was reached through a century of observations, questions, ideas and trials, generated by the thousands of people who dedicated their professional lives to advancing the science along the way.

On September 14, 2015, the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA both measures ripples in the fabric of spacetime – gravitational waves – arriving at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. Credit: https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/.

We see this scientific achievement as a prime example of the leaps and bounds in discovery made possible by the optics community over the last 100 years. Indeed, we put the “LI” in “LIGO”, with significant advances in laser and interferometer technologies.

Perley Nutting founded OSA in 1916 and served as the society’s first president. Credit: OSA Archives.

Importantly, The Optical Society (OSA) offers another cause for celebration. This year, The Optical Society marks its 100th anniversary and celebrates the scientific progress and breakthrough technologies the past century has afforded us. In 1916, the society began its journey in Rochester, NY, where Perley G. Nutting joined a small group of scientists in industry and academia to form the nucleus of what is now the leading high-quality global professional organization for optics and photonics. Since its founding, the society has been home to 34 Nobel Prize winners, becoming a primary global convener of optics and photonics knowledge. The society’s members, meetings and publications have all contributed to life-changing innovations, from the advent of the laser to the development of the Hale telescope and beyond.

In 2015, we celebrated the International Year of Light (IYL 2015), a UNESCO-partnered initiative to raise awareness of the importance of light and optical technologies to our daily lives. The Optical Society, a founding partner of IYL 2015, intends to continue this important reflection into our Centennial year. Looking around us today, optics and photonics power much of our daily lives – from planes to trains and automobiles – but looking back, 1916 was a pivotal year for manufacturing and the optics-enabled technologies we enjoy today.

Like The Optical Society, both BMW and Boeing were founded in 1916. Companies like these first sought to “make the impossible possible,” and they look to the future with the same mindset today. Between BMW exploring the autonomous car concept and Boeing looking to make flights more efficient than ever, the potential innovations of the future seem limitless. The tireless research and imagination of the world’s optical scientists and engineers have sent people into space, facilitated lightning-fast communication across the globe, and enabled life-saving medical detection and surgeries.

Can you imagine a world without any of the following optical innovations from the past century?

Cell phones rely heavily on optical technology – from transmitting data over optical fibers to capturing images with sensors, lenses and LEDs. Credit: iStock.com/winterling.

Imagery in Space: “Earthrise” taken from the first manned mission to the moon, Apollo 8, on December 24, 1968. Credit: NASA.

Over the last 100 years, scientists have pushed the limit on the “possible,” but surely, they could not have imagined all the terrific applications of science that we live with today. What will the next great frontier be?

Looking forward, the potential applications for the science of light are without bounds. From supporting high-performance computing and the continued exponential growth of the Internet, to transforming the energy landscape with solar power generation and new efficient solid-state lighting, optics play an indispensable role. Reflecting on the past century of innovation and progress naturally begs the question: what will the next 100 years look like? Undoubtedly, optics will be a key enabling technology for whatever the future holds.  Even light-manipulating “invisibility cloaks” ala Harry Potter do not seem impossible, given the pace of technological innovation. If the past century is any indication of what we can expect for the next century, we are in for a breathtaking ride.


Alan E. Willner is  President of The Optical Society and the Steven and Kathryn Sample Chair in Engineering, University of Southern California. Alan Willner received the Ph.D. (1988) in Electrical Engineering from Columbia University, as well as a B.A. (1982) in Physics and an Honorary Degree (Honoris Causa, 2012) from Yeshiva University. Prof. Willner was a Postdoctoral Member of the Technical Staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories and a Member of Technical Staff at Bellcore (later Telcordia). He is currently the Steven and Kathryn Sample Chaired Professor in Engineering in the Ming Hsieh Dept. of Electrical Engineering of the Viterbi School of Engineering at the Univ. of Southern California. Prof. Willner has been a Visiting Professor at Columbia University, the Univ. College London, and the Weizmann Institute of Science. He was a Member of the Defense Sciences Research Council (a 16-member body that provided reports to the DARPA Director and Office Directors), has served on many scientific advisory boards for small companies, and has advised several venture capital firms. Additionally, Prof. Willner was Founder and CTO of Phaethon Communications, a company whose technology was acquired by Teraxion, that created the ClearSpectrum® dispersion compensator product line which is presently deployed in many commercial 40-Gbit/s systems worldwide.

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