Light for a Better World – A Celebration of U.S. Innovation at the National Academy of Sciences

Hundreds of people attended an evening event this past Saturday titled, “Light for a Better World: A Celebration of U.S. Innovation” at the National Academy of Sciences. This was one of two flagship events anchoring International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies (IYL 2015) celebration in the United States, and it featured several delightful lectures by a distinguished panel of speakers followed by a nice reception.

The evening was sponsored by the U.S. IYL 2015 organizing committee, which includes the National Science Foundation, National Academy of Sciences, The Optical Society, American Institute of Physics, American Physical Society, IEEE Photonics Society and SPIE.

An earlier, daytime event called “Wonders of Light – Family Science Fun” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian where more than 500 people, largely children and their parents, were treated to more than a dozen booths offering hands-on activities. I will describe more about that daytime event in a separate blog. First, let me describe the evening event and how well the speakers there captured the dual themes reflected in the title: light innovation and working toward a better world.

Musicians are bathed in LED light from the Radiance Orb, which responds to their playing before the start of the Light for a Better World celebration in Washington D.C. On September 12, 2015. Credit: Jason Socrates Bardi.

Musicians are bathed in LED light from the Radiance Orb, which responds to their playing before the start of the Light for a Better World celebration in Washington D.C. On September 12, 2015. Credit: Jason Socrates Bardi.

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The height of light: From a curiosity to a global phenomenon

Lasers have long energized our imaginations, bringing us light sabers and holodecks. And, more recently, even laser cats.

In reality, light-based technologies enable our modern lifestyles, from high-speed communications to observatories that glimpse at the universe’s origins. Underlying these innovations are fundamental properties, materials and designs.

Lasers, in particular, were famously described as a “solution looking for a problem” in 1960. That’s a phrase that could refer to many areas of discovery-driven research.

Importantly, in retrospect that phrase drives home an antithetical point: that we don’t know where solutions will come from.

Knowledge and inventions created by modern explorers of the unknown (i.e., scientists and engineers) often start out as curiosities and end up bringing our world closer together.

To celebrate lasers and other light sources, the U.S. National Science Foundation, which invests in the best and the brightest of those science and technology pioneers, recently put out an article series on light. Here are some excerpts.

Besides laser cats, where would you like to see light take us next?

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