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Pinhole cameras, build-your-own telescope kits teach students the fundamentals of optics

Science projects that utilize the field of optics – from pinhole cameras to build-your-own telescopes – are an accessible way for educators worldwide to engage students in science by teaching them basic concepts about light.

The New York Times Lens Blog recently highlighted one such project in Rio De Janeiro, called Mão na Lata (Hand in the Can), where photographer Tatiana Altberg has held pinhole photography workshops with local NGO Redes de Desenvolvimento da Maré for the past 10 years to teach children the fundamentals of optics.

Mão na Lata melds classes on photography with literature, self-exploration and local narratives for young people in Maré, a Rio De Janiero favela. 

Altberg originally planned to use pinhole cameras to teach photography fundamentals before moving on to traditional cameras. But she told the New York Times she realized the simplicity, low cost and slow process of using a pinhole camera made it an ideal teaching instrument.
The students use recycled cans to build …

Sunny California hosts Solar Decathlon

This past weekend marked the conclusion of the 2013 Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, held in Irvine, California. It was the sixth time the DOE-sponsored event has been held in the United States, but the first time outside of Washington, DC. Besides the obvious benefits of exposure to a new audience, the contest made the best of the more dependable California sunshine, although there was some rain one day, and the first weekend was a challenge with hot temperatures and 50 mph Santa Ana winds.
In any case each team was able to tally a full 100 points for the Energy Conversion part of the competition – meaning every house produced more energy than it consumed – for the first time ever.
SPIE Newsroom and SPIE.TV spent some time in Irvine and focused on the technical aspects of some of the houses. We had an expert commentator to help – Adam Plesniak of Amonix, the concentrating PV company located in nearby Seal Beach. Adam’s view, and that of many others we encountered, is that the…

Suddenly, it’s all clear: instant prescription eyewear

To a child with impaired vision, it might seem like magic. You put on the glasses and turn a dial to adjust the lenses to correct the particular refractive error in your own eyes. Voilà! Instant prescription! Instant clear vision!
But it’s not magic. It’s photonics.
Specifically, these are “instant prescription eyewear” using adaptive optics, techniques that correct optical signals within a particular system.
Applications in astronomy provide a good illustration. Light coming in from space to telescopes on Earth is distorted by particles and gases in the atmosphere. Adaptive optics techniques make corrections in the final viewed image, based on analysis of what has caused the distortion, and render a clear image of what’s out there.

Joshua Silver, CEO of the Centre for Vision in the Developing World, and Dow Corning are working to bring adaptive-optics-based eyewear to millions of people in the developing world who have no access to vision correction services, through an initiative …

Eye-tracking technology

Biomarkers + optics equal a powerful new healthcare capability

Biomarkers are getting a lot of attention lately as a means of monitoring health and diagnosing disease, and it’s no surprise that photonics-based sensing techniques are bringing them into the spotlight. A project named BILOBA is a collaboration funded by the European Commission through its Seventh Framework Programme. The acronym is an abbreviation of “Bloch electromagnetic surface wave bio-sensors for early cancer diagnosis”(!)

BILOBA plans to develop and pre-clinically validate a multifunctional point-of-care platform that is capable of performing real-time cancer biomarker detection in a tandem configuration. Such configuration will utilize label-free detection based on the resonance shift, and the spectral analysis of enhanced fluorescence emitted by biomolecules immobilized on the surface. Utilizing both labeled and label-free analysis on the same sensor system can increase the sensitivity and reliability of optically read out surface-bound assays.

The well-established optical s…

What's in a name: light and photonics

Light: you need it, you use it. But do most people know how much we use it -- and why should they?

Helping to tell that story, the 2 posters at right anticipating an International Year of Light (IYL) celebration in 2015 were among more than 30 on display in the Photonics for a Better World pavilion during the exhibition last month at SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Diego. The posters were designed by supporters of a proposal before the United Nations to establish the IYL to raise awareness about the initiative.
Yes, that’s right: a year especially set aside for the contemplation and celebration of light – and along the way, plenty of opportunity to talk about photonics.
Hardly a household word now, "photonics" refers to science and technology involving the manipulation of photons -- light. One of the goals of an International Year of Light is, essentially, to make “photonics” a household word, in the same way that “electricity” and “chemistry” are.
This is important, not ju…

Asteroids go home!

Here’s a way photonics could create a better world: by preventing our earth from being pulverized by an asteroid.
The terrifying arrival of a meteorite in Chelyabinsk, Russia earlier this year raised awareness (again) of the potential for a catastrophic, much bigger object to threaten earth. This one was “only” estimated at 17-20 meters in size, weighing about 10,000 tons. Nearly 1500 people sought medical attention for injuries – flying glass was the main culprit. Also, 7000 buildings were damaged. The entry into the atmosphere created a shock wave that circled the earth twice.
So it’s good news that people are applying their creativity to the problem of even bigger objects that might threaten earth – the ones we can see coming. How to destroy them before they destroy us, or simply redirect them into a new path away from our planet? It seems like a job for lasers, doesn’t it?
A NASA press release described a “mission formulation review” this week to examine concepts for each phase o…

August recess brings Congress home for US photonics industry

One of the best chances of the year for the US photonics industry to capture the ear of Congress is scheduled to begin Friday: the August recess.

Do you wish that your Congressional representative or senator understood why your photonics business or research is important to the economy?

Do you wish that your representative knew how photonics helps -- to give just a few examples -- ensure community safety, cure diseases such as cancer, enable mobile phone communications and the internet, power 3D printing of airplane parts -- and create new industry and jobs?

To help tell the photonics story, researchers
including Naomi Halas of Rice University
(above) tell in an SPIE.tv video how they use
optics and photonics to kill cancer, treat brain
disorders, make computers run faster, convert
mobile phones into sophisticated wireless
diagnostic devices, identify concealed explosives,
and more. (Video:1:38) And do you wish that Congress realized that the nations that are most successful at being leaders …

Lasers may not be habit-forming

The Wall Street Journal reported recently on research at MIT aimed at curing people’s bad habits. But this involved sessions with a physicist rather than a psychologist.
After identifying cells important to habit formation, scientists were able to make them light-sensitive, and then “turn off compulsive behaviors, break habits they had previously inculcated and prevent habits from forming in the first place,” according to a report published in the Wall Street Journal, “Bad Habits Bent With Light” (subscription required).
We’ve reported on it before, particularly in the fascinating work of Ed Boyden at MIT (see SPIE Newsroom video interview with Boyden). In addition, Fraunhofer’s Ernst Bamberg gave a Hot Topics presentation on the topic at SPIE Photonics West 2013. But nothing makes technology like this accessible to the general public as well as relating it to something personal. Want to quit smoking? There’s a laser app for that! (Or there may be soon.)
As authors Kyle Smith and A…

What are we waiting for? Bring on more LEDs!

Efficient solid-state lighting (SSL) installations conserve national energy supplies and save real money for the consumer. Future applications have the potential to prevent some very serious diseases, and one light-emitting diode (LED) application is even aimed directly at saving lives.
And like all new technology, they bring the potential for new jobs and industry growth.
So it’s no wonder that SSL has been the focus of recent high-level studies released by the European Commission and by the United States’ National Academies (NA).
In line with its Digital Agenda for Europe, the EC’s “Lighting the Cities ” aims to help more European cities transition to LED-based lighting. With lighting accounting for approximately 50% of electricity consumption in cities, decreasing that about by the EU’s target of 20% by the year 2020 will have a major impact on the region’s carbon footprint, noted Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes.
Several European cities have already deployed SSL, with energ…

Six amazing things to do with lasers

Lasers are in the news as usual, this time inspiring a list of what Lewis Carroll’s White Queen might have characterized as "six impossible things” to be believed before breakfast. But thanks to optics and photonics, these things are all possible with the help of lasers:
(1) Removing layers of pollution from centuries-old decorative plasters as well as marble and bronze statues.
Laser techniques development supported by the TEMART and CHARISMA projects at the Istituto di Fisica Applicata ‘Nello Carrara’ – Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (IFAC-CNR) have enabled restoration of such masterpieces as Donatello's Profet Abacuc, the Etruscan masterpiece Arringatore from the Trasimene Lake, wall paintings such as the painting of the Santa Maria della Scala museum complex in Siena and the catacombs of Rome, and the Florence Baptistery's North Door, a gilded-brass masterpiece by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
(2) Getting clear,detailed pictures of distant objects in space.
NPR has reported …

Feeling the pinch of sequester? Take the survey, have your say



You know that scientific conferences are not junkets and that cutting national investments in technology R&D will cut national competitiveness in the global market. We hear it from every segment of photonics, and heard it particularly loud and clear at SPIE Defense, Security, and Sensing in Baltimore recently.
Now you have a new chance to join with others in getting the message out.
A survey has been opened to gather input from the scientific community about the impacts of the sequester. We are passing along the invitation from Benjamin Corb, Director of Public Affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, for you to take part and provide the photonics perspective in this cross-disciplinary effort.
Ben says:
"As science advocates continue to advocate for increases in federal investments in research – and against the sequester – we constantly hearfrom our meetings the need for stories and data on impacts of sequester.  In an effort to collect the da…

The miracle of photonics is taken for granted

You know that signature file you may have – “Sent from my [fabulous device name here]”? Our CEO here at SPIE, Eugene Arthurs, has one that gives credit where credit is due, to photonics: “Multiple laser processes were used to make this iPad. Many photons worked to bring you this message.”
This blog makes the case that photonics can make the world a better place, and who can argue with the convenience and ease that is enabled by these great smartphones and tablets? Yes indeed, there are photons aplenty at work. But the latest column from Mark Morford, creatively infuriating (to some) writer for SFGate, points out that those who get worked up over what’s the latest and greatest, and the absolute best, are just wasting their energy, because tomorrow it will be something else.
It’s reminiscent of the legend of the conquering Roman generals, who were accompanied in their victory parades by a slave to whisper a reminder in their ear: “All glory is fleeting.” Because, as Morford says, “The…

Pythons, beetles, and jellyfish: bioinspiration for photonics applications

Ever wondered why a snake doesn’t slide sideways when headed uphill or across a slippery surface? It isn’t just a matter of muscle and motivation.

The underbelly scales of pythons have hooks that find traction to propel them in the direction they want to go -- a concept that has been applicable in developing mechanical propulsion systems.
The heat-sensitive cells in the python’s nose help him find food; humans can use information about the creature’s nervous system to develop more effective and adaptable thermal sensors with applications from digital medical thermometers to car radiators and much more.
A 35-year-old python named Monty was the latest “animal ambassador” from the San Diego Zoo’s Centre for Bioinspiration to demonstrate to photonics researchers at a recent meeting how they and others can learn from nature to solve the world’s problems.
In addition to Monty’s visit this year, staff from the Centre for Bioinspiration at the San Diego Zoo brought a great horned owl and a …

Tomatoes, juicy, delicious and even more nutritious -- thanks to LED lighting

In the Netherlands, they have been growing food in greenhouses for a long time. Lighting systems have improved production and extended growing seasons -- now they're pumping up the nutrition too.

Research by Wageningen University (Netherlands) Greenhouse Horticulture in collaboration with Philips has shown that tomatoes can be even more nutritious when grown with LED lighting. The partnership will be continued in a joint facility for research into the application of LED lamps in horticulture (IDC LED), which was to be opened in Bleiswijk (NL) this week.

In the tomato variety that showed the strongest reaction, the tomatoes receiving extra light from the LEDs contained up to twice as much vitamin C as the tomatoes not exposed to the LEDs. The doubling of the vitamin C level was achieved with an extra dose of light similar to a quarter of the natural light intensity on a sunny day.

Wageningen University and Research Greenhouse Horticulture performed its research within the …

Solar-powered broadband expands connectivity

What better opportunity than Earth Day to point out another way that photonics plays a role in improving the planet?

Awareness of the importance of taking care of the earth is becoming more widespread, and most importantly, not just in the affluent countries of the world. In fact, the developing nations are where some of the most innovative efforts are taking place. We've highlighted micro-solar projects in Africa and elsewhere, and the previous post about the LEDs being used to protect livestock from lions shows another brilliant but simple use of photonics.

Here's one that combines solar energy and an expanding communications infrastructure in India. AirJaldi Networks, a company that provides solar-powered Wi-Fi for the rural masses, was plagued by the difficulty of maintaining power to its mobile phone towers in remote areas, especially during the monsoon season. Battery backups were expensive and frequently necessary. As GreenTech Solar reports:
Here’s how it works: every …

'Lion Lights': A bright solution with LEDs

Sometimes innovative technologies come from the wildest places.
Such was the case for Richard Turere, a teen-age Maasai boy from Kitengela, Kenya, who only wanted to protect his family's herd of cattle, goats and sheep from the lions who roamed the savannah near the border of the Nairobi National Park.
At the age of nine, Turere was given the responsibility of  looking after the family cattle. After two years of losing too many of the livestock to lions while the family was sleeping, and with little access to technical information, he found a photonics-based method to keep the predators at bay.
Turere explained at a recent TED conference how he had noticed that the lions were unafraid of the fires he built to keep them away. They learned to skirt around them and remain in the shadows, still able to hunt vulnerable animals.
However, the lions were afraid of moving lights. They wouldn’t come near the Turere family stockade if someone walked around with a flashlight at night. After…

Scientific conferences promote advances that grow the economy, save money, and improve lives

In order for research to become useful, researchers and developers from academia, industry and government have to share their needs and ideas. Everyone in the field knows that. Most people would agree that much of the value and action-steps come from hallway conversations among presenters and attendees.
And nearly everyone in the field has a great deal of apprehension about the serious threat to global technology leadership and economic viability wrought by current U.S. restrictions on travel by government employees.
In the photonics sector, this includes the scientists and engineers at NASA, NIST, NIH, DOD, DOE, NSF, NOAA, and several other agencies.
Scientist and U.S. Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, formerly the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (and the man who beat “Watson,” IBM’s computer system in a simulated round of “Jeopardy” in 2011) told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in February how he views scientific conferences.
 &qu…