The future of light is exceedingly bright!
Thank you to Ray Williamson of Ray Williamson Consulting for this guest post on why teaching students about light, lasers, photonics and optics is a gift. Light, Lasers and Optics for STEM education.
Close your eyes. Tell me what is around you, how far away, how big, what shape, what it’s made of…
How do you know? We know almost everything about the world around us through sight.
Now tell me about the stars and galaxies, the whole universe. We can’t taste it, hear it, smell it, feel it. Everything we know about it is conveyed by photons. We know how big it is, how far, how hot or cold, what it’s made of, how fast it’s moving – all because we can collect and analyze those photons. Without those instruments the stars would still be just points of light, and galaxies unknown, and the Big Bang unsuspected.
TV doesn’t just give out light. It feeds on light. Through fiber optic networks of glass, lasers, detectors, and other photonics devices. This is also true of radio, cell phones, and the internet.
And the chips in those radios, cell phones, TV’s, computers and more could not be made without lasers, lithographic lenses, and interferometers. Without advanced photonics we’d still be waiting for vacuum tubes to warm up and we’d be fiddling with rabbit ears to pick up only local stations. Hurricanes would come without warning. All surgery would be through gaping holes. There would be no CT scans. No price scanners at the market. We could go on indefinitely.
In short, you cannot go a minute in today’s life that is not touched by photonics unless you’re meditating or sleeping. For a citizen of the 21st Century, familiarity with photonics is basic literacy. Think how electricity transformed the early 20th Century, with light bulbs, the telephone, radio, TV, radar, subways, refrigerators, and more.
The 21st Century will be the century of the photon. To be ignorant of this is to be handicapped.
When your students learn physics – and they should, for all other science flows from physics – they’ll learn that there are only four forces in the universe, and all are conveyed by their own gauge particle. Gravity is by far the weakest, only perceptible because we are loosely stuck to a huge pile of matter. The Strong and Weak forces operate only within atomic nuclei; we’ll never experience them personally. That leaves electromagnetism. When we touch something – when we’re standing on the floor – our atoms don’t even touch the atoms of the floor. Their electron clouds repel. They repel so strongly that they resist the gravity of the entire Earth. All of chemistry from photosynthesis to digesting food, from the colors of paint to the power of gasoline, is electromagnetism. And the gauge particle of electromagnetic force is the photon.
We all know that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit. Speed is the rate of change of position across time. So light is even basic to the structure of space-time.
When your students consider religion they will recall that in Genesis, God said “Let there be light” and He saw that it was good. Throughout Judaism, Christianity, Taoism Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, and more, the Ultimate is associated with light and often identified as light itself.
Light is and always has been of central importance. In the world your students will rule, light will be produced, manipulated, measured, and applied in totally transformative ways. Just as a person at the dawn of the 20th Century could not conceive, much less anticipate, watching a moon-landing in their living room, we ourselves cannot guess the wonders of photonics they will see.
This is the world they will live in. It is one we cannot imagine. Give them a head start on their journey.