Tuesday, February 3, 2015

World of Blinding Lights

11:46 PM

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After counting down to one, among the cheering, greetings, and singing—and quite possibly selfie-taking—we entered the year 2015. The year 2014 ended with people enveloped in light. Be it light from inside homes or light from the fireworks being set off and sparklers tracing in the air like magic wands, the dark night sky was definitely filled with light.

Interestingly enough, 2015 has been declared to be the International Year of Light (IYL) by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in an effort to bring awareness regarding the science of light, as well as its importance and technological impacts to the world.

An amazing website dedicated to the IYL was created, and is definitely worth checking out!

Before sharing some highlights in today’s light-based technologies, let’s talk about light for a bit.

What is Light?

Simply put, light is electromagnetic radiation (and not always the bad kind!). In Classical Physics, light is viewed as a wave, which is usually depicted as a squiggle going up and down at uniform heights and depths. Although we refer to light as something visible, light comes in other forms depending on their wavelengths (how long one wave is) and frequencies (the number of waves that pass a point for a certain amount of time), such as microwaves, ultraviolet rays and x-rays.

Light is perceived differently in Quantum Mechanics, where light is said to be composed of massless particles called photons, tiny packets that give light its energy (and this is where the famous E = mc2 equation comes in!).

After some experimentation here and there, scientists came to the conclusion that light exhibits wave-particle duality, meaning it behaves as both a wave and a particle. The composition of light is still a mystery to us and is currently being studied extensively.

The Light Side of the Force

Although the nature of light is not completely understood, scientists are well-aware of how light behaves and apply this knowledge in creating and developing light-based technologies.

Fiber Optics



You know how nothing can travel faster than the speed of light? It would be very difficult to even reach it, given that light’s speed in a vacuum is 3 x 108 meters per second.

Wouldn’t it be great if your internet speed was that fast? If only you could say goodbye to “laggy” Youtube videos and choppy Skype calls. Scientists have been working on using fiber optic cables to transmit information using light. These cables allow light to travel inside through internal reflection: the inside of these cables contains mirror-lined walls designed to reflect light and make light travel longer distances.

This technology is not perfect. Impurities in glass cause light signals tend to degrade as they travel, but they do not degrade as much as electric signals inside copper wires. Fiber optic cables eat up less space than copper wires because they are lighter, thinner and more flexible. They are also more cost-efficient, as less power for transmission and less materials are needed (a win-win situation for consumers and producers). Fiber optic cables are safer than copper wires as well: Since they use light signals instead of electricity, fiber optics aren’t a fire hazard.

Light usually travels only at 69% of the speed of light in optical fibers—this is still insanely fast; I wouldn’t worry too much about slow downloads—but scientists at the University of Southampton have developed cables that allowed data to travel at a record speed of 99.7% the speed of light (Team Rocket blasting off still beat them by 0.3%, though!). This speed contributed to less degradation and therefore a decreased loss of data.

Are you down for cheaper, faster and more reliable internet speeds? Of course you are.

The Thermoelectric Flashlight


As you may know very well, typhoons ravaging the Philippines leave us very prone to losing electricity for extended periods of time. It wouldn’t be surprising for Filipino households to keep shelves filled with candles in case of emergencies.

Ann Makosinski, a Filipino-Polish girl based in Victoria, British Columbia invented a flashlight (and more recently a headlamp) that runs on thermal energy. Her inspiration came from a friend in the Philippines, who at that time failed her grade level due to lack of proper lighting at night.

The device utilizes a tool called a Peltier tile, which converts thermal energy from the body into electricity. Heat—in its everyday definition— from the body transfers to one side of the tile. The tile is cooled on the other side by air passing through an aluminum tube. After developing her thermal flashlight, she went on to working on a thermal headlamp that comes with a handy solar panel and capacitor for electrical charging and storage.

Her flashlight entry in the Google Science Fair earned her an award in the 15-16 age category! One could say Makosinski has a bright future ahead of her.

Lightsabers




Lightsabers have yet to become a reality for us. Actually, it wouldn’t be physically possible for lightsabers to appear as bright as they do in Star Wars without the presence of a lot of dust to reflect the light produced from the lightsaber, because light can only be seen once it’s being reflected on a surface (besides, George Lucas argued that the Star Wars universe is different from our own and has its own set of physical laws). You are now a few steps closer to your dream of becoming a Jedi Knight. Physicists from Harvard and MIT have managed to bind photons together like molecules. What makes it difficult to get light particles to stick together is that they naturally deflect each other. Rubidium atoms were placed inside a vacuum of a few degrees above zero Kelvin (-273.15 degrees C). Atom clouds formed inside the vacuum, and lasers were used to shoot single photons into the atom clouds. When they began firing two photons simultaneously, they found that the photons would move through atom cloud as one, and stay like that even after leaving the atom cloud.

Lightsabers aren’t exactly a top priority in terms of applying this new technique. A practical application to this is quantum computing, since photons are expected to be the best carriers of quantum information. The next thing these scientists are working on is getting photons to interact.

On the bright side, the absence of lightsabers gives us more time to choose between the light and dark sides of the force. What’s next?

Today we have the chance to enjoy light in ways that may seem unimaginable. There is no doubt, however, that we still have a long way to go before we can fully understand light and maximize its application in our lives. The technologies mentioned here are only three of the many research projects and applications focusing on light (there simply are too many to mention!). Physics research groups across the globe are trying to incorporate light into our lives to the best of their abilities (in fact, the research group of one of the teaching assistants in my Physics class is working on replacing electricity with light).

Can you think of other ways for us to use light? Do you have any machine or device in mind that you’ve always wished existed or will exist soon? Shed some light on your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below!

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Science has been Andie’s thing since she was four (she once thought the Milky Way was the gateway to heaven). She doesn’t mind being called a geek—because it’s obviously true—and is now a physicist in the making. She believes her puns, jokes and pick-up lines are amazing, even if everyone else around her doesn’t. Andie constantly thirsts for adventure, and is ready to give almost anything a try.
Ginny is a self-proclaimed aesthete majoring in Advertising Arts. Aside from art, she enjoys baking, playing video games, watching animations, and getting distracted by cats. While still uncertain as to what she exactly she wants to become, she has an unwavering ambition to pursue a career in the art world.

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