Optics: science beyond lenses

Being a physicist and a woman, I have felt in certain situations the need to explain my anomalous existence to the perplexed faces of some people, surprised that we live as women in such a masculinized world. Indeed, according to the report carried out by the Specialized Group of “Women in Physics” of the Royal Spanish Society of Physics Physics in figures: universities”, the percentage of women in physics is 22%, and this remains approximately the same among female students college girls These proportions decrease to a scant 14% in the case of female university professors.

Being a physicist and professor of optics, I have also felt in numerous situations the need to explain that optics is not only the study of lenses, but the part of physics that studies the laws and phenomena of light, as invoked by the 5th meaning that appears in the Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language.

This double need to explain my professional identity is nothing more than an introductory anecdote that can be somewhat humorous, but which I assume with some resignation as part of my teaching task, in that constant desire to make ourselves understood and be understood.

In our daily life, we find numerous manifestations of the phenomena of light, starting with the laser, whose first emission dates back to 1960, in which Theodore Howard Maiman, a young physicist who worked at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, got a ruby ​​laser to emit light. It was May 16, and that date has been chosen by UNESCO to celebrate the International Day of Light and Light Technologies, an event that has been celebrated every year since 2016, with the aim of publicizing the importance of the progress of light. Just this article will be published in the month of May, so I invite you to celebrate this day by participating in the many activities that will be organized by the Spanish Committee for the International Day of Light and whose Central Act is organized this year by the University of Valladolid.

The laser is a paradigmatic example of how a scientific discovery provides revolutionary tools that contribute to an improvement in technology. To cite a few examples: bar code readers, whose technology was invented in 1971 at a General Motors factory in Michigan; optical storage: CD/DVD/Blue Rays, in which we store a lot of information; or the optical fiber that guides light through kilometers of transparent materials and that allows us to work remotely, with a robust and efficient connection.

But one of the most important global benefits for society in laser applications is in medicine, as a scalpel, either to remove superficial tissues or to perform operations on internal organs with the help of fiber optic guidance. In 2018, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to the creators of luminous tools that today allow laser eye surgery to be performed and the evolution of viruses and bacteria to be observed in great detail. Among the laureates, Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada, became the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Until then, only Marie Sklodowska Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963 had achieved it, while in the same period of time 210 men obtained the award.

Without a doubt, light is at the origin of all life. Medical images are visual representations of the inside of a body for later medical analysis, thus facilitating diagnosis. Such images are generally used in fields such as neuroscience, cardiology, psychiatry, and psychology, among others. Common applications include CT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds, X-rays, etc.

In addition, light is a key component for the large scientific research facilities known as synchrotrons, in the heart of which an intense light is created capable of revealing the atomic and molecular details of what surrounds us, thus allowing us to study from medicines and treatments for diseases to cutting-edge engineering and technology.

But I could not finish without paying tribute to all the hidden light researchers, oxymoronic speaking, for the passage of history that have contributed significantly to the development of the scientific field of light. To name a few: Sarah Mather in 1840 invented the Submarine Telescope; Lucy Wilson (1888-1980) is known for her research in vision theory, optics and X-ray spectroscopy and Jenny Rosenthal Bramley (1909-1997) developed 16 patents on electroluminescence and electro-optics such as cathode ray tubes and tubes for color television. Surely they felt that anomaly to which I referred at the beginning with much more harshness. For them I will continue explaining what I do for a living under those somewhat surprised looks and I hope you expire.

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Optics: science beyond lenses