Year of Light legacy: towards a better future

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As the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies draws to a close, Jorge Rivero González, the European Physical Society’s IYL 2015 outreach officer, sets out the legacy left by the initiative

The International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015 (IYL 2015) is among the most successful and visible of any of UNESCO’s international observances, with thousands of activities involving millions of people in more than 100 countries worldwide.

The major accomplishment of IYL 2015 has been to raise awareness to the general public, governments and funding agencies of the many ways in which photonics impact their lives, in areas from medicine to communications, and how photonics provides solutions to problems of global importance.

As I stated in my previous article in this magazine a year ago (December 2014/January 2015 issue), the real success of all the activities undertaken during the year will be achieved if they can long outlive 2015, creating an everlasting legacy that could transform our society. There are many areas where the IYL 2015 has produced a profound impact and is expected to leave a lasting legacy.

The awareness brought by IYL 2015 of the importance of light-based technologies is vital in developing countries as an economic driver. For instance, Africa currently enjoys unprecedented economic growth and light-based technologies are intimately linked to it. Telecommunications are directly linked to 5 to 10 per cent of GDP of most African countries. In order to operate these economically relevant sectors, it is vital to ensure that enough engineers and researchers are trained in photonics technology. During IYL 2015, there have been many efforts from major optical photonics societies such as IEEE, OSA and SPIE to organise conferences and to actively support the creation and funding of

Student Chapters in Africa, which are ideal platforms to enhance networking skills of students and to perform outreach activities. Moreover, research organisations such as the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), together with UNESCO, have kept working to implement long-term programmes such as the Active Learning on Optics and Photonics (ALOP) programme in many countries to train teachers at both university and high school levels.

Furthermore, in developing countries, the need for reliable and safe lighting for education and improved quality of life is now clear at both the public and political level. A number of initiatives are underway involving non-governmental organisations and industry to put long-term programmes into place. Another example of the legacies of IYL 2015 is the increased awareness of how smart lighting designs can reduce energy waste and prevent light pollution.

The IYL 2015 has also put the spotlight on another important issue: the situation of women in science. The recently published UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030, which presents a picture of the trends in global research and development, based on a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data for the past five years, showed that women constitute a minority in the research world. While, globally, women have achieved parity at the beginning of their scientific careers, their share diminishes as they move forward in careers, representing only 28.4 per cent of the world’s researchers. During the past years, a number of countries have put in place policies to reverse this trend, for instance in 2013 Germany introduced a 30 per cent quota for women on corporate boards of directors, but more work in this direction is still needed. Several IYL 2015 activities have tried to raise awareness of this issue on different levels, comprising initiatives trying to attract more female students to STEM careers, exhibitions to highlight the important role that female scientists have on the development of photonics technologies, or awards for early career scientists in the field of photonics to give visibility to their achievements.

It is clear that there are still many important global issues that our society needs to tackle and that photonic technologies could be very helpful to circumvent them. Therefore, it is mandatory that we take advantage of both the momentum gained and the connections developed during the IYL 2015. The end of the International Year of Light is just the starting point of new road towards a better future.

Highlights of a year to remember

Active Learning on Optics and Photonics (ALOP) programme

One of the great success stories of education in optics in the last decades is the Active Learning on Optics and Photonics (ALOP) programme that has reached close to a thousand teachers from roughly fifty developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As we plan beyond 2015, we are working with international optics partners and UNESCO to ensure that this programme is significantly expanded and becomes a permanent legacy of the year.

Light: Beyond the Bulb

The Light: Beyond the Bulb (LBTB) project is an international exhibition – including materials and striking images – that showcases the variety of light-based science conducted around the world. More than 600 LBTB exhibitions have been created worldwide, showcasing the science of light in public settings such as parks, metro stations, airports, and libraries, with particular emphasis on attracting the general public. It is expected to continue to impact on communities even after the programme has finished.

iSPEX-EU campaign

The iSPEX-EU campaign was a major citizen science experiment to measure air pollution with smartphones. The iSPEX project, led by scientists at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands and funded by the European project Light2015, organised a campaign in 11 major European cities, where thousands of participants measured aerosol particles in the atmosphere using their smartphones to construct maps of aerosol density across Europe. The iSPEX project is a great example of scientists and the public coming together to tackle global issues using emerging technologies.

Ibn Al Haytham International Working Group

One major legacy of the IYL 2015 has been to highlight the contributions of Arab scholars in the Islamic Golden Age, in particular the work of Ibn Al Haytham. He is considered by many historians to be the father of modern optics. For this purpose, leading optics and photonics scientists as well as historians and philosophy of science scholars from around the world have formed an International Working Group (IWG). The IWG has helped organise regional events and produced materials on the contributions of Arab scholars to optics in the Islamic Golden Age. These activities will continue beyond 2015 through the creation of the ‘Ibn al Haytham International Society’.

SkyLight: A Global Science Opera

‘SkyLight: a Global Science Opera’ is the first science opera in history written together by a global community of children, teachers, scientists and artists from more than 35 countries. The premier performance coincided with the opening of World Space Week, on 3 October 2015. The project has inspired many children to increase their knowledge of science, in particular relating to light and space, and is a great example of how global initiatives such as IYL 2015 can act as a catalyst for both creative science learning as well as cross-border cooperation.