Shedding light on the nature of light


THE report about a team of scientists from Glasgow showing that the speed of light is not a constant as many of us assume made waves in the news recently. That discovery is even more important since one of the main co-authors is Dr. Jacqueline Romero who is a Filipina who graduated from the University of the Philippines in Diliman. Their experiment clarified that once we go beyond the simple picture of light being uniform in amplitude like a sheet as it moves in space and time (called a plane wave), we cannot anymore assume that the speed of light will be a constant.

Why is this relevant? The paper itself points out that our understanding of the world holds that “the speed of light in free space propagation is a fundamental quantity.” This means that this constant that we use applies only to this strict subset of light of plane waves. If one would measure the speed of light for other cases, then there would a difference especially if there is structure imposed on the light beam thorough the apertures that it passes through as well as the kind of medium that it has gone through.

We as Filipinos take pride when our compatriots make their name in the international field be it in boxing like Manny Pacquiao or in the Miss Universe pageants in the past. That sense of pride carries over even in the sciences and I personally feel great that I personally know people, such as Jacq, who make fundamental contributions to understanding our world. For me, she is our Manny Pacquiao in photonics.

It even more significant that these discoveries were published in 2015 since this year was designated by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly as the International Year of Light. The UN recognizes that it is important to raise awareness in the global level about light science and its everyday applications. They pointed out that light-based technology can promote sustainable development and can provide solutions to problems that nations face such as those in energy, education, agriculture and health.

I remember making my mother exasperated when I tried flicking the light switch on and off when I was young, wondering if it is faster to fill the room with light or if it takes more time for light to “escape” the room. I don’t remember my conclusions then but for most of us, the home is where we first encounter light technologies consciously whether it is in lighting a gasera or turning on that newest Internet controlled LED bulb.

Light has also made it possible to see in the smallest regimes to the large cosmological structures in the Universe. Advanced medical diagnosis and treatment are made possible by lasers, endoscopes and other imaging techniques that are now routine in many medical facilities.

In the Philippines, we have a good optics core in our Physics departments especially in the National Institute of Physics (NIP) at the University of the Philippines Diliman. In the early 1980s, the NIP built its first laser system and that innovation has grown and produced many scholars in the field.

We have Dr. Caesar Saloma who broke ground on developing and applying various methods in microscopy, interferometry and signal and image processing. In recognition of his exceptional work here in the country despite more difficult circumstances compared to others abroad, he received the Galileo Galilei Award from the International Commission on Optics in 2004.

We also have many other scientists who came from the NIP and are now working on optics or related fields in different locations abroad such as Vincent Daria at the Australian National University, Peter Rodrigo, Darwin Palima and Andrew Banas in Denmark, Godofredo Bautista in Finland, Pavel Reyes in Rutgers in New Jersey and many more in the UK and in the United States. That is literally letting our light shine throughout the world.

Back at home, we have Maricor Soriano who is now busy working on malaria detection, reef protection and art conservation using optics and image processing. We have Wilson Garcia on laser technologies, Percival Almoro on holography, Arnel Salvador and Armando Somintac on semiconductor technology, Elmer Estacio on terahertz optics, Eric Galapon on quantum optics, myself and Atchong Hilario on wavefront engineering and biooptics.

As part of our contribution to the International Year of Light, the NIP is organizing a public symposium next month on March 9 called “IllumiNASYON.” This will gather the public and light enthusiasts to hear presentations from different disciplines such as applied arts and design, biology and medicine, astronomy, performance arts to more fundamental discussions on the nature and the speed of light. We have invited Dr. Jacq Romero to share through a video presentation her group’s newest discovery to the audience.

Light touches everyone from the production of our food to our consumption of entertainment. With a strong core of optics and photonics researchers, we only need a clear national policy to create industries around these capabilities in order to transform their basic discoveries into viable technologies for our people.


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  1. And me, too!

    Currently I’m studying solar energy engineering at Fraunhofer ISE, Europe’s largest solar energy research institute and the world record holder in conversion efficiency for concentrated photovoltaic (CPV).

    I am a graduate of UPLB in 1987 and a product of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Physics (IMSP).

  2. “I feel geeky now that everytime I go out of the house in the morning to water the papaya plants, I imagine photons – those particles of light – moving from all directions in the atmosphere carrying energy and how they help plants produce sugar, carbohydrates and other minerals that our body needs, plus oxygen that we need everyday, every second of our lives …

    … And yet still, it amazes me no end how these same particles of light will revolutionize how we live in the years to come ever since Becquerel observed the photovoltaic effect, Einstein theorized and men eventually converted these light particles into electrical energy using tiny cells from silicon called solar cells, something that we can’t live without nowadays and especially in the near future when fossil fuels bid goodbye.”

  3. This is great ! I would like the Manila Times to have this front center too in our Newspapers. We should have our own heroes in the Science & Technology field for the younger genration to look up to.