The laser is a fundamental component of many everyday electronic devices: barcode scanners in supermarkets, laser printers at the office, CD players (remember those?), computer drives, and so on.
The International Day of Light is celebrated on May 16th every year, commemorating the first successful operation of the laser by Theodore Maiman in 1960. Sixty years since, lasers have brought us much more than an abundance of funny cat videos — lasers and other light-based technologies have completely revolutionized the world we live in.
Light plays a crucial role in the telecommunication systems that bring us mobile networks and the internet. For example, fiber-optic cables are used to send information in the form of light pulses over long distances, and bring high-speed internet into our homes. Laser communications also have huge potential for improving communication in outer space, an area of active research.
Lasers are important tools for spectroscopy, which looks at how materials interact with light. For instance, scientists can study how bonds form during chemical reactions using ultrafast pulsed lasers. Researchers have also used lasers to trap individual particles in so-called “optical tweezers”, a technique used popularly in biophysics to study DNA. Understanding the nature of light-matter interaction and the mechanisms that underpin it has been key to developing new photonic devices such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for cheaper and more energy-efficient illumination, and improving solar panels for better energy harvesting.
There are countless other examples of incredible work in the field of photonics. Lasers have been a gamechanger for the medical industry, where new imaging techniques enable better diagnostics and laser-based treatments such as photodynamic cancer therapy have emerged. More fundamentally, the field of quantum optics investigates how individual photons of light can be generated and controlled, which will be essential for the development of quantum communications in the future.
We owe laser physics and photonics the world we live in today, and it is clear that the study of light will continue to play a key role in shaping our tomorrow.