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SPIE Professional January 2010

President's Letter

By Ralph B. James, 2010 SPIE President

SPIE President Ralph James

Welcome to 2010 and the opportunities it offers in the field of optics and photonics!

Last year's award of the Nobel Prize for Physics to three "masters of light," in the words of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, focused the world's attention on important applications of optics and photonics in communications.

And this year brings another bright reminder of the potential of light to better the human condition: 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser.

With the first beam of red light from Ted Maiman's ruby laser at Hughes Research Labs in California on 16 May 1960, the laser moved from concept to reality and later into the arena of industry and applications.

It may seem amazing today that the public and even some scientists wondered in 1960 just how the technology could be used. In fact, today it is difficult to think of an aspect of modern life that is not somehow connected to laser technology. Consider:

  • Lasers are used in surgery, ophthalmology, oncology, dermatology, and other areas of medicine, to safely and effectively treat and image targeted tissues without affecting healthy tissues nearby.

  • Lasers power the Internet, which has revolutionized the information world and opened new social and commercial vistas. Lasers also enable communications along other fiber-optic and wireless networks.

  • Several different types of lasers are used in cellphone and computer-chip manufacturing. The field of lithography, led by researchers and innovators from the SPIE community, has sustained Moore's Law many times over with the continued accelerated pace of development of technologies for these applications.

  • There are lasers in our CD and DVD players, and new applications for laser technology are being developed for HDTV and cinema displays. Others are used in the manufacture of that equipment.

  • Lasers have provided the capability to miniaturize space systems, sending powerful sensors farther into space, thereby greatly extending our ability to answer long-standing questions about the nature of matter and the history of the universe.

The future of the laser is exciting, with major research efforts ongoing around the world. Projects at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in the United States and the Laser Mégajoule in France are exploring the feasibility of harnessing fusion to produce clean electrical energy. LASERLAB-EUROPE II has several transnational projects underway exploring medical and materials science applications in energy, health, and security. Work at the National Defense Medical College in Japan, researching the use of lasers in gene delivery therapy and regenerative medicine, is among numerous projects in Asia.

The story of the laser's development illustrates the vital relationship between those pursuing fundamental scientific knowledge and in the lab and those who seek to apply their discoveries to new inventions and applications. The laser on Maiman's workbench was a manifestation of Albert Einstein's 1905 description of what was later called the photon and his explanation of stimulated emission of radiation. SPIE contributors Charles Townes and the late Arthur Schawlow and Alexander Prokhorov—among many others—added critical knowledge and insights leading to the laser's development.

Like many of you, my entire professional career has been deeply touched by lasers, from the beginning of my PhD dissertation through today. It has been filled with opportunity to conduct exciting R&D, enabled by the unique properties of coherent light.

My journey has been rewarding at every turn, and I feel so fortunate to have picked this field and been able to play a role in the discovery process and in a few of the incredible innovations involving the use of lasers.

SPIE celebrates 50 years of laser technology.SPIE is formally celebrating the importance of the laser in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of its invention in two celebrations. Advancing the Laser (spie.org/advancingthelaser) presents publications and events for the technical professional, and LaserFest (laserfest.org) provides information and outreach activities for the general public, educators, students, and policy makers.

We are very pleased that SPIE has been able to contribute $41,000 for outreach grants in addition to the Society's other participation. You can attend some of the events and find out more at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco, 23-28 January.

These laser celebrations give me the chance to celebrate the advances of the past and present, and I hope you will join in some of the events.

I am pleased to be serving as SPIE President this year. As I travel around the world meeting students, educators, researchers, engineers, and others in the field, I continually see new demonstrations of my colleagues' enthusiasm for innovation and dedication to improving the quality of life and advancing science. I look forward to talking with many more of you and encouraging you in your work.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org 

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201001.01

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