Imperial marks optics centenary with a look to the future

World's oldest dedicated university optics center celebrates a hundred years of optics-related research and education, but notes the need to widen participation.

19 March 2018
Matthew Peach

With its formation of the Department of Technical Optics in 1917, Imperial College, London is the oldest dedicated center for optics in a higher education institution - in not just the UK, but the world. In September 2017, the university held a day-long Optics Centenary Event to showcase its research and development milestones and the diverse range of applied and fundamental optics-related projects currently being pursued. Among those in attendance were SPIE Past President Emery Moore, Fellow Chris Dainty, Senior Member Tina Kidger, and CEO Eugene Arthurs, enjoying lectures, demonstrations, and displays of Imperial's global impact on the science of light.

Imperial College, London can claim to have the oldest university optics department in the world
Imperial College, London can claim to have the oldest university optics department in the world: the Department of Technical Optics was set up in 2017. Photo: Imperial College London.

The Department of Technical Optics was first formed to address the shortage of optical engineers required by industry, particularly in relation to the military demands of the First World War. The appointment of Germany-born Alexander Eugen "A.E." Conrady as Professor of Optical Design in July 1917 led to the first courses in optics at Imperial during that year; undergraduate courses began in 1918, with postgraduate courses following a year later. Fast-forward to 1973, and the arrival of Professor Daniel Joseph "D.J." Bradley and his group from Belfast at Imperial led not just to the founding of world-renowned research programs in optical and laser physics, but doubled the size of what was then known as the Optics Section. Now called the Photon Science Section, this department continues as the largest university-based optics center in the UK, with research activities covering the whole spectrum of light-based science, from applied photonics systems to quantum optics.

It is also important to mention Harold Hopkins, who worked at Imperial from 1947 until 1967. His Wave Theory of Aberrations (1950) is central to all modern optical design and provides the mathematical analysis that enables the use of computers to create the wealth of high-quality lenses available today. His many inventions are in daily use throughout the world - most notably the rod-lens endoscope, which opened the door to modern keyhole surgery.

Current research
Mike Damzen is Professor of Experimental Laser Physics at Imperial and head of the Photonics Group. The group's research activities include laser technology, applied optics, biomedical imaging, biophotonics, and industrial photonics applications. He was instrumental in organizing the centenary event and spoke to Show Daily about Imperial's work at the forefront of optics and photonics research.

"Hot areas of research range from quantum optics to applied biophotonics," Damzen said. "Today's notable figures in these areas include Sir Peter Knight, one of the leading figures in quantum optics, and Ed Hinds, who is currently a Royal Society Research Professor, and Director of the Centre for Cold Matter." Hinds is working on atom interferometry for inertial sensing and navigation, and the measurement of the dipole moment of the electron, something that could ultimately tell us about the asymmetry of the universe - in other words, why we have mainly matter, and not anti-matter.

"Another important area is attosecond and femtosecond pulse generation, involving John Marangos and John Tisch," added Damzen, pointing to cutting-edge work on ultrafast Ti:sapphire laser sources, which they are amplifying to extremely high energies. "Attosecond pulses are very useful at the boundary between fundamental and applied research," said Damzen. "On the applied side what we are doing is very much about laser development, such as Roy Taylor's work with IPG Photonics. He is a pioneer from the fiber laser sector."

Professor of quantum optics Sir Peter Knight Professor Michael Damzen, head of Imperial’s Photonics Group
Professor of quantum optics Sir Peter Knight was among the speakers at Imperial's Optics Centenary Event last year. Professor Michael Damzen, head of Imperial's Photonics Group and a professor of experimental laser physics.

Damzen's personal area of interest is in diode-pumped solid-state lasers, where his work includes pulsed high-energy lasers for satellite-based Earth observation, in partnership with the European Space Agency. Applications include monitoring of vegetation, with potential for better understanding of carbon capture, biomass and agriculture.

"Healthcare will undoubtedly be a significant area for research and development, which Imperial wants to sustain and grow," Damzen said. "This will involve cooperation with other departments such as physics and chemistry. We also consider that quantum technologies will be a big area of growth. We are also looking at growing the industrial and environmental application sectors. A lot of our expertise has come through the biotechnology route, so we want to look also at these opportunities."

In the booming area of biophotonics, the key figure is Paul French. He is researching imaging modalities for diagnostic purposes, including drug discovery, cancer analysis and super-resolution microscopy. Mark Neil leads the optogenetics research program, while the wider biophotonics research effort has links to the commercial medical and drug discovery sector via the likes of GSK and AstraZeneca, and there are also strong links to the healthcare sector through the Wellcome Trust and the British Heart Foundation.

University challenges
So how does a leading university such as Imperial deal with one of the key current challenges facing such institutions: satisfying the educational needs of new undergraduates effectively, while simultaneously meeting the research and development requirements of society and industry?

Damzen answered, "Imperial's mission is to achieve excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society. This creates challenges, I would say, along three fronts that must be balanced: to provide our students with knowledge and experience to equip them for the future alongside maintaining a good student experience; harnessing the best staff and talents to remain at the top of the world league through cutting-edge and often multi-disciplinary research and collaborations; and shrinking the time between fundamental discovery and societal benefit, with new entrepreneurial and creative ways including spin-outs."

He adds that in recent years it feels like the pace of change for research to address new societal challenges has been unusually fast for academia. "We are more strongly positioning our science to address key challenges and achieve impact and the funding system is pushing us in this direction, especially the recent [UK government and research council] Industrial Challenge and Global Challenges Research Funds, but there must be a capacity for just good ideas to be explored in academia."

Female students for the first time outnumbered males in the latest cohort of Imperial's MSc in Optics and Photonics
Young and old: the centenary event noted the historic under-representation of women in leading academic roles in optics. However, female students for the first time outnumbered males in the latest cohort of Imperial's MSc in Optics and Photonics. Photo: Imperial College, London.

During the series of presentations at the Optics Centenary Event, besides the wealth of experience and achievement of the key speakers - who included Knight, Taylor, French, Dainty (now at University College, London), Ian Walmsley (Oxford) and Chris Dorman (VP at Coherent Scotland) - it was noted by many, with some embarrassment, that there is still a lack of representation of women and ethnic minorities at the top of optics-related academia. What can an institution like Imperial do to encourage wider participation and diversity?

Damzen said the university had long been considering this issue. "We start by recognizing that certain groups in optics, as across physics and engineering, are under-represented," he continued. "It was a repeated theme at the Optics Centenary Event that we have a poor historic record of representation of women in optics. This is sad and it is clear that the future must not be allowed to continue in this way." In an effort to address the under-representation of women, Imperial's physics department established The Juno Transparency and Opportunity Committee back in 2007, Damzen pointed out.

"While we increasingly endeavor to employ these principles in optics to be broad and inclusive in our recruitment and other processes, it is going to take us many years to redress the imbalance," he added. "We can only do this if there is a pool of excellent female and ethnic [minority] candidates at all levels, from undergraduate to postgraduate through to fellowship and academic appointments, so schools and higher education have a part to play."

And there is some recent evidence of change, with Damzen concluding: "We are pleased at least to say that this year our long-standing MSc in Optics and Photonics has, for the first time ever, a cohort with a larger number of female than male students."

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to and director of Original Content Ltd. A version of this article appeared in the Photonics West Show Daily in February.

Related SPIE content:

SPIE leaders congratulate Imperial College London on optics centenary

Optical legacy of Imperial College London

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