Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

I don’t normally plug individual private-sector companies and their occasional efforts to make the world a better place. (Companies pay other people to do that.) Recently, however, one announcement caught my eye and got me thinking. Edmund Optics, that company that makes lots of optical components and educational science-lab supplies (and which used to have such a nice factory-outlet store in New Jersey), is starting a Real-life Superheroes campaign to recognize photonics-industry innovators and leaders.

That got me to thinking: Who would I include in my own personal gallery of “photonics superheroes”?

I should have pretty high standards; during my five and a half years of working full-time at OSA, I got to meet half a dozen Nobel laureates, and they are truly all good people without fancy airs. Back in 1989, I actually took a class from one of them: Roy Glauber, who for a decade or so taught a version of his “Waves, Particles and the Structure of Matter” course for non-majors through Harvard Extension School. Glauber taught the class on the condition that Harvard make it free of charge for high-school students and teachers to attend, so when he met me again in 2005, he commented, “You must have been one of about four people who actually paid to take the class.” (The course, incidentally, was excellent and, unlike many other science classes for non-majors, it did not avoid trigonometric equations.)

How about that Charles Townes? Nearly half a century after his Nobel Prize, he’s still doing research in a totally different area from his Nobel — namely, astrophysics with infrared interferometry. I believe he’s going to be 96 years old next month.

I am also thinking of some people who are far less well known than the Nobel laureates. For instance, Jim Wynne of IBM Corp. Last year I blogged about Wynne’s efforts toward a potential dual-laser method for removing eschars from burn tissue. If it works out, the technique could be of great benefit to the two groups of people who most often suffer severe burns: children and soldiers. I really ought to follow up with Wynne — one of the pioneers of LASIK surgery — to see how his research is going.

There’s also Oxford University’s Joshua Silver, who announced a couple of years ago that he had developed adjustable eyeglasses for poor people in developing countries. He now heads the Centre for Vision in the Developing World at Oxford.

So, who do you think possesses “photonic superpowers” — saving lives, curing diseases, solving problems with new optical technologies? Tell me in the comment section below, or tell Edmund at


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