Royal Society: #CelebratingLight

Since its inception in 1660, the Royal Society has played the Shoreditch House to the scientific elite. Here’s the place where Newton published ‘Principia’, where Benjamin Franklin described the electrical nature of lightning and Chadwick first published the detection of the neutron. If the Royal Society is Shoreditch House, Principia is the physics bible: home to Newton’s laws of motion, a derivation for Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and the classic F=ma. For almost 400 years, the Royal Society has been doing something pretty spectacular.


The UNESCO International Year of Light (2015) celebrated 50 years of optical fibres, 150 years of Maxell’s Equations and 1000 years since the first appearance of the seven volume epic on optics Kitab al-Manazir written by the Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham (or Alhazen if you’re Western!). Since its opening at 10 Downing Street, the International Year of Light been celebrated daily up and down the UK; from fibre optic stamps, to lighting up the Giant’s Causeway, illuminating Pontcysyllte, to the STFC’s laser roadshow, the RHS’ Year of Light Gardens and Maxwell’s torch touring Scotland. It has supported Solar Aid on their mission to rid Africa of dangerous kerosene lamps. It’s united the scientific communities in industry, academia, schools, church halls and world heritage sights. To close the celebrations, the Royal Society joined forces with the Institute of Physics to illuminate the skies of London- well, after inviting 700 school students to learn just a little bit more science.


Over 350 primary school students and their teachers attended the closing day at the Royal Society, where they toured 7 different workshops about the different ways scientists use light. With NPL the students played with total internal reflection, then Newcastle showed them infrared imaging and Sheffield explained how individual photons can carry information. Somewhere amongst the kaleidoscopes and camera obscura, Sarah Barnes (IOP) and me mesmerised the masses with a collection of Optical Illusions. We realised pretty quickly that ‘I’m Jess! I’m Sarah! And we’re … physicists’ wasn’t worth much in these circles. Fortunately- we were in the Royal Society, where you’re never too far from a massive portrait of Sir Isaac.

opticalillusionsAt first, I was pretty disappointed when we were tasked with the Optical Illusion stand. Sheffield had equipment to count single photons, Newcastle has a thermographic camera, and we had a bunch of gifs. Oh, how foolish I was! Young children LOVE optical illusions. Over the twenty minutes we had with each group, they tightly clenched their eyelids, screamed and shrieked with delight as they sat silent in front of a static screens of mind-bending illustrations dreamed up by mathematicians in the 1900s. For five hours the room was electric: with ten year olds laden with Royal Society canvas bags and 3D glasses charging between workshops. With about 5 % of our energy (+ voice box) remaining; the primary students went home, the society fell silent and the room was re-configured: the big kids were coming.


As soon as it was listed online, spaces in Jim Al-Khalilis lecture filled in a couple of days. He’s a TV celebrity, author of popular books about science and a practising eminent academic. He arrives straight from the UCAS day at the University of Surrey where he is Professor of Theoretical Physics. Unsurprisingly, Al-Khalili knows how to deliver a lecture. Through the narrative of light and electromagnetic radiation, he takes the students from their smart phones to microwaving their dinner, listening to the radio and using the Internet. After Maxwell and Faraday (a dream lab partnership of sensational theoretician and green-fingered experimentalist) formalising the equations of electromagnetism, Einstein demonstrated its schizophrenic nature with the photoelectric effect. Modern science, according to Al-Khalili, relies on the development of the microscope and the telescope, which both rely on an understanding of optics that we’ve had since the ‘golden age of Arabic science’.

AlhazemThe story of Alhazen would make a brilliant film script. Not only did this Alhazen invent the scientific method 200 years before the Renaissance scientists but he was easily as melodramatic as Caravaggio. Born in Basra, Alhazen is credited with being a scientist, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher. To escape a dull life and an impossible task he feigned madness twice and then spent his time in prison carefully unraveling the mysteries of photonics. Arabic science could measure the height of the Earth’s atmosphere, could describe the bending of light as they pass through different materials (Snell’s law) and explain how rainbows form. Whilst the teachers appreciated the change to interrogate Prof. Al-Khalili for first-hand quotes to drop in their science classes, the students sat buzzing with excitement about the forthcoming laser show. The mall sparkled in the light of the laser show, the secondary students went home and the grown ups showed up.

Meriame, the undergrad representative of our Women in Physics group, went with her old school science club. I’d seen Jim on TV before and I was super excited to attend his lecture! I totally wanted to fangirl when I arrived at the Royal Society and saw him there. His talk captured the world of Arabic science perfectly and really showed the significance of the science of light and how we use those concepts today. His talk was topped off with a spectacular laser light show that left me in awe! All in all, it was a great evening full of wonderful science and I would definitely return to the Royal Society for future events!

These were pretty important grown ups. They were professors from famous universities, industrial researchers, politicians, journalists, ambassadors- oh! And royalty. As patron of the International Year of Light, the Duke of York spoke about the huge contribution that light made to the UK economy (£10 billion). Self-admittedly, the Duke is not a scientist, but a “frustrated physicist at heart”. He’s impressed by what the celebration has accomplished, uniting those who use, study, teach and create with light into a new community for discussion that wouldn’t have happened before. The Duke is most impressed by the engagement of young people in all of the activities, today and throughout the year- by allowing students to aspire to become scientists; the UK will be a more profitable, exciting and dynamic place to be. The only other formality was a closing word from Professor Roy Sambles. Professor Roy Sambles’ day job is to run an incredibly successful Centre for Doctoral Training in metamaterials in Exeter, whilst he spends his nights being President of the Institute of Physics. He is a fascinating man who wants to understand the physics behind the ultrafast Adidas LZR swimsuit that was barred from the 2012 Olympics, is transfixed by the surfaces of butterfly wings and determined to find out whether our ears are ‘black’ to certain frequencies of sound (akin to our pupils with light). You can read more about him here.

Thank you Institute of Physics, thank you your Royal Highness, thank you UNESCO, thank you Newton, thank you Alhazen!




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