Visualizing the Universe: Optics in Science

By: Jerry Flattum, Performer/Songwriter & Writer/Editor

Optics is the branch of physics that studies the origin, propagation, and physical properties of both visible and invisible light. Physical optics is concerned with the nature and properties of light. Geometrical optics deals with the principles governing image-forming properties of lenses, mirrors, and other devices, such as optical data processors.


Antique Spyglass

Optics covers a wide range of subjects, starting with electromagnetic radiation. From there, it moves into such areas as optical microscopy, digital imaging, photomicrography, stereomicroscopy, refraction, reflection, diffraction, interference, birefringence, polarization, primary colors, human vision, mirrors, prisms, beamsplitters, laser systems, geometrical optics, filtration, color temperature, speed of light, magnification, image formation, objective specifications, Köhler illumination, optical aberrations, immersion media, light sources, eyepieces, condensers, ergonomics, Hoffman modulation, oblique illumination, fluorescence microscopy, differential interference contrast, phase contrast and many other techniques, devices and processes.

Humankind’s introduction to light obviously began with natural sources, like the sun, moon, stars, lightning and fire.

Greek and Arab scholars formulated theories on light: how it is propagated, how it can be reflected and refracted, and how it is perceived by the eyes. From around 1000 A.D. to the 1600s, Arab and Chinese scholars began experimenting with light, lenses. Science was beginning to take shape, with such discoveries as the world not being flat and that the earth revolved around the sun.

Microscopes and telescopes appeared in the 1600s and Isaac Newton published his Principia followed in the early 1700s by Opticks, discussing his corpuscular theory of light. Around this time planets were being discovered and electricity lighted a spark. In the early 1800s Newton’s corpuscular theory of light is contradicted by the wave theory of light. Scientists discover “invisible” infrared and ultraviolet light. The first photograph is taken.

Photography underwent continued development and the 19th century wore on. The speed of light is measured, spectroscopy is introduced, and light is revealed as a type of electromagnetic wave.

The inventions of radio and photographic film move the world into the 20th century. Light becomes both a wave and a particle, the theory of relativity is born, and TV grips the public’s imagination. Through the 1960s a stream of new technologies dot the landscape, including the laser, holography, fiber optics, and computers. Space exploration lands a man on the moon.

The number of patents that follow into the New Millennium grows exponentially, including video games, iPads, telescopes and digital graphic workstations powered by super computers, cable TV and mobile phone-controlled DVRs, laser eye surgery, and nanotechnology. Cyberspace…becomes a way of life.