Monday, November 24, 2008

Lasers, Optics or Photonics: What should we call it?

It’s amazing (and at times, perplexing) how we can form strong feelings about things that are somewhat subjective. A good example is the title we give to technical education programs that deal with optics, electro-optics and lasers. At OP-TEC, we choose to call them “photonics”. But is there a clear distinction in these names, and should we choose one title or another, depending on the course content or students that we are teaching?
  • Optics is a branch of physical science that emerged over a hundred years ago to support astronomy and the studies of color. It deals primarily with light sources and the manipulation of light rays (or beams) by lenses, prisms and mirrors. It helps us understand instruments like telescopes, microscopes and spectrometers.
  • Electro-optics emerged slightly before the middle of the last century. It deals with the interaction between electronics and optical radiation. Its early applications were with light sensors that converted light to electrical signals. Later, it also dealt with devices that convert electrical power to light.
  • The development of quantum optics led to the discovery of the laser in 1960. Over the next 20 years, developments in lasers, fiber-optics and light-emitting diodes led us to the term photonics. The name photonics really took hold in the 1980s as laser & fiber-optics applications expanded widely in telecommunications.
  • In a very precise way, the term photonics connotes:
    - the particle properties of light,
    - the potential of creating signal processing technologies using photons, and
    - an optical analogy to electronics.

But in recent years (since the turn of the century), photonics has become the high tech term that encompasses optics, electro-optics, fiber-optics, lasers and solid-state lighting. Thus, it is our practice to use the term photonics to refer to all technical education programs that incorporate these fields. There are two exceptions:

  • The fabrication, testing and handling of precision optics is referred to as precision optics technology.
  • High school technology courses that are designed to provide the fundamentals of photonics should be referred to as Lasers Systems, in order to have the high tech aura that will attract young people to study this field. If photonics is added as a topic in physics or another lab science course, the topic should be named photonics.

How do you feel about this? What is your experience? Please write a response to this controversial topic.

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