IEEE Photonics Society Celebrates the International Year of Light

The U.N. initiative highlights how optical technologies still revolutionize the world

9 January 2015

We take for granted the role that light plays in our lives, whether it’s sunlight, photography, X-rays, or smartphones. But this year special attention will be paid. That’s because thousands of events are planned as part of the United Nations proclamation that 2015 is the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies. More than 100 scientific, educational, and technical organizations—including the IEEE Photonics Society—will be highlighting important applications of light. (Photonics is the science and technology of generating, controlling, and detecting photons, or particles of light.)

The year 2015 was chosen because it marks several significant milestones, including the millennial anniversary of the appearance of the seven-volume treatise on optics Kitab al-Manathir, by Ibn al-Haytham of Cairo; the 150th anniversary of James Clerk Maxwell’s electrodynamic theory of light; and 50 years since the formation of the IEEE Quantum Electronics Council, which preceded the IEEE Photonics Society.

Nearly 1,500 people—including Nobel laureates, diplomats, and industry leaders—will attend the opening ceremonies kicking off the special year on 19 and 20 January at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s headquarters in Paris.

“Light and optical technologies play a significant role in our daily lives, and their applications can help solve some of society’s most pressing problems,” says IEEE Fellow Dalma Novak, president of the IEEE Photonics Society.

Goals for the year include educating young people about the science behind light-based technologies; highlighting so as to promote careers in these fields the importance of research into the fundamental science of light and its applications, including programs aimed at women; supporting the use of lighting technology in sustainable development projects; and explaining the importance that light plays in the arts.

“The International Year of Light isn’t just about outreach but also about upreach,” says Novak. “It’s not only about reaching out to the community to help it understand how their lives are touched each day by light-based technologies, but it’s also explaining how the technologies can help solve societal problems and, in so doing, attract more investment. That’s the upreach part of this.”


The work of the many scientists and engineers who have studied the fundamental properties of light has had a huge impact. Optical technologies have revolutionized medicine, manufacturing, communications, and lighting. Photonics underpins the technologies found in today’s smartphones and laptops, and fiber optic technologies have enabled the Internet. Along the way lighting itself has been made more energy-efficient with compact fluorescent bulbs and LEDs.

While developed countries have benefited from these advances, those in developing countries still lack a light bulb or its equivalent, says Novak. For more than 1.5 billion people around the world, nighttime means either complete darkness, using the dim and dangerous fire of a candle, or inhaling the unhealthy fumes of a kerosene lamp. The lack of a safe and reliable source of light affects their ability to work, travel, and study.

“We need to get them better resources for such fundamental activities as reading,” Novak says.

To that end the event’s partners are supporting humanitarian-based organizations that provide clean and affordable energy from solar power to those in remote regions. The IEEE Photonics Society is working with SolarAid, an international charity based in Kenya. It is working to eradicate kerosene lamps by donating lights that run on photovoltaic panels and rechargeable batteries that provide hours of illumination and weigh just a few hundred grams. The charity’s operations director, Linda Wamune, will be a speaker at the opening ceremonies

The society is also collaborating with Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J. The school is participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon challenge for collegiate teams to design and build houses that integrate solar energy and environmentally friendly technologies. The teams’ dwellings are judged on 10 categories, including architecture, engineering, comfort, affordability, and market appeal.

Stevens’s entry, Sure House [right], is based on the need the students saw for sustainable and resilient coastal houses in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York and New Jersey in 2012. The students’ design incorporates “superinsulation,” air sealing, screening against insects of outdoor living space, and high-performance windows. The house uses 90 percent less energy than a conventional home and can withstand hurricane-force winds.


The society is promoting photonics through its Summer Schools and Young Scientist Workshops, which are designed to provide students of all ages with opportunities to interact with research and technical leaders in an intimate, educational setting.

The workshops’ community outreach programs include hosting an interactive session at the popular South by Southwest annual music, film, and technology conference being held in March in Austin, Texas. In addition, the IEEE Photonics Society will host a series of webinars to educate both members and the larger photonics community on the latest breakthroughs in the field and to engage them in the vital work of the society.

The society is also celebrating the achievements of pioneers in the field like 2003 IEEE Medal of Honor recipient Nick Holonyak, who invented red LEDs, as well as Life Fellow Isamu Akasaki, Member Hiroshi Amano, and Member Shuji Nakamura, who received the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes, which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.”

“This last is an example of the Year of Light’s mission: to recognize those people who have made compelling contributions to the development of light-based technologies that can help solve problems,” says Novak.

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