Celebrating light: bringing the International Year of Light to a close in the UK

The Institute of Physics has played a crucial role in celebrating the International Year of Light, and closed the celebrations in the UK last week with a three-part extravaganza held at the Royal Society.

The day included light-inspired workshops and activities for 400 primary students, a lecture by scientist, TV and radio personality Professor Jim Al-Khalili for 300 secondary pupils, and a slightly more civilised, but no-less inspirational, formal closing for professors and scientists working in the photonics sector.

Jess Wade shares the delights of optical illusions with one of the groups of visiting schools. (Photo: IYOLUK twitter)

As an avid science communicator who regularly infects young minds with physics facts and experiments, I was very keen to take part. During the day, IOP outreach officer Sarah Barnes and I ran a workshop on optical illusions for groups of school children.

It was amazing to watch the students’ (and their teachers’) faces change from sheer confusion to absolute delight in a matter of seconds. The enthusiasm and excitement reverberating around the Royal Society did not diminish over the six-hour day, clear evidence that the International Year of Light will not soon be forgotten.

Even at this young age the students were full of questions about how our modern understanding of optics relates to the work of Alhazen and colleagues in the 11th century. They begged to see the illusions again-and-again, shrieking with delight as their brains tried to decode the weird phenomena on the screen.

Over the day, 14 different groups came to our workshops, and each of them left asking their teachers about science they were doing at school. I’m almost certain the first thing that they’ll google when they get home (or even on their way home, depending on how lax their parents are with screen-time) will be optical illusions.

My passion for physics education was certainly useful for interacting with the primary students, but so was my research in solar cells and light-emitting diodes. I’m more convinced than ever before that connecting with the public is an essential thing to do: we’ve got a long way to go to convince these people to study STEM subjects.

As darkness fell on Carlton House Terrace, the average age of the Royal Society increased – but only slightly. Al-Khalili took the secondary pupils on a whirlwind tour of the history of optics: from camera obscura to smartphones via the golden age of Arabic science and the renaissance, there was little he didn’t manage to cover.

After Al-Khalili’s talk we moved to the streets, where a magnificent laser show lit up the London skyline, including the local landmarks, the London Eye, Houses of Parliament and even the Queen’s driveway (the Mall).

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Jim Al-Khalili explains what early scholars thought about how the eye worked (Photo: IOP)

The final part of the celebration was a fitting end to such a popular and productive year, and definitely required a change of outfit from the madness of the day. The guest list for the IOP’s closing reception included heads of departments, politicians, ambassadors and some of the most influential researchers and industrial experts in the field of photonics.

The closing remarks came from both conventional and physics royalty: his royal highness the Duke of York and the president of the IOP, Professor Roy Sambles. Prince Andrew was the royal patron of the International Year of Light and is self-admittedly not a scientist, but is a “frustrated physicist at heart”.

Both the Duke of York and Sambles spoke of the huge financial contribution of photonic research and industry to the UK economy – £10 billion a year. They emphasised how successful 2015 had been at bringing together people at every stage of their scientific adventures, uniting the unknowing public with the most specialised of scholars.

As a member, I’m grateful to the IOP for my personal involvement in every aspect of the International Year of Light, providing me with the education I have received, inspiring the content for the presentations I have given, and allowing me to be part of events such as these.

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Visitors enjoy the range of photonics demonstrations at the reception on the evening. (Photo: IOP)

If you’re still not convinced, here’s what IOP’s Toby Shannon had to say: “It was fantastic to see so many young people enjoying learning about light and optics through the hands-on workshops and the level of interest for Jim Al-Khalili’s lecture in the late afternoon really blew us away.

“The evening reception was a great way to round off the year with so many people that I have met in the past 12 months coming together to celebrate our shared achievement. The laser show was a particular highlight for me and it looked absolutely spectacular.”

Today will see the international closing ceremony of the International Year of Light in Yucatán, Mexico. Further details, including the full cultural and academic schedules, can be found on the IYOL closing website.

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Jessica Wade

Jessica Wade

Jess is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London, where she makes circularly polarised organic light emitting diodes.

Throughout her career in research she has been involved in projects to support gender inclusion in science. Jess works with the Institute for Research in Schools and Institute of Physics to try and support teachers and students across the country.
Jessica Wade

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