See the light, be the light

01 September 2020
By John G. Greivenkamp

On 16 May 1960, Theodore Maiman demonstrated the first laser, and this date now marks the International Day of Light. For this 60th anniversary, SPIE and our partner societies released the video See the Light ( The stated goal is that this is a "worldwide message encouraging all to join the conversation and celebrate the importance of the science of light and light-based technologies in our lives." I hope that you have viewed the video and shared it.

A common question I am asked is, "How did you get into optics?" You probably have been asked this too, and like many things, it can be complicated. I was in high school and college in the early to mid-1970s, and that period was really the breakout of optics. Use of lasers was becoming more widespread and they were available (I was lucky to have a HeNe in my high school physics lab), free energy was on its way with laser fusion, and full-color holographic TV in your living room was promised. Pretty exciting times for optics, lots of new things happening, although the term "photonics" was not even in widespread use until the early 1980s. There is an opportunity here to reflect on technology and hype, but that is a different letter.

In reality, my reason was much simpler: I went into optics because I have (or at least had) excellent vision. Sounds strange, but the lab experiments I always enjoyed most were the optics experiments. I could see the results and my eye was usually the detector - I was an integral part of the experiment and visual interpretation was needed as there were no computers. Even though we use more detectors today, I still love seeing the light patterns. My hobbies were also visually intensive: I learned photography and had a Pentax Spotmatic II and a darkroom in my basement. So when I selected a graduate school, I headed to the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona. My first job was at Eastman Kodak, so my hobby became my profession.

I teach geometrical optics and something I tell my students as we evaluate an optical system is to imagine yourself propagating through the system-be the light!! This always generates some laughter and moans, but it very effective for understanding.

We can take this theme and broaden its importance. We have a responsibility to represent and promote the field of optics and photonics: be a mentor, share the excitement and impact, tell your story... To get more people to See the Light, we all need to Be the Light.

If you want to tell your story about how you got into optics, please share it:

John Greivenkamp

John E. Greivenkamp

2020 SPIE President

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