New Exhibit Showcases the Power of Light in Our Everyday Lives

The open-source show “LIGHT: Beyond the Bulb” crosses disciplines to show the many ways photonics has improved our lives

In the garden, Levisticum is a tall plant with dark leaves and greenish-yellow flowers. Under a microscope, however, it can morph into a cellular rainbow. This image was made using polarized light to enhance contrast. Waves in polarized light share an orientation, and special filters can block out any unpolarized waves and make the fine details easier to see. Marek Mís
The starry skies over Hawaii sparkle behind an active volcano. Without much light pollution from human development, thousands of individual stars as well as the plane of the Milky Way galaxy are visible from this dark site. Rogelio Bernal Andreo/ et Espace
Astronaut Don Petit snapped this view of Earth while zooming overhead at 17,000 miles an hour. Petit was on board the International Space Station, orbiting at an altitude of 240 miles. The long-exposure image shows how much artificial light has taken over our night skies. NASA/JSC
Our sun is just one among billions of stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. This picture shows the dense plane of the galactic disk as seen from Hawaii. From this vantage point, the combined light from the multitude of stars creates a milky path that arcs across the whole sky, which may be how the galaxy's name originated. Rogelio Bernal Andreo/ et Espace
Earth does not naturally emit visible light, so the night side of the planet should be shrouded in darkness. But human activity means that the planet shines even when it's facing away from the sun. This composite image, created with data from a host of satellites, shows what Asia looks like as the planet passes from night to day. Data-AVHRR, NDVI, Seawifs, MODIS, NCEP, DMSP and Sky2000 star catalog; AVHRR and Seawifs texture-Reto Stockli; Visualization-Marit Jentoft-Nils
Optical fibers are hair-thin, flexible strands of glass or plastic. Because of their capacity to carry massive amounts of data in the form of light, optical fibers serve as the backbone of the internet. The ability to transport light through bent fibers means they can also be used in endoscopes for imaging the interiors of both people and machines. And as fiber lasers, they can direct concentrated light beams for cutting human tissue or thick steel. Optoelectronics Research Centre, Southampton, UK
This image shows the complex structure of a mouse retina, with cells stained by fluorescent dye to enhance the details. The picture was taken using a laser-scanning microscope, which scans a sample point-by-point or line-by-line to assemble pixels of information and generate a high-resolution image. Studying the microscopic structure of both diseased and normal retina tissue may help scientists better understand how they work and how to best treat eye diseases. National Institute of General Medical Sciences
The sun is constantly pumping out streams of charged particles. As these particles approach Earth, some of them are channeled by the planet's magnetic field toward the Poles, where they collide with atoms in the atmosphere. The excited atoms can then produce colorful auroras, like the display seen here over Alaska. US Air Force, Senior Airman Joshua Strang
Taken from Mount Figueroa outside Santa Barbara, California, this long-exposure photograph captures the dense band of our Milky Way galaxy in counterpoint with the setting sun. Along the horizon, light is being scattered by water droplets in the fog that is rolling in from the Pacific Ocean. Michael Shainblum
When stars like our sun run out of hydrogen fuel in their cores, they start to fuse helium nuclei. This process produces heavier elements and the star begins to shed its outer layers. Astronomers can see this happening in the Helix Nebula. This composite image from the European Southern Observatory shows the blue glow from oxygen atoms being energized by ultraviolet light from the aging star in the center. The red color around the edges shows where hydrogen and nitrogen are more prominent. ESO
Our galaxy is filled with giant gas clouds that contain the building blocks of new stars and planets. This image, made at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, features a cloud known as the Eagle Nebula, where a central cluster of stars is forming within a larger shell of gas and dust. The colors represent light given off by glowing hydrogen (green), oxygen (red) and sulfur (blue). T.A, Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage and B.A. Wolpa (NOAO/AURA/NSF)
This image shows an especially bright Geminid meteor falling through Earth's atmosphere. When comets get close to the sun, they leave behind trails of debris. Our planet regularly passes through some of these trails as it orbits the sun, creating annual meteor showers like the Geminids. The meteors are usually just specks of dirt that slam into the atmosphere at high speed, creating a vapor of charged atoms that glows as the meteor streaks across the sky. Wally Pacholka/
This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the Antennae galaxies, which are in the process of merging. Combining infrared and visible light, Hubble reveals clouds of gas in pink and red and the cores of the two galaxies in yellow. The blue regions are where star formation is happening at a furious rate. Astronomers think this is a preview of what will happen to our galaxy when it collides with our neighbor Andromeda in a few billion years. NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STSCI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration
By combining light from several telescopes, this image reveals the workings of the galaxy known as M51. The Chandra X-ray Observatory (purple) finds black holes and neutron stars along with hot gas. Visible light from the Hubble Space Telescope (green) and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope (red) both highlight long lanes of stars and gas laced with dust. Finally, ultraviolet data from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (blue) shows hot young stars. X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical: NASA/STScI; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Light is all around us, from the breaking dawn to the glow of a street lamp. But the light we can see with our naked eyes constitutes only a fraction of all the wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum. Technologies that let us detect otherwise unseen light—radio waves, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays—have been crucial to advances in science and medicine.

To celebrate the International Year of Light, scientists with the Chandra X-ray Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the International Society for Optics and Photonics have teamed up on a new open-source exhibit that demonstrates the many ways light-based sciences and technologies allow us to understand our world. Launched this month, LIGHT: Beyond the Bulb will show around the world over the course of this year, combining the photography of scientists and researchers with that of regional artists. Venues so far range from a shopping mall in Canada to a café in Venezuela.

Images in the collection span disciplines and technologies–from plants illuminated under a microscope to vivid galaxies captured by orbiting observatories.

Chandra's Kimberly Arcand, principal investigator of the project, hopes that the installations will spark curiosity about the natural world in passersby. “We communicate with light, we entertain by evening light, we explore the world—the universe—with light, and I think it’s useful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what light does and how it functions," she says. For example, she says, electric discharge happens here on Earth when lightning strikes or a construction worker uses a welding tool. But the same process—electricity flowing through a gas—also happens deep in space around neutron stars, the corpses left over when very massive stars go supernova.

According to the International Year of Light organizers, photonics—the science of generating, controlling and detecting light—is essential to our daily life. It is used in common technologies and processes, such as cellphones, manufacturing and medical procedures. But Arcand worries that much of the taxpayer-funded research driving these innovations isn’t well broadcast to the public. This is where the exhibit comes into play, she says: “I think it’s our responsibility to help make that science as accessible as we can.”

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