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.”