Science Friday, one day late: old ideas in optics with new applications and far-reaching consequence
When I was a kid I carried a small magnifying glass and also a 10x jeweller’s lupe around with me everywhere. When our family went on vacation, I brought my microscope along. I could learn so much more from a bug or a leaf if I looked at it under magnification.
- Check out this 3D camera the size of a shirt-button. The article says “the technology is not new”, which is an understatement considering flies have been doing it for some time now. But what is new is putting it all on a chip. Think machine-vision applications for this one with lots of industrial spinoffs.
- The new James Webb space telescope (which won’t be a straight replacement for the Hubble) has an innovative multi-segment beryllium mirror. It is a cool idea for a cryogenic mirror, but I hope they have some pretty ferocious safety guards in place, because that’s a metal you don’t want to breathe.
- Solar concentrators are not a new idea, but here’s a nifty connection to improve the efficiency (and thus reduce the cost) of electricity from solar cells
- I love the idea of adaptive optics where a mirror actually changes shape, and is connected to other mirrors under microcomputer control, compensating for atmospheric turbulence to give super-sharp images from the ground. (This is also not a substitute for the Hubble telescope) But I never would have guessed that it would be enhancing human vision. They were working on helping visually-impaired people but wound up with the germ of a system that could “dramatically improve vision even for people with normal vision”:
Williams has found that the visual acuity of the human eye can be somewhere around 20/10. While adaptive optics may someday help patients approach that level, he says that acuity isn’t the most noticeable improvement. Adaptive optics improves eyesight most under low-light conditions, such as night-time driving. MacRae, the laser surgery expert, estimates that a driver sharing the road with a bicyclist at dusk could see the bicyclist from roughly twice as far away if he or she were equipped with adaptive optics correction.
In the past, Williams has used the system to look into the eye. In a series of papers in such journals as Nature, Williams’ team has published the best images ever obtained of the living human retina. Last year the team was able to differentiate the three types of cones in the living human retina. Detailed information of the eye is helpful to ophthalmologists monitoring patients with diseases like age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.
While the current set-up is too bulky to bring the experience of enhanced vision or super vision to many patients, MacRae is confident that that day is not too far off.
“Someday you may no longer have to sit and answer patiently when you’re asked repeatedly whether lens No. 1 or lens No. 2 is better,” MacRae says. “Someday you may just look into a wavefront sensor as David has developed, and in one quick second we’ll have all the information needed to improve someone’s vision dramatically.”
- I’m still trying to wrap my head around the long-term implications of this one: using visible light to pump x-ray emissions for tabletop x-ray microscopy. It could be as big a revolution (on a smaller scale) as CAT or MRI. As in: examining that lump in the breast at a microscopic level without doing a biopsy.
What will kids’ science-toys a century from now look like? For that matter, what will we all be seeing? What will we know?