I watch a lot of science fiction, and sometimes it seems like there are still so
many unattainable technologies. Are scientists any closer to creating hologram
personal assistants? And when can I buy one?
Science and technology are proceeding at an ever-faster rate. While we make huge
leaps, some technologies will remain fiction. That is OK, too. Great sci-fi leads
scientists to actual science breakthroughs. For example, we do have fantastic static
holographic technology for security and advanced imaging applications. However,
current applications require projection into a medium since light does not interact
with itself. It is unlikely that you will generate a true free-standing hologram
à la Princess Leia in “Star Wars” without carrying around a big chunk of material
that makes photons interact with each other. It’s similar with projection technology;
we only see an image when light hits a surface. One bright hope, pun intended,
is to use scanning laser or super-LED technology on lightweight screens. Then we
could fake a hologram using 19th-century technology.
I’d like to learn more about physics, but it seems daunting. I know it’s important
to understand the world around me, but when I read things like “ultrafast nanophotonics,”
I feel overwhelmed. Help!
At parties, upon hearing my profession, most people say “I hated physics at school,”
“It was so hard” or “You must be so smart.” Physics is not hard per se, it’s just
a way of thinking that is not taught well to most people. At those proverbial parties,
people misunderstand that my physics skills are something that I’ve worked at over
the years and that physics starts with questions, not knowledge. The knowledge
comes from asking and then answering the questions. The new knowledge can then
be used to ask new questions, and so forth. For ultrafast nanophotonics, you can
ask “What is that?” Photons are the quantum mechanical particles of light. Electronics
deals with the devices powered by and controlling electron particles. Through comparison,
photonics is technology that controls or is controlled by light. So putting it
all together ultrafast nanophotonics relates to nanotechnology for quickly controlling
or being controlled by light. There you go. Not too hard after all.
It seems like in the last couple of years there’s been some big new invention everywhere
you turn. What do you see now in your field that could bring big changes 10 or
20 years from now?
My field of optics is cross-cutting since humans overall are so dependent on sight. We use a wide range of aspects of light and light pulses. For example, we use light of various colors and intensities in imaging (with our own eyes) and in artificial eyes, such as cameras and medical scanners, microscopes and telescopes. And we use pulses of light to transmit information on and off CDs/DVDs and across oceans. One of the most remarkable technologies to emerge from the lab in the last few years is the ability to start controlling electrons in atoms, molecules and solids by the use of light. This requires a little quantum “magic,” but we can now kick electrons around the way we want. It is my hope that we will start to do this on large scales so that we might be able to exploit some of these phenomena in solar energy harvesting devices, chemical control schemes and even targeted biomedical treatments. This might take a little longer than 20 years, but we have a coherent goal in mind.
Dr. Bristow, who received his PhD from the University of Sheffield in 2004, has worked at academic and research institutes in Canada and the U.S., and is a member of the Optical Society of America.