Let there be light!

As the clocks go back, and we descend into winter darkness, Laura Brooks investigates some light based technologies.
04 November 2016


Light Bulb

Struggling to adjust to the darkening days? Light plays a vital role in our lives, in more ways than we might imagine. So when the e-Luminate Foundation brought their pop-up Light Lab to the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Laura Brooks was prepared to be dazzled...

"Try these on," smiles Alessandra Caggiano, co-founder of the e-Luminate Foundation, as she hands me a pair of unusual-looking glasses. Perched tentatively on my nose, the specs transform the room before my eyes, as the sunbeams streaming through the window in front of me are split into a glittering display of rainbow colours.

These are diffraction glasses, and their plastic lenses are embossed with tiny lines - 13,500 of them per inch. When sunlight is scattered by the lines, light waves with different wavelengths are sent off at different angles, separating the sunbeams into a rainbow-like spectrum of colours.

"The e-Luminate Foundation runs events and outreach programmes to get people excited about light, what we call 'edutainment' - education through entertainment," Alessandra explains.

"The Light Lab ... brings together different exhibitions, different technologies, to put together a story about light."

The event is organised in partnership with the Institute of Physics, and today they are inviting curious minds young and old to dabble in the science of optics. There is plenty to explore - from recreating Isaac Newton's famous prism experiment, to figuring out how a curved mirror can trick you into believing that an object is floating in mid-air. The event also showcases light-based technologies, and gives visitors a chance to chat to the bright minds behind them.

Bright ideas

Richard Williams is the inventor of ioLight, a portable optical microscope that he first developed out of pure necessity.

"I was doing some consultancy work, and the project didn't have enough money to pay for a microscope," he recounts. Undeterred, Richard set about building one of his own, and soon realised that his invention filled a gap in the market.

High end microscopes are the workhorses of most scientific laboratories. They are big, complicated and very expensive. While they give the best possible resolution and are incredibly stable, the price tag makes them a precious resource, and they certainly can't be taken out and about.

Cheaper, portable versions are available, but while these serve very well for some tasks, they often don't have the image resolution that many scientists require from a professional microscope.

"There seems to be a space in the middle, and that's where this came from," Richard told me.

So how do you simplify a scientific microscope system into something you can slip into your pocket?

One of the tricks is making the right compromises. For example, Richard's ioLight boasts a resolution of one micron - one thousandth of a millimetre. A high end lab microscope can resolve objects less than half that size, but one micron can be more than adequate for many laboratory tasks.

It also means that the device can be built from existing components, making it much cheaper to manufacture.

"If you make that compromise ... all of a sudden you can use these really good mobile phone lenses that we've got now, and the mobile sensors, together with a bit of cunning engineering, and you end up with a folding, portable microscope" Richard explains.

Richard tells me ioLight has attracted quite a range of customers, from vets working outdoors, to university students on field trips, and researchers looking for a low-cost solution in their labs.

Feeling switched on?

Looking about, I'm drawn to the welcoming glow of a light box on the table next to Richard's. It's part of an exhibit by light therapy specialists Lumie. They develop bright lamps that mimic the effects of natural daylight to treat conditions like seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Lumie's Ruth Jackson explained that as well as rods and cones (the light sensitive cells responsible for vision) our eyes have a third kind of photoreceptor. These are called "intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells", and they send signals to the brain that affect the body's circadian rhythm, the production of sleep hormone melatonin, and can impact our mood and alertness.

Research shows that when our exposure to light is reduced, such as when working long hours indoors, or during winter, it can affect our wellbeing.

"Based on 2,000 people that were polled in the UK, 24% of us, by September, experience the 'winter blues'," says Ruth. "Of that 24%, 7% experienced [it] so badly, that it was classified as seasonal affective disorder."

Light therapy is thought to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD. It's also used to combat jet lag, and maximise alertness. Proponents include Team GB's Olympic swimmers, who used Lumie lights to make sure they were at peak performance come race time in Rio!

But Olympian or not, adjusting your body clock after Sunday's hour change can be quite a struggle. Ruth's top tips to reset your rhythm? Try to get outside in the daylight for half an hour in your lunchbreak, resist the temptation to snooze, and avoid your smartphone before bedtime, as the blue light it emits can keep your brain alert.

Art from Light

From across the room I catch sight of Liza Read's spellbinding art.

"I work as part of something called Creative Reactions, where an artist is paired with a scientist, and we make an artwork that is our reaction to their science," Liza explains, as I admire her piece influenced by chemist Dr Steven Lee's research into imaging inside cells.

Not only is her work inspired by science, it's also made in a science lab. Liza creates holograms, an art form that is deeply rooted in the physics of light.


A bit like old-fashioned photography, holograms are snapshots recorded into a light sensitive emulsion coated on a glass plate.

But they fascinate us because they appear to have depth, and the scenes that they depict seem to change as we look at them from different angles, just like a real object.

That's because a hologram doesn't record an image, it encodes the pattern of the light waves that create a visual scene. When the hologram is lit up in the right way, the light wave pattern is recreated, and we see a stunningly realistic image of the original scene.

Liza explained that she needs quite a toolkit to make her art. She needs lasers to record the holograms, a dark room to develop the plates, and the lab needs to be equipped with special tables that have air-filled legs to prevent vibrations that could ruin the recording.

The results are well worth it, and they look simply magical. But don't be deceived - it's not magic, it's optics!

Light Blossoms

Meanwhile, some of the lab's youngest visitors are immersed in a riot of colour with artist Lindum Greene. They are busily creating a beautiful art installation, 'Light Blossoms' that repurposes plastic drinks bottles into flower-shaped shades for a chain of fairy lights.

Lindum prepares her blooms by snipping off the bases of the bottles and heating them with the light of a candle. As the plastic gently melts they unfurl into lily-like shapes.

While her little helpers (and bigger ones too!) set about decorating the light blossoms with marker pens, she asks them what light means to them, and weaves their words into a poem:

" ...Steam,


Particles of water,

Hanging in the air,

Spectrums of light,

A rainbow's split

Of Newton's prism,


A way of seeing:

Art, science,


It's all about STEM!

The steam in Lindum's poem doesn't just refer to the vaporous kind.

The STEAM movement (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) bridges the worlds of the arts and the physical sciences. It aims to end what many see as a false dichotomy in the way we view - and teach - art and science.

For research scientist Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham, STEAM is more than a catchy acronym. It's a passion. What is more, she believes the arts have a central role to play in both science education, and in engaging people with scientific research.

"As scientists we do have a responsibility to showcase what we are doing to the public, because we are using their money to fund our research," Bahijja told me. "The issue I had was that a lot of the time we tend to talk to people who [already] like science, who are interested in science..."

How then can researchers spark a dialogue about their discoveries with those who would not ordinarily seek them out? How can new knowledge, uncovered by science research, be enjoyed and appreciated in the public sphere?

Bahijja's approach is bold, and beautiful. Inspired by her love of street art, she's the founded STEAM:Ed Collective, a social enterprise that aims to engage everyone with science, technology, engineering and maths - through public art.

Last year, the Collective saw science writ large on the walls of London, as they brought together street artists and researchers to produce two murals for the Brockley Street Art Festival.

Dr Steve Fossey at University College London, joined forces with artist Patricio Forrester to produce a stunning mural depicting the creation of chemical elements, such as the iron in our blood, in massive explosions of dying stars called supernova. A second project by the artist Zara Gaze depicted the element Argon, and how its chemical properties result from the configuration the electrons inside its atoms.

The murals, funded in part by the Royal Society of Chemistry, set out to provoke curiosity and conversation about the sciences, as people go about their everyday lives.

As well as public art, the Collective works with musicians and poets, and continually seeks to 'break the norm' in science communication.

In the future the group are exploring more workshop-style activities, aimed at school students in particular. Dr Raimi-Abraham is confident that more and more young people are beginning to see art and science as two sides of the same coin, but forging a career in this space is not always straightforward.

"We need to start actually having a strategy" she warns. "We're having a lot of these STEAM, SciArt organisations coming up, but we also need to provide opportunities and jobs for people who have this passion."

So what's next for STEAM:Ed?

"Next year it's go go go again!...I need more people to get involved, to come and volunteer, help us achieve our goal ... to put more STEM in public places, through art."


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