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  • Rock ’n’ Roll Optics

Photonics.com
Apr 2012
Apr. 13, 2012 — The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame holds its 27th annual induction ceremony in Cleveland this Saturday. I happen to be in the area, and optics is never far from my mind. So, naturally, I decided to draw up a list of the Top 5 Optics Moments featuring Hall of Fame inductees. Without further ado:

The Who (1990 inductee) / Led Zeppelin (1995) — Early Laser Light Shows

The Who and Led Zeppelin were using lasers as early as 1975 — setting the stage for ever more elaborate rock shows in the latter half of the decade and beyond. Led Zeppelin introduced the practice during an Earl’s Court performance in London in May of that year, firing a single beam with an output of only 500-750 mW. The Who got a little more ambitious at a show in October, at Granby Halls in Leicester, England, using a 4 W Spectra Physics 164 argon laser transmitted through a diffraction grating held in place by hand.

As you might guess, implementation of lasers wasn’t as tightly regulated at these performances as it is today. I’ve written about the freewheeling early days of lasers in rock concerts here and here. Just so you know: No one was ever actually blinded at a Blue Oyster Cult show, at least not by a laser.

Pink Floyd (1996) — Dark Side Of The Moon Album Cover

The Floyd might have made this list for any number of reasons, from its many references to space exploration (“Interstellar Overdrive,” “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”) to its 26-minute ode to a future laser source (“Shine On You Crazy Diamond”). The band’s most enduring association with optics, though, is surely the iconic image from its 1973 album, The Dark Side Of The Moon.


Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, with one of the most iconic album covers ever, stayed on the Billboard album chart for 741 weeks.

The artwork, by design group Hipgnosis and George Hardie, features a prism with a spectrum. Unfortunately, writes Donald E. Simanek on the “whoops” page of his website, it isn’t entirely correct (Simanek is a retired professor of physics and a frequent contributor to MAKE: magazine). To begin with, the colors of the spectrum are “rather impurely rendered.” Also:

“The dispersion (spreading) of the colors is … shown. But the refraction angles at the second prism surface aren't consistent: the rays which are deviated the most in the picture have the least bending at the second surface. The rays deviated the most should also be refracted the most at each surface.”

Whoops, indeed.

Paul Simon (2001) — “The Boy In The Bubble”

If it were up to me, Simon would have been inducted for this verse alone — from his Grammy Award-winning 1986 album Graceland:

These are the days of lasers in the jungle

Lasers in the jungle somewhere

Staccato signals of constant information

A loose affiliation of millionaires

And billionaires and baby

Queen (2001) — Brian May, Ph.D.

Queen would have made the list if only for a single line in the song “Killer Queen” (“She’s a killer queen / Dynamite with a laser beam”). But there’s also this: Guitarist Brian May doubles as an astrophysicist. He was working toward a PhD when the band was just starting out, but left the program to do the music thing full time. (Read here how he applied his physicist mind in recording one of the band’s most well-known songs.) 

He finally finished the degree in 2007, submitting a dissertation entitled A Survey of Radical Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud. Today he serves as chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, in Liverpool, England. Rock on, Dr. May.


U2’s The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. donned LED jackets for a May 21, 2011, concert in Denver (Image:@U2)

U2 (2005) — “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”


How cool is it that the biggest band in the world name-checks a wavelength region? And on its excellent Achtung Baby no less?

Seeking to endear themselves even more to the optics community, U2 slipped on LED jackets for the song during their 360° tour of 2009-2011. Watch it here

Honorable Mention: Madonna (2008) — “Ray Of Light”

Admittedly, this one has little to do with optics; the titular ray of light refers more to Madonna’s burgeoning sense of spirituality (in 1998, when the song was released) than to a narrow beam propagating through a system. It’s a good track, though. And we know Madge likes any attention she can get, even if only from me …






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