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Celebrating Light in Ireland

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Laura Tobin, School of Electrical, Electronic & Communications Engineering, University College Dublin

Bringing the excitement of optics and photonics to large audiences in public spaces requires enthusiasm, creativity and energy — and fortunately, many students have all of these qualities in abundance. The SPIE/OSA Chapter of the University College Dublin, led by President Laura Tobin, is a good example of how students are reaching out to encourage the celebration of light in 2015 and the next generation of scientists and engineers.

— Judy Donnelly, column editor

Some of the most important events taking place during the International Year of Light 2015 (IYL2015) are those that inform the public about the importance of light and inspire young people to learn more about science and technology.

The celebration of IYL2015 began in Ireland during the St. Patrick’s Day festival in March with the inaugural illumination of the 120-meter Dublin Spire in the city’s center. Along with green lighting, the spire displayed a Twitter feed with tweets from around the world. The four-day festival also saw other landmark buildings throughout Dublin, including Christ Church Cathedral and Trinity College Dublin, lit up in green.

IYL2015 celebrations in Ireland have continued with the University College Dublin (UCD) annual science day and open-house event — Light & Shadow. The event brought together researchers from many different disciplines within UCD who work with light. More than 500 people attended, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn about the research and interact with the researchers themselves. The goal was to highlight the importance of light and to demonstrate how light influences all aspects of our lives through an exciting program of talks, demonstrations, displays, interactive installations and film screenings in an inflatable 360° cinema.

Children explore polarization at UCD.

Children explore polarization at UCD.

Evelyn Cusack, deputy head of forecasting with Met Éireann (Irish National Meteorological Service), who served as keynote speaker, discussed the connection between spectroscopy and the weather. Her talk was a journey through time, from the daily weather forecasts of today back to the early atmosphere on Earth over 4 billion years ago. She also described the interdisciplinary nature of meteorology that incorporates biology, geology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, as well as how studies of past climates help predict possible future climates.

The event also featured 11 UCD researchers in science, engineering and architecture, who each discussed the importance of light in their particular areas of expertise. The wide-ranging themes included topics from astrophysics, solar energy, therapeutic and environmental light to the dark net:

• Imaging Molecules with Light showed participants how to see and control nature’s building blocks.

• Light for Eye Diagnostics demonstrated what retinal photoreceptor cells and sunflowers have in common.

• Light Sources for Electronics discussed how computers could be made smaller and faster.

Guided tours during annual science day gave visitors the chance to see where and how research happens at UCD, including modern teaching laboratories and interactive learning environments. The Institute of Food and Health provided an interactive sensory demonstration, where light was used to demonstrate how our interpretation of flavors is actually a multisensory perception.

Children explore polarization at UCD.
UCD SPIE/OSA Student Chapter President Laura Tobin (standing second from right) with fellow members.

For many visitors, a high point was the UCD Science Center atrium. It was filled with diverse displays and hands-on exhibits demonstrating the importance of light.

Many of the demonstrations combined science and art in their explanations of light. Among them was the Cellular Light Show, which demonstrated the complexity of living systems, while The Color Box allowed visitors to explore the influence of the color of illumination on the appearance of objects. Palindrome featured an art piece inspired by the neurological condition synesthesia, where light from a projection map on a pyramid is captured via sensors and processed to create a soundscape.

John Sheridan, SPIE/OSA Student Chapter advisor and associate professor in the UCD Optical Engineering Research Group, explains an iridescent rainbow spinner to a young visitor.
John Sheridan, SPIE/OSA Student Chapter advisor and associate professor in the UCD Optical Engineering Research Group, explains an iridescent rainbow spinner to a young visitor.

The UCD SPIE/OSA Student Chapter, along with faculty advisor Prof. John T. Sheridan, hosted games of Khet, a board game that combines strategy with lasers and Egyptian-themed playing pieces. It is also known as “laser chess,” since players must think about the path the light will follow before committing to a move.

Outreach tables were assembled in the order of the electromagnetic spectrum with UV light on one side, visible light in the middle and IR on the far side. At the UV table, the Student Chapter used a black light, UV color-changing beads, makeup and paint to demonstrate the properties of UV light, particularly via sunscreen on the UV beads under the black light. For the visible light range, the group used a color wheel, various light sources, glow sticks and diffraction glasses. For IR, the Student Chapter employed visitors’ smartphone cameras to demonstrate that such light is present on most cameras, even if it is not obvious.

Young students play a game of Khet during the UCD annual science-day event.
Young students play a game of Khet during the UCD annual science-day event.

UCD summer programs

UCD students continue to be active throughout the summer and into the fall, fostering the celebration of IYL2015 through an ambitious program of outreach. From summer programs Inspirefest — a large outdoor event hosted by Silicon Republic to encourage and empower girls in science and engineering — and Dublin Maker Fest at Trinity College Dublin, to Science Week Ireland in November, the SPIE/OSA Student Chapter plans to continue to inform the public about the importance of light.

For information about IYL2015 in Ireland, visit For information about programs at UCD, visit

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2015
Workforce of TomorrowLEDslight sourcesspectroscopyTest & MeasurementopticsLaura TobinUniversity College DublinUCDSchool of EEC EngineeringInternational Year of Light 2015Irish National Meteorological ServiceUCD SPIE/OSA Student ChapterUCD Science Centerwork in photonics

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