It’s the thought that counts

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It is poor form to compare the largesse of the recent gift-giving season against that of past holidays. Hopefully, the rules are more forgiving when comparing scientific discoveries.

As rumors mounted last month about a major breakthrough in laser fusion, there was time to contemplate how the looming announcement might stack up against the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope that had unfolded 12 months prior in December 2021. But by what metrics can two developments such as these even be compared?

Purely in terms of the threshold crossed, Webb stands out — even before it started returning images and data — for the virtuoso high-wire act that was its launch and deployment. The National Ignition Facility’s (NIF’s) report of controlled ignition, in turn, is a crucial advancement in fusion research, but a relatively incremental one that leaves room for speculation about future steps.

At the same time, where Webb now provides groundbreaking discoveries into the nature of our universe, NIF’s step put us incrementally closer to a breakthrough that could eventually redefine our place in that universe.

Science is good when it provides smart answers. It is even better when it raises smart questions. Which means the quality of the questions arising from these two scientific endeavors provides yet another metric for their valuation, though a poor metric for comparing them.

Webb is effectively an investigative analytical machine. It exists expressly to probe some of the most foundational queries into the nature of existence. NIF, in turn, is rooted in science, but its future lines of inquiry tend to converge on engineering challenges, such as developing the technologies to support a future fusion power plant, increasing the repetition rate and efficiency of its lasers, and improving the cost and efficacy of its target pellet. In either case, the questions prompted are entirely worthy of pursuit.

As with holiday gift-giving, maybe the true value of scientific endeavor is in the thought applied, though we can’t help anticipating what we will gain from the exchange.

A tremendous amount of thought and inquiry went into this edition of Photonics Spectra — our annual trends issue. And, speaking of metrics, it’s the largest book we’ve published since 2012. Within this month’s pages, our editors and contributors survey the latest trends and developments in multiple photonics technologies, including micro-optics, laser additive manufacturing of metals, optics for augmented reality, lasers for quantum computing, SWIR imaging, beam profiling, and the outlook for photonic integrated circuits.

It is our gift to you. Enjoy.

Published: January 2023

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