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Reflections on a Storied Career

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Eugene Arthurs, Ph.D.

For 18 years, Eugene Arthurs, Ph.D., has served at the helm of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics. During that time, SPIE saw its membership ranks expand, launched seven new journals, marked its 50th anniversary and, in 2008, teamed with Photonics Media to launch the Prism Awards for Photonics Innovation.

Eugene Arthurs
Courtesy of SPIE.

With his retirement fast-approaching, Arthurs reflected on these milestones, why Silicon Valley is now a “hotbed of photonics” and why the next generation ought to consider optics among the STEM fields.

Q: Last summer SPIE announced your pending retirement for early 2018, after a tenure that began in 1999. Compare the state of the industry then with today.

A: I worked in the industry from 1975 to 1999, with an earlier introduction in 1971 when [I was] a student. I’ll use the term “photonics industry” while recognizing that was not always the descriptor, and that Photonics Media and SPIE have been major influences in establishing that important recognition. The photonics industry did back then and still does provide wonderful careers for a huge number of people.

In an article in The Economist in July 2016, it was noted that “In America, the number of MBAs awarded by business schools has increased sevenfold from 1970.” I don’t know the ratio since 1999, but I sometimes muse how this can be, as extrapolation of the growth in the number of lawyers suggested everyone would be a lawyer at this stage. To me these trends are concerning. Our industry is based on fast-moving technology, and while MBAs and lawyers may have their place (I think it is called Congress), we need our brightest and best — the brightest and best in the world — studying science and engineering and using their talents to realize the potential of photonics.

Back in 1999, China was a bit of an afterthought. Now, world-class photonics research is being heavily funded in China and other parts of Asia. It is well known that China is leading in volume manufacturing of photonics for consumer applications, but we are seeing more Chinese companies striving to serve the large market that SPIE Photonics West defines.

I’d say that in 1999, “photonics” in Silicon Valley was synonymous with the leading laser companies. Now the FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) along with augmented reality, consumer products, communications and some transportation companies are changing the valley into a photonics hotbed and are somewhat disrupting the culture of our industry.

Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of during your time at SPIE? How has the organization evolved?

A: I think that SPIE has retained its strong customer service culture and a staff passion for the photonics innovation infrastructure. This framework embraces students and researchers in academia, government labs and industry, but also the people who transform the beautiful science into products and processes, who make it real and valuable. The Prism Awards program, sponsored by SPIE with support from Photonics Media, is one opportunity to showcase a few examples of these innovations. As staff, we all find it inspiring and motivating to see the amazing new capabilities that develop from connecting researchers, engineers and applications developers at our events.

I think SPIE has played a key role in putting photonics on the economic scene, in meaningful and symbolic ways. Putting SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco was a clear statement of the importance of photonics: a high-visibility venue for a powerful enabling technology. The fact that there now is more demand from prospective exhibitors than we have room for at the Moscone Center is evidence of even more potential.

Eugene Arthurs, with Tania Johnston, ESO Supernova Coordinator, and Jim Oschmann of Ball Aerospace

Eugene Arthurs, with Tania Johnston, ESO Supernova Coordinator, and Jim Oschmann of Ball Aerospace, standing on the roof of the ESO Supernova in Garching, Germany, during construction in June 2017. Oschmann is SPIE President-Elect in 2018. Courtesy of SPIE.

SPIE has and is still evolving as this exciting field continues a healthy expansion. Compare the technology frontier, communication, publishing, medicine, computing or sensing of today with 1999 when Steve Jobs amazed an audience with the potential of Wi-Fi, and Microsoft 98 ruled corporate offices. The ideas in SPIE conferences of 1999 are still being cited in new patents and providing the basis for successful companies and products. I believe that the IP from the SPIE conferences of 2018 will continue to push the knowledge frontier forward and to catalyze jobs and industry 10 and 20 years hence. So, in ways we haven’t changed at being the definition of the frontier, yet all is changed utterly because of the restless creative community that is SPIE.

Q: The 21st century has been described as “the century of the photon.” Is that an apt characterization?

A: I am one who used that catchphrase before the century began, and believe even more strongly in the growing role of the photon in so much of human life and economic development. I draw back only a little from identifying this century specifically when I remind myself that if we did not get our daily gift of photons, none of us would be here or counting centuries, and if photons were not conveying information to our brains, what would be the state of our understanding? Everything is photon-dependent.

But back to what is behind this assertion: We already see the conversion of information systems from copper “carrying electrons” to networks based on photons, and an increasing merging of electronics and photonics. We will of course continue to use electronics, much of which is manufactured and tested using photons, but the limitations of the electron in computing and high-bandwidth information transport are clear. Photon sources are becoming more and more affordable for many applications, with extraordinary specifications for time and frequency. The potential is mindboggling. Optical computing and power transport using photons may be a way off, but so is the end of this century of the photon.

Q: In an interview with Photonics Media several years ago, you mentioned that the photonics sector was outperforming other areas of the developed world in the years following the Great Recession. Is that trend continuing?

A: First let me say that I thought I was the only one who went back to what people, politicians mostly, actually said some years ago — [I thought] that there was no interview accountability! But, yes, I believe the photonics sector is outperforming GDP growth, and this trend will accelerate. What remains frustrating is lack of recognition of the role of photonics and the photonics sector. Genomics and other photonics-based medical instrumentation is counted in its own category. Was there ever a more photonic product than the smartphone, some 1.5 billion units a year? Some immediately think I’m speaking of the camera, or camera module (the market for which is bigger than the entire laser market). Well, yes, but the information in and out of these devices is photonic, and of course without laser-manufactured chips and laser precision machining, there would be no smartphones. Already, we have handheld face recognition devices, and in the future all sorts of medical diagnostics will be handheld. The growing photonics component of automobiles will be counted in automobile industry statistics, and where AR, VR and mixed reality will be tallied is beyond me, but I doubt it will be assigned to the photonics sector. I can — and do — go on about this, but I think the message is clear.

Q: What would you identify as some of the most exciting developments in which optics is the enabling technology?

A: The capability and affordability of vision and lidar systems will determine the practicality of autonomous vehicles. There are many other social factors in play, of course, before we see truly autonomous automobiles, but the progress of these technologies is impressive and is moving us to an acceptance that life-saving and life-enhancing autonomous land, air and sea vehicles are possible and likely. The shrinkage of optical systems, novel approaches to manufacturing compact and complex wearable optical assemblies, and the size and cost curves for powerful processors and memory — again optically enabled — are moving mixed reality systems toward ubiquity.

Q: You’ve attended SPIE Photonics West and BiOS for many years. Are there “can’t miss” sessions for you each year?

A: That’s a long list indeed. I always enjoy and highly recommend the BiOS Hot Topics session. Over 1000 rapt smart people on a Saturday night in San Francisco really speaks to the value of this session. I definitely can’t miss the BiOS exhibit or the ferment of the Photonics West exhibit, and the PRISM Awards are very stimulating.

Q: What has crept into the program that wasn’t there in 1999? Were there any passing fads?

A: Your question takes me aback a little. The 2018 program is vastly different from the 1999 program and I’d hate to think things “creep in.” The program chairs and SPIE staff work hard every year to include the most promising science and technology, and have a strong sense of what will have an economic or social impact and have a transdisciplinary outlook. But think back to 1999, when OCT was emerging, and who cared about terahertz?

I hope I have gotten smarter about dismissing things as passing fads, though I do believe that the research world sees things go in and out of fashion. In 1965, one might have put Snitzer’s fiber laser of 1963 in the passing fad category, but Photonics West supported the rise of practical fiber lasers, and thus today’s world in general, where one can buy a femtosecond laser and immediately put it to work. No more “Ph.D. in the box” requirement.

Q: For young people who may be interested in STEM lines of study, what would you say to steer them toward a career in optics?

A: I strongly encourage young people to pursue STEM studies. SPIE’s focus on student programs shows the Society’s commitment to this. STEM skills not only are the path to well-paid jobs, but to the most interesting and exciting jobs of today and tomorrow. A good grounding in optics and photonics can take you anywhere in the STEM world. Any area of science and technology uses optics somewhere. Particle physics has always required exquisitely sensitive optical detection systems, while optics will play an even greater role in health care. Optics has been and will be the key to understanding our universe, our planet and ourselves. Future careers will be more transitory, requiring lifelong learning. I see know-how in our vast and expanding field as the highlight of any resume.

Q: What advice would you give to the person who will serve as your successor at SPIE?

A: I’d just ask that she or he help our creative community continue to change the world for the better. I think it’s a great opportunity.

Q: How do you intend to spend your time in retirement?

A: Why is everyone asking me that? I do intend to get out and enjoy this beautiful part of the world where I live more than I have been able to, and I want to devote more time to understanding the complex world of innovation. I’m trying to find out what the age limits on a gap year might be. I never had one, but it sounds like a great idea.

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2018
A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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