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Simulacra and synthetics

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Simulacrum: an insubstantial form or resemblance of something

Among the many writers who have explored the concept of the simulacrum, two come to mind: Hans Christian Andersen and Stanislaw Lem.

Andersen, a Danish writer best known for children’s tales, penned “The Nightingale” (1843). For the unfamiliar, “The Nightingale” is the story of a Chinese emperor who becomes enrapt with the song of a small gray bird. He invites her to his palace to sing and she is lauded by all as a most lovely and delightful object. Soon, though, the emperor replaces her with a jeweled, mechanical replica, causing the real bird to flee. When the mechanical bird breaks, the emperor cries out for the original.

Lem was a Polish writer of intellectual and philosophical science fiction whose works have been translated into several languages and have sold millions of copies throughout the world. Among them is Solaris (1961), which was made into a film by Andrei Tarkovsky. Solaris considers two things: the utter failing of humans in their quest to communicate with extraterrestrial sentient intelligence, and human simulacra in the form of people brought back to life through memory.

While both of these writers take a cautionary stance toward synthetic resemblances, if I shift to manufacturing, synthetics — particularly materials — actually offer incredible possibilities! In this issue, Marie Freebody (read here), Michael Eisenstein (read here), and Hank Hogan (read here) discuss recent developments with nanophotonic materials such as graphene, polaritons, conjugated polymers, and perovskites. The articles examine new applications in soft robotics, environmental sensors, clean energy, and light-induced switching. Rounding out the issue, Derryck T. Reid of Heriot-Watt University discusses the role of orientation-patterned gallium phosphide in generating a visible supercontinuum (read here), and Ophir explains the importance of beam profilers in high-power materials processing (read here).

As synthetic materials move out of the lab and manufacturing, and into the general population, they will begin to enter our lives in new and unpredictable ways — for example, Elon Musk’s visionary Neuralink, with inspiration lifted from writer Iaian Banks’ idea of an implantable neural lace. How — absent guidelines or regulations — to navigate the deeper synthesizing of humans with technological enhancements?

It would be nice to be here to watch answers to that question evolve. However, this is my final editorial for Photonics Spectra. I am moving on to the next adventure! I’d like to thank you for welcoming me into your community, and for writing to me with your poems, plans, ideas, sketches, insights, stories, and compliments. They have softened this challenging profession, and I treasure them.

As a parting gift, I offer you a link to a light-based fusion of the very technological with the very human: the pulsing heart of Eindhoven, a “flying tribute to freedom.”

You take care.

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2020

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