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Photonics Spectra
Since 1967, Photonics Spectra magazine has defined the science and industry of photonics, providing both technical and practical information for every aspect of the global industry and promoting an international dialogue among the engineers, scientists and end users who develop, commercialize and buy photonics products. Stay current with a FREE subscription to the digital or print edition.

Latest Issue
Nov 2020

What swans and turkeys teach us about photonics

DANIEL MCCARTHY, SENIOR EDITORNovember tends to remind me of “black swan” events. I blame Nassim Taleb, who coined the term in his eponymous 2007 book. For anyone who somehow managed to navigate the past 13 years — much less the past four — without ever encountering the phrase, a black swan has become commonly defined as an event that lies beyond our normal experience.

I find this definition is a bit watered down. Sampling kombucha may lie beyond my normal experience. But it’s hardly a black swan. I favor the slightly more stringent definition whereby black swans directly contradict all previous observations. They do not arise from an unpredictable future, they arise from a misinterpreted past.

In his book, Taleb offers the analogy of a Thanksgiving turkey. For the first three years of its life, everything in a domestic turkey’s daily experience reinforces the idea that the farmer has its best interests in mind. It’s amply fed, watered, and sheltered without fail.

Yet as the turkey learns in the weeks before Thanksgiving, the future can not only surprise you, it can potentially reverse a lifetime of past observations.

Stay with me. There are two critical points to make at this delicate juncture.

First, black swans are not necessarily catastrophic or even negative events. They are contextual. After a pattern of adversity leads us to lower our expectations of the future, black swans might manifest as unexpected blessings.

Second, they are humbling reminders for us to not allow past experiences to color our expectations of the future too much. That’s an especially important reminder in light of the looming U.S. election, the ongoing global pandemic, the persistent wobble in global economies and supply chains, and next year’s trade show schedule. While there’s always call for caution and concern, who can deny that the unforeseeable outcomes of 2020 might signal major breakthroughs and world-altering improvements?

Several of this month’s articles illustrate the point. Marie Freebody’s story on Earthimaging, for example, surveys the European Union’s Copernicus program’s game-changing potential for understanding and managing the earth, sea, and air around us. In another article, researchers from Tampere University and the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information describe advancements in quantum encoding that could increase information capacity per photon to revolutionize future communication networks and sensors.

It is easy to view these and other developments covered in this issue as incremental or routine. But they represent the sort of steady groundwork that sets the stage for disruptive and unexpected future innovations.

Mike Wheeler
As editor-in-chief, Michael Wheeler oversees Photonics Media's editorial operations — spanning print, web, and podcasts. He also serves as editor of Vision Spectra, chronicling advancements in the rapidly expanding machine vision/inspection sector.
Dan McCarthy
Senior editor Dan McCarthy manages editorial content and production for Photonics Spectra. An award-winning writer and editor, he has communicated the progress and practical value of advanced technologies for over two decades.
Doug Farmer
Senior Editor Douglas Farmer has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, winning awards for health and education reporting. He has a master's degree in journalism from Ball State University. He is editor of EuroPhotonics and BioPhotonics magazines.
Sarah Weiler
As Webinar & Social Media Coordinator, Sarah Weiler organizes and produces all Photonics Media webinars and manages social media content. With a background in writing and editing, she also contributes to the print publications.
Valerie Coffey
Science writer Valerie C. Coffey holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in astronomy. She has covered optics, photonics, physics, and astronomy for a variety of industry and academic publications since 2000.
Hank Hogan
Contributing Editor Hank Hogan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He worked in the semiconductor industry and now writes about science and technology.
Marie Freebody
Contributing Editor Marie Freebody is a freelance science and technology journalist with a master’s degree in physics and a concentration in nuclear astrophysics from the University of Surrey in England.
Farooq Ahmed
Farooq Ahmed has covered the physical and biological sciences for over a decade. He has a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Brown University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Columbia University.
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