There’s always that lag between the change of the calendar and the realization that a new year has begun.  Back in the old days I could tell the new year had finally arrived when I stopped writing the previous year on the dateline of my checks…Now that all my bills are paid online, that’s no longer a reliable indicator—but not to worry! There’s a much better sign that the new year has arrived: Photonics West.

For those unfamiliar with the conference, just imagine wandering the corridors of the San Jose Convention Center, rubbing shoulders with thousands of people, catching random phrases about cell-specific stimulation, substrate spectra, and stroke and strehl.  Thousands of presentations, hundreds of companies.  More on specifics later, but one fascinating aspect of this conference is the way attendees can track the “readiness level” of technologies.  Each year hundreds of presentations contain very preliminary results from initial studies.  Then following years will either see the incremental growth of those technologies, or they’ll just quietly fade away.  At some point the technologies suddenly reach some critical point—a stage where users don’t need to become experts in the technology, but they can use it as a tool.  Then in the year or two following the technologies are no longer discussed in the technical sessions; they are commercially available on the show floor.

Two technologies that are at the critical point—the point where they can be implemented by folks without requiring a year or two to develop expertise—are solid state lighting and sub-diffraction-limited fluorescence microscopy.

Briefly: Solid state lighting refers to the use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for general illumination purposes.  The efficiency and unique capabilities of this technology have made it an attractive option for years, but users have needed to be experts in optomechanical design, light extraction, and thermal management (for starters!).  As Mark McClear of CREE made clear (pun unintended—really!), that’s no longer the case.  It’s not quite a plug-and-play (or flip-the-switch-and-read) situation, but a critical point has now been passed and I think this field will now rapidly accelerate.  More later, particularly after DOE’s SSL workshop and Pennwell’s Strategies in Light Conference in February.

The other advance that’s now in this same category is sub-diffraction-limited fluorescence microscopy.  It was probably a eight or nine years ago that I first saw Professor Stefan Hell describing methods of using the quantum behavior of fluorescent labels to achieve imaging at scales smaller than that previously thought possible.  The diffraction limit was derived by Ernst Abbe well over a hundred years ago.  It expresses the smallest possible spot size achievable by light focussed through a “perfect” optical system.  The best microscopes using visible light, for example, can see objects as small as about 250 nm (1/4 micron, or one four-thousandth of a millimeter).  Hell’s method doesn’t focus the light to a spot any tighter, but he manipulates the light so that only fluorescent molecules within a very small volume can emit.  For all practical purposes, the optical resolution of a fluorescence microscope operated in this protocol is unlimited.  

As he said on Saturday, the technology to allow this to be done has been around since the 1970’s, it was only waiting for the realization that it could be done.  

Although he has come up with a brilliant insight whose ramifications will only become clear in decades to come, he is a humble and gracious man who I’m sure will represent the field very well when the time comes for him to stand on the platform in Stockholm.