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The Optical Society–marking a century of light

Scientific discovery requires the inspiration of individuals, collaboration among potential competitors and the commitment of industry and government to support innovation. As World War I loomed in Europe, the demand for technological innovations grew increasingly urgent. It was against this backdrop that Perley G. Nutting, a scientist at the U.S. Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., recognized the need for an organized scientific home for optical engineering and technology.

After moving to Rochester to take a position at Eastman Kodak Co., Nutting and other Rochester-area luminaries formed the Rochester Association for the Advancement of Applied Optics. They knew they had to break down the barriers between industry and academia to improve the exchange of scientific research. In 1916, they founded the Optical Society with a focus on advancing applied optics. Since then, the Optical Society has been advancing the study and application of optics and photonics, commonly known as the science of light.

Over the last century, the research world and consumers alike have enjoyed a dramatic expansion of light-based science and applied technology. The growth of optics and photonics since the early 20th century through today touches nearly every aspect of modern living. Cameras have shrunk and resolutions have grown. Fiberoptic cables have made calling Delhi as efficient and clear as calling your neighbor. The laser has become an indispensable tool of scientific inquiry, with applications as diverse as advanced manufacturing to medical cosmetics. Increasingly more powerful telescopes allow us to explore planets light years away with exceptional detail. And laser technology brought us the sound of two black holes colliding more than a billion light years ago with the recent discovery of gravitational waves.

In fact, researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation recently helped detect these gravitational waves, further confirming Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

If you’ve played Pokemon Go or wondered about Google Glass, you can see the potential for augmented and virtual reality made possible by ever more sophisticated optics and photonics technologies.

Optics and photonics are the backbone of modern national security applications, energy exploration, environmental monitoring, industrial controls, telecommunications, advanced manufacturing, health care and consumer and business products. We know this because New York is home to 150 optics companies—including Corning Inc., Kodak, and Optimax Systems Inc.—with photonics clusters in Rochester, Buffalo, New York City/Long Island, Albany/Hudson Bay and the central region of the state. Many of these global companies and small businesses are members of the Optical Society.

The society estimates that global production of optics and photonics products exceeds $400 billion a year, and North America has roughly a 20 percent market share of that with the United States as the stronghold.

The Optical Society Industry Development Associates has found that approximately 25 percent of optics and photonics research and development funding is from public sources and 75 percent is from the private sector. The federal government has recognized the contributions of photonics to economic development and last year announced a public-private consortium working with the Department of Defense known as the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics, or AIM Photonics.

I’m proud to have led the three-year fight to ensure that Rochester serves as the consortium’s national headquarters. Photonics will help create the advanced manufacturing jobs of the future right here in our community, which will truly be a game changer for the entire region.

The Optical Society has played an important role in each of these endeavors and has been a tireless champion for the scientists, engineers and business leaders in the optics and photonics industry. From nine scientists in Rochester in 1916 to more than 19,000 members in over 100 countries today, the Optical Society is well positioned for another century of discovery. Happy 100th anniversary!

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Perinton, represents the 25th Congressional District.

10/14/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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