This week’s “History of Fiber Optics” comes from George Gilder: In the wake of theories about gravity and thermodynamics (deals with the mechanical action of heat), Maxwell’s electromagnetic theories seemed the consummation and pinnacle of physics. Science, it seemed could at last sleep. But, however elegant and coherent science seemed it was not enough to sustain 21st century telecommunications. Underneath the towering matrices of mathematics was an infinitesimal pea, unrecognizable to ordinary humans and known only by a few scientists. The pea was known to physicists as the quantum and it was the smallest pea to ever disrupt the slumber of modern men/women of science—6.65 times 10 to the minus (to the right of the decimal point) 34th joule seconds, but yet it was big enough to drive 20th century telecommunications into the 21st century. In time it gave birth to understanding photons, the smallest glimmer of light measured by multiplying the miniscule pea times the frequency of the light. Granulated in photons, Maxwell’s rainbow became manageable radiance that enabled a colossal global network communications system. Multiplied by frequencies of millions to trillions in communications devices, this tiny pea or quanta could become streams of photons passing through tiny strands of ultra pure glass. Each quantum had an indelible frequency signature and these photons added up to bits that could be sorted and sent in accordance with their respective wavelength. Governed by the laws of interference, they could be enhanced by aligning their wave crests (in phase), to make laser beams, or deleted when wave crests were in opposite phases (out of phase). Thus by manipulating the paths of the photons, engineers could combine them for transmission, or separate them by dividing the light with a prism into individual wavelengths (colors). In short, with the discovery of the pea or quantum, scientists and engineers could now manipulate Maxwell’s rainbow. Albert Einstein was the first scientist to feel the tiny pea underneath his mattress, and the longer he thought about it, the bigger it got until it became a giant boulder that caused him restless nights for the rest of his life. Einstein, at age 26, was a brash young man working in a Swiss patent office; no university would hire him because of his poor college grade averages. While he worked as a lowly patent clerk, Albert wrote one of his most famous scientific papers. Einstein boldly walked the “plank” of quantum theory while world-renowned scientists, like Max Planck, feared to tread. To the reluctant world of exclusive physicists and wave theorists, Einstein introduced the photon. Albert insisted that quanta were everywhere, even in radiation throughout space rather than a continuous spread of energies as Maxwell had hypothesized.
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