HISTORY OF FIBER OPTICS

This week’s segment of the “History of Fiber Optics,” is more from George Gilder…”Let there be light, says the Bible.” All the firmaments of technology, all our computers and networks, are built with light, and for light, to hasten its spread around the world. Light glows everywhere inside and on the periphery of all telecommunications technology; it shines at its core; it illumines its webs and links.

From Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein to Richard Feynman and Charles Townes, the more men have gazed at light, the more it turns out to be a phenomenon utterly different from anything else. And yet everything else—every atom and every molecule—is fraught with its oscillating intensity.

In a very real sense, the world is light in all its forms and frequencies, light sets boundaries, just as much in the tiny expanse of microchips as it does in the infinite domains of our universe and telecommunications technology. Its paradoxes dictate topographies, network architecture, and the shape and size of machines. The further we progress, the more light’s speed becomes the defining scarcity, the key constraint.

We once again face a great predicament, the same one we faced at the outset of the twentieth century, when physicists first faced the full meaning of an absolute speed of light. By many measures Sir Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist of all time—the man who most radically, accurately, and consequently re-shaped the conceptions of reality in human minds. But he also made two huge mistakes, or oversights. In part because a seventeenth-century scientist had few instruments to work with other than what his eyes could see and he assumed matter was solid, made of hard, unbreakable atoms. And for the purposes of his Mathmatica Principia, he assumed that light’s speed was infinite—that it moved instantaneously through space.

Quantum theory took care of the first error: matter is not solid, as Newton assumed, it consists of atoms as empty in proportion to the size of their nuclei as the solar system is empty in proportion to the sun and furthermore, they are vibrating at one frequency or another. Richard Feynman said, “In a solid state, atoms are marching in place, but in a liquid state they’re marching around in all directions.” Within these atoms, at the heart of everything we see in modern quantum theory, Newton’s laws turned out to be irrelevant and wrong. Maxwell capsized the other Newtonian misconception, instantaneous light, by coming up with equations that yielded an indisputably finite velocity for the speed of light. But at the time, the late nineteenth century, no one could fully gage Maxwell’s theoretical implications.

And, the problem was partly of Maxwell’s own making because of his dogged belief in lumeniferous ether—a mysterious, light—bearing medium that filled the universe and explained wave theory—suggested that light would move faster from a source moving through the ether than from a source at rest. Common sense concurred: Light from a car’s headlights should move faster, if you are speeding toward a photo-detector than backing away from it. But rest assured it doesn’t.

It would be nearly another century before scientific instruments improved sufficiently to accurately measure the speed of light. But comparing its speed from two different sources, one stationary and the other moving was feasible—provided you could find an object moving fast enough to impart a measurable difference in the velocity of light from two different sources. The very high speed platform scientists searched for turned out to be literally under their feet: Earth itself, orbiting around the sun at eighteen miles per second, a full one-ten thousandth of light’s speed. To be continued with the famous Albert Michelson and Ed Morley experiment.

The Waynedale News Staff
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