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Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century
How to support and strengthen a field such as optics whose value is primarily enabling; and
How to ensure the future vitality of a field that lacks a recognized academic or disciplinary home.
This report is the product of an unprecedented effort to bring together all aspects of the field of optics in one assessment organized around national needs. The report reviews the field's status today, assesses the outlook for tomorrow, and considers what must be done to assure the field's future vitality.
Optics and National Needs
Because optics applications are everywhere, this report is selective rather than comprehensive. It highlights areas where breakthroughs are taking place, where rapid change is likely in the near future, and where national needs dictate special attention. The field is largely defined by what it enables; as a result, applications drove the structure of the study and the report, which is organized around seven major areas of national need: (1) information technology and telecommunications; (2) health care and the life sciences; (3) optical sensing, lighting, and energy; (4) optics in manufacturing; (5) national defense; (6) manufacturing of optical components and systems; and (7) optics research and education. Some issues connected with these areas are outlined here. Some specific recommendations may be found in the Overview. More detailed conclusions on each area will be found in the chapters dedicated to those areas.
Information Technology and Telecommunications
In information technology, progress during the past decade has been extraordinary. For example, optical fiber for communications is being installed worldwide at a rate of 1,000 meters every second, comparable to the speed of a Mach 2 aircraft. Just 10 years ago, only 10 percent of all transcontinental calls in the United States were carried over fiber-optic cables; today 90 percent are. Meeting the computing and communications needs of the next 10 to 20 years will require advances across a broad front: transmission, switching, data storage, and displays. Many capabilities will have to advance a hundredfold. Although institutions have access to this rapidly growing, high-speed global telecommunications network, the infrastructure is not yet in place to provide individual consumer access that fully exploits the power of the system.