Celebrating the future beyond the close of the International Year of Light

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If there’s one thing that I’ve learned as the UK coordinator for the International Year of Light, it’s that the 21st century really is the century of photonics. So much of the highly advanced technology that we depend on for everyday life is based on creating or manipulating light; without it we’d be, quite literally, in the dark.

So it’s with this in mind that I’m looking back on the International Year of Light and how its close has been celebrated in the UK and beyond. It’s really quite hard to believe that it was a year ago that the International Year of Light was just dawning and it’s such a pleasure to be able to look back on everything that’s been achieved.

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The Laser show in London, as part of the UK IYOL closing ceremony (Photo: Toby Shannon)

In the UK, we celebrated the end of the year with a day of activities and a reception at the Royal Society (already wonderfully summarised by volunteer and science-communication dynamo Jess Wade). My personal highlight was the amazing laser show that attracted spectators from Piccadilly Circus and the Mall and used smoke, sound and incredible laser effects to transform a little patch of London to something quite spectacular.

Almost immediately after the UK closing event, I had the huge privilege to attend the global closing event hosted in Mexico which brought together people that had been working all over the world to mark the year. Over three days of programming, we heard from Nobel laureates, artists, designers, charity workers and more as they shared their inspirational stories from the International Year of Light.

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Dr Beth Taylor addresses the audience in Mexico (Photo: Toby Shannon)

From the UK, Professor Sir Peter Knight and Professor Sir John Pendry (both Imperial College London) talked about the importance of quantum technology for the connected world and the science behind making the invisibility cloak a reality, respectively. Professor Sir David Payne (Optoelectronics Research Centre, University of Southampton) talked about the importance of photonics research to industry and the economy but he also took to the stage to present a very special gift to the United Nations to commemorate the year: a crystal encoded with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This five-dimensional crystal was created using cutting-edge photonics technology and has the potential to store this information for thousands of years, perhaps longer. At the end of the programme, Dr Beth Taylor, the chair of the UK International Year of Light Committee, led a fantastic session about Light for All and the global mission to bring clean, safe light to those that need it the most.

It was wonderful to hear from so many different people from across the globe but also great to see many presentations from the UK delegation that highlighted the amazing work that goes on here.

Alongside the programme of presentations and discussions, we also had the chance to experience some of the local culture with visits to the Museum of the Mayan World and the internationally-famous archaeological site Chichén Itzá with its iconic square pyramid. I returned home with a real sense of pride in the global achievements of the International Year of Light community and optimism about the future that the year may have helped to inspire.

Street art made by glow sticks during the closing ceremony (Photo: Toby Shanon)

In his speech in London, the Duke of York said: “[the International Year of Light] has brought you together into a community where you can actually start to talk to each other where you would not otherwise have done so before and that will leave, I hope, a lasting legacy not just from your own personal aspects but from your different organisations’ aspects to keep you talking across the boundaries.”

It is my hope for the legacy of the International Year of Light that people will continue to work together across traditional disciplinary boundaries to use the power of light for the betterment of humanity. The International Year of Light may have officially come to a close but, really, it’s only the beginning.

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Toby Shannon

Toby Shannon

International Year of Light UK coordinator
Toby Shannon

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