By Dave Thomas
Amsterdam Central Station after dark. At a random moment on each day of the week, the 125-year-old arch over the platforms briefly transforms into a rainbow. Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde’s contribution to the UNESCO International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies.
How did he pull this off? A prism like Newton used in his famous experiments to ‘dissect’ sunlight? No, a prism failed to spread the light properly and the rainbow formed was upside down. Diffraction gratings? These were also discarded as the correct arch shape could not be produced and some colours were brighter than others. Instead a high-tech approach was needed. The rainbow is produced with the help of a polarisation grating, a brand new form of liquid crystal technology.
But why an International Year of Light?
Light-based technologies are revolutionising, medicine (keyhole surgery), communication (fibre optics) and health (laser treatments). Whereas the twentieth century was about electronics the twenty-first century will be about light. And you don’t have to go to Silicon Valley to find the latest developments. At the Amsterdam Science Park, research institute ARCNL is investigating how extreme ultraviolet light can be used to produce the next generation of chips with nanometre-sized components so that our tablets and smartphones can be faster and more powerful still. Elsewhere in the Netherlands researchers are working on improved displays, revolutionary microscopy techniques, the 3D printing of optical components, phrotonic chips (combined use of optics and electronics) and advanced telescopes to detect if planets orbiting other stars might harbour life.
Just in case you miss the real thing you can watch the artist’s video about his installation here. I wonder what the founding father of Dutch optics, Christiaan Huygens would make of it?
The idea for this piece came from a special edition of the Nederlandse Tijdschrift voor Natuurkunde published by the Dutch Physical Society to mark the International Year of Light.
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