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Margaret Harris: April 2010 Archives

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By Margaret Harris

Who uses lasers? What can we do with them? How have they changed physics? And what’s in store for their future?

Here at Physics World, we have been thinking about these questions for months now, as we prepared to celebrate an important milestone in the history of science and technology: the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser.

In our search for answers, we spoke to more than 20 experts in a wide variety of disciplines, including astronomy, biophysics, communications, defence, manufacturing, medicine, optics and space science (to name just a few).

You’ll find some of their responses in our May special issue – which you can download for free here – but for a more personal look at how lasers are shaping different areas of science and technology, check out our series of five exclusive video interviews:

Tom Baer of the Stanford Photonics Research Center reviews 50 years of laser physics, and makes some predictions about the next 50
Tom Hausken of the market-research firm Strategies Unlimited discusses how lasers are used in optical communications
• Medical physicist Brian Pogue of Dartmouth College describes laser-based cancer treatments and the rewards of working with lasers in an interdisciplinary field
Andreas Tünnermann explains how researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering are developing fibre lasers for use in manufacturing
Narasimha Prasad of NASA’s Langley Research Center talks about using space-based lasers to gather data about the climate on Earth – and perhaps beyond

All of the interviews were filmed during the 2010 Photonics West conference, which saw more than 20,000 photonics scientists and engineers from all over the world gather in San Francisco to share their latest results.

Stay tuned for more laser coverage over the next few weeks as we continue to celebrate 50 years of an amazing technology and its contributions to the world of physics…

By Margaret Harris

Last month, with space in the print edition of Physics World tight, I cut a couple of sentences from the end of a short review I’d written of Len Fisher’s new book, The Perfect Swarm. This turned out to be a bad idea. How bad? Well, you can read the published review here, but this is how it originally ended:

“UK readers may be particularly interested in [Fisher’s] explanation of how, in a three-way race, voting is not transitive. This means that it would be theoretically possible for a majority to prefer the Tories to Labour, another majority to prefer Labour to the Lib Dems, and a third majority to prefer the Lib Dems to the Tories. Ouch.”

Ouch indeed. As keen observers of British politics will have noticed, the possibility of a tight three-way race got a lot less theoretical last week, after Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s performance in the first-ever televised debate between party leaders boosted the (usually third-place) Lib Dems’ poll ratings.

But although I’ve clearly blown my chance of being hailed as a political oracle, it’s not too late to take a closer look at the mathematics behind a three-way race – and particularly at the Condorcet paradox, the technical name of the situation I (almost) described.