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Everyday science

Everyday science

Paris ushers in the International Year of Light

20 Jan 2015 Matin Durrani

By Matin Durrani in Paris

It was a grey and dank morning yesterday in the French capital, with even the top of the Eiffel Tower shrouded in clouds – perhaps not the most auspicious weather for the official opening ceremony of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015) here at the headquarters of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Inside the conference hall, however, all was brightly lit. The stage was bathed in beams of light in all the colours of the rainbow as the 1500 or so delegates first watched an official IYL 2015 video and then listened as a series of dignitaries voiced their backing for the initiative.

These included a message of support from UN director-general Ban Ki-moon read out by an official and a video recording from Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general. There were also speakers from Ghana, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia and Saudi Arabia – the five nations that took a key role in getting IYL 2015 approved by the UN in late 2013.

Physics World is an official media partner of IYL 2015, having launched a free-to-read digital collection of 10 of our best features related to the science and technology of light, including an article about the 11th-century Islamic scholar Ibn al-Haytham. He was one of a number of talented thinkers from the “golden age” of Islamic science, who carried out pioneering work on optics 1000 years ago.

As the Egyptian Nobel-prize-winning researcher Ahmed Zewail explained to delegates, Al-Haytham’s achievements include his invention of the camera obscura, as well as his realization that we see objects not because light emerges from our eyes but because light reflects off those objects. Al-Haytham’s life and work is also featured in an exhibition outside the main UNESCO lecture hall that has been created as part of a new educational project called 1001 Inventions that seeks to make the world more aware of his contributions.

Paris has been on edge since the murder of staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine a fortnight ago and it is at times like these that one really appreciates how much science is an effort that, perhaps more than any other, brings people from different countries and cultures together to work on common goals. Indeed, Ziad Aldrees, the UNESCO delegate for Saudi Arabia, received a spontaneous round of applause as he concluded his opening statement with the words “Aujourd’hui, je suis Ibn al-Haytham”.

But before anyone thinks IYL 2015 is just one giant orgy of celebration and self-congratulation, John Dudley – current president of the European Physical Society – warned how important it will be for all scientists to grasp the opportunity the year provides and tell the world just why science is so important to all our lives. “We will only get one chance,” he said.

And if you’re not sure how you can make a contribution, then why not check out our free-to-read digital collection and share it with your friends and colleagues.

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