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April 2016 Number 107


The 2015 International Year of Light

A resilient and creative approach to counter sustainability challenges.

 Light is Peace, © Erasmo Daaz / LPWA.

Light science is a fascinating field. Found at the base of countless discoveries affecting many other fields in the basic and applied sciences, as well as beyond, it is a major developmental driver on many levels, in all spheres, for all societies, with its impact ever-extending. Light and light-based technologies are indeed becoming increasingly central as we advance further into the 21st century. This is especially true when we address the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda [1], recently adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and relevant for every state, country and region on Earth. 

In this context, the 2015 International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies – of which we recently celebrated the closing ceremony on 4–6 February 2016 in Merida (Yucatan), Mexico – forms an important link in the chain working for change, to meet the objectives of the SDGs. As a precursor for change, the Year made clear that many solutions to local and global challenges, including in science education, food security, existing and newly emerging diseases, natural disasters, energy needs, poverty eradication and climate change, actually do exist, and are based on practical and cost-effective lightbased technologies. LEDs for instance will play a vital role in lowering energy consumption, conducive to the reduction of carbon dioxide emission on the global level, in line with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change adopted during the recently held COP21.

Undeniably, the social and economic development of several regions currently facing critical issues depends on the sustainable and inclusive management, sharing and conservation of their human and natural resources. In the long term, light science, as a proven trigger for innovation and a central lever for sustainable development, is an entry-point to tackle these daunting and complex challenges. It brings technological innovations and solutions to address the crux of contemporary matters in order to build more resilient and inclusive societies.

 Closing ceremony of the IYL in Merida, Mexico, © Salvador Gutierrez Niño / DGDC UNAM.

There are many examples that illustrate what this actually means and how small steps can lead to the eradication of poverty and to dealing with related issues, reaching the achievement of the SDGs. One example of concrete applications of light-related technologies for societal development is in agriculture: advanced cameras on planes or drones can map soil and vegetation density and, in measuring how light from lasers is reflected from crops and soil, can be used to monitor evaporation and guide irrigation decisions.

It is often the case that the communities that can best take advantage of these technological solutions are not aware that these solutions exist. Bridging these gaps is an element of major importance, and the International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP) of UNESCO, through the International Year of Light, has been fortunately positioned to bring different stakeholders together and share knowledge in relation to this.Light-based technologies are also key to understanding and combating climate change, whether it be by measuring the global carbon-dioxide distribution or the use of solar-based solutions for renewable energy. Closely related to the need for energy is the availability of lighting. Countries that have the lowest levels of electrification also have the highest levels of poverty. Light after sundown for over 1.5 billion people is only possible through kerosene lamps or candles, neither of which offers a healthy, viable solution [2]. Poorquality lighting has dramatic, negative impacts on health, as well as on educational opportunities, hindering the possibility to become scientifically empowered citizens. It also has a serious impact on income generation for workers who are unable to further their activity at night. An important activity of the International Year of Light, for instance, was to promote the use of portable solar-powered high-brightness LED lanterns in regions where there is no energy infrastructure. Furthermore, light-based technologies exploiting fibre-optic technology, such as the internet and smartphones, are common in the everyday lives of people living in affluent areas of the world, but it is also clear that they offer practical solutions to many challenges in sustainable development.

 ALOP participants observing the scattering of light; ALOP workshops in Latin America and Mauritius; and Prof. V. Lakshminarayanan (Vengu) showing a lens used as a model of the eye, © ALOP Indonesia, March 2015.

Light science and technologies, through its instant appeal and relevance, is also an optimal theme for promoting cross-disciplinary science education. The Year increased awareness that quality research on light and related innovation contribute to ground-breaking findings that shape the society of tomorrow. These echo UNESCO’s belief that in order to benefit from the fruits of building knowledge in the basic sciences, efforts in optics and photonics education are therefore evidently a central consideration.

The ALOP Programme is an active learning pedagogy in basic sciences that aims to strengthen knowledge in optics and photonics, but it also primarily focuses on the actual process of learning. Developed through the UNESCO ALOP training manual, translated into several languages, the Programme introduces six targeted modules[3] explored among educators attending ALOP workshops. Enabling a shift from a teacher to a student-centered perspective, in terms of teaching and learning, the novelty lies in the fact that the workshops serve as places of experimentation, not only in technical, scientific terms, but also in terms of methodology and learning processes that are continuously improved based on former experiences. In this sense, the workshops, in different regions and at different times, complement each other, building and reflecting a truly global programme.Indeed, since 2005 and strengthened during the IYL, UNESCO’s IBSP, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) and the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) jointly implemented the Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) Programme in various regions of the world, particularly in places where the educational resources are lacking. Since its inception, the workshops have served over 1500 teachers from more than 55 developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Tackling challenges linked to science education and knowledge transmission at the roots, the ALOP programme serves as a remarkable basis for learning and curiosity-driven experimentations in scientific fields.

More generally, in the same way that it is useful at times to be reminded of the gift of light in order to further appreciate its value, it is crucial to turn to history and grow in awareness by recognizing the contribution of various civilizations to the development of light science. As a global society, the contribution to the development of light science by non-western civilizations deserves to be highlighted, especially in respect to polymaths from the Islamic Golden Age who are an anchor for modern science, represented by such figures as Al-Sufi, Ibn Bajja, and most prominently Ibn Al-Haytham (also known by Alhazen or Alhacen). Born around a millennium ago in present-day Iraq, Ibn Al-Haytham was a pioneering scientific thinker who made important contributions to the understanding of vision, optics and light. It is in this context that UNESCO hosted at its headquarters in Paris (14–15 September 2015) an international conference focusing on the accomplishments of the Islamic civilization in its Golden Age (extending from the 7th to the 13th centuries) and the life and works of Ibn Al-Haytham, whose pioneering Book of Optics ( Kitāb al-Manāzir) was published around 1000 years ago. That today we can turn to discoveries as true today as they were 1000 years ago is an important symbol to reassert that yesterday, today and tomorrow ,light will always be at the heart of every individual life as well as lasting, sustainable developments for all societies.



Juste Jean-Paul Ngome Abiaga,
PhD and Pauline Venegas Hooper,
UNESCO, Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building 
e-mail: jj.ngome-abiaga@; p.venegas-hooper@




[1]For further information with respect to the UN SDGs follow the link.

[2] WHO report states that 4.3 million people a year die prematurely as a result of household air pollution.

[3] Based on UNESCO’s ALOP Training Manual, educators learn six optics and photonics modules; Geometrical Optics, Lenses and Optics of the Eye, Interference and Diffraction, Atmosphere Optics, Optical Data Transmission, and Wavelength Division Multiplexing.


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International Commission for Optics

Bureau members (2014-2017):

President: Y. Arakawa;

Past-President: D. T. MooreTreasurer: J A Harrington;

Secretary: A M Guzmán. e-mail:,

Associate Secretary: G von Bally

Vice-Presidents, elected: J. Harvey, F. Höller, H. Michinel, J. Niemela, R. Ramponi, S-H Park, J. Zakrzewski, M. Zghal

Vice-Presidents, appointed: Y. J. Ding, J. C. Howell, S. Morgan, E. Rosas, P. Urbach, A Wagué, M. J. Yzuel

IUPAP Council Representative: C Cisneros

Editor in chief: A M Guzmán

Editorial committee:
K Baldwin, Australian National University, Australia;
J Dudley, Université de Franche-Comté, France;
William T Rhodes, Florida Atlantic University, USA.