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Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century
(more than 300 years before anyone actually built one) and the first application of geometry to the study of lenses and mirrors, is often considered the forerunner of experimental science and the scientific method.
Applied research, which is often indistinguishable from basic research, is motivated by the need to understand how as well as the need to understand why. Louis Victor de Broglie, recipient of the 1929 Nobel Prize in physics, explained that ''the two aspects of science [pure and applied] correspond to the two principal activities of man: thought and action. They are inseparable if human science is to progress as a whole and fulfill with increasing success its high and twofold task." Decades of basic and applied research are often needed to lay the foundations for key discoveries, such as the invention of the laser. The most important discoveries often arise at boundaries between established fields—in the case of the laser, at the interface between physics and electrical engineering.
The ultimate impact of research is rarely predictable. For example, as the earlier chapters of this report demonstrate repeatedly, the invention of the laser has had a major economic and social impact, with remarkable applications in areas that range from communications to the environment to medicine. Yet Arthur Schawlow, the laser's coinventor, once commented that "if I had set out to invent a way to improve eye surgery, I certainly would not have invented the laser."
Development, often guided by understanding gained through basic and applied research, is motivated by a need to make something that works and is of commercial value. However, development—especially the development of commercial products—usually requires a much larger financial investment than most research. Such resources are often unavailable at universities; therefore, in the United States, development activities are generally concentrated in the commercial sector. The exception is in certain areas of special interest to the nation, such as defense, space, and the environment. Military needs in particular have historically motivated substantial support for long-term optics R&D by the Department of Defense—support that has been very important over the years but that is being reduced, leading to concern about a gap emerging between basic conceptual research and commercial hardware development. Development often involves multiple scientific and engineering disciplines, multiple approaches to problem solving, and the unique techniques and resources of large public and private organizations.
Education at all levels is critical to the future of optics. Optics is a natural tool for a visual approach to the education of K-12 students in many aspects of science and mathematics. Post-high school education, including 2-year (associate) and 4-year degree programs, is important for meeting the future needs of this rapidly growing area of