Optics has a pervasive impact on our daily lives, but that impact is rarely noticed because the products of optical technology are, ironically, often invisible and because we accommodate so swiftly to modern technology. Today we pay as little attention to infrared remote controls, light-emitting diodes, and laser printers as to the mirrors that have been with us since antiquity. Here is a brief story to remind us of some of these pervasive optical technologies.

John reached over and shut off the alarm clock. He turned on the lights and got up. Downstairs, he began to make his morning coffee and turned on the television to check the weather forecast. Checking the time on the kitchen clock, he poured his coffee and went to the solarium to sit and read the newspaper.

Upstairs, the kids were getting ready for school. Julie was listening to a favorite song while getting dressed. Stevie felt sick, so his mother, Sarah, checked his temperature. Julie would go to school, but Stevie would stay home.

John drove to work in his new car, a high-tech showcase. He drove across a bridge, noticing the emergency telephones along the side of the freeway. He encountered traffic signals, highway signs, and a police officer scanning for speeders.

Awaiting John in his office were several telephone messages and a fax. He turned on his computer, checked some reference data on a CD-ROM, and printed it to look at later. After copying some last-minute handouts, he went to the conference room to make a presentation.

Meanwhile, Julie was walking to school. As she passed the neighbors' house, a security light came on. On the next block she passed a construction site for a new apartment building, then a block of medical offices. A few blocks away was the factory where her uncle worked.

At school, Julie's first class was biology. The students looked for microbes in water samples they had collected on a nature walk the previous day. On the walk they had also done some birdwatching and taken still and video pictures of the plants and wildlife. The teacher put on her glasses to read Julie's lab report.

At lunchtime, John left his office to do some grocery shopping. At the checkout counter he paid with a credit card. Among his purchases were a bag of apples, a bottle of wine, and a carton of milk. Each was labeled with a bar- code.

At home, Stevie was watching a movie on the largescreen television. With her sick son occupied, Sarah connected her laptop computer to the office network. Modern technology let her do her work, despite having to stay home with the child—and at least John was stuck doing the shopping.

light-emitting diode (LED) displays

energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps

infrared remote controls

optical fibers for distributing cable television

satellite-based optical weather imaging

liquid crystal displays (LCDs)

temperature-moderating window coatings


compact disks

laser fabric cutting

infrared noncontact "ear" thermometers

infrared automobile security systems;

optical monitors for antilock brakes; LED, LCD, and optical fiber dashboard displays; LED taillights

optical-fiber sensors to monitor bridge integrity

solar power for emergency services

LED traffic lights

high-reflectivity surfaces for highway signs

laser traffic radar

optical fiber telephone cables

optical scanners and fax machines

photolithography for making computer chips

optical data storage

laser printers


overhead projectors, slide projectors, laser pointers

infrared motion sensors for home security

laser range finders and surveying equipment

laser surgery, optical tools for medical diagnosis

laser welding and cutting, optical stereolithography for rapid three-dimensional prototyping

microscopes, magnifying lenses binoculars

cameras, videocameras eyeglasses

supermarket bar-code scanners

credit card holograms to prevent counterfeiting

image recognition for produce quality control

optical inspection to ensure clean bottles

optical inspection for labeling and packaging

bar-code readers for inventory control

videodisks and videodisk players

television displays

active-matrix displays for computers

optical fiber local area networks

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