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Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century
fiber-optic communications, compact disks, laser surgery of the retina, and laser welding. Other developments in optics have perhaps been less obvious, but their impact can be equally well seen in the commodities and conveniences of our world. Examples include optical lithography systems for making computer chips, high-resolution microscopes, adaptive optics for ground-based astronomy, infrared sensors for a multitude of applications, and highly efficient lighting sources. The sidebar on page 7 suggests some of the ways in which these and other optical technologies affect our everyday lives.
Optics: A Pervasive Enabler
Not surprisingly, then, optics is rapidly becoming an important focus for new businesses in the global economy. In the United States, both large and small businesses are significant players in emerging optics business activity. Optics-related companies number more than 5,000, and their net financial impact amounts to more than $50 billion annually. More significant than this, however, is the role of optics as an enabler. Just as a lens in a pair of glasses enables clear vision, so an investment of a few hundred million dollars in optical-fiber technology has enabled a trillion-dollar worldwide communications revolution. A mere six laser transmitters are used in a transatlantic undersea telephone transmission system that can carry 40 million simultaneous conversations. The cost of the lasers is a tiny fraction of the cost of the system or the revenue it generates, but without them the system would be useless. Indeed, in his report to Congress on July 22, 1997, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan alluded to this enabling role: ''We may be observing . . . a number of key technologies, some even mature, finally interacting to create significant new opportunities for value creation. For example, the applications for the laser were modest until the later development of fiber optics engendered a revolution in telecommunications."
As another instance, a compact disk player incorporates hundreds of intricate electronic and mechanical parts, all working together and all absolutely dependent on a single laser costing less than a dollar to illuminate the spinning disk. The following pages contain dozens of additional examples. Often, perhaps even usually, those who developed the enabling optical technologies never imagined their ultimate applications. In this report, the committee has thus sought to address the pivotal question, How does one support and strengthen a field such as optics whose value is primarily enabling?
The remarkable breadth of optics' enabling role is both an indicator of the field's importance and a source of challenges. Virtually every