This is a very interesting and timely topic. I just finished teaching my
Principles in Modern Microscopy class this Winter quarter here at Caltech
and I mentioned in the first lecture that 2015 was declared by the UN as
the year of light. Of course we were mainly interested in the optics and
technology ends though we covered the history of the microscope as well.
I'm also very interested in Steve's question. I'll talk about it from the
microscopy point of view but the optical principles for telescopes are
similar. Guillermo Munoz provided a very nice answer to Stephen's question
that I would like to add to. Light waves do indeed carry a great deal more
information. Microscopists use evanescent waves to provide higher
resolutions than the wavelength of light would normally limit us to. These
evanescent waves are probably best understood as a quantum mechanical
phenomenon as they are easily derived from the Schrodinger wave equations.
Evanescent waves have a higher frequency so they can carry more information
and they are a quantum tunneling phenomenon. Unfortunately evanescent waves
do not refract (bend) like normal light waves do as they pass through
materials so it's difficult for us microscopists to harvest this
One hope to be able to gather this extra information is the development of
new types of lenses made of newly developed metamaterials (artificial
materials with physical properties not found in nature) instead of the
optical glass we typically use in constructing lenses. There has been a
rich debate in the scientific literature about whether there is a need for
metamaterials with negative refractive indices for the creation of such
superlenses that would not be diffraction limited and gather the
information in evanescent waves. Negative refractive indices can only be
achieved with metamaterials but it leads to weird optical phenomenon and is
high on the list for developing an invisibility cloak. Here is a link to
the debate published in Nature:
There have certainly been abstract artists who have seemed to embrace the
weird look of things passing through materials with negative refractive
I think these metamaterials will be allow us to see much more than we
thought we could.
On Mon, Mar 30, 2015 at 9:10 AM, Stephen Nowlin <
> Hello, Guillermo and Roger -- this should be a fascinating topic.
> I have a question about how much information is contained in light
> traveling through space. From my house in Southern California I look
> straight up to Mount Wilson, where Edwin Hubble confirmed an expanding
> universe by measuring the redshift in light traveling from distant
> galaxies. Early telescope optics had shown other galaxies as fuzzy clouds
> of light, and thus by virtue of our inability to fully parse the
> information contained therein, our perception of the universe was
> incomplete and conclusions drawn were distorted. The difference between
> those early fuzz clouds and current images of galaxies from powerful land
> and space-based telescopes is stunning -- the light reaching us is the
> same, but our technology for parsing the information contained within that
> light advanced during the last century.
> So, my question is: How much information travels in light? How much
> potentially MORE information travels in light than can we can currently
> decipher, should we be able to develop the technologies to see it?
> It is clear, for example, that light bouncing off the Earth can yield
> amazing detail as seen from close-by orbiting telescopes -- just look at
> Google Map's satellite view. And from the Hubble Telescope we can see a lot
> of information reflected off the surface of Mars, which is of course much
> further away -- so could some astronomer on another planet at the other
> side of the galaxy, using light-analyzing technologies we perhaps can't
> even imagine, theoretically be able to see Mars at the same or even better
> resolution? Given the physics of light, whether reflected or originated by
> a body in space, will all the information contained therein travel intact
> to very far away places? Could we someday observe stars in distant galaxies
> at the same resolution we currently observe our Sun? My question is not
> whether it is feasible to invent such sophisticated observation
> technologies -- but rather would the physics of light traveling through
> space allow close-up detail from very far aw!
> ay -- would the information be preserved in the light and be awaiting
> detection, should such technologies be invented?
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Andres Collazo, Ph.D.
Director, Biological Imaging Facility
Caltech MC 139-74
Pasadena, CA 91125
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