Posted by Christina Folz, OPN Managing Editor
In perusing the daily news on optics.org, I came across an item titled, “Optics or Photonics: What’s in a Name?” It explained that the publisher of the Journal of Optics A had recently asked her editorial board whether they thought the name of the journal should be shortened or changed. Apparently there was some interest in integrating the word “photonics” into the journal’s name.
Which begs the question: Just what are optics and photonics anyway? And what’s the distinction between them? Although the Journal of Optics A editorial board didn’t reach consensus on a new name, they offered a multitude of opinions and insights. One member claimed that optics refers specifically to matters and equipment related to vision, whereas photonics (derived from the Greek word “photon”) is an umbrella term for any science dealing with light. According to these definitions, optics would seem to be a subdivision within photonics.
Other experts argue that it is the other way around: Optics is the older and broader discipline encompassing the relatively new field of photonics. Indeed, according to John Howard’s history column about OSA’s own name change controversy, the term “photonics” was introduced in the 1980s, coinciding with the emergence of several new areas within optics, including lasers, electro-optics, integrated optics and optical engineering. “The loosely defined word ‘photonics’ was analogous to the engineering of photons, just as ‘electronics’ had grown out of electron engineering,” Howard said.
In fact, in October 1989, OSA’s Committee on Society Objectives and Policy proposed to the Board of Directors that OSA change its name to “The Optics and Photonics Society” to reflect the evolving nature of the field. Although the Board voted to recommend the change, it reneged before the decision could be brought to a vote in the wake of a major backlash among Society veterans. Most of the opposition came from the classical and applied optics communities, which felt that the word “optics” already encompassed all wavelengths and processes involving optical radiation, so there was no need to adopt a gimmicky new word.
However, one significant modification was made as a result of this fray. The name of the Society’s membership magazine was changed from Optics News to Optics and Photonics News. Was this the right call? That’s what I’d like you to tell me through your comments and letters. In any case, you can rest assured that, whatever optics and photonics are, we’ve got them covered.
2008-01 January, Optics history