By Patricia Daukantas
Last night’s CLEO plenary session took the audience to places we’ve never been and things we’ve never imagined. How’s that for the power of lasers?
First, Gérard Mourou of the École Polytechnique in France, the pioneer of chirped pulse amplification, described the types of far-reaching fundamental physics that may be studied when the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI), an exawatt-class laser being designed by a consortium of 13 European nations.
“Lasers have revolutionized atomic physics, but we are still in the atomic regime,” Mourou said. The hugely energetic ELI pulses may push science into the realm of “photonuclear physics,” in which researchers could measure nuclear lifetimes, test electron dynamics at the attosecond scale, investigate ultrarelativistic laser-matter interactions and even break down the quantum vacuum and observe its components.
Mourou also paid tribute to Theodore “Ted” Maiman, who designed the first laser 50 years ago this week, and invited CLEO attendees to France’s own celebration of the laser’s historic anniversary next month (see the website in French and English).
Next, Douglas Simons, who grew from a butterfly-catching and backyard-stargazing kid to become director of the Gemini Observatory, reviewed the advances in laser-guide-star adaptive optics (AO) that have collapsed the point-spread function of astronomical objects from roughly an arcminute to a few milliarcseconds.
“Telescopes on the ground are becoming microscopes on the sky,” Simons said, noting that when he was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, he never dreamed that he’d be head of an observatory that monitors the weather on Io and Titan, moons of Jupiter and Saturn respectively. Thanks to adaptive optics, astronomers have been able for the past decade to monitor the motions of stars swerving around the unseen black hole at the center of our galaxy.
Gemini’s next big project is developing a multi-conjugate adaptive optics (MCAO) system for its Gemini South telescope at Cerro Pachon, Chile. (In 2007 I visited its twin, Gemini North, on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.) The MCAO, dubbed Canopus, will use multiple laser guide stars simultaneously; these beams will be split off from a single 50-W solid-state sodium laser. Lockheed Martin and Coherent design the laser, which arrived in Chile just after the devastating 9.2-magnitude earthquake in February.
Simons compared Galileo’s first telescope-based hand drawing of our solar system family -- the rings of Saturn, the phases of Venus -- with the AO-facilitated photos of a planetary system around a star called HR 8799. He thanked the laser-science community for making the latter possible.
Incidentally, Konstantin Vodopyanov, one of the CLEO general co-chairs, gave us the stats for this year’s technical conference: out of 2,199 submitted papers, 1,085 oral presentations and 366 posters were accepted. We attendees are also being treated to something like 98 invited talks (some of which were submissions whose authors subsequently were asked to give longer presentations) and 33 tutorials.
Today (Tuesday) is going to be, in the words of CLEO blogger Jim van Howe, “a Mega-day or perhaps I should say Tera-day.” Our exhibit hall has opened, the Market Focus sessions are beginning, and tonight is the big “Lasers Rock” concert.
Lasers, CLEO, Lasers, CLEO/QELS