A look back on a Year of Light

Dr Beth Taylor, UKNC Natural Sciences Director and Chair of the UK Committee for the Year of Light, at the Royal Society during the official closing ceremony

The UN General Assembly officially proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015). In the UK, the Institute of Physics – under the leadership of the UKNC’s Natural Sciences Director, Dr. Beth Taylor – coordinated a year-long celebration of the impact that light has on science, technology, the arts, culture and everyday life.

According to Dr. Taylor: “The Year of Light was a unique opportunity to inspire, educate and connect on a global scale”. The year’s events came to a close in January at the Royal Society in London, where members of the UK science community and UK IYL Patron HRH The Duke of York came together to reflect on the Year of Light and its legacy.

Throughout 2015, IYL initiatives raised global awareness about how light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health. Dr. Taylor summarised the IYL’s success: “Events were organised in 148 countries, and literally every continent – even Antarctica, where the Year of Light was celebrated on an observation ship! Within the UK alone, hundreds of thousands of people attended these events and well over five million have seen some media coverage as a result”. With events spanning the globe and several highlights here in the UK, the IYL 2015 was an unparalleled learning experience. But what exactly did we learn?

More than any other lesson from IYL 2015, the world’s population was reminded how reliant we are on light and the impact that the UK has had on the development and dissemination of light-based technologies. For example, what do you know about fibre optics? While you may not be familiar with the technology, you likely encounter it every day: fibre optics is at the heart of modern communications and facilitates the transmission of information over extreme distances, even the width of the Atlantic Ocean. The fibres allow for long-distance communication because light easily proliferates with little depletion. Moulded in glass or plastic to the size of a human hair, optical fibres transmit light along the length of a cable and can be bundled together to increase data retention.

Fibre optics revolutionised modern communications and the technique was first demonstrated in the UK: Charles Kao, a graduate of the University of London and former head of electro-optics research at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories in Essex, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for his “groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication”. Last year fibre optics received an additional honour: in conjunction with the IYL, Royal Mail launched the ‘Inventive Britain’ stamp series to commemorate UK innovation, with one stamp design dedicated to fibre optics. Following in Kao’s footsteps, UK institutions and academics remain at the cutting edge of light-based technologies and sustainable solutions to today’s most pressing challenges.

One of the key aims of the Year was to help over 1.5 billion people in the developing world with no access to grid electricity, for whom sunset means darkness or the dim, smoky, dangerous light of a kerosene lamp. In the UK, organisers worked closely with London-based charity SolarAid which – via its Kenyan subsidiary SunnyMoney – is the leading seller and distributor of high quality solar lights in Africa, bringing life-changing light to more than 10 million people in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. SolarAid and SunnyMoney aim to create a brighter future for the next generation of Africans by eradicating use of the kerosene lamp on the continent by 2020.

The IYL 2015 also highlighted the cultural applications of light, with perhaps no event making a bigger splash than Lumiere London. Arriving in the capital just before the close of IYL 2015, Lumiere London was attended by more than one million people over four nights. Organised by the arts charity Artichoke, Lumiere came to London after several successful years in Durham, where it has now been established as a biennial event. In 2015 the Lumiere conference in Durham was under the patronage of UNESCO. Lumiere London featured 30 light installations curated throughout central London – from Leicester Square to Regent Street to Granary Square at King’s Cross. The event lit the cityscape in an array of colours and offered a welcome reprieve from the dark nights of winter.

The International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies brought attention to the importance of light-based technologies in daily life within the UK and throughout the world. The year’s festivities highlighted the contributions of UK academics, inventors, charities and other institutions in the ongoing effort to address global challenges in energy, agriculture, education and health. Dr. Taylor told Network Link that the collaborative nature of the year’s events was: “One of the most inspiring aspects of the Year and it brought together a uniquely wide range of different communities, which I hope will be a lasting legacy of the Year”.