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Let’s think beyond light-based technologies

Copyright: Smiling through Light

Speed read

  • Light is critical to food production and life-improving technology

  • But light also relates metaphorically to illuminating minds

  • This year of light should consider ways of spreading knowledge

This is a year designated by the UN General Assembly as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. For the UN, this refers to something quite concrete: the benefits of light in sustainable development.

What strikes me is how the concept of light can also be used metaphorically, in the way that light is said to illuminate minds, as well as making practical tasks easier. The idea is closely related to developing knowledge and understanding — bringing it very close to science, which literally means ‘knowledge’ (from the Latin scientia). So a year that raises an awareness of light could also be seen as a year that raises an awareness of science.

At SciDev.Net, we focus much of our coverage on the practical ways in which technologies can help people. Light-based technologies viewed, as it were, through a ‘development prism’, can be split into two: those in the hands of ‘experts’ and those in the hands of the man and woman in the street or village.

Light and development

This year, we will have a collection of articles in our Insight on Light series on light-based technologies in a development context. There are plenty to choose from, as there is a lot going on in relation to light at the moment, as I discovered at the 25th General Meeting of TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) in Oman, last October.

One area of work that struck me as particularly interesting was laser spectroscopy. Sune Svanberg, a physicist from Lund University in Sweden, presented compelling examples of how this technology — which can be used in a wide array of contexts ranging from environmental monitoring and food safety to pharmaceutics and medicine — is falling in price, putting it within reach of developing countries.

“I would suggest that the idea of light as a way of thinking about how to increase and disseminate knowledge, not only among experts but among citizens around the world — is a powerful one and could usefully be integrated into this year of light.”

Light-based technologies can involve not only the harnessing of light. They can also be grounded in an understanding of how light works. We live, of course, bathed in light, and light powers many of the biological processes around us. One of these processes is photosynthesis, by which plants use sunlight to transform atmospheric gases into foods that sustain animals, including ourselves, and into energy.

As editor, I will be on the lookout this year for research that seeks to unravel the complexities of these processes and apply them to our energy needs — for example, in producing sustainable fuels. [1]

An example of light-based technologies in the hands of non-specialists is the work of one of my own colleagues, Mariama Kamara, whose day job is office administrator and PA to SciDev.Net’s director. She founded Smiling Through Light, a social enterprise in Sierra Leone, her home country, whose aim is to bring solar energy to women in rural communities — to illuminate their homes, make everyday tasks easier and provide power for small enterprises.

A metaphor for knowledge

By contrast, the ways in which light can be seen as a metaphor for knowledge and understanding hit home to me earlier this month, with the news of the terrible events in Paris, France, and in the city of Maiduguri, Nigeria.

An attack by Islamic extremists on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were followed by sieges two days later, leaving 17 people dead. Less widely publicised, but no less horrific, was the suicide bomb attack that same week in a market in northeastern Nigeria. This attack, attributed to the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, killed at least 19 people and injured several more. Local police sources attribute the attack to explosive devices strapped to a girl thought to be aged about ten.

These events emphasise the value of thinking about the metaphorical power of light as knowledge, enshrined in the words enlightenment and illumination (in the sense of making something easily understood) — and, the ways in which light and the very concept of science are linked.

US astrophysicist Carl Sagan published a book in 1996 called The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. In that book, he emphasised the need to understand the technologies upon which we depend, and to disseminate scientific knowledge as widely as possible; and he saw the failure to do this as a prescription for disaster. Science, in other words, as knowledge and understanding, needs to extend beyond the world of ‘experts’.

The battle for education

In an editorial published last year in the TWAS newsletter, executive director Romain Murenzi made a related point, emphasising the importance of scientific literacy in its broadest sense in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. [2]

Light as a metaphor also helps us to think about knowledge in the context of Boko Haram’s deadly attacks. Boko Haram literally means ‘Western education is forbidden’; and the group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (‘People committed to the Prophet’s teachings for propagation and jihad’). This year, SciDev.Net will be exploring some of the complex reasons why a group such as Boko Haram should violently reject Western education, and by implication Western science and knowledge.

Sagan’s book has the following dedication: “To Tonio, my grandson. I wish you a world free of demons and full of light.” The metaphorical demons to which he refers represent, of course, a lack of knowledge. I would suggest that the idea of light as a way of thinking about how to increase and disseminate knowledge, not only among experts but among citizens around the world — is a powerful one and could usefully be integrated into this year of light. SciDev.Net will certainly be incorporating it into its output for the year.

Kaz Janowski is editor at SciDev.Net.


[1] Andrea Listorti and others Artificial photosynthesis: Solar to fuel (Nature Materials, 2009)
[2] Romain Murenzi Science for all people. In: Sustainable Development Goals: Why science matters (TWAS, 2014)
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