From little things…

Professor JOHN LOVE looks back on his 40-year career in the fascinating and frenetic world of fibre optics.

When  I first arrived at ANU in 1973 there were just a handful of people researching fibre optics, a field that is now the backbone of the global communications network.

Back then, the main avenue to communicate with someone on the other side of the globe was satellites that were both expensive and involved irritating time lags.

Now, more than 95 per cent of the world's communications - telephony, internet, television, etc - travel at 200,000 km/s through buildings, under land and oceans in hair-thin glass fibres.

One welcome consequence of this enormous information capacity is the very low cost of long-distance telephone calls, now less than one per cent of the prevailing charges in the 1970s.

But a broad range of special fibres are also being integrated into medicine, for endoscopy and laser-based procedures; into dentistry for curing amalgams; and into almost every form of transportation for control and data transmission. Even art, forensics and, of course, cyber security, use fibre technology [read more in the Spring 2013 edition].

Just a few decades ago, I certainly  could not have predicted the ever-increasing applications of fibre optics to human endeavour.

I came to ANU on a Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship  armed with applied mathematics degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, together with several years of postdoctoral research in physics in the USA and Canada.

At ANU I was met by an enthusiastic research team that had been assembled by Professor Allan Snyder FRS in the Department of Applied Mathematics in the Research School of Physical Sciences.

There were only a few other international groups working on light propagation in fibres in those early days, so any developments were always eagerly awaited.

The pace and volume of research was frenetic. By 1984 Allan and I had written the definitive, 750-page Optical Waveguide Theory, which has surpassed all expectations with over 5,000 citations to date plus Russian and Chinese editions, as well as the now inevitable free download from the internet.

The same year included the inaugural Australian Conference on Optical Fibre Technology, which I founded and which is now in its 38th year.

Another rewarding aspect of the new technology was the interaction with numerous Australian companies and major international companies in Europe, America and Asia both for cooperative research projects and education in fibre technology.

In particular, a local company, AOFR, was launched in Fyshwick in 1984. It went on to become a key player in fibre light-processing equipment development and manufacture. This link led to strong research, patent, work experience and educational links with ANU for nearly 30 years.

By 1989 I felt that it was time to introduce the technology into university teaching and set up a short fibre course in the Department of Physics.

Over the next 25 years, a raft of complementary courses was developed for both undergraduate and masters students, covering theory, laboratory experiments, research projects and work experience, culminating in both bachelor's and master's degrees in photonics.

With outreach,  I established  the Siemens Science & Engineering Experience at ANU for Year 9 students and ran it during the 1990s, thereby ensuring younger students also gained exposure to the new technology as well as traditional sciences.

I also organised various university-level photonics summer schools in Australia and joint ones between Australian universities and academic institutions in various countries in Southeast Asia with the support of the Australian Photonics Cooperative Research Centre.

It is fitting that with my retirement at the end of 2013, photonics has become a well-defined subject at ANU with a long life expectancy.

More recently  I became a mentor and journal editor with China's Changchun Institute of Optics, Mechanics and Physics. As an emerging country in science, China is keen to establish itself as a major international contributor in optics research in particular, with its 200,000 academic and industrial optics researchers.

Within China there are around 50 mostly obscure and rather inaccessible optics research journals, nearly all written in Chinese. Now there is a new English language journal, Light, Science & Applications, promoted by China through the Nature Publishing Group, for which I am pleased to be an editor.

Every few years there is a new challenge in fibre optics; currently it is getting even more data down a single fibre. In retirement as Emeritus  Professor,  I look forward to contributing to more challenges.

This article appeared in ANU Reporter magazine Autumn 2014. Subscribe for free now.