What Happens to Solar Energy on July 1st, 2017?

This July will mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Isaac Newton’s “Mathematical Principles of Optics,” a set of “Optics” that laid the groundwork for our modern understanding of light and vision. Since its publication in 1704, Newton’s Optics has been cited over 440 times—more than any other work in history. In commemoration of this special occasion, let’s take a quick trip back through time to revisit some of the remarkable events that have preceded this major anniversary.

Early Modern Times

Newton’s Optics was published at a time when the emerging field of optics was in the midst of a revolution. It was a time of great scientific and technological advance, driven in large part by the increased use of non-crystalline materials (such as glass and plastic) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). These newfound materials and devices played a crucial role in transforming our understanding of light and vision, and have had a lasting impact on our lives.

Newton’s work anticipated many of the developments that we take for granted today. For example, he described the collimating lens (which focuses light into a parallel beam), the focusing lens (which draws objects closer to the eye), and the pinhole camera (which produces a magnified virtual image by limiting the area which is being photographed).

From Lens To Tablet

The 300th anniversary of Newton’s Optics coincides with the rise of optical technology, which is now found in almost all areas of life. From retinal scanning and contact lenses in medicine to 4K TV sets and virtual reality in computing, the impact of Newton’s Optics on our everyday lives cannot be overstated. (Image credit: Pixabay License)

Optical devices have traveled a long way since Newton’s original publication. Today, we take optics for granted—most of us don’t even think about it anymore, we just turn on our devices and use them. But this is a relatively new phenomenon.

Even 150 years ago, Newton’s work was so advanced that it couldn’t be easily applied in real-world situations. For instance, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that his work provided a theoretical basis for the development of refractive lenses (which could adjust the focal length of an optical device depending on the viewing distance). Prior to that time, the only types of lenses available were either convex or concave.

Going Dark

This is perhaps the most interesting period in the history of solar energy. On the one hand, we have 300 years of continued scientific and technological advance, resulting in a transformed understanding of light and vision; on the other, an incredible decrease in the cost of solar panels (along with other forms of “clean energy”) as a result of Moore’s Law.

Let’s take a trip back in time to 1905, when the first concentrated solar power (CSP) plant was constructed in Spain. CSP plants use lenses to focus a beam of sunlight onto a boiler, where it is converted into thermal energy. (Image credit: NASA/Solar Energy Research Institute)

The year 1905 was a significant one. Not only did it see the first commercial CSP plant come online (in Spain), but it also marked the beginning of a solar energy boom that would transform our understanding of light and vision once again.

The Sunlight Transformation Journey

Although Newton’s Optics was published more than 300 years ago, its principles continue to hold true today. Let’s take a moment to review some of its key points, as enumerated by New Horizons in Physics:

  • light can be focused or spread out according to the optical theory of lenses;
  • lenses can magnify objects and reduce the amount of light that reaches the eye, as well as the other way around;
  • a magnifying lens can be used to illuminate a narrow space;
  • shade can be placed over the narrowed area using a second lens, to reduce the intensity of the light falling on the eyes of those viewing the illuminated area;
  • light entering the eye can be affected by reflection off objects in the environment such as water and land; and
  • the position of light sources such as the sun and the moon can be observed through a telescope.

Many physicists consider Newton’s Optics to be the founding text of optics. This 300th anniversary offers us the unique opportunity to appreciate the profound impact that this remarkable work has had on our understanding of light and vision.

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