Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Book of Optics


A glowing ribbon of purple light running east-west in the night sky has recently been observed by citizen scientists. This narrow, subauroral, visible structure, distinct from the traditional auroral oval, was largely undocumented in the scientific literature and little was known about its formation. Amateur photo sequences showed colors distinctly different from common types of aurora and occasionally indicated magnetic field-aligned substructures. Observations from the Swarm satellite as it crossed the arc have revealed an unusual level of electron temperature enhancement and density depletion, along with a strong westward ion flow, indicating that a pronounced subauroral ion drift (SAID) is associated with this structure. These early results suggest the arc is an optical manifestation of SAID, presenting new opportunities for investigation of the dynamic SAID signatures from the ground. On the basis of the measured ion properties and original citizen science name, we propose to identify this arc as a Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE).

Concepts: Scientific method, Electron, Light, Temperature, Science, Observation, Book of Optics, Plasma


Barn owls are effective nocturnal predators. We tested their visual performance at low light levels and determined visual acuity and contrast sensitivity of three barn owls by their behavior at stimulus luminances ranging from photopic to fully scotopic levels (23.5 to 1.5 × 10(-6)). Contrast sensitivity and visual acuity decreased only slightly from photopic to scotopic conditions. Peak grating acuity was at mesopic (4 × 10(-2) cd/m(2)) conditions. Barn owls retained a quarter of their maximal acuity when luminance decreased by 5.5 log units. We argue that the visual system of barn owls is designed to yield as much visual acuity under low light conditions as possible, thereby sacrificing resolution at photopic conditions.

Concepts: Eye, Vision, Book of Optics, Scotopic vision, Purkinje effect


Colour produced by wavelength-dependent light scattering is a key component of visual communication in nature and acts particularly strongly in visual signalling by structurally-coloured animals during courtship. Two miniature peacock spiders (Maratus robinsoni and M. chrysomelas) court females using tiny structured scales (~ 40 × 10 μm2) that reflect the full visual spectrum. Using TEM and optical modelling, we show that the spiders' scales have 2D nanogratings on microscale 3D convex surfaces with at least twice the resolving power of a conventional 2D diffraction grating of the same period. Whereas the long optical path lengths required for light-dispersive components to resolve individual wavelengths constrain current spectrometers to bulky sizes, our nano-3D printed prototypes demonstrate that the design principle of the peacock spiders' scales could inspire novel, miniature light-dispersive components.

Concepts: Diffraction, Optics, Light, Electromagnetic radiation, Wavelength, Book of Optics, Diffraction grating, Angular resolution


Sensory substitution devices (SSDs) aim to compensate for the loss of a sensory modality, typically vision, by converting information from the lost modality into stimuli in a remaining modality. “The vOICe” is a visual-to-auditory SSD which encodes images taken by a camera worn by the user into “soundscapes” such that experienced users can extract information about their surroundings. Here we investigated how much detail was resolvable during the early induction stages by testing the acuity of blindfolded sighted, naïve vOICe users. Initial performance was well above chance. Participants who took the test twice as a form of minimal training showed a marked improvement on the second test. Acuity was slightly but not significantly impaired when participants wore a camera and judged letter orientations “live”. A positive correlation was found between participants' musical training and their acuity. The relationship between auditory expertise via musical training and the lack of a relationship with visual imagery, suggests that early use of a SSD draws primarily on the mechanisms of the sensory modality being used rather than the one being substituted. If vision is lost, audition represents the sensory channel of highest bandwidth of those remaining. The level of acuity found here, and the fact it was achieved with very little experience in sensory substitution by naïve users is promising.

Concepts: Substitution reaction, Auditory system, Visual system, Sensory system, Experience, Correlation and dependence, Sensory substitution, Book of Optics


Despite investigations for over 70 years, the absolute limits of human vision have remained unclear. Rod cells respond to individual photons, yet whether a single-photon incident on the eye can be perceived by a human subject has remained a fundamental open question. Here we report that humans can detect a single-photon incident on the cornea with a probability significantly above chance. This was achieved by implementing a combination of a psychophysics procedure with a quantum light source that can generate single-photon states of light. We further discover that the probability of reporting a single photon is modulated by the presence of an earlier photon, suggesting a priming process that temporarily enhances the effective gain of the visual system on the timescale of seconds.

Concepts: Photon, Quantum mechanics, Retina, Eye, Visual perception, Visual system, Book of Optics, Rod cell


This study aims at substituting the essential functions of photoreceptors in patients who are blind owing to untreatable forms of hereditary retinal degenerations. A microelectronic neuroprosthetic device, powered via transdermal inductive transmission, carrying 1500 independent microphotodiode-amplifier-electrode elements on a 9 mm(2) chip, was subretinally implanted in nine blind patients. Light perception (8/9), light localization (7/9), motion detection (5/9, angular speed up to 35 deg s(-1)), grating acuity measurement (6/9, up to 3.3 cycles per degree) and visual acuity measurement with Landolt C-rings (2/9) up to Snellen visual acuity of 20/546 (corresponding to decimal 0.037° or corresponding to 1.43 logMAR (minimum angle of resolution)) were restored via the subretinal implant. Additionally, the identification, localization and discrimination of objects improved significantly (n = 8; p < 0.05 for each subtest) in repeated tests over a nine-month period. Three subjects were able to read letters spontaneously and one subject was able to read letters after training in an alternative-force choice test. Five subjects reported implant-mediated visual perceptions in daily life within a field of 15° of visual angle. Control tests were performed each time with the implant's power source switched off. These data show that subretinal implants can restore visual functions that are useful for daily life.

Concepts: Retina, Vision, Visual perception, Perception, Implants, Visual acuity, Angle, Book of Optics


Nature provides a multitude of examples of multifunctional structural materials in which trade-offs are imposed by conflicting functional requirements. One such example is the biomineralized armor of the chiton Acanthopleura granulata, which incorporates an integrated sensory system that includes hundreds of eyes with aragonite-based lenses. We use optical experiments to demonstrate that these microscopic lenses are able to form images. Light scattering by the polycrystalline lenses is minimized by the use of relatively large, crystallographically aligned grains. Multiscale mechanical testing reveals that as the size, complexity, and functionality of the integrated sensory elements increase, the local mechanical performance of the armor decreases. However, A. granulata has evolved several strategies to compensate for its mechanical vulnerabilities to form a multipurpose system with co-optimized optical and structural functions.

Concepts: Function, Scattering, Visual perception, Visual system, Sensory system, Book of Optics, Chitonidae, Acanthopleura


Retinal prostheses, which restore partial vision to patients blinded by outer retinal degeneration, are currently in clinical trial. The Argus II retinal prosthesis system was recently awarded CE approval for commercial use in Europe. While retinal prosthesis users have achieved remarkable visual improvement to the point of reading letters and short sentences, the reading process is still fairly cumbersome. This study investigates the possibility of using an epiretinal prosthesis to stimulate visual braille as a sensory substitution for reading written letters and words. The Argus II retinal prosthesis system, used in this study, includes a 10 × 6 electrode array implanted epiretinally, a tiny video camera mounted on a pair of glasses, and a wearable computer that processes the video and determines the stimulation current of each electrode in real time. In the braille reading system, individual letters are created by a subset of dots from a 3 by 2 array of six dots. For the visual braille experiment, a grid of six electrodes was chosen out of the 10 × 6 Argus II array. Groups of these electrodes were then directly stimulated (bypassing the camera) to create visual percepts of individual braille letters. Experiments were performed in a single subject. Single letters were stimulated in an alternative forced choice (AFC) paradigm, and short 2-4-letter words were stimulated (one letter at a time) in an open-choice reading paradigm. The subject correctly identified 89% of single letters, 80% of 2-letter, 60% of 3-letter, and 70% of 4-letter words. This work suggests that text can successfully be stimulated and read as visual braille in retinal prosthesis patients.

Concepts: Psychology, Visual perception, Prosthetics, Book of Optics, Wearable computer, Blindness, Camera, Braille


Controlling the emission and the flow of light in micro- and nanostructures is crucial for on-chip information processing. Here we show how to impose a strong chirality and a switchable direction of light propagation in an optical system by steering it to an exceptional point (EP)-a degeneracy universally occurring in all open physical systems when two eigenvalues and the corresponding eigenstates coalesce. In our experiments with a fiber-coupled whispering-gallery-mode (WGM) resonator, we dynamically control the chirality of resonator modes and the emission direction of a WGM microlaser in the vicinity of an EP: Away from the EPs, the resonator modes are nonchiral and laser emission is bidirectional. As the system approaches an EP, the modes become chiral and allow unidirectional emission such that by transiting from one EP to another one the direction of emission can be completely reversed. Our results exemplify a very counterintuitive feature of non-Hermitian physics that paves the way to chiral photonics on a chip.

Concepts: Optics, Physics, Light, Laser, Metamaterial, Chirality, Book of Optics, Photonics


In this article we discuss the utility of crowdfunding from the perspective of individual scientists or laboratory groups looking to fund research. We address some of the main factors determining the success of crowdfunding campaigns, and compare this approach with the use of traditional funding sources.

Concepts: Scientific method, Optics, Science, Research, Book of Optics, Finance, Fundraising, Pseudoscience