‘Adaptive optics’ come into focus

The way to make clear the very distant is now begining to be used to look at the very small, including neurons and retina’s rods and cones – Deskarati

A technology called adaptive optics is slowly finding its way into consumer electronics and optomestrists’ offices. The BBC’s Jason Palmer reports from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where researchers outlined how the approach is revolutionising their work. The idea of “adaptive optics” has been embraced by a range of scientific applications, not just astronomy

Back in 1953, Horace Babcock had an idea. As an astronomer, he was toiling with the problems caused by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Light could come from the farthest reaches of the cosmos, billions of light years, and then get impossibly muddled up in the last couple of hundred kilometres as it passed through the turbulent gases that envelop the Earth. So he came up with the idea of adaptive optics: figuring out just how the atmosphere muddled up the light, and subtly changing the shapes of optical elements like mirrors to perfectly undo those effects. This week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting, one session is showing how far adaptive optics has come.

“The idea is terribly simple,” Christopher Dainty, a physicist from the National University of Ireland, Galway, told the meeting.

“It’s like taking a crinkled crisp and flattening it without it crumbling, taking those distortions out of optical wavefronts… but some of the applications are tremendously demanding.”

Among civilian pursuits, adaptive optics first returned to its ancestral home, taking hold in the European astronomy community. By now, Professor Dainty told BBC News, the gain of resolution that adaptive optics provides makes its use a foregone conclusion.

“You would not dream of building a large telescope now without adaptive optics; there would be no scientific justification,” he said.

“The difference is just staggering – it’s almost like a blind person being able to see.”

Read more of this report giving details of the latest uses of  ‘Adaptive optics’

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