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Inquiry 5: How Can I Learn More About People In Optics?

Scientific discoveries usually happen as a consequence of identifying a problem or asking a question. However, scientists do not work in isolation and do not conduct their work outside of the realm of political and historical events. Some early scientists and inventors, for instance, had direct connections to kings and courts that supported their work by providing them with an income, a place to live, and a way to disseminate their findings.

Galileo, for example, supported himself, his family and his extended family through an official appointment to the University of Padua and the sponsorship of the de Medici family in Florence, Italy. His connections and the political and religious climate of the times prevented Galileo from widely disseminating his writings that contradicted the popular belief that the Earth was the center of the solar system. Yet, Galileo's situation was not unique. Many other scientists and inventors have also been hindered by the political and religious milieu in which they lived and worked. Some have also been helped by the social climate of their time, as in cases when scientific findings support a popularly held belief or accommodate a certain political goal.

Despite the best efforts of scientists, some discoveries they make are the purely result of serendipity--an unexpected result of an experiment or an accidental discovery or breakthrough. This is not to say that scientists wait around for something to happen. Usually, the serendipitous discoveries occur as the result of curiosity and a desire to understand how the world works. Sometimes being the in the right place at the right time is enough to propel a curious person into the spotlight as a discoverer, developer, or inventor.

For instance, Charles Darwin did not organize the expedition to the Galapagos Islands; rather he was invited to join the crew on its second voyage to test a new clock that had just been invented to work on ships. As a result of his observations, curiosity, and ability to write about his adventure, however, he has become one of the most influential scientists of recent history. Also, while observing charts from a Cambridge telescope, Jocelyn Bell and Anthony Hewish discovered pulsars in 1967. They were not trying to discover pulsars since no one at that time knew that they existed! Instead they were measuring radio emissions from stars, working with astronomers both in Great Britain and the United States, accessing different kinds of optical instruments.

Have students use a variety of media to research people that have made discoveries, invented instruments, or used instruments in new and exciting ways related to the study of light and optics. Encourage creativity and inventiveness in presentations of what students discover.

The Science, Optics & You Timeline in Optics traces important events in the science of optics and the physics of light and color from the beginning of recorded history to the present. Many of the scientists and discoveries that students will be interested in can be found on this timeline, which is a good starting point for their research.

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