Meet the real Princess Leia

Posted on August 31, 2014 by Gary Carruthers

The Strand, London, 31st August 2014

I have a strange fascination for making light do crazy things.  When I started my PhD studies, I wanted to do experimental optical physics.  Take a Q-switched, mode-locked Nd:YAG laser and cavity dump its photons into a block of Barium Titanate.  Then steer the beam magically around the room like a Jedi Knight.  (And once, accidentally, scarring my left retina.  Forgive me if I never seem to be looking at you quite straight.)

All good fun, but why was I doing it?  Much of the funding at the time - this was back in the nineties - was coming from the unstoppable momentum of Reagan's decade-old Star Wars initiative.  But the open secret was that none of us cared much for that.  What we wanted to do was route internet packets optically, without switching them back to electricity first.  And since the scientific paper I wrote on the topic became my most cited paper ever, I have to assume it did what it was supposed to do.  [Optics Communications Vol.73 No.3 p.188, if you're really interested.]

But there were two accidental spinoffs to the work that had much more of an impact on me personally.  First, it hauled me up a steep learning curve on the realities of analog electronics design.  You have to be maverick about it.  Ignore the data sheets, study the basic physics, learn your chemistry, treat your atoms like family.  And without that, none of my watchmaking would have been possible.

The other spinoff - see photo - was creating the first ever computer generated hologram of a person - my girlfriend at the time, projected right there on my desk.  The real Princess Leia.  Eat your heart out, Skywalker.

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