Exploring the Science of Light
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Optics Timeline

Optics is the physical science that studies the origin and propagation of light, how it changes, what effects it produces, and other phenomena associated with it. There are two branches of optics. Physical optics is concerned with the nature and properties of light itself. Geometrical optics deals with the principles governing image-forming properties of lenses, mirrors, and other devices, such as optical data processors.

This "Timeline in Optics" highlights important events and developments in the science of optics from prehistory to the beginning of the 21st century. It also includes related developments in other fields (e.g. the evolution of computers) and related milestones in the human worldview.

Prehistory to 999 - Thousands of years after humans started using fire to illuminate the night, Greek and Arab scholars begin to formulate theories of how light is propagated, how it can be reflected and refracted, and how it is perceived by the eyes.

1000 to 1599 - Arab and Chinese scholars experiment with light, lenses, and mirrors for several hundred years, but interest wanes. In Medieval Europe, Copernicus launches the scientific revolution with his shocking theory that the Earth revolves around the sun.

1600 to 1699 - Microscopes and telescopes broaden the worldview of early scientists and the scientific revolution culminates with the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia.

1700 to 1799 - Newton publishes Opticks, discussing the corpuscular theory of light, scientists establish procedures for the scientific method, Herschel discovers Uranus, and a few scientists begin to study electricity.

1800 to 1833 - Newton's corpuscular theory of light is overturned by the wave theory of light, scientists discover "invisible" infrared and ultraviolet light, and the first photographic image is recorded.

1834 to 1866 - Photography undergoes major developments, the speed of light is measured accurately for the first time, the new field of spectroscopy is introduced, and Maxwell theorizes that light is a type of electromagnetic wave.

1867 to 1899 - Hertz proves that light is an electromagnetic wave, Michelson and Morley show that there is no ether permeating space, Tesla and Marconi invent radio, and Eastman invents photographic film.

1900 to 1933 - Einstein and Planck revolutionize physics, and physicists now regard light as both a wave and a particle. In addition, radio becomes a popular broadcast communications medium, television is invented, and Tombaugh discovers Pluto.

1934 to 1966 - The first electron microscope is built, television becomes more popular than radio, and a host of new technologies are introduced, including the laser, holography, fiber optics, and computers. Space exploration begins.

1967 to 2003 - Video games are invented, people visit the moon, robots visit Mars, and personal computers launch the digital revolution. Lasers and fiber optics create new media for communications, information storage, and entertainment. Cyberspace becomes a reality with the creation of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

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