Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Light fantastic

Scientists are pushing the properties of light to new extremes. A special issue explores these frontiers.

Credit: Illustration by Viktor Koen

From glorious rainbows to the intricate mechanics of the human eye, light lies at the heart of phenomena that have fascinated scientists for millennia. Today, the latest optical technologies — from lasers to solar cells — harness light to advance physics and to serve society's needs.

Science pours in from Rosetta comet mission GM microbes created that can’t escape the lab Crunch time for pet theory on dark matter

To put light itself in the spotlight, the United Nations designated 2015 the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. The celebration is also pegged to a string of anniversaries: Augustin-Jean Fresnel's proposal in 1815 that light is a wave; James Clerk Maxwell's 1865 electromagnetic theory; Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity; and in 1965, discovery of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation and the development of optical fibres for communication.

Nature is paying its own tribute to light in this special issue. Contorting light is the goal of three physicists profiled in a News Feature on page 154: Miles Padgett twists laser beams to encode binary information; Pierre Berini reshapes light waves to speed up digital communications; and Margaret Murnane dissects X-rays into ultrafast attosecond pulses, one billionth of a billionth of a second long, to probe materials in exquisite details.

Some advances in the physics of light are of great benefit to biology and medicine. Borrowing from astronomers, biophysicists are developing techniques for seeing through opaque layers, by detecting the minute glow of visible light scattered through body tissues. Such methods are likely to lead to more-powerful medical imaging, as explained on page 158.

Nature special: Light

In another sphere entirely, near-speed-of-light communications are set to transform financial trading as laser links between banking centres come online. But there are major risks, Mark Buchanan explains on page 161. Trading stocks in milliseconds pushes algorithms to their limits, exposing flaws that can escalate in seconds to cause hundred-million-dollar losses.

In a News & Views Forum on page 170, two cosmologists reflect on the clues to the origin of the Universe hidden in its oldest light, the CMB. And on page 164, physicist Jim Al-Khalili is dazzled by the afterglow of a 1,000-year-old treatise on the nature of light: Ibn al-Haytham's Book of Optics. An online collection will highlight key papers on light from journals across Nature Publishing Group throughout the year (see

With so many facets, scientists' fascination with light looks unlikely to fade.

Related links

Related links

Related links in Nature Research

Astronomy: Laser focus 2015-Jan-21

Solar energy: Springtime for the artificial leaf 2014-Jun-04

Exotic optics: Metamaterial world 2013-Aug-07

Nature special: Light

Nature collection: Year of light

Related external links

International Year of Light

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Light fantastic. Nature 518, 153 (2015).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing