Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Fingerprints in the sky explained

09.11.2004


Today, a group of physicists published the most compact and elegant explanation of one of nature’s simplest phenomena: the way light behaves in the sky above us. This research appears today (Tuesday, 9th November) in the New Journal of Physics, published jointly by the Institute of Physics and Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft (German Physical Society).



Michael Berry and Mark Dennis from the University of Bristol, in collaboration with Raymond Lee of the US Naval Academy, have successfully predicted the patterns of polarisation of skylight, explained in broad outline by Lord Rayleigh in 1871, using elliptic integrals – a type of mathematics with deep geometrical roots, often described as “beautiful”.

The blue sky seen through polaroid sunglasses gets darker and brighter as the glasses are rotated. This reveals something almost invisible to our unaided eyes: daylight is polarized light. This means that the light waves vibrate differently in different directions. The effect is strongest at right angles to the sun, and weaker elsewhere. It creates patterns in the sky that look similar to the ridges in human fingerprints and are used by many species of birds and flying insects as an aid to navigation.


A striking feature of the pattern is a pair of points near the sun where the light is not polarized at all (this point is a singularity and the pattern breaks down here). Although they have been studied for nearly two centuries, no one attempted to construct a model using the most obvious feature - the singularities - until now.

Sir Michael Berry said: “We wondered: what if you start with the singularities and write the simplest description of polarisation that puts the singularities in the right places? We found that this gives a remarkably good fit to the observational data, and predicts the pattern across the whole sky.” “This is beautiful mathematics in the sky. Using elliptic integrals, we’ve been able to replace pages and pages of formulae with one very simple solution that predicts the pattern extremely well” “After almost 200 years there’s now a way of understanding this natural phenomenon which is very different from previous models, but utterly natural. It’s a modern theme of physics to study things by looking at their singularities – to think about them geometrically.”

In order to test their theory, co-author Raymond Lee took four different polarized photographs of each of two clear-sky cases at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, using a Nikon digital camera with a specially converted fisheye lens. When they compared these detailed observations to the pattern predicted by their model, they found that the fit was very good, indicating that the arrangement of the singularities could be vital in shaping the overall “fingerprint in the sky”.

Many scientists and mathematicians believe that simple, concise explanations of natural phenomena are better or closer to some underlying truth than more complex ones. Professor Marcus du Sautoy, from the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford, said: “Having a sense of beauty and aesthetics is an important part of being a scientist. Nature seems to be a believer in Occam’s Razor: given a choice between something messy or a beautiful solution, Nature invariably goes for beauty.

"This is why those scientists with an eye for aesthetics are often better equipped for discovering the way Nature works. We might find a complicated ugly solution but that is probably a sign that we haven’t yet found the best explanation. The fact that there is so much beauty at the heart of Nature is what gives scientists a constant sense of wonder and excitement about their subject.”

David Reid | alfa
Further information:
http://www.iop.org
http://www.njp.org

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht The material that obscures supermassive black holes
26.09.2017 | Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC)

nachricht Creative use of noise brings bio-inspired electronic improvement
26.09.2017 | American Institute of Physics

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: The fastest light-driven current source

Controlling electronic current is essential to modern electronics, as data and signals are transferred by streams of electrons which are controlled at high speed. Demands on transmission speeds are also increasing as technology develops. Scientists from the Chair of Laser Physics and the Chair of Applied Physics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have succeeded in switching on a current with a desired direction in graphene using a single laser pulse within a femtosecond ¬¬ – a femtosecond corresponds to the millionth part of a billionth of a second. This is more than a thousand times faster compared to the most efficient transistors today.

Graphene is up to the job

Im Focus: LaserTAB: More efficient and precise contacts thanks to human-robot collaboration

At the productronica trade fair in Munich this November, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be presenting Laser-Based Tape-Automated Bonding, LaserTAB for short. The experts from Aachen will be demonstrating how new battery cells and power electronics can be micro-welded more efficiently and precisely than ever before thanks to new optics and robot support.

Fraunhofer ILT from Aachen relies on a clever combination of robotics and a laser scanner with new optics as well as process monitoring, which it has developed...

Im Focus: The pyrenoid is a carbon-fixing liquid droplet

Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.

A warming planet

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Goodbye, login. Hello, heart scan

26.09.2017 | Information Technology

The material that obscures supermassive black holes

26.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Ageless ears? Elderly barn owls do not become hard of hearing

26.09.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>