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 Observations of nearby supernova and associated jet cocoon provide new insights on gamma-ray bursts
18.01.2019 | George Washington University

nachricht A new twist on a mesmerizing story
17.01.2019 | ETH Zurich Department 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: Ten-year anniversary of the Neumayer Station III

The scientific and political community alike stress the importance of German Antarctic research

Joint Press Release from the BMBF and AWI

The Antarctic is a frigid continent south of the Antarctic Circle, where researchers are the only inhabitants. Despite the hostile conditions, here the Alfred...

Im Focus: Ultra ultrasound to transform new tech

World first experiments on sensor that may revolutionise everything from medical devices to unmanned vehicles

The new sensor - capable of detecting vibrations of living cells - may revolutionise everything from medical devices to unmanned vehicles.

Im Focus: Flying Optical Cats for Quantum Communication

Dead and alive at the same time? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics have implemented Erwin Schrödinger’s paradoxical gedanken experiment employing an entangled atom-light state.

In 1935 Erwin Schrödinger formulated a thought experiment designed to capture the paradoxical nature of quantum physics. The crucial element of this gedanken...

Im Focus: Nanocellulose for novel implants: Ears from the 3D-printer

Cellulose obtained from wood has amazing material properties. Empa researchers are now equipping the biodegradable material with additional functionalities to produce implants for cartilage diseases using 3D printing.

It all starts with an ear. Empa researcher Michael Hausmann removes the object shaped like a human ear from the 3D printer and explains:

Im Focus: Elucidating the Atomic Mechanism of Superlubricity

The phenomenon of so-called superlubricity is known, but so far the explanation at the atomic level has been missing: for example, how does extremely low friction occur in bearings? Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institutes IWM and IWS jointly deciphered a universal mechanism of superlubricity for certain diamond-like carbon layers in combination with organic lubricants. Based on this knowledge, it is now possible to formulate design rules for supra lubricating layer-lubricant combinations. The results are presented in an article in Nature Communications, volume 10.

One of the most important prerequisites for sustainable and environmentally friendly mobility is minimizing friction. Research and industry have been dedicated...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Our digital society in 2040

16.01.2019 | Event News

11th International Symposium: “Advanced Battery Power – Kraftwerk Batterie” Aachen, 3-4 April 2019

14.01.2019 | Event News

ICTM Conference 2019: Digitization emerges as an engineering trend for turbomachinery construction

12.12.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Additive manufacturing reflects fundamental metallurgical principles to create materials

18.01.2019 | Materials Sciences

How molecules teeter in a laser field

18.01.2019 | Life Sciences

The cytoskeleton of neurons has been found to be involved in Alzheimer's disease

18.01.2019 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>