Photons are like Cows: Here's Why
13 Sep 2017
No
- Helen Towrie

For as long as lasers have existed, scientists have been trying to explain to others what lasers actually are. This is, alas, is one of the hazards of working with something that is at the forefront of technology.

Yes

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For as long as lasers have existed, scientists have been trying to explain to others what lasers actually are. This is, alas, is one of the hazards of working with something that is at the forefront of technology.

Lasers can be used to detect cancer, to create extreme magnetic fields, to heal, to fabricate conditions that could only ever be found in the extremities of space, and yet very few people actually understand what laser light is.

At the CLF, numerous open days are held to encourage children to be enthralled in the world of lasers. With lasers becoming more and more prominent in everyday life, from laser skin treatments to liquid identification at airports, it is important for us to help the public to understand the new possibilities being made possible through our research work with lasers.

As an impact and engagement officer at the CLF, I have been talking to scientists about how they describe laser light to children, and I hope the information I have gathered will be used to help others to explain lasers in a clear and simple way to the next generation.

First, it is clear that metaphors are a helpful way of engaging a child's interest. Children are unlikely to understand or have an interest in photons and electrons, but if you can find a way to talk about them metaphorically, they could understand instantly.

Various metaphors for “spread out, the light is weak, but put together, the light is strong" have been used by the scientists I spoke to, for example:

'When the cows are just grazing, they are all spread out and doing their own thing – this is much like the normal light we see around us, it is docile and weak. However, when the same cows all group together to go down a road – they are all walking in unison, and with that extra power, they could create a stampede – this is like laser light.'

Another scientist used a marching band as a metaphor: 'Normal light is like people just going about their day, but if those people got together to march in unison, they would create a strong, loud presence. The unified footfalls of the marching band also helps to explain how light wavelengths match each other in laser light, but not in normal light'

On top of this, visual explanations can be a very powerful tool for helping children learn. These illustrations were created by me to aid scientists when they are describing laser light to children.

Other clever metaphors have been used to describe the end process of a laser hitting a target. One scientist described it as if it were people at a party: ' If there is no music at the party, people will not dance, but if there is, the people will start to move about and jive. This is much like what happens when a laser hits a target – the electrons within the target will get excited and move around rapidly'.

 

These descriptions of laser light and what it does to targets are simple, yet remarkably affective. If you have your own metaphor for describing laser light, please let me know.

Furthermore, if would like your metaphor illustrated for education purposes, please contact me via email at helen.towrie@stfc.ac.uk.​



Contact: Towrie, Helen (STFC,RAL,CLF)

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