cosmiclight_color_whitebgWhat motivates scientists to devote their lives to the pursuit of scientific discovery? It must be, at least partly, the hope of finding true beauty. After all, what can be more beautiful than opening up a new window on the world or uncovering a hidden layer of complexity in the laws of nature?

On 20 December 2013, the UN General Assembly 68th Session proclaimed 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL 2015). The IYL 2015 Resolution in all official languages of the UN. In proclaiming an International Year focusing on the topic of light science and its applications, the UN has recognized the importance of raising global awareness about how light-based technologies promote sustainable development and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health. Light plays a vital role in our daily lives and is an imperative cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century. It has revolutionized medicine, opened up international communication via the Internet, and continues to be central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of the global society.

Physicists around the world are gearing up for the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL), which kicks off later this month at an official opening ceremony at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. Some 1500 delegates are set to converge on the French capital for the event, which runs from 19 to 20 January, and will include representatives from the UN and UNESCO as well as the Nobel laureates Zhores Alferov, Steven Chu, Serge Haroche and William Phillips. Designed to highlight how light and light-based technologies touch every aspect of our lives, the IYL will involve more than 100 partners from 85 countries – including the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World.

This year was picked to celebrate light because it marks a number of anniversaries, including 1000 years since the publication of the work on optics by Ibn al-Haytham, during the Islamic Golden Age. The year also marks 200 years since Augustin-Jean Fresnel’s seminal paper introducing the notion of the wave nature of light, 150 years since James Clerk Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism that paved the way for technologies from lasers to mobile phones, as well as the centenary of the incorporation of the speed of light as an essential part of our description.

And perhaps that is the essence of beauty in science: a striking, deceptively simple observation that contains at its heart a mystery. One that promises a new world of possibilities, waiting to be discovered with the next milestone, beautiful experiment.