Sir John Pendry sheds light on optics for Newton Lecture audience

30 October 2013

Metamaterials and the science of invisibility were the focus of this year’s Newton Lecture by eminent physicist Prof. Sir John Pendry.

The lecture at the IOP’s London centre on 28 October was given by Prof. Pendry as the 2013 winner of the Isaac Newton Medal and Prize – the Institute’s most prestigious award.

Speaking to a packed audience, Prof. Pendry described his theoretical work – most famously on invisibility cloaks – which has been taken up by experimental scientists and used as the basis for building practical devices.

Explaining the concept of transformation optics, Prof. Pendry described how a ray of light could follow a distorted path around an object that was cloaked by something made of a metamaterial – an artificial material constructed in such a way that it has physical properties not found naturally. Using his theoretical results, others had successfully demonstrated a cloak for visible light to hide a nanoscale object,  and cloaks for radio waves and for a magnetic field, he said.

Prof. Pendry also described his work on negative refraction. “This is not as immediately sensational as a cloak, but to my mind it’s the more remarkable effect of the two,” he said. He showed how a fish in a pool of liquid that had a negative refractive index would appear to be located in the area above the pool. Combining this concept with transformation optics could enable scientists to use metamaterials to construct the “perfect lens” i.e. one which would overcome the diffraction limit for the resolution of an object using visible light.

What mattered most was that his research should result in reproducible experiments that could lead to something of benefit to society, he said, and many people were now working on such practical applications.

The lecture was introduced by the IOP’s president-elect, Prof. Roy Sambles, who led a question and answer session afterwards. During his talk, Prof. Pendry claimed to have presented his work on transformation optics as a joke when he was asked to “ginger up” a scientific meeting. “The joke fell rather flat. Everybody looked deadly serious but it turned out that they were very excited,” he said. Prof. Sambles told him: “I have never thought of you as naïve. I am sure you said that with your tongue in your cheek.”

  • An interview with Prof. Sir John Pendry can be viewed on the IOP’s YouTube channel. The Isaac Newton Medal and Prize will be presented to him at the Institute’s Awards Dinner on 15 November.

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