Through a glass, lightly

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Profiles of the Future (1962)

So wrote Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction author and the man who invented the geosynchronous communications satellite.

Clarke later joked of his regret at the billions of dollars he had lost by not patenting the idea, but one gets the impression that what really rankled him was another (and, to be fair, uncharacteristic) failure of imagination: he did not foresee how small and powerful solid state electronics would become. He had pictured swarms of astronauts crewing vast orbital structures, having their work cut out as they strove to maintain and replace the thousands of thermionic valves burning out under the weight of the radio traffic from Earth . . .

A communications nexus that could fit into a volume the size of a minibus, then (as the technology developed) a suitcase and then a pocket seemed implausible to him — and to pretty much everyone else as well.

And yet, here we are, living in the world that microelectronics has wrought. We are truly in an age of Clarkeian magic: our technology has become so powerful, so reliable and so ubiquitous — and so few of us have a full understanding of how it actually works — that it is very nearly indistinguishable from magic.

I want to outline a fictional vignette on the same theme which Clarke wrote in 1961 which has stayed with me since I read it. Please bear with me while I sketch out the story — it will lend some perspective to what follows.

In the novel A Fall of Moondust (1961) set in the year 2100, the lunar surface transport Selene has become trapped under fifteen metres of moondust. Rescue teams on the surface have managed to drill down to the stricken vessel with a metal pipe to supply the unfortunate passengers and crew with oxygen from the rescue ship. Communication would seem to be impossible as the Selene’s radio has been destroyed, but luckily Chief Engineer (Earthside) Lawrence has a plan:

They would hear his probe, but there was no way in which they could communicate with him. But of course there was. The easiest and most primitive means of all, which could be so readily overlooked after a century and a half of electronics.

A few hours later, the rescue team’s pipe drills through the roof of the sunken vessel.

The brief rush of air gave everyone a moment of unnecessary panic as the pressure equalised. Then the pipe was open to the upper world, and twenty two anxious men and women waited for the first breath of oxygen to come gushing down it.

Instead, the tube spoke.

Out of the open orifice came a voice, hollow and sepulchral, but perfectly clear. It was so loud, and so utterly unexpected, that a gasp of surprise came from the company. Probably not more than half a dozen of these men and women had ever heard of a ‘speaking tube’; they had grown up in the belief that only through electronics could the voice be sent across space. This antique revival was as much a novelty to them as a telephone would have been to an ancient Greek.

The humble converging lens as an ‘antique revival’

If you hold a magnifying glass (or any converging lens) in front of a white screen, then it will produce a real, inverted image of any bright objects in front of it. This simple act can, believe it or not, draw gasps of surprise from groups of our ‘digital native’ students: they assume that images can only be captured electronically. The fact that a shaped piece of glass can do so is as much a novelty to them as an LCD screen would have been to Galileo.

Think about it for a moment: how often has one of our students seen an image projected by a lens onto a passive screen? The answer is: possibly never.

The cinema? Not necessarily — many cinemas use large electronic screens now; there is no projection room, no projector painting the action on the screen from behind us with ghostly, dancing fingers of light. School? In the past, we had overhead projectors and even interactive whiteboards had lens systems, but these have largely been replaced by LED and LCD screens.

I believe that if you do not take the time to show the phenomenon of a single converging lens projecting a real image on to a passive white screen to your students, they are likely to have no familiar point of reference on which to build their understanding and lens diagrams will remain a puzzling set of lines that have little or no connection to their world.

Teaching Ray Diagrams

Start with a slide that looks something like this:

What represents the lens? The answer is not the blue oval. On ray diagrams, the lens is represented by the vertical dotted line. F1 and F2 are the focal points of this converging lens and they are each a distance f from the centre of the lens, where f is the focal length.

Now what happens to a light ray from the object that passes through the optical centre of the lens?

The answer, of course, is a big fat nothing. Light rays which pass through the optical centre of a thin lens are undeviated.

Now let’s track what happens to a light ray that travels parallel to the principal axis as shown?

Make sure that your students are aware that this light ray hasn’t ‘missed’ the lens. The lens is the vertical dotted line, not the blue oval. What will happen is that it will be deviated so that it passes through F1 (this is because this is a converging lens; if it had been a diverging lens then it would be be bent so that it appeared to come from F2).

The image is formed where the two light rays cross, as shown below.

We can see that the image is inverted and reduced.

The image is formed close to F1 but not precisely at F1. This is because, although the object is distant from the lens (‘distant’ in this case being ‘further than 2f away’) it is not infinitely far away. However, the further we move the object away from the lens, then the closer to F1 the image is formed. The image will be formed a distance f from the screen when the object in very, very, very large distance away — or an ‘infinite distance’ away, if you prefer.

One of my physics teachers liked to say that ‘Infinity starts at the window sill’. In the context of thinking about lenses, I think he was right . . .

Method for finding the focal length of a converging lens (image from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AElLVGW9kxQ)

Some free stuff . . .

The PowerPoint that I used to produce the ray diagrams above is here. It is imperfect in a lot of ways but. truth be told, it has served me well over a number of years. It also features some other slides and animations that you may find useful — enjoy!

Postscript: ‘Through a glass, darkly’

The phrase ‘Through a glass, darkly’ comes from the writings of the apostle Paul:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

KJV 1 Corinthians 13:12

The New International Version translates the phrase less poetically as ‘Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror.’

It has been argued that the ‘glass’ Paul was referring to were pieces of naturally-occurring semi-transparent mineral that were used in the ancient world as lenses or windows. They tended to produce a recognisable but distorted view of the world — hence, ‘darkly’.

Better technology means that there is much less distortion produced by our glasses — hence, ‘through a glass, lightly’.

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