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Joe Niemela

Issue 82 December / January 2015

Global Coordinator of IYL 2015 (International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies) discusses the link between UNESCO and the International Centre of Theoretical Physics (ICTP).

What is your area of specialisation in physics and your role in ICTP?

My area of specialisation is in low temperature physics and fluid mechanics, mainly studies of very turbulent flows under well-controlled laboratory conditions.

My role at ICTP is as Head of the Applied Physics Group and also as Head of the Office of External Activities (OEA). The OEA is responsible for many networks and centres of excellence around the developing world; it supports workshops, conferences and schools worldwide; it has programs that bring qualified experts to institutions in developing countries (Visiting Scholars Program) and brings experimentalists from developing countries to Italy for long term collaborative studies (TRIL Program). 

How is the International Centre of Theoretical Physics linked with UNESCO?

The ICTP is a Category I UNESCO Institution. In this case UNESCO is one of three partners under a tripartite agreement that governs the ICTP: The State of Italy, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UNESCO. ICTP and UNESCO HQ have many direct links in a number of programmes, some of them directly connected with IYL, such as optics education programs for teachers and the SESAME project - a synchrotron light source being built in the Middle East, and serving as the major effort to date in science diplomacy. We also work together to help set up and maintain UNESCO Category II Scientific Centres in developing countries and of course we are working hand-in-hand in making sure that IYL2015 is successful.

What is the UNESCO International Basic Sciences Program?

The UNESCO International Basic Sciences Program (IBSP) was established by UNESCO Member States in order to reinforce intergovernmental cooperation and co-operation between partner organisations in science to strengthen national capacities in the basic sciences and science education. One of the programmes that is overseen by the IBSP is the Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) Program, which is designed to train secondary school and university instructors in developing countries on modern inquiry-based techniques for teaching optics in their classes. 

What is the main goal of UNESCO for IYL2015? 

There are many goals for IYL2015 that apply to UNESCO. An overarching goal is to simply bring awareness of the potential of light and light technologies to improve the quality of life for the billions of inhabitants of the planet. However, specifically the education of youth is a target - using light to motivate the study of science and also to aid in the capacity building process in developing countries, recognising that optics and photonics for example, are ‘enabling’ sciences. Improving the situation for women in science goes with any Year that has a scientific component and this is a very important theme for UNESCO.  Finally, having lasting or ‘legacy’ actions resulting from the IYL in the area of education and training is a key goal for UNESCO.

What do you think is the effectiveness of having an ‘International Year of...’ in general and do you have proof to show that has been beneficial for other subjects? 

Having an International Year of anything is almost uniquely effective at bringing diverse groups together in a common area. It is an opportunity to talk to people whom we don’t usually talk to. This is one of the most diverse Years that has been declared, bringing scientists, lighting designers, philosophers, light artists, architects, etc. together, all under the theme of light. An important group to include are policy-makers, because raising awareness with them can have a lasting impact in mutually beneficial ways. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of intangible actions during the Year, but the legacy of an International Year is easier: in the case of the Year of Physics, for example, the importance of education reform and entrepreneurship training for scientists was recognised and several long-lasting programs developed from this, including programs in Physics education, began with a collaboration between ICTP and IUPAP, and very successful Entrepreneurship Workshops began with a collaboration between ICTP and IOP in London. These programs are still going strong ten years later.

What should the role of Lighting Designers be in IYL2015?

I think the role of Lighting Designers should be....BIG. Really, when we discuss quality of life, we not only mean, for example, new technologies for medical treatments - when and if we need it, but also the role of proper lighting in improving the quality of everyday life. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright understood this well early in his design of buildings and homes but it is not clear that many people around the world even now have a proper appreciation for how light can affect the way they think and feel, and how easily it can be accomplished. To me this is one of the most important messages to be conveyed during the Year of Light. And not just in the home. Proper lighting of outside areas can turn unsafe areas into safe ones, can open up parks and inner city neighbourhoods at night so people can enjoy the place they are living and generally can help to lift the spirits of an inner city population and help to create communities. That is what we are ultimately after with an International Year: creating a wider community around the world, one that preferentially sees light instead of darkness (unless, of course, it is a star-filled sky - another area where proper lighting can help).


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