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From rainbows to the mechanics of the human eye – light has fascinated scientists for millennia. Today, optical technologies – from lasers to solar cells – harness light to further physics and serve societies’ needs.

The United Nations has designated 2015 the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies. It marks anniversaries including one of the first scientific accounts of optics published by the Islamic scholar Ibn al-Haytham in 1015; August Fresnel’s proposal in 1815 that light is a wave; James Clerk Maxwell’s 1865 electromagnetic theory of light; Albert Einstein’s 1915 theory of General Relativity; and in 1965 the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation and the development of optical fibres for communication.

This collection of news and comment articles explores how scientists are today pushing the properties of light to new extremes. It also includes 13 classic research papers that established the nature of light over the past century, from the discovery of X-rays to rapid laser pulses.

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