The physics of films, butterflies, banknotes and rainbows


on the 300th anniversary of Newton's Opticks.

The physics of the Incredible Hulk, how butterflies are helping produce forgery-proof banknotes and how rainbows really work are all in February's Physics World.

This special issue of Physics World looks at the role of light in nature in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the publication of Isaac Newton's Opticks. In this landmark book, Newton revealed the mysteries of light, linking colour to the wavelength of light for the first time and including the theory of the origin of the rainbow that led the poet John Keats to accuse Newton of having destroyed the mystery of nature. Despite the protests, physicists - now as then - remain fascinated by the role of light in nature, as this month's special issue of Physics World reveals.

The physics of the Incredible Hulk film

When the animated eponymous hero in Incredible Hulk bends his arm, his muscles need to bulge in just the right place and his skin needs to stretch in a realistic fashion. The only way to create such true-to-life two-dimensional images of supposedly three-dimensional scenes is to trace the path of light using the laws of physics. Jürgen Singer - whose Berlin-based firm has produced visual effects for firms such as Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3 -reveals how the visual-effects industry creates scenes that do not and may never exist. (p. 23).
Contact: Jürgen Singer, mental images, Berlin, Germany (tel. 49-30-315-9970; fax 49-30-315-99733; e-mail

Oscar winner focuses on lens design

Iain Neil is not a household name in the film industry, but the 47-year-old physicist is a surprising British success story. As chief technical officer at Californian company Panavision, has helped his firm to scoop 11 of the company's 26 Academy Awards, mostly for the design of zoom lenses. Physics World talks to Neil, who reveals plans to launch a course in lens design at his alma mater Strathclyde University. (p. 11).
Contact: Iain Neil, Panavision, US (tel. 818-316-2140; fax 818-316-1101; e-mail

Butterflies provide new security device for banknotes

Peacock feathers, silverfish scales and other brightly coloured, iridescent objects are not just beautiful to look at. These natural materials, whose colour results from their physical structure not from pigmentation, are also teaching physicists a thing or two about advanced photonics. Researchers at QinetiQ, for example are trying to copy various nanoscale structures that appear on butterflies and moths to see if they could lead to new security devices for banknotes and credit cards. As Pete Vukusic from Exeter University describes, the interaction of light with the structures produces microscopic arrays of colour that overlap to produce a third colour. This could provide a covert, additional security feature that would make counterfeiting harder. (p. 35).
Contact: Pete Vukusic, School of Physics, Exeter University, UK (tel. 44-139-226-4156; fax 44-264-111; e-mail

Physicists explain how rainbows really work

Be honest. Do you really know how rainbows are formed? Everyone knows that they are created when white light is dispersed through rain droplets, but there is in fact much more to this optical phenomenon than first meets the eye. John Hardwick describes some of the subtle physics that is needed to explain the rainbow as well as other, much rarer, natural optical phenomena, such as "fog-bows", "dew-bows" and the mysterious "glories". (p. 29)
Contact: John Hardwick, Culham Electromagnetics and Lighting, Culham Science Centre, Abingdon, UK (e-mail

What rainbows mean to humanity

The rift between science and arts that followed the publication of Newton's Opticks 300 years ago led John Keats to famously accuse the great scientist of "unweaving the rainbow". But why were Keats and other poets so afraid that scientific theories of light would destroy the wonder of the rainbow? Philosopher Robert P Crease argues that they feared that the scientific image of the rainbow would be taken as the "true" meaning. This would in turn replace the "other" meaning of the rainbow -- namely that it is a sign that our world is full of purpose and significance. (p. 16).
Contact: Robert P Crease, Department of Philosophy, State University of New York at Stony Brook, US (tel. 631-632-7570; fax 631-632-7522; e-mail

Also in this issue:

  • Physics students to get £1000 bursaries (p. 5)
  • Trouble as Hubble heads for the dust (p. 5)
  • US targets the Moon and Mars (p. 6)
  • Japan approves neutrino project (p. 7)
  • Attosecond lasers come of age (p. 10)
  • Detecting the colours of darkness (p. 20)
  • A reading and writing revolution (p. 18)
  • Maxwell's equations and earthquakes (p. 21)
  • Lord Kelvin, science and religion (p. 56)

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- Robert Frost