Seeing the invisible

Professor Ann Roberts’ research goal in TMOS sounds like a magic spell from Harry Potter.

“I want to see invisible things,” says the Leader of the Detection Theme within TMOS.

While it is in fact optical physics, Ann is continually thrilled by her magical results.

One of her students recently popped a transparent cancer cell onto a new nano-structured material and could instantly see it, as if she’d waved a magic wand.

“That’s the great thing about science. We had these theories in our head, but when we tried it and it worked, it was like ‘Wow!’” says Ann.

It’s long been known that light carries a lot of information that cameras and eyes can’t detect, such as polarisation and phase information. But current technology that can analyse these aspects of light is thick and heavy, thanks to chunky conventional lenses and filters – drawbacks the TMOS team have in their sights.

“We want to access that information without big complicated elements or computational post-processing,” she says.

The technology TMOS is developing is naturally thin, because it is based on materials covered with regular patterns of structures ten to one hundred times smaller than a hair. That means that a device containing multiple lenses, filters and analysers can be created with thickness a tiny fraction of that of a single conventional lens.

Better yet Ann and her colleagues are exploring ways to make dynamic elements, that can be controlled with voltage or heat. This would enable you can dial up your preferred settings, for example filter wavelength or polarisation, without having to swap components in and out, as we have to with conventional optics.

Add remote control and you have device that can explore the most extreme areas. With the bushfires of 2019-20 still in all Australians’ minds, Ann is envisaging devices that can analyse the infrared radiation from a fire, and see through the smoke to help firefighters track and fight the blaze.

“Infrared contains an enormous amount of information we’d like to access. Another example the heat from living things,” she says.

Outside of the lab Ann is looking forward to her home city of Melbourne returning to its former vibrancy, as its COVID cases dwindle to zero.

“It’s got a really strong cultural scene: I love the theatre, and the gallery here is fantastic.”

“Even in lockdown the home-delivered food has been amazing – top restaurants have been doing things you wouldn’t have thought of!”

Story by Phil Dooley

About the author/s

Phil Dooley

Dr Phil Dooley – Phil Up On Science – is a science, writer, videomaker, entertainer and trainer. He’s written for Cosmos Magazine, New Scientist, the American Institute of Physics and more and has been selected for the Anthology of Best Australian Science Writing three times. He’s performed ... more

Ann Roberts

Ann Roberts is a Professor in the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne and a Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Transformative Meta-Optical Systems. Professor Roberts has diverse research interests in physical optics and has made significant advances in the theoret ... more

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