Tripping the light fantastic

Friday 5 March 2004

The role of light in everything from non-invasive medical procedures to the next generation of space travel will be demonstrated by a new UK-wide science roadshow.

University of St Andrews scientists have been awarded £80,000 by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to tour Scottish secondary schools and UK science centres, explaining how light could be used to propel DNA, pinpoint new drug targets and launch spacecraft.

Professor Kishan Dholakia, in conjunction with university spin- off company FifeX Limited, will tour the country with a high-tech, interactive exhibit illustrating the power of light on matter, including a scientific explanation of NASA’s plans to propel spacecraft across the solar system.

The roadshow is based on Professor Dholakia’s use of “optical tweezers” which provide a novel way of spinning the most delicate microscopic objects without any physical contact whatsoever. This could allow researchers to rotate biological structures in living cells, potentially revealing new drug targets by rotating enzymes and proteins to align the active sites where they latch onto each other.

The last three decades have witnessed profound and far- reaching advances using light. Advanced light sources, such as lasers, are now commonplace in CD/data storage systems in our homes, supermarket bar code readers, telecommunications systems and in media displays. Furthermore, light has made a deep impact in our ability to influence the motion of biological samples such as cells, DNA and even atoms. On a larger scale, light forces are real contenders for propelling spacecraft right across the solar system using the Sun as a source of energy.

Professor Dholakia said, “It’s quite simply astounding the impact light has had over the last few centuries on our everyday lives. This exhibit will aim to show people why light is so important and indeed how the next generation of optical techniques can impact in advanced methods of healthcare and biomedical research. It is simply wonderful too to excite young minds with the potential and application of light at the biological level”.

The FifeX exhibit will combine simple and evocative explanations, as well as video presentations showing how the forces of light may be able to propel the next generation of space travel. The project will also include illustrative links through computer demonstrations and visuals, with the chance to play visual computer programmes and, ultimately, play with an actual optical tweezers system.

It is hoped that the roadshow will target around 3,000 secondary school students and 40,000 members of the general public.

FifeX is a University of St Andrews spin-out company specialising in the design and manufacture of high quality, interactive, scientific exhibits. Since its launch in 2002, the company, led by two University physics graduates, Kenneth Boyd and Craig Harvey, has established many useful links in science centres and museums throughout the country. Their role will be to take Professor Dholakia’s ideas and transform them into a visually appealing, educational, low- maintenance, robust, transportable exhibition. Using specialists, FifeX will also produce accompanying audio-visual presentations, software, graphics, flash animations and a website.

ENDS Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information, please contact Dr Dholakia today (Friday 5 March 2004)on 01334 463184 or Claire Grainger – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or cg24@st-; Ref: press releases/kishanschools View the latest University news at


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