You can gaze at stars through a telescope. You can marvel at an IMAX film.
You can enjoy your favorite music on CD. You are able to do all these things
because of the work of optical engineers.
"An engineer, in general, is a person who takes ideas that someone else
has thought of and figures out how to make these ideas work," says optical
engineer Imelda De La Rue.
An optical engineer concentrates on those devices that use optics, such
as cameras and telescopes. They also focus on any invention that uses lasers,
such as CDs. "For example, someone may have an idea for a new type of camera
lens. It is the optical engineer that would design it and make it into a working
product for you to buy at your local camera store," she says.
An optical engineer, therefore, does not just know about engineering and
solving problems. They need to know specifically about the physics of light
and how light reacts to the outside world and materials. On a glass window,
light is reflected and transmitted. On a mirror, light is completely reflected.
"Light is the part we can see, the visible spectrum. It is also part of
the spectrum we can't see, including infrared and ultraviolet [rays]," says
engineer Gregory Pierce. "Optical engineers use these very basic properties
of both light and materials, along with other properties, to control, direct
and manipulate light to behave in a certain way."
The work can range from basic research to product development. An optical
engineer may take apart an object to figure out how to make it work better.
Or they may build something from the ground up.
You may be designing improvements to the Hubble Space Telescope so astronomers
can get better and deeper pictures of planets and space. You may work on new
technologies, such as security systems that scan thumbprints to allow entry
to top-secret facilities.
"The basic skill necessary to do well as an optical engineer is a good
understanding of math and physics," says De La Rue. "It then depends on what
aspect of optics you go into and at what level."
A person interested in detectors will need different skill sets than someone
interested in optical design or image analysis, explains De La Rue.
The industries needing optical engineers can vary as well. Some of the
more common industries in which an optical engineer could work include space
programs, textile, oil, computer, food, agriculture, lighting and entertainment,
says Pierce. Many high-tech products, such as CD-ROMs and cellular phones,
also involve optics.