Hackaday Prize Entry: Optical Experiments Using Low Cost Lasercut Parts

Experimenting with optics can be great fun and educational. Trouble is, a lot of optical components are expensive. And other support paraphernalia such as optical benches, breadboards, and rails add to the cost. [Peter Walsh] and his team are working on designing a range of low-cost, easy to build, laser cut optics bench components. These are designed to be built using commonly available materials and tools and can be used as low-cost teaching tools for high-schools, home experimenters and hacker spaces.

They have designed several types of holders for mounting parts such as lasers, lenses, slits, glass slides, cuvettes and mirrors. The holder parts are cut from ¼ inch acrylic and designed to snap fit together, making assembly easy. The holders consist of two parts. One is a circular disk with three embedded neodymium magnets, which holds the optical part. The other is the base which has three adjustment screws which let you align the optical part. The magnets allow the circular disk to snap on to the screws on the base.

A scope for improvement here would be to use ball plunger screws instead of the regular ones. The point contact between the spherical ball at the end of the screw and the magnet can offer improved alignment. A heavy, solid table with a ferrous surface such as a thick sheet of steel can be used as a bench / breadboard. Laser cut alignment rods, with embedded magnets let you set up the various parts for your experiment. There’s a Wiki where they will be documenting the various experiments that can be performed with this set. And the source files for building the parts are available from the GitHub repository.

Check out the two videos below to see how the system works.

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Light Speed: It’s not Just a Good Idea

[Kerry Wong] took apart a PM2L color analyzer (a piece of photography darkroom gear) and found a photomultiplier tube (PMT) inside. PMTs are excellent at detecting very small amounts of light, but they also have a very fast response time compared to other common detection methods. [Kerry] decided to use the tube to measure the speed of light.

There are several common methods to indirectly measure the speed of light by relating frequency to wavelength (for example, using microwave ovens and marshmallows). However, measuring it directly is difficult because of the scale involved. In only a microsecond, light travels almost 1000 feet (986 feet or 299.8 meters).

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The Spooky Nature of Electromagnetic Radiation

Our story begins a little over one hundred years ago in Bern, Switzerland, where a young man employed as a patent clerk went off to work. He took the electric trolley in each day, and each day he would pass an unassuming clock tower. But today was different, it was special. For today he would pose to himself a question – a question whose answer would set forth a fascinating dilemma.

The hands of the clock appeared to move the same no matter if his trolley was stopped or was speeding away from the clock tower. He knew that the electromagnetic radiation which enabled him to see the clock traveled at a finite speed. He also knew that the speed of the light was incredibly great compared to the speed of his trolley. So great that there would not be any noticeable difference in how he saw the hands of the clock move, despite him being at rest or in motion. But what if his trolley was moving at the speed of the reflected light coming from the clock? How would the hands of the clock appear to move? Indeed, they could not. Or if they did, it would not appear so to him. It would appear as if all movement of the clock’s hands had stopped – frozen in an instant of time.  But yet if he looked at the hands of the watch in his pocket, they would appear to move normally. How does one explain the difference between the time of the clock tower versus the time of his watch? And which one was correct?

There was no way for him to know that it would take three years to answer this question. No way for him to know that the answer would eventually lead to the discovery of matter and energy being one and the same. No way to know that he, this underemployed patent clerk making a simple observation, would soon unearth the answer to one of the greatest mysteries that had stumped every mind that came before his – the very nature of time itself.

Now it might have taken Einstein a few years to develop the answer we now know as the Special Theory of Relativity, but it most certainly took him no longer than a few days to realize that Isaac Newton…

must be wrong.

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Trying to measure the speed of light with an Arduino

We know that measuring the speed of light with an Arduino is possible. It’s just that the implementation is hard.

Last month we saw [Udo]’s blinkenlight shield that can be used as a line scan camera. It’s a neat piece of kit, but [Udo] really wants to submit something for the Buildlounge laser cutter giveaway, so he figured measuring the speed of light would be an easy project. If a kid and a chocolate bar can do it, surely it can’t be too hard.

[Udo] hit upon the idea of pulsing a laser pointer and measuring the time of the reflection. Because his blinkenlight shield can be used as a light sensor, all that’s needed is a mirror and a pretty long line of sight. There’s a few problems with the setup though: with the Arduino running at 16 MHz, a photon will travel 19 meters in one clock cycle.

Even with some very clever coding, we’re not really sure detecting an emitted photon is possible at such (relatively) slow clock speeds. We’re thinking [Udo] could source a few hundred meters of optic fiber so the entire experiment could fit on a desk, but feel free to drop a note in the comments if you’ve got a better idea. [Udo]’s demo of his blinkenlight/laser mashup is after the break.

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