Editor's Desk: I go to extremes

01 May 2023
Gwen Weerts

Moab, Utah, has long been a mecca for extreme sport enthusiasts. A combination of dramatic red rock cliffs and canyons, and an absence of the type of legislation designed to protect people from themselves, has made Moab the destination for people who recreationally like to defy death, including extreme ATV-ing, BASE jumping from cliffs, and slacklining across canyons.

The popularity of these sports (and Moab as a destination) has dramatically increased in the past 10 years due to exposure on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, which has the US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management concerned. Deserts are fragile environments that can take decades to recover from impact, and desert animals have nowhere to hide from the humans who are invading their space. New legislation proposes to ban recreational roped aerial activities—which includes sports like slacklining, rappelling, BASE jumping, and rope swinging on giant sandstone arches—in certain popular canyons near Moab. The extreme sports crowd is outraged. Where else can a person run a slackline across 300 feet of open space and take in the view?

The meticulous maintenance of world records (fastest mile run, longest hair, oldest cat) speaks to the human interest in extremes: We want to go faster, farther, bigger, smaller, higher, and lower than ever before. And that interest in the outer reaches includes scientists.

The extremes of outer space, ultracold temperatures, and the deepest ocean depths may hold secrets to the greatest scientific discoveries yet to be made. This issue of Photonics Focus explores those extremes, including ultrafast imaging being done by the Extreme Light Group at the University of Glasgow, which is harnessing light to solve practical problems, like seeing moving objects behind obstacles, and also to answer fundamental physics questions. Astronomical instrumentation engineers are working to develop the next generation of coronagraphs, which will help astronomical telescopes to directly image exoplanets, a feat that will require suppressing light from central stars by a factor of 10 billion. For reference, James Webb’s state-of-the-art coronagraph achieved light suppression of 10–5, so there’s a ways to go.

But not all extreme science is without extreme consequence. Quantum gravity sensors are new tools in the kit of geophysical surveyors that significantly extend their ability to detect underground features at unprecedented depths. These sensors could have life-saving applications, such as early detection of earthquakes, but oil and mineral exploration companies will be their primary customers. Destruction of habitat and environmental pollution are inevitable consequences. The adrenaline junkies who flock to Moab argue that their environmental impact on the high desert ecosystem is negligible compared to nearby oil and gas development, and they’re probably right.

Humans push extremes in order to discover our fundamental limits. Can a human run a mile faster than 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds (Hicham El Guerrouj, 1999)? Can a human hold their breath longer than 24 minutes, 37 seconds (Budimir Šobat, 2021)? And can we see, not just detect, an exoplanet, if we can figure out how to suppress enough starlight? The outer edge of these limits is where exploration and science meet.



Gwen Weerts, Editor-in-chief


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