- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) - When Gabe Spalding talks about time traveling light waves, holograms and tractor beams, it might sound like the stuff of science fiction.

But the research being done by Spalding, Illinois Wesleyan University’s Ames professor of physics, has potential down-to-earth applications - from helping doctors see inaccessible parts of the body to helping motorists see through fog.

The fog issue is personal for Spalding. Years ago, his uncle, a milkman, drove his truck off the road in the fog. The impact caused the milk containers to shift forward, crushing and nearly killing his uncle, recalled Spalding.

“The next generation of cars will have new ways to assist drivers,” he said.

In fact, Spalding said he is meeting soon with the CEO of Rivian Automotive, which last week finalized the purchase of former Mitsubishi auto assembly plant, to talk about student projects and internships.

Spalding does his research at IWU and with collaborators in Scotland, mostly engineers and surgeons. He involves his students in the work, too. Two were in Arizona last week presenting research papers at a conference.

One, Toan Le, a senior in physics from Vietnam, is working on the project that involves “seeing” through fog. Le described it as reconstructing images of hidden objects.

“The project provides a wide range of application in biomedical as well as in vision systems for self-driving cars and remote-imaging systems,” Le said via email from the conference.

“A lot of the applications do take a long time. . You can’t be motivated just by the end goal,” said Spalding, explaining the challenges of his research. “The students that work on these things are equally motivated by little steps.”

In one of those recent steps, using specialized cameras, “We made a movie of something going backwards in time,” he said. At least, that’s what it appears to do.

The pulse of light used in the “time travel” experiment is about half the width of a single human hair. But to understand how it works, visualize a much wider beam shining up at a surface that’s at an angle.

The light will hit the lower end of the angled surface first, then “travel” to the upper end. But if a camera is positioned at that upper end, it will actually see the light at the upper end first, even though that light arrived later. This gives the appearance of moving backward.

If you shine a light on a convex surface - one curved outward toward you like a pillar in a building - the light will appear to move in two directions, away from each other. If the surface is concave - curved inward - the light will appear to move together and annihilate each other.

Spalding said these effects had been predicted, but nobody had ever done it before these high-speed cameras were used.

“The experiment demonstrates the capabilities of these cameras” and their ability “to look at processes too fast to see” otherwise, he said.

Spalding said he is “going to pack in a few weird videos” in his lunch-and-learn talk, “Science Fiction Made into Science Reality” at 12:10 p.m. Thursday in the Gov. Fifer Courtroom of the McLean County Museum of History in downtown Bloomington.

“It will be fun for fans of shows like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Dr. Who,’” said Spalding, but also for “people who just like to hear about next generation features that are going to come out.”

One of those features on which Spalding is working is a “sono-pill” - a pill that will contain a camera-like Single Photon Avalanche Diode array and ultrasound.

The current prototype is not yet small enough for a human to swallow, but eventually it could be used to allow doctors to see places that can’t be reached through a colonoscopy or endoscopy, he explained. It will be useful in the treatment of Crohn’s disease, he said.

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/2ixFOUr

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Information from: The Pantagraph, https://www.pantagraph.com

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