Pint of Science – Light: The Future of Data


On Tuesday 19 May at Avondale House, Dr Francesca Parmigiani and Prof Peter Smith from the ORC will be talking about advances in their research and the usefulness of light for security, computing and the internet.

Francesca Parmigiani works in developing the key technologies required to communicate signals. Next week, she will be talking about the exhaustion on bandwidth, and possible low energy consumption solutions. To explain what bandwidth is, and the merits of optical fibre technology, she uses an analogy where a lane in a motorway corresponds to a certain frequency along which data is transmitted: “With cars travelling on the motorway, you have to have multiple lanes, you can only have so many cars travelling along a certain length of a single lane. In optical fibres, you can have around 10000 times as many of these ‘lanes’ as in copper wire.”  With optical fibres, you also have the benefit of loss less of power, so that signals can reach longer distances.

Relating this to her own research in this area, she says that an important discovery was the invention of optical amplifiers, which don’t require the data to be converted from optical to electrical and back again in order to boost the signal. Amplifying the signal also means it can reach further. Dr Parmigiani’s work is to see if it is not only possible to amplify the signal, but to remove noise from it, further increasing its reach. In her lab, she sets up experiments with a laser source and uses devices to see how the light can be modified to acheive amplification and noise reduction. She can send these signals through underground optical fibres linked with other universities and research institutions in the UK to see how they fare.

fibre optics

Francesca graduated in Italy with a Master’s degree, following which she won a scholarship to a foreign university, and her then supervisor recommended the Optoelectronics Research Centre in Southampton, where he knew another researcher. After a year, she really enjoyed what she was doing, and loved the opportunity of working at the prestigious ORC. In 2010, she was awarded a fellowship with the Royal Academy of Engineering. She says she loves her job because “In many jobs you are very limited, but in research you are driven by some problem that you want to solve, and everyday you have different challenges”.

As a mother of two small children, Dr Parmigiani says she chose the title for her talk, “Mum, Why’s the Internet So Slow?” because her children are constantly asking questions about things they observe, and she wants to be ready to be able to explain these things to them, and how we answer these questions. She will be talking along with Professor Peter Smith, who will be focussing on the many other uses of light in areas such as defence, as well as secure communications and quantum computing. You can book tickets for these talks here and see them at Avondale House on Tuesday 19th May.

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Physics student and regular freelance science communicator, shooting for the stars. I'm your Science Editor and with the help of a team of talented writers, strive to bring you the most interesting and relevant science stories.

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