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Iron Man and Fiber Optics—Technology at the Speed of Light

Verizon FiOS teams up with Science Buddies in support of science literacy. Fiber optics technology offers high-speed data delivery, but what's going on in a fiber optics system? Look to the 'light' for answers with hands-on science projects that let students explore the physics of light to better understand how fiber optics work.


1,000,000,000 Views to Support Science Buddies and Science Literacy

On Monday, April 29, Verizon FiOS will be showing exclusive video footage from Iron Man 3. For every view of the video during the 24-hour period, FiOS will make a donation to Science Buddies as part of its View to Give program. Verizon FiOS will donate $0.01 to Science Buddies for every view—all the way up to 1,000,000 views!

With Verizon's FiOS service, voice, video, and data are transmitted over three wavelengths in the infrared spectrum. According to Verizon, one of the bands handles television delivery, one sends all other data, and one receives all other data, whether it involves video, telephone, or Internet. Each single fiber optic cable can handle the data needs for 32 FiOS subscribers.

Science Buddies is excited to have been chosen as a recipient for Verizon FiOS's Iron Man 3 View to Give campaign in support of science literacy and the value of science fair!

In both the original Marvel comic series and the movie versions of the Iron Man saga, Tony Stark creates a series of suits (or body armor), each improving upon the one before, each offering new features and addressing problems detected with previous versions of the suit. The first suit, the Mark I, is followed by an array of new models, several of which are on display in Stark's lab in Iron Man 2, despite his claim that he is "not sentimental." When it comes to technology, there is clearly a tip of the hat to the history of the suit's engineering, innovation, and advance. Prototypes matter!

As fans of the Marvel comics series know, the movie suits do not necessarily match up, exactly, to the comics-based storyline. In the comics, for example, the Mark III sports a fiber optic network, in addition to other high-tech and bio-infused features, and is invisible to electronic detection systems—and to the naked eye. The Mark III in Iron Man didn't offer invisibility. Neither did versions IV, V, or VI in Iron Man 2. It will be interesting to see how the suit evolves in Iron Man 3—and who ends up wearing the suit. (No spoilers here!)

There is ongoing research and development using fiber optics to make things "invisible," but when streaming your favorite movie using a fiber optics-enabled high speed data service, your goal is all about seeing—and seeing in real-time. When Iron Man puts on the suit and heads out, he relies on data shown in his heads up display (HUD) to monitor what's going on with the suit and other information, with the help of his home-based AI system. With the HUD, he sees the data floating right in front of him (and communicates directly with his AI by voice). A data transmission slow-down (or lag time) could be disastrous for the suited super hero.

Both in the air and in the lab, Stark needs near-instant access to data. He wants it fast, and, when you are streaming data to one of your systems or devices while watching a movie or playing an online multiplayer game, so do you! To stream data fast enough that you don't have to think about the fact that you are not sitting in a theater but are instead depending on the encoding, transmission, and recoding of packets of digital data, you need speed.

You, like Tony Stark, want your data at the speed of light, and fiber optics is all about light.

Light Waves and Physics

In physics, there are laws describing the behavior of light. Unimpeded, with nothing in its way, light can travel a long way—to the end of the universe and beyond. And with nothing in its way, light travels at a set speed. This speed, the speed at which light travels in a vacuum, is considered a constant in physics—299,792,458 meters per second. Translated to car speeds, the speed of light is more than 600,000,000 miles per hour!

Knowing the speed of light, physicists and astronomers can calculate both time and distance. Light from the moon, for example, takes 1 second to reach the Earth, so the moon is one light-second away. Light from the sun, which is much farther away, takes 8 minutes to reach the Earth. Extrapolate to think about how far light can travel over the course of a year, and you have the distance of a light-year.

But what happens when something gets in the way? Light can be impeded by absorption, refraction, or reflection. Refraction refers to the bending of light when a light wave enters a medium that has a slower speed. The change in speed causes the light to bend at an angle that is directly related to the difference at which the speed of light travels in one medium compared to the speed light travels in the new medium. As light moves between two mediums with different speeds, the path of the light is altered as it hits the new medium. Have you ever reached into a bowl of water (or into a shallow pool) to pick something up, and your reach wasn't quite on target for where the object was actually sitting on the bottom? The image of that object was refracted because light moves more slowly though water. Physicists use Snell's law to calculate the angle at which the light will bend—the angle of refraction.

Future-forward: Evolving Medical Science

Fiber optics are also being used in medicine and in the development of new diagnostic tools. In Iron Man 2 Stark is able to monitor his body's toxicity level with a handheld device which offers instant readings and, conveniently, transmits the data to his house AI system for analysis. This is, right, the stuff of science fiction! Dr. Who, too, frequently uses his futuristic sonic screwdriver, a Swiss army tool for a time lord, to cure companions who encounter something biologically toxic or invasive during a meeting with other species. And, of course, Star Trek medics had a medical tricorder.

Fiber optics may hold the key for putting sci-fi-inspired capabilities into the hands of doctors. Last year, NASA reported on the Microflow, a device being prepared for testing by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) on the International Space Station (ISS). The Microflow is a miniature version of a flow cytometer. The small fiber-optic-enabled device is capable of rapidly analyzing cells and biological molecules in a liquid.

So what does light, and what happens when light hits a slower medium and bends, have to do with data and technology? The jump from point A to point B isn't all that far! Today, much of the data we consume day to day is transmitted optically, or via light.

Back in the days of "dial-up" Internet service, connectivity and data traveled electrically through traditional phone lines and using standard copper wires. A series of advanced high-speed Internet delivery options have transformed what we expect from data service and made possible the range of anywhere, anytime applications many of us use. The faster your service, the faster you will receive the data you want—when you stream a video, for example, or when you play a popular online game like Minecraft.

Much of today's data delivery is propelled and carried by pulses of light through fiber optic tubes, hollow tubes of glass that are incredibly thin (similar to a strand of hair) and incredibly strong. Fiber optic tubes can be used to transmit any kind of digital data, from voice to text to video to pictures. When broken down for transfer, data is data, but fiber optics can handle massive amounts of data and transfer them at great speed.

What does fiber optics have to do with the physics of light? A lot!

If you think about the bending of light, the way, for example, that a straw submerged in a glass of sugar water will appear bent when you look at the portion "in" the water compared to the portion out of the water, then you might think that light transmitting data down a narrow tube would potentially lose speed if it was obstructed over and over or refracted over and over again by the walls of the tube itself. But light doesn't always refract the same direction. If light moves from a slower medium to a faster medium, it refracts differently than when it moves the other direction, from a faster to slower medium.

By calculating what is referred to as the critical angle of refraction, physicists can take advantage of the principles of refraction to keep light moving at a near-constant speed down a fiber optic cable. The glass cables in fiber optics have been engineered with an exterior coating called the cladding that is used to reflect light traveling down the cable at an angle that will allow the light to travel great distance, at great speed, and with minimal loss of speed. Pretty cool!

Speed of Light Science

Exploring the speed of light might sound impossible, especially given the speed of light, and the process of creating fiber optic cables is one that requires an immaculate production facility and extreme precision. Students may not have access to a "clean room" and obviously are not moving at the speed of light, but they can get hands-on learning more about the physics of light, refraction, Snell's law, and the speed of light in the following science projects:

  • "Measuring Sugar Content of a Liquid with a Laser Pointer": using the physics of refraction and Snell's law, you can determine the amount of sugar in a clear liquid solution using a laser pointer and a hollow prism. Sugar water may sound light years from Iron Man, but this project offers an excellent hands-on demonstration of refraction and what you want to avoid when transmitting data—getting caught up in the gunk!
  • "Using a Laser to Measure the Speed of Light in Gelatin": you don't need access to a lab or high-tech tools to measure the speed of light! With a protractor, a laser pointer, and a container of gelatin, you can conduct your own measurements at home and see, in the beam of the laser, what happens when light refracts.
  • "Measuring the Speed of 'Light' with a Microwave Oven": in a microwave, light waves are impacted by interference when waves reflect off the walls of the microwave and bounce into each other. What happens if you remove the rotation tray, which is designed to help balance the distribution of light waves, and cook an egg white? You will have another way to measure the speed of light! You will also have two piles of gooey cooked egg whites. It isn't pretty, but it's physics!
  • "Laser Safety Guide": before working with a laser for any science project, please review the safety guide.

Speed of Light Science Careers

Students curious about careers related to fiber optics technology can learn more in the following science career profiles:

Pop Culture and Movie Science

For more about ways to tie student interest in Iron Man to hands-on science, see:

Note: Iron Man 3 is rated PG-13. Parents can learn more about suggested viewing at Common Sense Media.

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Free science fair projects.