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Photonics is the physical science of light waves. It deals with the science behind the generation, detection and manipulation of light.
Light has a dual nature known as the wave-particle duality. That is to say that light has characteristics of both a continuous electromagnetic wave and a particle (photon). Which nature of light is operative depends on the kind of interaction being observed. For example, light bending through a lens or diffracting at the edge of an aperture is exhibiting its wave nature. Light being created or absorbed by a solid-state device such as a laser diode or charge-coupled device (CCD) detector is exhibiting light’s particle nature.
The term “photonics” came into wider use in the 1960’s with the invention of the laser and later the laser diode. It was originally intended to describe a field where the goal was to use light to perform functions traditionally accomplished using electronics, thus the name. The term came into more popular use with the advent of fiber optic communications in the 80s.
Today, photonics refers to the creation, manipulation and detection of light in the service of practical applications where the particle nature of light is important.