Optics in Mexico

Optical research in Mexico has come into its own, with active programs in metrology, fiber optics, optical materials, interferometry, and more.


image CIO’s new postgraduate building. It has four classrooms and provides work space for about 50 students.

The first optical activities in Mexico can be traced to Olmec Indians, who constructed mirrors 3,000 years ago. Some polished spherical-surface quartz stones were found in a tomb buried in Oaxaca; they are believed to have been used as magnifiers since a century B.C.

By about 1660, scientists were building optical instruments for astronomical observation. Alexandro Fabián, a Jesuit from Puebla, bought lenses from the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. He used them to make the first telescopes and microscopes in North America. In 1690, Carlos de Siguenza y Góngora also fabricated telescopes. Meanwhile, around the same time, the first American spectacle shop opened in Mexico City.

German scientist Alexander von Humboldt testified in 1803 that he had a large scientific interest in the work being done in the central area of the country. Unfortunately, Mexican foreign and local wars throughout the 19th century interrupted most of the incipient academic, artistic and industrial activities. In 1885, however, Mexico’s first National Astronomical Observatory ushered in a new era in scientific activity.

But it took nearly a century before optics in Mexico expanded significantly beyond astronomy. Spurred by scientists such as Daniel Malacara, who returned to Mexico City in 1965 after obtaining a Ph.D. in optics from the University of Rochester, opticians began applying standard techniques to laser building, designing and constructing thin films, and engaging in optical manufacturing and testing.

Between 1966 and 1971, scientists constructed a 0.84-m Ritchey-Chrétien telescope and a Ross double refractor. Around that time, several laser prototypes—including those for the He-Ne, He-Cd, Ar and CO2 lasers—were made using standard technology, mainly for educational purposes but some for low-scale industrial use.

Students from the University of Mexico went to leading research centers around the world—including the Imperial College in London, The Optical Sciences Center in Arizona, and the École Supérieure d’Optique in Orsay near Paris—to learn about the flourishing field of optics.

By 1972, the number of optical workers at the Institute of Astronomy at the National University of Mexico had reached a critical mass. Under the leadership of astronomer Guillermo Haro, they decided to move to the nearby city of Puebla to transform the former National Astrophysical Observatory into the National Institute for Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics. They soon started a graduate program in optics—which continues to this day. Research activities branched out from optical design and fabrication to new topics such as Fourier optics, holography, interferometry and quantum optics.

The Mexican government gave science and technology a strong boost through the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT), which was the main supporter for Mexican research and graduate education. In 1980, the National University of Mexico founded the Center for Research in Optics (CIO) at León, Guanajuato. This was the first optics-only research institution in Mexico; its first director was Daniel Malacara.

A new generation of optics researchers became pioneers in emerging fields: Javier Sánchez Mondragon in quantum optics; Sergio Calixto and Cristina Solano in optical materials and holography; Vicente Aboites in lasers; Fernando Mendoza in optical metrology; Manuel Servin and Abundio Davila in image and interferometric data processing. Throughout the 1990s, Mexico, and in particular the CIO, also benefited from an infusion of former Soviet researchers who worked in fiber optics, chaotic laser theory and optical materials.

Over the past 15 years, several universities and research centers have initiated permanent optical research activities. The Centro de Investigación Científica y Educación Superior de Ensenada made optics its own department within applied physics. Mexican scientists, including Diana Tentory, Martin Celaya, Luis Enrique Celaya and Héctor Escamilla, consolidated an optics team mainly working in the areas of holography and scattering.

The National Observatory in Ensenada started optical fabrication and testing for astronomical purposes to serve the San Pedro Martir Optical Observatory. Also in northern Mexico, the University of Sonora at Hermosillo began work in optical materials. More recently, the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey has introduced research and teaching activities in optical communications.

In addition, the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí developed a strong research program in optical fiber communications. In central Mexico, the Universidad de Guanajuato at Salamanca started research and graduate education in optoelectronics and signal processing. At the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, the focus is primarily on optical design and fabrication. The National University of Mexico at Cuernavaca is known for mathematical optics. Finally, very recently the Universidad de Guadalajara at Lagos started an optoelectronics programs with a dozen newly graduated optics PhDs from the CIO.

The country has slowly seen an increase in optical production shops and services. For example, Augen Ópticos in Ensenada, founded by M.A. Machado, has been producing spectacle lenses and associated equipment for several years. Some custom manufacturing plants in lens manufacturing, thin films, security holograms and microscopes were also recently initiated.

The CIO currently has about 60 researchers, 60 technicians and 80 graduate students. It has become a strong presence in the international optical community.

Manuel Servin and Zacarias Malacara are with the Centro de Investigaciones en Optica (CIO), Leon Gto., Mexico.

References and Resources

>> A. Cornejo. “Twenty years of optics in Mexico,” Opt. News 12(6), 14-7 (1986).
>> R.K. Temple, The Crystal Sun, Random House/Century, London (1990).
>> J.J. Lunazzi. “On the quality of the Olmec mirrors and its utilization,” Proc. SPIE 2730, 2-7 (1996).
>> A. Cornejo. “Optics in Mexico: The development of research and graduate studies,” Opt. Photon. News 9(2), 42-4 (1998).
>> M.A. Moreno-Corral. “Evidencias Sobre la Introducción Temprana de la Óptica en México,” Bol. Soc. Mex. Fis. 13:2, 71-8 (1999).
>> L.E. Regalado and D. Malacara-Fernandez. “Optics in Mexico,” J. Opt. Technol. 68, 854-6 (2001).
>> J. Sánchez Mondragón et al. “Optics in Mexico: creating an identity,” OSA Technical Digest Series (Optical Society of America, 2003), paper ETuE5.

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Optics in Mexico

Optical research in Mexico has come into its own, with active programs in metrology, fiber optics, optical materials, interferometry, and more.

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