Optics in Toruń, Poland

Known for its beautiful buildings and view of the Vistula river, the city of Toruń is also home to Nicolaus Copernicus University—where a proud legacy in physics and astronomy began more than 50 years ago.


Panoramic view of Toruń at night.

Poland’s traditions in optics date back to the 1200s. Over the centuries, the country has produced some of the world’s finest scientific minds, including Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Hevelius, Albert Abraham Michelson and Marie Sklodowska-Curie.

But our story begins a bit more recently—shortly after World War II, in the city of Toruń, a fascinating microcosm for exploring optics in Poland. The war had exacted tremendous losses, especially among the well-educated. As it drew to a close in 1945, a group of almost 200 scientists of Polish origin were traveling through the country by train. They had come from the Stephen Batory University in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The scientists stopped in Toruń and were amazed that it had not suffered too badly—so they decided to set up a scientific unit there. Although the plan for Nicolaus Copernicus University (NCU) had been in place before the war, it wasn’t until afterwards that it actually took shape; astronomers and physicists from this group were among its founders.

Humble beginnings

The astronomers soon found there weren’t enough books or instruments available to conduct research. Thus, they continued the work they had brought from Vilnius and engaged in a publication exchange with nearby observatories. As they began to publish, word spread that a new observatory had been established; the scientists made an appeal for catalogues, books and instruments.

They didn’t have to wait long for a response. Among those keen to help was Harold Shapley from Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A., who sent a spare 8-in. Draper’s telescope, one of the first astrographs in the world. Built in 1891, it remains among the crown jewels of today’s Observatory. Alexander Wolszczan, discoverer of the first planets beyond the Solar System, worked on it alongside many others.

Meanwhile, Alexander Jablonski, who was deeply involved in the post-war restoration of Polish science, was asked to head the department of experimental physics. Jablonski was well known for proposing a diagram of the energy states of a molecule, which had been published by Nature in 1933; it became the basis for the world literature in physics and chemistry.

Organizing the department wasn’t easy. There wasn’t enough space or equipment initially, and there were too few scholars. But eventually Jablonski found modest accommodations where both teaching and scientific research could take place as well as people who would help him develop experimental and theoretical physics. It was thanks to Jablonski that research on different forms of luminescence; atomic, molecular and optical physics; and spectroscopy began in Toruń. For example, in the 1970s, Toruń’s physicists pioneered the construction of efficient dye lasers.

Toruń today

Many of the recent achievements made by optical scientists in Poland are the result of the hard work of Jablonski’s scientific “grandchildren” and “great-grandchildren.” For example, Andrzej Kowalczyk and Maciej Wojtkowski made the first demonstration in the world of retinal imaging with Fourier domain optical coherence tomography, a technology that was successfully commercialized in 2006.

In NCU’s department of atomic and molecular physics, researchers are working on using cell and tissue fluorescence to detect pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions. Sebastian Mackowski conducts research into how to use inorganic nanostructures, such as semiconductor nanocrystals and metal nanoparticles, to control the optical properties of photo­synthetic systems.

Since 2001, the university has hosted the National Laboratory for Atomic Molecular and Optical Physics, known as the FAMO group. FAMO scientists use sophisticated instruments that are unique in Poland (and in some cases the world) to study trapped cold atoms and quantum engineering. The Center of Quantum Optics was established in 2011; it includes six labs dedicated to ultrafast and ultrahigh spectroscopy, optical imaging for medicine and quantum photonics, among other things.

Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, NCU scientists have received enormous research grants and prestigious European awards. They have taken part in numerous conferences and published in the best scientific journals.

And they keep coming up with new ideas, which they study in well-equipped modern laboratories. They are helping Poland to be ready to stand up to new challenges and living up to the demands and expectations of the world of today.

Danuta Bukowska is a Ph.D. student at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. She belongs to the optical biomedical imaging group guided by M. Wojtkowski.

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Optics in Toruń, Poland

Known for its beautiful buildings and view of the Vistula river, the city of Toruń is also home to Nicolaus Copernicus University—where a proud legacy in physics and astronomy began more than 50 years ago.

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