Nico Turns 90 (and I was there!)

Talk about being in the right place at the right time – on Friday, March 12, 2010, I had the privilege and good fortune to be able to attend a conference and birthday party in celebration of one of the greatest physicists of the 20th and 21st centuries – Nicolaas Bloembergen.

He’s called Nico, turned 90, has a Nobel Prize, and is really nice. I had the pleasure of chatting with him briefly at “The Nicolaas Bloembergen Nobel Prize Scientific Symposium” sponsored by the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences.

Nico is considered one of the fathers of optical science and in particular, lasers. In fact, the two last lectures of the day, entitled “Who (really) Invented the Laser (Part I and II),” presented by Robert A. Myers and Richard Dixon, offered evidence from patent filings that Nico is the true parent of the laser.

“By patent law, Nico is the (undeniable) inventor of the laser,” stated Myers, a former student of Bloembergen’s. He clarified that “inventorship of the laser goes with the patent, not the scientific paper,” and if historians looked at the patent they would know for sure who invented the laser. The patent to which he referred is called Bloembergen ‘654 and was given in 1959 for “Uninterrupted Amplification Key Stimulated Emission Radiation from a Substance Having Three Energy States.”

Myers noted that Claim 1 of the Patent is “one of the most beautiful claims I’ve ever seen and I’ve read thousands of claims. It covers all solid state and X-ray and gamma rays lasers. It’s clear and unambiguous.”

Although Myers and Dixon wrote about this in their 2003 paper “Who invented the laser: An analysis of the early patents” in the Journal Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, Myers stated that he had actually given “the inventorship of the laser” to Nico on his 80th birthday. As a side, he thanked his former advisor “for forgiving me for asking for a raise” when he was a student.

Although there was nothing earth-shatteringly new about any of the speeches, they were fascinating nonetheless, as they delved into various aspects of optics and laser science that has been significantly influenced by Nico in some way. In fact, most of the speakers and even some guests had direct connections to Nico, either serving as his student or colleague at some point in time.

There were four Nobel Laureates in attendance. In addition to Nico, who shared his 1981 Prize in Physics with Arthur Shawlow for “for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy,” the others included:

–Roy J. Glauber, whose 2005 Nobel is “for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence,” and with whom I shared a table at the dinner following the Symposium;

–John L. Hall, who also got the Prize in 2005, in conjunction with Theodor W. Hänsch, for “contributions to the development of laser-based precision spectroscopy, including the optical frequency comb technique;”

–Charles H. Townes, another laser pioneer, who shares his 1964 Nobel with Nicolay Gennadiyevich Basov and Aleksandr Mikhailovich Prokhorov “for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.”

Among the 18 eminent speakers was Peter Sorokin. Sorokin, who in recent years has become very interested in the idea of natural lasers existing in stars (see … for an explanation), has examined 100s of spectra from various stars to prove his theory. During his presentation he thanked his former advisor, Nico, stating “he’s the man who started me in science in 1956 and I’m still trying in science. I may not be as good as I used to be, but I still have the spirit and it’s all thanks to picking the right thesis advisor.”

Sorokin has not published his theory yet. But after finishing his lecture, on the way out of the auditorium, Nico grabbed him and suggested some potential publishing outlets to him. Following that encounter, I had the chance to speak with Sorokin, who is a gentleman scholar, and offered to show me the spectra from 350 stars that proved his hypothesis.

(That’s me with Peter Sorokin, the Inventor of the 2nd and 3rd lasers.)

I greatly enjoyed sitting in on the many other talks given by the Who’s Who of optical physics and lasers. Is it any coincidence that Nico’s 90th b-day is the same year as Laserfest, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the birth of the laser?

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