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In memoriam: Nicolaas Bloembergen, laser spectroscopy Nobel Laureate

07 September 2017

Nicolaas Bloembergen

Nicolaas Bloembergen
Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè
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Laser spectroscopy pioneer and Nobel Laureate Nicolaas Bloembergen died 5 September at his home in Tucson, Arizona. He was 97.

Born in Dordrecht, The Netherlands, in 1920, Bloembergen was a graduate student during the occupation of Holland during World War II and finished a master's degree in science at the University of Utrecht just before the university was closed in 1943. He and his family spent the remainder of the war years "hiding indoors, eating tulip bulbs to fill the stomach," Bloembergen wrote in his biographical information for the Nobel Prize website (www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1981/bloembergen-bio.html).

Colleagues remember Bloembergen as not only highly respected for his scientific achievements, but "loved by many, and especially his former students and postdocs," said James Wyant, who worked with Bloembergen at the College of Optical Sciences, University of Arizona (UA). "Nico was a wonderful human being." Wyant was the founding Dean of the College, known as the OSC for its original name, the Optical Sciences Center, and is a Past President of SPIE.

Known as the Father of Nonlinear Optics, Bloembergen did his PhD research at Harvard University and the University of Leiden on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), completing his doctorate at Leiden.

"It is interesting that this research resulted in one of the most-cited physics papers ever, now commonly referred to as BPP (N. Bloembergen, E. M. Purcell and R. V. Pound, Phys. Rev. 73, 679, 1948)," Wyant noted. "What a fantastic beginning of a fantastic career."

Bloembergen's work in microwave spectroscopy led to the development of the crystal maser. Shortly after the invention of the laser he began working in the area of laser spectroscopy, which allows high-precision observations of atomic structure. This research ultimately led him to formulate nonlinear optics, a new theoretical approach to the analysis of how electromagnetic radiation interacts with matter.

In 1981, Bloembergen shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Arthur Schawlow for the development of laser spectroscopy. Kai Siegbahn also shared the prize, for development of high-resolution electron spectroscopy. Among other honors, Bloembergen also received the 1974 National Medal of Science for Physical Science for "for pioneering applications of magnetic resonance to the study of condensed matter and for subsequent scientific investigations and inventions concerning the interaction of matter and coherent radiation."

He held several chaired professorships at Harvard, where he worked from 1949 through retirement in 1990. He held visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s and was a visiting scientist at OSC in the 1990s.

"In about 2000 Nico decided he wanted to retire in either Florida or Arizona and I am happy to say we convinced him to move to Arizona in 2001," Wyant said. He lived in a retirement community, Academic Village, founded by a former UA president, Henry Koffler.

"We gave him an office in the Meinel Optical Sciences building, his own parking spot next to the Meinel Building (this was the most important part of the deal — as perhaps only someone who has spent his career working at a university will appreciate), and a professorship in optical sciences," Wyant said. "In his retirement he became a very important professor at Optical Sciences. I should mention that he refused to accept a salary!"

Bloembergen came to his office several days a week until recently when his health deteriorated, Wyant said.

"His office door was always open. He was always willing to meet with visitors, other faculty, and students. We often asked him to meet with students we were trying to recruit and he helped us recruit numerous excellent students. How could a student not come to Optical Sciences if they knew they could talk with a person the caliber of Nico almost whenever they wanted to," Wyant recalled.

A 2010 90th birthday party drew an impressive guest list.

"I have never been to an event with so many optics stars including three Nobel Laureates, Charles Townes, Roy Glauber, and John Hall, and many of Nico's former PhD students and postdocs," Wyant said. "It was very clear that not only was Nico highly respected for his scientific achievements, but he was loved by many."

Bloembergen is survived by his wife of 69 years, Huberta Deliana (Deli) Brink, and their three children and their families.

Bloembergen himself summed up part of his legacy in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

"Lasers contribute to the improvement of communications. Optical communication and information processes will further influence the lives of people in the decades to come. Dialogue and information transfer, from person to person, from people to people, are important, nay essential, for mankind. The fate of all of us on this globe is tied much closer together now than it was a century ago."

Bloembergen told his story in an SPIE video interview during 2010, during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the demonstration of the laser: www.spie.org/newsroom/las16-bloembergen.