In Memoriam: Alan Paxton

24 January 2022
Karen Thomas

SPIE Fellow Alan PaxtonSPIE Fellow Alan Paxton of the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, NM, passed away in November 2021. Known for his expertise in laser physics, Paxton was co-founder of the SPIE Laser Resonators, Microresonators, and Beam Control conference, and served as its co-chair for 12 years. An SPIE Member for more than 22 years, he also served as editor and author on several papers in the SPIE Digital Library and was an SPIE Community Champion in 2019 and 2020.

Paxton was born in Philadelphia, PA, and grew up in Los Alamos, NM, where he developed a life long love of hiking as well as science. He received BS (1968), MS (1974), and PhD (1981) degrees in physics from the University of New Mexico.

Patents earned by him during his career include Multifaceted prism to cause the overlap of beams from a stack of diode laser bars (in collaboration with Drs. Harold C. Miller and Jonathan Stohs, 2009); High density optical interconnect with an increased tolerance of misalignment (2002); Spatially coherent diode laser with lenslike media and feedback from straight toothed gratings (1998); and Unstable optical resonator with self imaging aperture (in collaboration with Dr. Theodore C. Salvi, 1981).

Aside from physics, Paxton was interested in neighborhood preservation and historic architecture. As a resident of the University Heights neighborhood in Albuquerque, he wrote one of the earliest zoning provisions in the country to protect solar access rights (enacted in 1978). While living in a 1920s-era home in Spruce Park, the first country-club neighborhood of Albuquerque, he worked to maintain the original character of the home while adapting it to meet more contemporary needs. He was also active in efforts to preserve the larger neighborhood, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Paxton was also interested in art and unwaveringly supported his wife, Dr. Merideth Paxton's career as an art historian who focuses on pre-Hispanic Maya art of the Yucatán Peninsula. "He loved to travel with me as I presented research papers in the US and other countries," she says. "Once, we and some friends were at a Mayan home in Yucatán; most of us were visiting in the kitchen when we heard music from the record player in the living room. Then, we saw the fringe from the grandmother's turquoise-colored shawl flipping into the kitchen doorway. Al was 6' 6" tall — the grandmother was about twice his age and half his height, but she was asking him to dance with her. Of course, he enthusiastically accepted."

Alan Paxton giving a poster presentation

Dr. Alan Paxton giving a poster presentation on 5 February, 2019, during SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Francisco, CA. Courtesy of Merideth Paxton

Many Society colleagues reached out to SPIE News to express their condolences including SPIE Fellows Dr. Alexis Kudryashov and Dr. Vladimir Iltchenko.

"Alan was an outstanding scientist. At the same time, he was a very modest person," said Kudryashov, professor at the Institute of Geosphere Dynamics, RAS and scientific director of Active Optics NightN Ltd. "Antony Siegman, who organized our Laser Resonators Conference suggested that Alan chair the meeting in 1998, but Alan thought it was too much for him and suggested Pierre Galarneau as a co-chair. Later I was able to assure Alan that he should take part in all our events and chair the conference. He really played a great role in organizing our meeting, inviting different interesting scientists, and he also did a lot of bureaucratic work - he was in charge of the preparation of the final program for many years. Alan also visited Russia back in 2007 and took part in our Workshop on Adaptive Optics."

"Over years Al has been an exemplary colleague and mentor in the uneasy but interesting world of our scientific community, and was indeed, a true gentleman scholar," added Iltchenko, photonics engineer at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Paxton's and Kudryashov's co-chair of the Laser Resonators, Microresonators, and Beam Control conference since the early 2000s. "His passing is great loss for all of us, but what he has built will remain."

Alan Paxton with colleagues at the 2007 Workshop on Adaptive Optics for Industry and Medicine in Shatura, Russia

Dr. Alan Paxton (second from left) taking a break with colleagues at the 2007 Workshop on Adaptive Optics for Industry and Medicine in Shatura, Russia. Courtesy of Alexis Kudryashov

Colleagues at AFRL who knew Paxton well and collaborated with him directly for many years, expressed their thoughts as well.

"I'm honored to have known Al as a teacher, colleague, and friend," writes modeling and simulation section chief Martha Navarro. "I first met Dr. Paxton when he became my Lasers professor in graduate school. Years later and to my surprise, we ended up working in the same team at the AFRL. It was during this last year, through our multiple Zoom conversations, where I had the opportunity to know him more as a friend and human being. He will be greatly missed."

"Dr. Al Paxton was one of the most achieved scientists whom I've had the pleasure to work with at the AFRL" writes semiconductor lasers program manager Dr. Chunte Lu. "For the more than 15 years I've known him, he was always actively contributing to our scientific community. He authored countless research articles, many of which are still widely recognized and cited. I still remember when he first taught us about Fresnel numbers. He was a great mentor, colleague, and friend; he will be greatly missed."

"I first met Al in 2010 but only started to know him personally in 2016 when I wrote my first AFOSR/LRIR proposal," writes semiconductor lasers engineer Dr. Chi Yang. "He helped me a lot on writing that proposal. After that, we collaborated on two projects. Over time, I realized he was not only a sharp scientist, but also a patient and kind man. I was thinking to call him to talk about my upcoming Photonics West presentation when I received the news of his passing. So, it really came as a shock. Now all I can say is he will be missed."

"I will miss my conversations with Al that ranged from his deep passion for laser physics, specifically his work on resonators, to his long history at AFRL," writes laser section chief Dr. Imelda Atencio. "Dr. Paxton was well known for his work on laser resonators, which will live on in many AFRL laser programs. But most of all, I will miss a genuinely gentle/soft spoken human being!"

Drs. Tim Newell, Sylvia Dorato, and Larry Grimes, who worked with Paxton in the Department of Defense (DoD) Joint Technology Office (JTO) also shared their remembrances:

"Dr. Alan Paxton was a key, long-term contributor to the DoD High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office (HEL-JTO) from its inception. He was an investigator for HEL-JTO's earliest-funded programs on reliable diode lasers (2001) and 1030nm illuminator lasers (2002). Later, he was the Principal Investigator for a 2011 HEL-JTO program to develop unstable laser ring resonators. Throughout his efforts, he was known for creating modeling codes to simulate complicated directed energy systems ranging from lasers to high-power microwaves. In addition to leading research, Al served on HEL-JTO's Advanced Concepts Technical Area Working Group (AC-TAWG) between 2007 and 2014. In this capacity, he guided HEL-JTO investment strategies for innovative far-term laser technologies across the country and world-wide. Al's willingness to spend the endless hours needed to develop topics and evaluate the large number of proposals received throughout each year was truly appreciated. During recent years, Al collaborated with the Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate's semiconductor group, working on long wavelength angled cavity diode lasers.

"Al loved his work, and a smile comes to our faces when we remember one of his presentations at an international conference. He was the unlucky person who gave the last paper on the last day of the week-long meeting. The moderator wanted at least one question to be answered before the gathering ended, and that responsibility fell to Al. Never tiring of the science, he spoke for another 15 minutes. Al was a well-respected scientist with a kind, quiet manner; he was liked by everyone who collaborated with him. He will be genuinely missed."

"Al enjoyed life immensely," Merideth observed. "To make a contribution in tribute to him, please consider the Barrow Neurological Institute."

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