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In memoriam: Kevin Rolland-Thompson, aberration theory developer

20 November 2015

Kevin ThompsonKevin Rolland-Thompson, group director of research and development in optics at Synopsys, Inc., and Visiting Scientist at the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, died on 20 November. He had been undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.

Highly respected for his work as well as his dedication to advancing the field and mentoring students and young professionals, Dr. Thompson's most recent work had been primarily in advanced technology programs with DARPA. At the university, he worked with a group led by his wife, Professor Jannick Rolland-Thompson, in advancing nodal aberration theory (NAT), a complete aberration theory for imaging optical systems that applies to rotationally nonsymmetrical optical systems.

"Kevin's work on nodal aberration theory can truly be seen as a monumental step forward in the field," said Andrew Rakich, Senior Optical Engineer with the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization. "Prior to this work, the foundations of which were most comprehensively laid out in his PhD dissertation, aberration theory had been developed rigorously only for the 'special case' of rotationally symmetrical optical systems. The generalisation of aberration theory as it stood at the time, to cover the distribution of aberrations in the field for non-rotationally symmetrical optical systems, can be seen as one of the most significant developments of classical aberration theory in the 20th century."

He was the principal designer for numerous optical systems including null lens designs for the highly successful Hubble 1st Servicing Mission, optical modeling and analysis for the first generation EUV illuminator for lithography, and Gen III night vision systems.

"I have had the pleasure of working directly for Dr. Kevin Thompson for the past 18 years; however, our relationship stretches back to graduate school, where in his dissertation, he provided the mathematical details of a theory of aberrations for systems without rotational symmetry," said John R. Rogers, senior scientist in Imaging Optical Design.

"The concepts for the theory came from Dick Buchroeder and Roland Shack, but it was Kevin who worked out the details, Dr. Rogers said.

"This theory, now known as nodal aberration theory, provided the first basis of understanding the phenomenon, first observed in astronomical star plates, of binodal astigmatism. Since then, the theory has been extended to include the effects of individual surfaces that lack rotational symmetry, and has proven to be extremely useful in the burgeoning field of freeform optics," he said.

"In the field of classical aberration theory, as in the field of classical music, one can often trace a 'genealogy' of significant practitioners of the 'art'," Rakich said. "In Kevin's case, Roland Shack, and before him H.H. Hopkins, could justifiably be proud of what their progeny was able to contribute to the sum of human knowledge."

Rogers characterized Thompson as "a brilliant team leader, always able to provide the right balance of creative support, technical supervision, and administrative support. He was at times a colleague to bounce ideas off, at other times a supervisor with one eye on 'the big picture' and always and above all, a close friend. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him."

"Kevin's passing is an enormous loss for his family, all of us in the Synopsys Optical Solutions Group (OSG) family, his friends and clients, students and everyone in the small, close-knit community that makes up the commercial and academic optical and photonic world," said George Bayz, OSG Vice President and General Manager. "His impact on the industry, optical science an education, and more importantly on people, is nearly impossible to convey."

Thompson was a Fellow of SPIE and winner of the society's 2013 A.E. Conrady Award, for his work in discovery and development of NAT.

His involvement with SPIE included chairing and serving on committees for several symposia and conferences, authoring numerous proceedings articles, and teaching a course in Applying Freeform Optical Surfaces in Imaging Optics -- most recently at SPIE Optifab 2015 last month in Rochester.

He was recognized as 2015 Alumnus of the Year of the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, where he earned his PhD in 1980 under the supervision of Professor Shack.

Thompson earned a bachelor of science in astrophysics at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 1976. His first assignment in optics was to provide the optical layout for Solar 1, the first large-scale central-tower solar collector, at Sandia National Labs.

After completing his PhD, he worked at Perkin-Elmer Corporation for 10 years as an optical designer in microlithography applications and advanced systems for ground- and space-based remote sensing.

He subsequently worked at Optical Research Associates for nearly 25 years, where he was vice president of optical engineering services. The company was acquired by Synopsys in 2010.