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In memoriam: Tingye Li, laser pioneer and optical fibers expert

02 January 2013

Tingye LiTingye Li, a retired AT&T Bell Labs researcher and widely regarded expert in optical fiber communications, died 27 December. He passed away after enjoying a day of skiing, one of his favorite pastimes. He was 81.

Born on 7 July 1931 in Nanjing, China, Li moved to Canada at age 12, and later to the United States.

He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Witwatersrand and a PhD from Northwestern University. He began working at what was then Bell Telephone Laboratories and later AT&T Bell Laboratories after graduation, and worked there until retirement.

During his 41-year career at Bell, Dr. Li collaborated in developing crucial early understanding of laser cavities and made pioneering contributions to laser-based communication through optical fibers. In 1961, he and his research partner Gardner Fox used computer simulation techniques to show that an open-sided resonator containing a laser medium should have unique modes of propagation, a fundamental principle in the theory and application of lasers. He was among Nobel Laureates and other researchers honored during the 50th anniversary celebration in 2010 of the first successful demonstration of a laser.

Active in SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, and other professional societies, Li was one of the principal visionaries who launched and chaired the SPIE Asia-Pacific Optical Communications (APOC) symposium from its start in 2001.

Li was a past president of OSA (The Optical Society) as well as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the Academia Sinica (Taiwan), and a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

He wrote and contributed to many journal papers, patents, and books in the areas of antennas, microwave propagation, lasers and optical communications.

Colleagues mourned Li's passing, remembering him as a great inspirational teacher, and his generosity, kindness, wisdom, humor, deep sense of world citizenship, and passion for life.

"Tingye was a great inspiration to me," said Connie Chang-Hasnain, professor at the University of California, Berkeley.  "He was unconditionally enthusiastic, positive, warm and supportive. He was a great teacher and listener; I never saw him turn away anyone who sought his guidance; he made time for everyone, regardless of their position, experience, age, gender, or race. He was wise, full of humor and wit, and was always quick to point out the silver linings of dark clouds.  I learned so much by just following him, listening to him and discussing various topics with him.  He made a huge impact in my career."

"I am deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Tingye," said T.P. Lee, who worked with Li at Bell Labs. "We have been friends and colleagues for many years, and he has been a visionary and a guiding light in our field of optical communications for many decades. We will miss him dearly."

“Tingye was full of energy and enthusiasm until the very last moments of his life when he suddenly left us while skiing with his family at Snowbird, his favorite Ski Resort in Utah -- and while still actively contributing to our profession,” said Peter Kaiser.

Kaiser recalled the occasion of Li’s 80th birthday last year on which family, friends and colleagues honored Li with celebrations in professional and academic communities around the world in appreciation of his extraordinary contributions both as researcher and as a visionary in the fields of optical technologies and lightwave communications.

“I knew Tingye both as professional colleague and personal friend, working with him from Bell Labs times in the ’70s and more recently helping to establish APOC. Due to his ability to inspire particularly the younger generation in the field of optical technologies, Tingye was universally admired and revered.”

Kaiser recalled skiing with Li at Lake Tahoe decades ago and more recently in Vail, another of his favorite ski resorts, ”He was one of the first on the slopes in the morning, and the last to quit in the evening. Tingye truly lived life to the fullest!”

The family is planning a memorial service to be held in February or March. Li is survived by his wife, Edith Wu of Boulder, Colorado, and two daughters, Deborah and Kathryn and their families.

Tingye Li APC award

Tingye Li (above left) was presented with an award recognizing his contributions to the field at the 2011 Asia Communications and Photonics (ACP) conference.

Read the New York Times obituary.