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Lasers & Sources

Video interview: Nicolaas Bloembergen on lasers and nonlinear optics

The "father of nonlinear optics" talks about his important research on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

1 April 2010, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.3201004.01

Nicolaas Bloembergen celebrated his 90th birthday in March 2010 with a scientific symposium and reception at the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences, attended by three other Nobel laureates: Roy J. Glauber, John L. Hall, and Charles H. Townes.Advancing the Laser

Bloembergen received the Nobel Prize in 1981 for his contributions to the field of nonlinear optics and to the development of laser spectroscopy. He was a corecipient with Arthur Schawlow of the United States and Kai Manne Borje Siegbahn of Sweden of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Physics for their revolutionary spectroscopic studies of the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter. Bloembergen made a pioneering use of lasers in these investigations. His research has included nuclear and electronic magnetic resonance, solid state masers and lasers, and nonlinear optics and spectroscopy. His work on proton spin relaxation times in water and aqueous solutions, carried out in 1946 and 1947 under the guidance of his PhD thesis advisor, Edward M. Purcell, later became the basis for the medical diagnostic technique of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

In his autobiography on the Nobel Prize website, Bloembergen stated, "I held the opinion -- even after Schawlow and Townes published their proposal for an optical maser in 1958 -- that it would be impossible for a small academic laboratory, without previous expertise in optics, to compete successfully in the realization of lasers. This may have been a self-fulfilling prophesy, but it is a matter of record that nearly all types of lasers were first reduced to practice in industrial laboratories, predominantly in the U.S.A."

Bloembergen first came to the United States in 1945, after spending World War II "hiding indoors from the Nazis, eating tulip bulbs to fill the stomach and reading Kramers' book Quantum Theorie des Elektrons und der Strahlung by the light of a storm lamp." He received his PhD at the University of Leiden in 1948, after doing research at Harvard, then finally emigrated to the U.S. (and returned to Harvard) in 1949. He and his wife Deli moved to Arizona, and he has been on the UA College of Optical Sciences faculty since 2001.

He was interviewed at his birthday celebration by Daniel Stolte of the UA University Communications office, and this video is courtesy of the University of Arizona.

Bloembergen Nobel Prize autobiography