The Mysterious First Death of Peter Franken

27. April 2012

by John N. Howard

As I sat down to breakfast one morning in 1980, I opened the Boston Globe and was astonished to see an entry in the obituaries stating that the optical scientist Peter Franken had died in Bedford, Mass., the day before. The article gave a detailed history of Franken: his study at Columbia University under Polykarp Kusch; his nearly 20 years of teaching at the University of Michigan; his stint in the Defense Department working in laser optics at ARPA (The Advance Research Projects Agency); and then his later work at the University of Arizona. Based on these details, I concluded that this must certainly be OSA’s own Peter Franken—but why was his demise listed as having taken place in Bedford, where I have lived and worked since the mid-1950s, when Franken had been based in Tucson?

I telephoned the OSA office in Washington, and the staff there were similarly astonished. Someone there called the Optical Sciences Center in Tucson. Much to our relief, we found out that Peter Franken had not died after all; he was still very much alive and well, and not at all eager to attend a funeral, especially his own.

It seems that the OSA Peter Franken, of Tucson, had a cousin of about the same age, also named Peter Franken, who worked in optics for a defense contractor in Bedford, and that cousin had indeed died. The Boston Globe, like its sister paper The New York Times, maintains biographical files on many well-known people, including some optical researchers. When they received the news that a Peter Franken had died, someone in their death notices department added the Tucson Franken’s biographical information on file to the obituary of the unfortunate Bedford scientist. The Tucson Franken was very sorry to hear of the departure of his cousin, but he was also pleased to report to his friends and associates that the reports of his death had been very much exaggerated!

The real Peter Franken (of Tucson), who was President of OSA in 1977, and later Director of the Optical Sciences Center, 1973-83, did indeed die several years later, at the age of 70, in Tucson on 11 Mar 1999. In the memorial notices that were then published, chiefly at the Universities of Michigan and Arizona, his substantial contributions to laser optics were cited. Also remarked upon were examples of his outrageous humor and carefully prepared pranks.

John N. Howard ( is the founding editor of Applied Optics and retired chief scientist of the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory.


Optics History, OSA History, Physics History , ,

The Semiconductor Laser's Golden Anniversary

19. April 2012




 (Above: First room temp. CW semiconductor nanolaser with subwavelngth cavity presented at CLEO 2011. From K. Ding et al, CTuG2, CLEO 2011.)

Post by: Jim Van Howe, adapted with permission from Jim's CLEO Blog

The year 2012 marks the impressive 50th anniversary of the invention of the prolific and ubiquitous semiconductor laser. Almost every household in the industrialized world owns at least one--be it in a DVD player (maybe two if it is a Blue-ray), a CD player, an optical mouse--or depend on them indirectly for long-distance phone service, digital cable, or internet access. Besides making telecommunications a practical possibility, semiconductor lasers have paved the way for the development of silicon photonics and will be pivotal in the future of optical information storage and processing. Despite their primary use in mass consumer markets for communications, information processing, mutimedia, and teasing cats (you can even get semiconductor laser pointers with phase masks and lens attachments that project images mice or fish on the floor for your feline to chase), many subfields have profited from the low-cost and small-footprint of these robust laser sources. Take for example the handful of semiconductor sources offered commercially by Thorlabs for optical coherence tomography, or the inexpensive semiconductor laser diode sources used by the Ozcan group for field-portable, ultra-low footprint, holographic microscopes.

There are too many other technologies and subfields to name that have profited as well. All you need to do is think of the numerous optics applications that live at telecom wavelengths near 1300 nm or 1550 nm or DVD player wavelengths, 405 nm and 635 nm. Such lasers offer unbelievable device characteristics at such a low price that researchers and venture capitalists often build their technologies to fit these wavelengths instead of the other way around.

Amnon Yariv and Pochi Yeh write in their 2007 edition of the book Photonics that,

"The semiconductor laser invented in 1961 is the first laser to make the transition from a research topic and specialized applications to the mass consumer market...It is by economic standards and the degree of its applications, the most important of all lasers."

To celebrate the most important laser of lasers, CLEO will be hosting a special symposium with talks from pioneers of semiconductor laser technology. The list of speakers and subjects has been well-crafted to paint not only a historical picture, but to address current research and trends on this ever-evolving technology.

From a fundamentals perspective, Russel Dupuis from Georgia Tech will be talking about device materials. Nobel Laureate Herbert Kroemer of University of California Santa Barbara will discuss the double heterostructure which is still the basic framework for almost all semiconductor light sources and solar cells and which without there would be no continuous wave (CW) lasing in semiconductor devices at room temperature. To this end, Morton Panish, formerly of Bell Laboratories, will describe the development of the first room temperature semiconductor laser.


(Above: Evolution of threshold current. From Nobel Laureate Z. Alferov, IEEE J. Sel. Top. Quant. Elec. 6, 832, 2000.)

Charles Henry, formerly of Bell Laboratories, will discuss the quantum well structure which was pivotal in reducing active layer thickness and therefore significantly reducing threshold current, see the figure above. Yasuhiko Arakawa from the University of Tokyo will discuss quantum dot lasers which reduced threshold densities even further and remains a developing area of semiconductor laser physics research.

On the more practical side, Jack Jewell, of Green VCSEL will discuss the vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL) which among other important device attributes may be the best laser for high-yield production. VCSELs are grown, processed, and tested in wafer-form allowing parallel fabrication and testing, minimizing labor and maximizing yield. They also take up less space on a wafer- about three times less than edge emitters of similar power and can be made in 2-D arrays. Jewell will likely discuss the benefits of lower power consumption of VCSELs for use in short-reach, high-speed networks. My understanding is that the "green" in "Green VCSEL" refers to environmental considerations not wavelength.

There will also be talks discussing the semiconductor laser's role in telecommunications, quantum cascade lasers, integrated and hybrid optical circuits, high-power devices, as well progress in nanolaser structures with subwavelength volume (see the figure at the top).

Whether to learn the history, fundamental principles, pay homage to the pioneers, or to learn new trends, be sure to mark your calendar for the 50th Anniversary of the Semiconductor Laser symposium to celebrate "the most important of all lasers."

 Jim Van Howe ( is an assistant professor of physics at Augustana Collage in Rock Island, Ill., U.S.A.



Nobel Laureates, Optics History, OSA History

Aden Meinel's Wartime Experiences: How Luck and Schmidt Plates Changed the Course of History

7. October 2011

by John Howard and Christina Folz

On Sunday, 2 October, the optics and astronomy communities lost one of their brightest stars when Aden Meinel passed away at the age of 88. Meinel founded the Kitt Peak Observatory and the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona. He also served as associate director of the Yerkes Observatory and on the site survey team for the National Astronomical Observatory. He was, by all accounts, a remarkable scientist and person--as demonstrated in recent tributes by OSA, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and the Arizona Daily Star. Among the many awards he received, he was honored with OSA's Adolph Lomb Medal and Ives Medal. He became an OSA Fellow in 1965 and he took the office of president in 1970.  

A couple of years ago, Steve Jacobs at the University of Arizona was kind enough to forward us some of Aden's recollections of his service during World War II, which were published in OPN's history column in two parts. The first, published in June 2009, recounts his experiences as a naval officer. The second, published in July/August, relays the beginnings of Aden's fruitful career after his military service came to an end.

Back in 1940, Meinel was 18 years old and just starting college at Caltech. He had a part-time job as an apprentice in the optical fabrication laboratory of Roger Hayward. There, he learned how to grind and polish lenses, and how to make aspheric Schmidt corrector plates for telescopes. Aden had a girlfriend, Marjorie Petit, an astronomy student whose father was working with the 150-foot solar telescope at Mount Wilson. The two married a couple years later, and Aden received his draft notice the week after returning from their honeymoon (but before graduating from Caltech).

Meinel was assigned to Patton's 3rd army for the crossing of the Rhine. He led a convoy of trucks carrying optical equipment--including two captured Soviet periscopes--from Jena to Dover. Aden also helped phyicists and engineers from Zeiss and Schott to escape to the West. Twenty years later, Aden and Marjorie reunited with some of the scientists they had helped at that time. They also discovered that a woman from their church in their home town of Henderson, Nev.--who during the war had been only 13 years old--had trudged along a road near Nordhausen with scores of other refugees heading West; Aden was in a Jeep about 10 km from where she walked.

But perhaps the most remarkable twist of fate was the fact that Aden had received orders to report back to Caltech just days before he had been scheduled for duty on a beautiful new ship called the U.S.S. Indianapolis. At the time, Aden couldn't believe he was returning already to his "same old desk." Little did he know then how kind fate was being to him. After delivering bombs to Tinian, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on its way to Manila. Only about 300 out of 1,200 soldiers survived; most died from exposure, dehydration and shark attacks as they waited for assistance while floating at sea for four days. It is considered the worst naval disaster in U.S. history.

Aden and Marjorie went on to have seven children. After the kids were raised, Marjorie returned to her career and joined Meinel as a distinguished visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Together, they helped to develop the next generation of space telescope concepts. They even coauthored an OPN article on extremely large sparse aperture telescopes.

It's strange to think about how history would have been altered if the timing of Aden's military orders had been just a little bit different. Aden joked that learning how to make Schmidt plates had saved him from having a very short life. How much richer the world is because of it.


Optics History, OSA History, Profiles , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mary Warga Meets Arthur Schawlow

26. April 2011

By John N. Howard, OPN Contributing Editor

The May issue of Optics & Photonics News includes a profile that traces the fascinating life of Art Schawlow, Nobel laureate and former OSA president, as well as a history of the journal Applied Optics and how it came to publish some of the seminal papers on early laser development. This post explores where the two stories intersect...

In 1959 the Board of Directors of OSA decided that OSA should have a full-time executive secretary working in an executive office located in Washington, D.C. Professor Mary Warga of the University of Pittsburgh was recruited to fill that role. She was nearing retirement age from the physics department at Pittsburgh, and she looked forward with much enthusiasm to her new duties at OSA. A year later, in the fall of 1960, the OSA Board also voted to launch a new OSA journal, Applied OpticsThe hope was that it would capture some of the interdisciplinary papers related to optics that did not seem to be flowing to the Journal of the Optical Society of America (JOSA).

Mary Warga introduced a new, one-page column, “From the Executive Office,” in JOSA, and she also began a program of visiting research centers that were oriented toward optics, to inform those researchers about OSA and to try to persuade those workers to join OSA and submit their research papers to JOSA and AO. One of the laboratories she visited in her first year at OSA was Bell Telephone Laboratories, which included a very distinguished research group located in Murrey Hill, N.J., U.S.A. When she visited there in 1960, her host was a bright young spectroscopist with a strong background in optics. His name was Arthur Schawlow.

Arthur Schawlow was born in suburban New York in 1921. His father was an emigrant from Latvia to America, and his mother was Canadian. When Arthur was three years old, the family moved to Toronto, where Arthur attended public schools, and then (at age 16) the University of Toronto. He originally thought he would be an engineer, but then he settled into physics. Presumably, he took the optics course offered by Professor W. E.K. Middleton. (Middleton was very active in OSA, and had served on the OSA Board of Directors. In 1933, Middleton had been the Ives Medalist of OSA.) After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Toronto; Schawlow remained there for his graduate study. His thesis advisor was Malcolm Crawford, a spectroscopist.

Following his Ph.D. at Toronto, Schawlow served a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia University, working under Charles Townes. He then joined Bell Labs in 1951.

So, when Mary Warga visited Bell Labs in 1960; Arthur Schawlow was a kind, sympathetic host. He immediately joined OSA and promised to urge several of his colleagues also to join. Futhermore, he promised Mary Warga that his group would submit a paper for the inaugural issue of Applied Optics. Mary returned to Washington following her visit to Murray Hill very pleased with the success of her visit. Schawlow became active in OSA and later served as president of OSA. He also went on to share a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1981 with Nicolaas Bloembergen. Schawlow is the only Nobel laureate to have also served as OSA president.  


Nobel Laureates, Optics History, OSA History, Physics History, Profiles , , , , , , , ,

Happy 90th Birthday to John Howard!

1. March 2011

By Christina Folz, OPN Managing Editor

On behalf of all my colleagues at the Optical Society, I would like to wish a very happy birthday to the author of this blog—John N. Howard, OSA Past President (1991) and Fellow Emeritus. John turned 90 years young yesterday, on 27 February 2011. He has been a member of the Society for an amazing 67 years. John joined OSA in 1944, and he was elected as a Fellow in 1961. He is the 1987 recipient of the OSA Distinguished Service Award, which is presented to individuals for outstanding service to the Society over an extended period of time. John continues to serve OSA as the editor of OPN’s monthly column on the History of OSA. He is also a key contributor to the OSA History Project and a member of the OSA Presidential Advisory Committee.

John tells me that he was born to British parents in Philadelphia, Pa., U.S.A., but that he grew up in Florida. After he received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Florida, he worked in spectroscopy in Cleveland at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA. He then served in the Air Force for a time before returning to graduate school at Ohio State University. He received an M.Sc. in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1954, both in molecular spectroscopy.

In 1954, he joined the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL), which was later renamed the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory. His research interests were in infrared atmospheric transmission. He later headed the infrared physics branch, and in 1960, the optical physics division. In 1964, he became chief scientist of AFCRL, a post he held for 17 years.

In addition to being a Fellow of the Optical Society of America and the American Physical Society, he was also somewhat active in the Society for Applied Spectroscopy, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and the History of Science Society. He served on various committees (usually related to publications) for each of these societies. He also served on the AIP Publication Policy Committee and for eight years on the Physics Today advisory committee, which he chaired for three of those years.

From 1981 until 1987, Howard served as vice president and treasurer of the International Commission for Optics (ICO), and he compiled a brief history of ICO for its 50th anniversary. He also served on several OSA committees, and in 1960 he was appointed as the founding editor of Applied Optics (AO), the new, second journal of OSA. AO began in 1962 as a modest journal that published only six issues each year of about 100 pages each. However, it caught on rapidly, becoming a monthly a year later, a semi-monthly a few years after that, and, by the late-1980s, it was publishing 5,000 pages per year. 

After serving in this role for 27 years, he finally retired in 1987, leaving AO in good hands and with excellent prospects for continued success and growth. (It has since doubled in size.) From 1983 until 1989, he also served as editor of Optics News, the predecessor to Optics & Photonics News, the magazine of the Optical Society. He described this gig as “a much calmer operation.” In 1991, he served as OSA’s president.

John’s interest in the history of science centered on the contributions of Lord Rayleigh, and he spent many years organizing Rayleigh’s manuscripts and correspondence.

Most people working in scientific and technical areas have a favorite Society—a place to present and publish their papers and to meet and keep aware of related work by their colleagues. John’s favorite society was OSA. He says, “The crowd that makes up the OSA community is a curious mixture of disparate types—from pure physicists at the cutting edge of fundamental research, to applied scientists who use optical techniques to probe other phenomena, to engineers who apply optics to such fields as communications or computing. This diversity of interests keeps OSA vigorous and young, and we must somehow not let it grow old.” I know that John never does.


Optics History, OSA History, Profiles , , , , , , , ,

Snow, Earthquakes and other Mild Interruptions to OSA Board Meetings

2. February 2011

 By John Howard


This week, many OSA leaders from around the globe will gather in Washington, D.C., for the annual Leadership meeting, in which numerous governance committees and councils meet to discuss their goals for the upcoming year. For the second year in a row, Mother Nature is making travel complicated, with major snowstorm warnings in place throughout much of the United States. (Last year the meeting took place in the wake of one of the largest snowfalls in Washington, D.C., history--the so-called "Snowmageddon.") For those traveling this week, I hope you are able to do so safely, easily and without undue delay. 


I myself do not really remember any past board meetings that were disrupted by bad weather, although I recall an OSA meeting in Florida (Orlando?) in the early 1990s, when I was president of OSA, complicated by an earthquake. We had a Tuesday board meeting prior to the OSA meeting, to be supplemented by a Friday or Saturday meeting . And it happened that in between those meetings there was a fairly severe earthquake in southern California. It also disrupted the telephones in Los Angeles, so that West Coast board members were not immediately able to contact their homes. Several of them simply left the meeting to go home. ( It turned out that the damage was not quite as bad as early press coverage would have made one believe; but it was a good scare!)


Perhaps the most remarkable board meeting I remember hearing about was at the time of the first West Coast OSA meeting in 1954. (I did not attend that meeting; back then I was still a graduate student, just finishing my degree, and I was too poverty-stricken to take trips to California. But I had joined OSA about ten years earlier.) That meeting was mostly attended by West Coast members, as East Coasters were not as accustomed to cross-country travel as they are nowadays. In addition, the board meeting preceeding the OSA sessions was complicated by the fact that Arthur Hardy, the OSA secretary, did not like to fly; and Wallace Brode, the editor of JOSA, did not like train travel. 


So they compromised, and the East Coast board members assembled at Chicago to board the same train for LA. Wallace Brode flew from Washington to Kansas City, where he caught that same train. And the board meeing then took place on the train. After they reached LA, most of the board then took a special bus ride to visit the new telescope at Mt. Palomar.



Optics History, OSA History , , , , , ,

How Planck Was Persuaded to Derive the Blackbody Formula

27. October 2010

In his previous post and the one before that, John Howard explored the history of blackbody radiation. Here, he describes how Max Planck was persuaded to derive a formula for blackbody radiation. Planck presented his formula in December of 1900 to the German Physical Society in Berlin, ushering in the quantum era.

In the late summer of 1900, Otto Lummer and Ernst Pringsheim carefully measured the spectral distribution of the thermal radiation from a blackbody radiator, and H. Rubens and his colleague Kurlbaum made a similar set of measurements at various temperatures. They then plotted their results and compared the results with the two theoretical predictions—of Wilhelm Wien for high frequencies, and Lord Rayleigh for lower frequencies. They found good agreement with the Wien formula, except that the Rayleigh formula was definitely better at low frequencies.

I have read two different accounts of how H. Rubens related to the young thermodynamicist Max Planck that the Wien formula did not fit well at low frequencies. According to one story, Rubens attended a seminar at the University of Berlin shortly after plotting his data.  At the tea and social hour before the event, he saw Planck, joined him for tea, and reported his results. In the other version, Planck invited Rubens and his wife to a Sunday lunch at Planck’s home; after their meal, the two physicists discussed the partial failure of the Wien formula.

Planck was indeed very interested, as less than a year earlier he had carefully worked to put Wien’s derivation of his formula on to a more solid thermodynamic foundation. After the seminar (or the lunch) was over, Planck spent the rest of that day looking for an “interpolation formula” that would reduce to the Rayleigh prediction at low frequencies, and to the Wien formulation at higher frequencies.

After several hours, he succeeded in finding such a formula. It was generally similar to the Wien formulation, but with an additional exponential term in the denominator. He sent a note with his proposed formula to Rubens, who returned to Planck two days later and said that interpolation formula fits everything, so it must be right! Planck said later that finding that formula was “just a lucky guess.”

 At a Berlin meeting of the German Physical Society in mid-October of 1900, Kurlbaum gave a short paper on the Rubens-Kurlbaum measurements, following which Planck arose with some comments and sketched his modified formula on the blackboard. The attendees were pleased with this ad hoc formula; now Planck was faced with the more daunting challenge of producing a satisfactory scientific derivation of that “interpolation formula.” Planck labored over that derivation for about two months, calling it the “hardest labor of my life,” before presenting his detailed derivation to a meeting of the Physical Society in mid-December 1900.


Optics History, Physics History, Profiles , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hot bodies II--Thomas Edison and the History of Blackbody Radiation

20. October 2010

By John Howard

Prompted by the recent OPN article about Lord Rayleigh and Otto Lummer, John wrote his previous post on the early history of blackbody radiation. Here, he picks up where he left off in that history--in 19th century America and the work of Thomas Edison.

In the United States, a bright, hard-working young Thomas Edison with a knack towards invention had taught himself telegraphy. In 1869, when he was 22, had applied for a job at a brokerage firm in New York City.  While he was waiting to be interviewed, the stock ticker broke down, and he was the only one who knew how to fix it. He was immediately hired—and at a better wage than he had expected.

Within a year, he had designed a much improved stock ticker, and he sold his model to the firm for $40,000. With this money, he bought a building near Newark, N.J.; hired two or three assistants; and began a lifelong career of practical inventions. Of his early inventions, he was most proud of the phonograph. In 1878, at the age of 31, he announced that he was turning his attention toward designing an electric light. In his laboratory in Menlo Park, he worked as much as 20 hours a day.

Edison and his assistants tried hundreds of filaments, until finally, in October 1879, he had a light bulb with a carbon filament that successfully stayed lit for 40 hours. (His team then turned to other materials for filaments, and ultimately settled on tungsten.)

With the invention of the electric light bulb, many scientists and engineers turned their attention to the radiation from lamp filaments and hot incandescent bodies. The General Electric Company began a laboratory at Nela Park in Cleveland for its lamp division, and blackbody radiation was a primary research subject. In Germany, the Siemans company urged the German government to found the Physicalische-Techniche Reichsanstalt (PTR) and even donated a building and land near Berlin University to house that research organization.

In 1887 Hermann Helmholtz joined the PTR as its first director, bringing with him his assistant Otto Lummer, who headed the research effort on blackbody radiation. Lummer constructed a heated sphere with a small hole to emit blackbody radiation, and, in the late summer of 1900, he and Pringsheim studied blackbody radiation over a wide variety of temperatures. Working with them was a young graduate student, Heinrich Rubens of the University of Berlin, a guest worker at PTR.

In early 1900, Lord Rayleigh turned his attention to the problem of blackbody radiation. He was an expert in acoustics, and he had many times calculated the formation of acoustic standing waves in a resonant cavity; why not try that same approach to standing waves of blackbody radiation in a blackbody cavity? He counted up all the possible standing waves, assumed that there was an equal probability for each to occur, and that each standing wave represented an energy of kT of radiation.

When he then calculated the total blackbody radiation, he found to his surprise that he disagreed by a factor of eight with the published value calculated by Wien. He nevertheless published his calculation. He promptly received a note from a bright young Cambridge graduate, James Jeans, who said that he thought Rayleigh had only counted the number of possible standing waves in one octant of the possible directions of x, y, z; he should have counted from minus infinity to plus infinity for the entire range of standing waves. Rayleigh agreed with Jeans immediately, and dropped a note to Nature, renaming his Rayleigh distribution to the more proper Rayleigh-Jeans distribution of standing waves.

The bright young Jeans now had his name linked to the much better known physicist Lord Rayleigh. However, even with this correction, the Rayleigh-Jeans equation appeared only to represent the true spectrum of blackbody radiation at long wavelengths (or low frequencies).

Then, in the late summer of 1900. . .

John’s next post will cover how the work of Lummer, Pringsheim, Planck, and others contributed to the development of an interpolation formula that would reduce to the Rayleigh prediction at low frequencies.


Optics History, OSA Honorary Members, Physics History, Profiles , , , , , , , , , ,

William Meggers and the Shared Mees Medal

29. September 2010

By John N. Howard

In less than a month, scientists from all over the world will gather at OSA's annual meeting in Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A.—and a select few of them will be recognized for their outstanding contributions to the field of optics with an OSA award. In my upcoming History of OSA column in OPN, I will present a biography of William F. Meggers, who was a renowned spectroscopist, OSA honorary member, and OSA president from 1949-1951. In just a few short weeks, Frédéric Merkt of ETH Zürich, Switzerland, will carry on Megger's legacy when he receives the award named after Meggers. The William F. Meggers award acknowledges outstanding work in the field of spectroscopy.

But back in 1964, it was Meggers himself who was receiving an OSA award. He shared the C.E.K. Mees Medal, which is given to scientists who do excellent interdisciplinary work, with George R. Harrison of MIT. In those days, the awards were bestowed at an OSA ceremonial banquet, held on an evening during an OSA annual meeting. Attendees at the banquet were already aware of the friendly sparring that always occured between Harrison and Meggers, both of whom had been internationally known spectroscopists and long-time friends and competitors.

After Meggers had made his short acceptance speech, he was presented with the C.E.K. Mees Medal. Harrison then remarked to the audience that he planned to design an optical arrangement with mirrors that would enable Meggers' portion of the medal to be seen when the joint medal was displayed! His crack was received with much laughter and applause. And, actually, the Optical Society ultimately addressed that particular issue by presenting each awardee with his own individual medal.



Optics History, OSA Honorary Members, Profiles , , , , , , ,

Robert W. Wood: Physicist, Genius, and "Wild Man of Baltimore"

1. September 2010

by John N. Howard

In this month's History of OSA column in OPN, OSA's former executive director Jarus Quinn shares his reminiscences about the summer he spent cleaning out the lab of Robert W. Wood--and the explosive surprise he found when he used water clean out a bottle filled with sodium. Robert Wood was the famous and eccentric physicist who discovered resonance radiation and greatly expanded our understanding of ultraviolet light.

There were so many rememberances of R.W. Wood that the Hopkins types who had known him used to have dinner together at OSA or American Physical Society meetings just to relate some of their cherished anecdotes. I was not a Hopkins graduate (only an Ohio Stater), but even I attended at least one of those hilarious evenings. Many of those anecdotes were authenic, first-hand recollections of those who had known or worked with Wood; but most of the classic anecdotes came from the book Doctor Wood by William Seabrook.

Around 1908, Wood had bought a summer place in East Hampton, on Long Island; and Seabrook was a neighbor who had many interviews with Wood in the 1930s and 1940. His book was published in 1941 by Harcourt, Brace. So many of the classic anecdotes are from Seabrook (such as Wood tossing a bit of sodium into a puddle while he pretended to spit, thus awing some onlookers with the explosive results--a tale that Quinn also recounts in his OPN piece.)

Seabrook also gives an account of a visit Wood made to Lord Rayleigh's home in Essex in 1904--which will be featured in the October History of OSA column in OPN. I have read his book several times, and now I need to read it again, to refresh my own memory of Wood's exploits!  Wood enjoyed publicity, and he was often mentioned in the Baltimore Sun.  H.L. Mencken called Wood the  "Wild Man of Baltimore" (a spoof on the Wild Man of Borneo exhibited by Phineas T. Barnum).

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