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International Laser Scholars Converge on Stanford to Shed Light on Photonics Research

Glen Martin

The new Siegman International School on Lasers at Stanford functions as a tacit acknowledgement of the ubiquity and importance of laser technology. Fifty years ago, lasers were a curiosity. Today, they are deeply embedded in virtually every technological sector: medicine, aviation, communications, energy production, automobiles and agriculture.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say they’re the key supporting technology for almost everything,” said Thomas Baer, the executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center. “Fully one-third of the U.S. GNP – between $5 trillion to $10 trillion – depends on them.”

Moreover, their applications are expanding at – well, almost the speed of coherent light.

“3-D printing is essentially a laser technology, and it’s having a large impact,” said Olav Solgaard, a Stanford professor of electrical engineering and director of the Edward L. Ginzton Laboratory. “We’re also seeing high-power industrial lasers for machining at a distance. The (damaged) Fukushima nuclear power plants are being dismantled at large distances by lasers, minimizing risk to workers.”

And ultimately, Solgaard said, lasers will illuminate the way to fully functional quantum computers.

“Quantum information theory has the potential to revolutionize information technology,” said Solgaard, “and most implementations of quantum information rely on lasers. One of the main challenges is to control light down to single photons. Lasers that enable that are being developed in labs all around the world.”

Few people understood the world-changing implications of lasers when the first prototypes were tested in the early 1960s, but Stanford Electrical Engineering Professor Anthony Siegman was certainly among that select company.

Siegman, who died in 2011, was a colossus in laser research. He was the director of the Ginzton Laboratory from 1978 to 1983 and from 1998 to 1999, and wrote well-regarded books on the subject, including Lasers (1986).

Lasers is really the bible, the definitive text for the field,” said Baer, who knew Siegman for several decades and occupied an office next to him. “It’s hard to exaggerate Tony’s importance to both laser research and Stanford engineering. He had an elegant mathematical style that was illustrative and very descriptive of physical phenomena. But it wasn’t so rigorous that you couldn’t get the link between theory and physical reality.”

Further, said Baer, “Tony was an inspirational leader and a wonderful role model. He set the tone for the Ginzton Lab. The emphasis was on comity, professional interaction and the free exchange of ideas.”

That legacy lives on in the Siegman International School on Lasers, which just completed its inaugural session. Co-founded by The Optical Society (OSA) and IPG Photonics, a provider of high-power fiber lasers, the fully-endowed school brought graduate students from around the world to Stanford for an intensive week-long colloquium on the latest in laser.

Baer said the school’s 2014 session, the first of many, was a fitting tribute to Siegman and his work.

“I was tremendously impressed by the presentations and discussions,” he said. “We had a hundred students from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet republics. Twenty five countries were represented, and the overall quality of the research was remarkably high.”

Among the participants was Sahar Ali Sheta, who earned her master’s degree from the National Institute of Laser Enhanced Science (NILES) at Cairo University in Egypt in 2007. Sheta says she was compelled to apply for the school’s 2014 session after listening to a recorded interview of Siegman.

“He was such an inspired speaker,” said Sheta, who is pursuing her PhD and lecturing at NILES. “When I heard about the school, I had to apply. I knew that any program associated with Dr. Siegman would be a tremendous learning opportunity.”

Sheta said that the school’s venue was also a factor in her application.

“I was thrilled that it was being held at Stanford,” she said. “It’s one of the world’s most prestigious universities, of course, but it’s more than that for people in my field. It’s where some of the best work in laser physics is taking place. As a researcher, I’ve always felt I have to be global in my outlook, and I’ve attended schools and workshops outside Egypt whenever possible. But the Siegman School and Stanford are special, and it was wonderful sharing my research with colleagues from around the world and getting their feedback.”

Sheta presented a poster on Laser Induced Breakdown Spectrography (LIBS), an exquisitely accurate technique that employs powerful lasers to analyze matter. “Recently, the surface characterization of materials has attracted a lot of interest in analytical chemistry,” Sheta said. “There are many times when scientists not only need the analysis of a sample composition, they also need to know the exact location of the atoms that constitute the sample’s surface.”

Sheta is investigating ways to make such precise sample surface maps with LIBS.

“That includes the development of customized software,” she said. “I’m going to take what I learned at the Siegman School back to my research group in Egypt, and hopefully we’ll improve our LIBS mapping technique soon.”

Not only would Siegman approve of the quality of the research presented at the 2014 session, Baer said – he’d also be gratified by the global scope of the school’s mission.

“Tony’s perspective encompassed the entire planet,” Baer says. “He always understood the connections. He was an early adopter of solar energy, and he was one of the first people to convert to solar power in his home – he had 10KW of solar panels on his roof, one of the biggest arrays I’ve ever seen. And as an emeritus he constantly traveled, lecturing internationally. His base was Stanford, but he belonged to the world.”

Glen Martin is a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter based in Santa Rosa, Calif. His latest book, "Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa's Wildlife," was published by the University of California Press in 2012.


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Article Date: 
Wednesday, August 27, 2014