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Photonics Pioneer Tingye Li Dies

Tingye Li, renowned for his contributions to lightwave technology and optical fiber communications, died Dec. 27, 2012. He was 81.

Born on July 7, 1931 in Nanjing, China, Li moved to Canada at age 12, and later to the US. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and his doctorate from Northwestern University. He joined Bell Telephone Laboratories (later AT&T Bell Laboratories) in 1957, and worked there until his retirement in 1998.

During his 41-year career at AT&T, 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 research partner A. 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.

In the late 1980s, when the world’s attention on optical communication was still focused on a single-channel high-speed solution, Li and colleagues developed the first (sparse channel) wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) system. Their experiment in 1992 at Roaring Creek turned out to be a “roaring success” as Li said in an interview, allowing 2.5-Gb/s transmission per channel, the highest rate available at the time. The use of WDM and optical amplifiers changed the paradigm of network economics and is considered to be of revolutionary significance in the history of lightwave communications.

Li was active in SPIE and a member of OSA since 1966. He was named an OSA Fellow in 1977, served as an At-Large Member of its board of directors from 1985-1987, and as its president in 1995. He chaired numerous OSA committees, and was a leader in building the OSA-co-sponsored Asia Communications and Photonics conference. He also was one of the principal visionaries who launched and chaired the SPIE Asia-Pacific Optical Communications symposium from its start in 2001.

Li received many awards and honors during his career. He was a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Photonic Society of Chinese-Americans and the International Engineering Consortium. He was also a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, the Academia Sinica (Taiwan), and a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

He wrote and contributed to more than 100 journal papers, patents and books in the areas of antennas, microwave propagation, lasers and optical communications.

Li was respected and loved as an “elder” among young scientists and engineers in the field of photonics, both for his immeasurable contributions to the field and for his willingness to spend time mentoring, advising, promoting and encouraging young people.

“Tingye was fully engaged in all aspects of his life, and OSA was fortunate to have received some of that precious time and focus,” said OSA CEO Elizabeth Rogan. “Not only was he world-class, highly regarded and effective, but he also offered a story, a lesson or a playful insight that was there if you were paying attention. He conveyed a sincere level of support, respect and optimism to his colleagues, students and OSA staff that we’ll always treasure.”

Li is survived by his wife, Edith Wu, and two daughters, Deborah and Kathryn and their families. A memorial service for family, friends and colleagues is being planned.

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