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Optics and Photonics Pioneer James Gordon Dies
Jun 2013
RUMSON, N.J., June 26, 2013 — James P. Gordon, co-inventor of the maser and a seminal contributor to optics and quantum electronics, died June 21. He was 85.

Gordon was born in New York City in 1928. He attended Exeter Academy and received a bachelor's degree from MIT in 1949. He received his master's and PhD degrees in physics from Columbia University in 1951 and 1955, respectively.

James P. Gordon in February 2010, attending OSA's LaserFest gala in Washington, DC. Courtesy of OSA.

In 1954, as a student of Charles Hard Townes at Columbia, Gordon analyzed, designed, built and successfully demonstrated the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) with Townes and Herbert Zeiger. Their ammonia maser, based on Einstein's principle of stimulated emission, laid the groundwork for the creation of the laser.

In 1955, Gordon joined AT&T Bell Laboratories, where he served as head of the Quantum Electronics Research Department from 1958 to 1980. He spent his entire career at AT&T Bell Labs, retiring in 1996. His colleagues often sought out Gordon for help.

Linn Mollenauer, who worked with Gordon at Bell Labs and who co-authored the book “Solitons in Optical Fibers: Fundamentals and Applications” with him in 2006, told the Asbury Park Press: “Various experimentalists would come to him with problems that they couldn’t understand. Jim would ever-so-politely listen, and then a few days later, would come around with a beautiful theory written out for whatever their problem was. He was just definitely one of the greatest.”

Gordon's other contributions laid the foundation for what would become the fields of lasers and optical communications. He conceived and provided the theory (with Gary Boyd) of confocal resonators, fundamental for the modern analysis of Gaussian laser beams and optical cavities that are critical to the design and operation of lasers. He also made several contributions to optical communications, including pioneering the quantum theory of the information capacity of an optical communications channel, observing soliton propagation in optical fibers for the first time and work related to the fundamental limits of coherent optical transmission systems, among many others. His broad interests also included providing the theoretical basis for optical tweezers.

As the optical communications field evolved, Gordon continued to do research that provided key knowledge and insight that was critical both to fellow researchers and to ultimately deployed systems. His seminal work on what is now called the “Gordon-Haus” effect, identifies and provides the understanding for the most important bit-rate-limiting effect in soliton transmission due to the random walk of coherently amplified solitons. He provided other insights, including the explanation of the soliton self-frequency shift.

Charles H. Townes (left), winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics, and James P. Gordon in 1955 with the first maser. Courtesy of Photonics Spectra archives.

"Jim's contributions to optics and photonics, beginning in the 1950s with his co-invention of the maser, were crucial in shaping several areas of the field as we know them today — including quantum electronics, laser science and optical communications," said OSA CEO Elizabeth Rogan. "When Jim joined us in 2010 for the LaserFest gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the laser, it gave us an opportunity to celebrate his legacy as one of the pioneers in modern optics and photonics. We were thrilled to have him there. He will be missed by all who knew him, and we send our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones."

Gordon's many honors include four OSA awards: the Charles Hard Townes Award (1981), the Max Born Award (1991), the Willis E. Lamb Award (2001) and the Frederic Ives Medal (2002). He was a member of both the US National Academy of Engineering and the US National Academy of Sciences, as well as a senior member of IEEE and a Fellow of OSA and the American Physical Society. He was named an OSA honorary member, OSA's highest honor, in 2010.

Gordon is survived by his wife, Susie, a former Bell Labs computer programmer, and their three children: James P. Gordon, Susanna Gordon and Sara Gordon.

“He did most of his work with a pad and a pencil and sat there until about 11 at night with complex mathematics and symbols, and if you’d look over his shoulder, you’d wonder what language it was in,” Susanna Gordon told the Asbury Park Press. “Sometimes he’d walk out and say, ‘I did it,’ and I’d go, ‘It sounds very important,’ and it was.”

An acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Predecessor to the laser, the maser or 'microwave laser' was the first device to produce coherent electromagnetic waves, and was done at microwave frequencies through amplification by stimulated emission. A laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) is a maser that works over a broader range of higher frequency photons in the ultraviolet and visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.
optical communications
The transmission and reception of information by optical devices and sensors.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
A volume, bounded at least in part by highly reflecting surfaces, in which light of particularly discrete frequencies can set up standing wave modes of low loss. Often, in laser work,the resonator contains two facing mirrors that may either be flat (Fabry-Perot resonator) or have some spherical curvature, which together bind the lasing material that is referred to as the gain medium, and hence the optical cavity of a laser is where lasing occurs.
Any isolated wave that propagates without dispersion of energy. Specifically to photonics, an ultrashort pulse of laser light that propagates through a waveguide without characteristic chromatic dispersion.
AmericasBasic ScienceBell LabsBiophotonicsBusinessCharles Hard TownesCommunicationsElizabeth Roganfiber opticsGaussian laser beamHerbert ZeigerJames GordonLaserFestLimm Mollenauermaseroptical cavitiyoptical communicationsoptical tweezersopticsOSAphotonicsResearch & TechnologyresonatorsolitonTest & Measurementlasers

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