Those who go on foot

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In thinking about the history of the laser and the strong and varied list of laser pioneers, I looked up the etymology of the word “pioneer” and discovered an early and somewhat humble origin. According to a pedestalled unabridged dictionary in our office, the word derives from the old French, peonier, or foot soldier. Before associations of dusty individuals who settled the American West, the word’s early use suggested the pioneer was a skilled individual in possession of specific intellectual capabilities — 1a: peonier: a member of a military unit usu. of engineers equipped and trained esp. for road building, bridging, demolitions.

Considering the nearly 60 years of laser innovations this issue explores, the definition struck me as particularly apt. Equipped and trained. Building and bridging.

But pioneer had another aspect: member of a unit.

As Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou demonstrated in their joint plenary talk at CLEO in May, pioneers may figuratively go on foot into the unknown, but they don’t necessarily go alone. They often travel the crests and troughs together, in pairs, or in collaborative groups. (Ironically, it’s the awards process that often necessitates a sort of singling out, requiring the selection of one worthy individual.)

So, as we put together this retrospective from 1960 to the present, it was important to us to take an inclusive stance, to seek out the individuals and the groups. A History of the Laser: 1960-2019 takes us on a trip across a landscape inhabited by researchers, technicians, businesses, individuals, and include an array of applications.

Some names and discoveries will be familiar. Others, such as sidebar personal backstories on CO2 lasers and VCSELS, will be less so. Karl Krushelnick’s article on LaserNetUS offers a look at plans to reinvigorate the U.S. research commitment to ultrahigh-intensity lasers. And contributions from Edmund Optics, Fraunhofer, and Spectra-Physics offer updates on how lasers are advancing as tools and as influencers of optical techniques.

That the laser community is one of pioneers — skilled pathbreakers and roadbuilders traveling as a unit — is a good thing.


In the May 2019 feature “Photoluminescence Spectroscopy Optimizes Perovskite Quantum Dots” (Edinburgh Instruments), the captions for Figures 2 and 3 were inadvertently reversed.

Published: June 2019

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