Skip navigation

Monday May 17, 2010

Fascination with light led scientist to build and operate Canada's first laser

He nearly built the world's first, but was beaten to the invention in 1960 by T.H. Maiman in California

Special to The Globe and Mail

Boris Stoicheff was one of the 20th century's great scientists. He came within a whisker of inventing the laser and created and operated the first one in Canada. He also was among the first in the world to apply laser light to the investigation of matter.

"With his passing it seems like the end of an era," said Elsa Garmire, a past president of the Optical Society of America. "There were few like him."

Stoicheff, who died on April 15 in Toronto of multiple myeloma, was born in Macedonia in the former Yugoslavia on June 1, 1924. He emigrated to Canada in 1931.

His lifelong fascination - using light to probe matter at its deepest levels - ultimately made him one of the world's foremost spectroscopists. He earned a BSc at the University of Toronto in 1947, and a doctorate in molecular physics there in 1950. In 1951 he joined the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa.

Two years later, on a rare Saturday night when he wasn't working, he was inveigled to go on a blind date - and met Joan Ambridge, who became his wife.

Stoicheff's NRC lab was headed by Gerhard Herzberg, who won the 1971 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering triatomic hydrogen - an unstable molecule composed of three atoms of hydrogen, which orthodox theory had dismissed as impossible.

In the late 1950s, Stoicheff became engrossed with a new possibility: creating an artificial beam of coherent visible light. Almost all the electromagnetic radiation emitted in the universe is incoherent, mixing various wavelengths; even if only one wavelength is emitted, the light photons are usually out of phase with one another. Could a beam of photons, Stoicheff wondered, be put in lockstep, avoiding mutual interference?

They could indeed, in a process called light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation - today's omnipresent laser. Stoicheff narrowly missed demonstrating the world's first laser, beaten to the invention in 1960 by T.H. Maiman, a scientist at Hughes Research Laboratory in California. Stoicheff did, however, build and operate the first laser in Canada, and was among the first in the world to apply its intense red light to molecular spectroscopy.

After a sabbatical year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1963, he returned to U of T as a professor of physics. Although formally retiring in 1989, he continued to do research, ultimately publishing more than 150 scientific papers as sole or co-author. Throughout this time, his honours accumulated. He was elected the first non-American president of the Optical Society of America in 1976, and received its distinguished service award in 2002. He was admitted to the Royal Society of Canada, and later won its Henry Marshall Tory Medal. He received the gold medal of the Canadian Society of Physicists, among other awards, and the Order of Canada in 1982.

In 2000, his 75th birthday was marked by a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Physics. CJP saluted a scientist whose goal was to perform every experiment so precisely it would not be superseded for a decade or more - and who usually achieved that goal.

In 1978, Stoicheff was elected a senior fellow at Massey College, established in 1960 by Vincent Massey, who had just completed his term as governor-general of Canada. As his first master, Massey chose not a professional academic, but a man of letters. His name was Robertson Davies.

Under Davies's inspired guidance, Massey College's first batch of senior fellows formed a Who's Who of Canada's intelligentsia. Besides Stoicheff, it included John Polanyi, who in 1986 was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and geologist J. Tuzo Wilson, originator of revolutionary theories of tectonic plates and continental drift.

Like his other senior fellows, Stoicheff and Massey College made a perfect fit. Soon after his appointment, notes Davies biographer Judith Skelton Grant, a junior fellow dining at the college's high table found herself next to a middle-aged man who engaged his awe-struck young colleague in friendly conversation. On learning of her academic concentration - the 13th-century Oxford School and its views on the nature of light - the senior fellow shyly admitted that he too was interested in such things.

Senior and junior fellow playfully wondered what Dante or Bacon would have thought of the laser. The young woman afterward wrote Davies that her "momentary experience of the sweet fellowship of the life of learning ... [was] inspiring beyond description." She closed with a quotation from Saint Augustine on the joys of study, which Davies later made central to his novel The Rebel Angels:

"Conversations and jokes together; mutual rendering of good services; the reading together of sweetly phrased books; the sharing of nonsense and mutual attention."

That was Robertson Davies's Massey College. And that was Boris Stoicheff.

Stoicheff leaves wife Joan, son Peter and grandchildren Alixandra and Christopher.

Back to top