Laser pioneer Anthony Siegman dies at 79

One of the great innovators of laser science wrote the classic reference text on the subject, yet he is as renowned for his eminent students as for his own achievements. “He is a shining example of what a scientist should be,” said Professor Stephen Harris.

Laser pioneer Anthony Siegman died Oct. 7 at his Stanford home. The professor emeritus of electrical engineering was 79.

c. 1997 Tony Siegman, professor of engineering.

Anthony Siegman (Image credit: Stanford News Service)

Siegman played a seminal role in the development of lasers and wrote some of the definitive texts on them. He is the author of Microwave Solid-State Masers (1964), An Introduction to Lasers and Masers (1972) and Lasers (1986). The last book, at nearly 1,300 pages, became the standard reference in the field.

Siegman invented the unstable resonator, which allows high laser power together with high beam quality. He is also internationally recognized for his contributions to the theory and practice of laser mode-locking, a technique that is widely used both for generating intense and short laser pulses and for metrology.

Stephen Harris, professor emeritus in electrical engineering and one of Siegman’s first students, described him as “a blend of human warmth, scientific creativity and rigor.”

“He is a model scientist,” said Harris. “You would look far and wide to find a laser engineer or scientist who doesn’t have Tony’s book Lasers on his desk. He had a unique ability to blend mathematics and physical insight.

“He was an easygoing, nice guy to talk to, but when it came to science, he pushed for on-the-mark answers. Whatever he wrote was exemplary. He is a shining example of what a scientist should be.”

On Sept. 12, about 300 of Siegman’s colleagues celebrated his achievements at a banquet for the annual meeting of the Stanford Photonics Research Center. He sustained injuries at home several days later.

Another of his earliest PhD students, Burton McMurtry, who eventually became a venture capitalist and president of Stanford’s Board of Trustees, spoke at the banquet, saying: “One of the best descriptions for Tony is that he was a terrific clarifier. He wasn’t a simplifier.  Almost nothing that interested him was simple, but he could make complex issues pretty clear – and did so in his legendary book, Lasers.”

Siegman was born in Detroit on Nov. 23, 1931, and raised in rural Michigan.

The National Merit Scholar received his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Harvard in 1952. After two years on a cooperative plan with the Hughes Research Labs in Culver City, Calif., he received a master’s degree in applied physics from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1954. As he said later, he longed “to understand complicated manmade devices, rather than simply study the physics of nature.”

He followed his former supervisor at Hughes, Dean Watkins, to Stanford as a research assistant. Siegman was appointed to the Stanford faculty in 1956 and received his Stanford PhD in 1957 in electrical engineering with a dissertation on microwave noise in electron beams and traveling-wave tubes.

Shortly afterward he began working on microwave masers and parametric devices, which, after 1960, evolved into a research and teaching career in lasers and optics.

Harris joined him from Bell Labs in 1960, hoping to work with Siegman on masers, the microwave precursor of the laser. However, as Harris recalled, “He told me lasers had just been invented, and he was in the process of switching the future work of his group to lasers. This was the beginning of laser work at Stanford, and it was a very important switch.”

Siegman was considered one of the few outstanding young scientists of his era to make the transition to quantum electronics. “At that time, microwave electronics was one of Stanford’s particular strengths and an intellectually exciting field,” Siegman once explained. “For me, it soon led to a natural evolution into the emerging areas of lasers and optical electronics.”

He was promoted to full professor at Stanford in 1964 and became as renowned for his notable students as for his own research.

“He was remarkable in his teaching, in his work with students and the research that he did,” said Robert Byer, Stanford professor of applied physics. “He was the cardinal of the laser community at Stanford.”

Byer recalled how much Siegman supported generations of scientists in the early stages of their careers. “He did it with such ease and such care. Later on you would look back and say, ‘Wow!'”

McMurtry said that Siegman was “very generous with his time, but he also expected his students to figure out what they were doing and what they should be doing. He was anxious that his students not just follow his directions, but try to do something new. He was wonderful to work for.”

Siegman held several patents and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Frederic Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America, its highest honor, and was the society’s president in 1999. He also was awarded the society’s R. W. Wood Prize.

Siegman also was honored with the W. R. G. Baker and J. J. Ebers awards of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

He directed the Ginzton Laboratory from 1978 to 1983 and again in 1998-99. He was a visiting professor of applied physics at Harvard in 1965, a Guggenheim fellow at the IBM Research Labs in Zurich in 1969-70, and a Humboldt senior scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, in 1984-85.

Siegman became the Burton J. and Ann M. McMurtry Professor in the School of Engineering in 1986.

“We were enormously pleased when Tony was chosen,” McMurtry said in 1997. “He was a great mentor as my professor at Stanford and he has continued to be a great mentor and friend ever since.”

Following his formal retirement in November 1998, Siegman continued to lecture, consult and publish.

Siegman’s death is “heartbreaking for the scientific community,” said Harris. “Tony Siegman is so well liked – so universally liked and respected.”

Siegman is survived by his wife, Virginia Howard “Jeannie” Siegman of Stanford; his children by a previous marriage, Anne Lorraine “Jessica” Siegman Phillips of Sacramento, Winn Siegman of Menlo Park and Patrick Siegman of San Francisco; his stepdaughter, Elaine Lissner of Berkeley; two grandchildren; and a brother, Michael Siegman of Milford, Conn.

The memorial gathering will be private. Donations in his memory may be made to the Optical Society of America Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to supporting students around the world and inspiring the next generation of leaders and innovators.