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Dr. Peterson Elected Fellow

Dr. Otis “Pete” Peterson Elected Fellow of the Optical Society of America

Dr. Otis “Pete” Peterson, a staff member in the Chemistry Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, was elected Fellow of the Optical Society of America in October of 2002.

The Optical Society of America was founded in 1916 to “increase and diffuse the knowledge of optics,” and its 14,000 members are spread around the globe. Of those members, only 7% are Fellows. The ociety produces publications, events, Peterson photoand services intended to advance the science of light by sharing knowledge and innovation.

Peterson, who has been with the Laboratory since 1979, was elected to the society for his discovery in the 1970s of the cw (“continuous wave”) dye laser and his contributions to the development of solid-state tunable lasers. Peterson is a polymathic physicist whose current research interests run the gamut from the development of novel nuclear reactors to x-ray crystallography.

Peterson and a fellow researcher, Sam Tuccio, developed the cw dye laser for Eastman Kodak in late 1969/1970. The development of the dye laser was a significant and surprising breakthrough—a textbook out at the time said that lasers made of common organic dyes dissolved into organic solvents could not be made to operate continuously, and general belief supported that supposition.

The cw dye laser became a workhorse instrument for precision spectroscopy and dominated that field for 20 years. It also served as the foundation for much of the research into the laser production of very short optical pulses, where the pulses became so short in time that electronics could not measure the pulse widths. The laser’s big advantage was that it could be tuned to any visible wavelength (color) by turning knobs and by changing dyes.

Peterson developed the concept and prototype design for the laser and Tuccio supplied the bench-top patience and skill to put it all together into a working whole. Peterson recalled the night when the laser first worked. “Tuccio had a habit of working odd hours. He called me one Sunday night in the spring of 1970 and asked me to come down to the lab—he’d gotten the laser to lase! I went down and walked into a darkened room. Tuccio turned on the dye pump, and dye shot everywhere! He’d opened a cock to release the air from the system and forgotten to close it again. We cleaned up the mess and put everything back together again, and then we could enjoy seeing the first working cw dye laser.”

The second advance the society referenced is Peterson’s contribution to the development of the solid-state tunable laser, which he helped develop for Allied Chemical. This laser was based upon a solid laser rod that exhibited the same wavelength tunability that previously had been the almost exclusive characteristic of the organic dye lasers. The inorganic crystalline rod did not bleach with use and wasn’t susceptible to spilling all over the floor. The rods didn’t have quite the broad tunability of dyes, but in research and practice where a narrow range of wavelengths was desired, they were ideal. Eventually, they saw wide use, including serving as the basis for a large isotope separation program at Los Alamos. Peterson worked as part of a larger team in the development of the solid-state tunable laser, which also received an R&D 100 Award.

Written by Josh Smith, Chemistry Division

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