Optical physics pioneer Emil Wolf passes

His pioneering theories connected fundamental equations describing electromagnetism to the observable properties of light.

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IMAGE. Emil Wolf celebrated 50 years as a Rochester faculty member in 2009. (Courtesy University of Rochester)

Emil Wolf, a longtime University of Rochester professor whose pioneering theories connected fundamental equations describing electromagnetism to the observable properties of light, has died at age 95. He is survived by his son Bruno and daughter Paula and his beloved wife Marlies.

One of the most recognized optical scientists of his generation, Wolf, the Wilson Professor of Optical Physics at Rochester, was a leading expert in coherence and polarization of optical fields. His Principles of Optics (1958), co-written with Nobel laureate Max Born at the University of Edinburgh, is the most cited textbook in physics. His text Optical Coherence and Quantum Optics (1995) written with fellow giant of optics and paragon of Rochester physics, Len Mandel, is a modern classic, demonstrating the unparalleled longevity and staying power of Wolf’s contributions.

In Principles of Optics, now in its seventh edition, Wolf described the then little-known concept of spatial coherence, central to understanding the soon-to-be-invented laser and was the first to fully explain the concept of Gabor’s holography. The book remains “the international standard graduate-level textbook in optics, and one of the books most likely to be found on the shelf of a professional physicist,” says Watson. In recent years Wolf’s research included investigations of inverse scattering, especially diffraction tomography involving random media.

“He was an incredible scientist,” says Scott Carney, current director of Rochester’s Institute of Optics and a Wolf doctoral student (1999). “But more remarkably, he was an incredible person. He demonstrated his devotion to us, his students, simply by being present and spending time with us every day.”

Born in 1922, Wolf fled his native Czechoslovakia after Germany occupied the country on the eve of World War II. He earned his PhD in mathematics at Bristol University in England in 1948 and, in addition to working with Max Born at Edinburgh, was a postdoc at Manchester University before joining the Rochester faculty in 1959.

Wolf later recalled how a letter inviting him to join the Rochester faculty, from Robert Hopkins, then director of the Institute of Optics, had been misplaced by a secretary. Wolf found it among some misplaced proofs of Principles of Optics – just in time to meet Hopkins, who was visiting England at the time. “I have often wondered what my future would have been had I not found his letter in the cupboard . . . at Manchester University.”

Wolf was the recipient of the Frederic Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America (OSA) (1978), the Michelson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1980), the Max Born Award of the OSA (1987), the Marconi Medal of the Italian National Research Council (1987), the Gold Medal of the Czechoslovak Academy of Science (1991), the Medal of the Union of Czechoslovak Mathematicians and Physicists (1991), the Gold Medal of Palacky University, Olomouc, Czechoslovakia (1991), the Esther Hoffman Beller Award for Outstanding Contributions to Optical Science and Engineering Education of the OSA (2002), and a Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award at the University of Rochester (2009).

Source: University of Rochester

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