In Memoriam: Nicolaas Bloembergen

    Date Posted: 
    Monday, September 11, 2017

    Nicolaas Bloembergen Dies at 97

    University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences Professor and 1981 Nobel laureate Nicolaas (Nico) Bloembergen, passed away on the morning of Sept. 5 due to complications arising from a recent heart attack. He is survived by his wife Deli and their three children: Antonia Bloembergen, Brink Bloembergen and Juliana Bloembergen Dalton; and two grandchildren, Deliana Bloembergen and Nicolaas "Nico" Dalton.

    Most known for receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1981, shared with Arthur L. Schawlow and Kai M. Siegbahn for their work in laser spectroscopy, Nico was also the recipient of over 30 highly prestigious scientific awards and honorary degrees and was highly respected in the scientific community for his work in optical physics. He began his University of Arizona Optical Sciences career as a Visiting Scientist in 1996, and later became a Professor of Optical Sciences in 2001.

    Early Love for Science and Education

    Nico was born on March 11, 1920 in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, the second child of six. His father was a chemical engineer and an executive at a chemical fertilizer company and his mother, who held an advanced degree to teach French, devoted herself to their family. At an early age, Nico's passion for science was apparent, which was enthusiastically encouraged by his family.

    "My choice of physics was probably based from the fact that I found it the most difficult and challenging subject," Nico recalls in a memoir published on the Nobel Prize website, "and I still do to this day. My maternal grandfather was a high school principal with a Ph.D. in mathematical physics. So there may be some hereditary factor as well."

    Nico went on to study physics at the University of Utrecht in 1938 and saw his first publication in 1940. The German occupation of Holland pushed Nico to make use of the continental academic system, and he managed to obtain the equivalent of a master's degree before the Nazis closed the university completely in 1943.

    With Europe devastated by World War II, Nico made his way to the United States, where he was accepted into Harvard University and became Edward M. Purcell's first graduate student. Nico quickly became involved with Purcell's early nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) device, six weeks after Purcell, H.C. Torrey and R.V. Pound had detected nuclear magnetic resonance in condensed matter. The subsequent BPP (Bloembergen-Purcell-Pound) article (N. Bloembergen, E.M. Purcell and R.V. Pound, Phys. Rev. 73, 679, 1948) is one of the single-most cited physics papers. Purcell was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952 for his development with this work.

    Returning to the Netherlands in 1947, Nico submitted his thesis entitled Nuclear Magnetic Relaxation, at the University of Leiden. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Leiden in 1948 and remained a postdoc there for a short while.

    Nico stated, "My thesis was submitted in Leiden because I had passed all required examinations in the Netherlands and because C.J. Gorter, who was a visiting professor at Harvard during the summer of 1947, invited me to take a postdoctoral position at the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratorium. My work in Leiden in 1947 and 1948 resulted in establishing the nuclear spin relaxation mechanism by conduction electrons in metals and by paramagnetic impurities in ionic crystals, the phenomenon of spin diffusion, and the large shifts induced by internal magnetic fields in paramagnetic crystals."

    Nico became an Associate Professor at Harvard in 1951, and went on to become a Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics in 1957, Rumford Professor of Physics in 1974 and a Gerhard Gade Professor in 1980. He retired from Harvard in 1990, and was given Professor Emeritus status at that time.

    Known for his wit and humor, Nico described his retirement at Harvard. "A professor can do as he pleases, but a professor emeritus can do as he damn well pleases."


    Nicolaas And Huberta

    Nicolaas and Huberta D. Bloembergen

    Nico met his future wife Deli (Huberta Deliana Brink) in 1948 at a sailing camp organized by the university science club. Nico, already an excellent sailor, was designated one of the captains, while the crew rotated between boats. Finding him incredibly interesting, Deli made sure she was on Nico's boat every day. They dated during the year Nico spent in Holland, and after an academic year spent apart, she signed up for a student tourist trip by ship to the United States. Once reaching the U.S., Deli detoured to visit Nico and to her surprise, he proposed. They married in Amsterdam in 1950 and Nico stated, "She has been a source of light in my life." They became U.S. citizens in 1958. Nico and Deli had three children: Antonia, Brink and Juliana, and two grandchildren: Deliana and Nicolaas.

    Nico's children remember him as an amazing man and father and someone who had a passion for activity, both mental and physical, and was very competitive. Nico began skiing in his 40's and didn't stop well into his 80's, and loved ice skating and tennis. He spoke four languages, was a world traveler, and was a passionate Scrabble and chess player.

    His daughter Juliana recalls a time when her daughter Deliana, then eight years old, was playing chess with Nico. Deliana made a move she was particularly proud of and Nico looked at her with a smile and said, "Well, that was a dumb move." Nico never intentionally lost, to anyone. Not even his granddaughter.

    University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences (Optical Sciences Center)

    Nico Bloembergen and Galina Khitrova in 1999

    Nicolaas and Professor Galina Khitrova in 1999. Galina passed away in June 2016.

    Nico became a visiting professor at the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences in 1996, and was appointed Professor of Optical Sciences in 2001. His research encompassed nuclear and electronic magnetic resonance, solid state masers and lasers, nonlinear optics and spectroscopy, nonlinear polarizability, and extension of the laws of reflection and refraction.

    For many years Nico came into his office several days per week, and his door was always open to anyone. He was willing to meet with visitors, faculty and students. How could a student not come to optical sciences if they knew they could talk with a person of Nico's caliber whenever they wanted?

    "Nico was both an icon in the optics and physics world, as well as a warm, generous and caring person," says Thomas L. Koch, Dean of the College of Optical Sciences. "We were very fortunate to have him as a faculty member here at OSC since 2001. He enriched our community in many ways, and we will miss him greatly."

    Professor Galina Khitrova and Nico had a close collegial friendship, both from their passion for optics as well as their similar successful immigration and U.S. citizenship histories. She was pivotal in organizing his much celebrated 90th birthday. Nico was an enthusiastic tennis instructor for Galina, who was still new to the game. She and her husband hosted a tennis tournament at his 90th birthday party and it was one of her close Russian friends that painted a portrait of Nico that hangs in the Optical Sciences building.

    When asked about Galina's sudden passing in 2016, Nico recalled Galina's tennis tournament. "Galina had organized a tennis tournament on her private court. I was destined to win the game because I was teamed up with a German champion player," Bloembergen said. "She adopted me and my wife, Deli, as substitute parents. I also recall the summer of 2015 when Galina took us up to her retreat in Summerhaven at the top of Mount Lemmon. We enjoyed the environment of this small but artistic retreat in the mountains, including the flow of Russian delicacies for lunch and dinner. She drove us back home before dark." 

    In 2005, John A. Armstrong and his wife Elizabeth, of Amherst, Mass., established the Nicolaas Bloembergen Graduate Student Scholarship at the College of Optical Sciences in honor of Bloembergen and his revolutionary research. Armstrong was a postdoc on Bloembergen's team at Harvard. In 2015, the scholarship was further strengthened with a generous donation made by Nico and his wife, Huberta, as well as Dr. James Wyant, making it a FoTO (Friends of Tucson Optics) scholarship, which is awarded to a first-year graduate student at the college. 

    Nico Remembered

    James C. Wyant
    Professor Emeritus and Founding Dean of OSC

    Nico Bloembergen at his 90th birthday, with Roy Glauber, John Hall, and Charles Townes

    Nobel laureates at Nico's 90th birthday party in 2010. Top row (l-r) Roy Glauber (2005), John Hall (2005). Bottom row (l-r) Nicolaas Bloembergen (1981), Charles Townes (1964)

    In 2010, we had a 90th birthday party for Nico, and I have never been to an event with so many optics stars. The attendees included three Nobel Laureates; Charles Townes, Roy Glauber, and John Hall, as well as many of Nico’s former Ph.D. students and postdocs.

    Nico was highly respected for his many scientific achievements and he was loved by his colleagues and especially his former students and postdocs. Nico was a wonderful human being. I was fortunate to have known Nico for 48 of his 97 years.

    Masud Mansuripur
    Professor of Optical Sciences and Chair of Optical Data Storage

    At a dinner party one evening, Nico was telling us that once every three years, the Physics Nobel Laureates get together in Lindau, Germany, to meet dozens of undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs from around the world, in order to foster scientific exchange between different generations and cultures. The Nobel laureates in Chemistry do the same thing a year later, and, after that, it is the laureates in physiology & medicine who gather in Lindau for a similar meeting. "That is why," Nico said, "I attend the Lindau meetings once every three years." Somebody asked about the Peace prize winners, and why they were excluded from the Lindau events. Nico turned around and said immediately, "Oh, no, those guys don't get along with each other!"

    At another occasion, Nico told the story of how once, when attending a conference in London, he went to the conference dinner and was served a hot drink which tasted awful. He called the waiter back and demanded, politely yet firmly: "I’m sorry; if this is tea, then bring me coffee; but if this is coffee, then please bring me tea!"

    Sander Zandbergen
    Optical Engineer at NASA-JPL (Ph.D., 2017)

    I was fortunate enough to interact with Nico a few times during my tenure at the College of Optical Sciences. Before I was officially introduced to him, we shared the elevator a couple times, and I would ask him how he was doing in Dutch (his, and my father's, native tongue). He always chuckled, responded and walked away with a smile.

    My adviser, Galina Khitrova, was a close friend of Nico and his wife, and introduced me to Nico just before the Optical Sciences 50th Anniversary, where she asked me to chauffer him to Old Tucson from his home southeast of Tucson. I gladly accepted. I went to pick him up, and he graciously invited me into his home and offered me a drink and snacks. We chatted for a while, and he showed me his medals and awards. We drove to the 50th event, and I told him about my time in college studying abroad in Leiden, The Netherlands, where he received his Ph.D. I really enjoyed spending time with Nico and getting to know more about him and his eventful life.

    Even in his mid-90s, Nico was spry enough to come into Optical Sciences once or twice a week to respond to emails and letters. During Professor Emeritus Hyatt Gibb's (Galina Khitrova's husband) memorial service, he gave a touching speech about his friendship with and mutual respect for Hyatt, and he did the same when Galina passed away in 2016. Hyatt and Galina hosted Nico's 90th birthday party ("Nico 90") the year before I started at Optical Sciences, and ever since then, Nico joked that he wanted to "beat" Charles Townes' record of 99 years and make it to 100. 

    Another time I interacted with Nico, my father and sister dropped by the Optical Sciences building, and we stopped by Nico's office to see if he was there. He was, and he invited us into his office. The four of us had a conversation in Dutch and English, and we talked about where Nico grew up, where my dad grew up, and our families. Nico was a kind, intelligent, friendly man, a lifelong academic, and I'm glad that I spent the time with him that I did.

    Nico's Lasting Legacy

    All of us at the College of Optical Sciences will miss Nico's wit, humor, intelligence and humanity. He was a deeply respected member of the Optics community, and will not be forgotten.

    To learn more about Nico and his time at OSC, see our 50th Anniversary Light Moments article, The Calculating Nobel Laureates, his 95th birthday celebration photo gallery and be sure to watch OSC Professor Jerome V. Moloney interview Nico in this 2010 video

    Portrait of Nico Bloembergen, painted by Russian artist Sergey Ovsepyan

    Portrait of Nico Bloembergen by Russian artist Sergey Ovsepyan. The painting was created by a close personal friend of the late Professor Galina Khitrova, and donated to the College of Optical Sciences. It hangs on the 6th floor of the OSC Meinel building.