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Aleksander Prokhorov

10 Jan 2002

Aleksander Prokhorov, the Russian physicist whose groundbreaking work led to the invention of the laser, died earlier this week. Prokhorov was best known for pioneering the microwave laser or ‘maser’ – which laid the foundations for many lasers – and as a director of Russia's General Physics Institute.

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Born in Australia in 1916, Prokhorov moved to the Soviet Union seven years later, following the Russian Revolution. In 1934 he joined the physics department at Russia’s Leningrad State University and on graduating in 1939 moved to the P N Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow, to start his research career as a postgraduate.

Interrupted by the Second World War, Prokhorov completed his research on nonlinear oscillations in 1946. His subsequent studies of the coherent radiation of electrons in a synchrotron led to his PhD thesis in 1951.

Throughout the early 1950s and while at Lebedev’s Laboratory of Oscillations, Prokhorov and his collaborators used microwave spectroscopy to research molecular structures. In 1955 Prokhorov began to study electronic paramagnetic resonance (EPR) and by 1957 he had discovered that ruby would make a suitable laser material.

As Prokhorov and colleagues in Russia developed their first masers, Charles Townes and Arthur Shawlow were making similar progress in the US. In 1964 Prokhorov, with colleague Nikolai Basov and US scientist Charles Townes, received the Nobel Prize in Physics for “fundamental work in quantum electronics that led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.”

Prokhorov headed Russia’s General Physics Institute until 1998. Reports say that he will be buried alongside the Russia’s greatest scientists in Moscow’s Novodyevichy cemetery.


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