First lady of lasers

NH Union Leader

June 10, 2016

By Melanie Plenda

Elsa Garmire
Elsa Garmire will be retiring from Dartmouth's faculty in October. She has been closely associated with the development of laser technology since the 1960s.

The phone on your hip, the crisscross of crimson below your desktop mouse, the Led Zeppelin-fueled light show you zoned out to in your youth, the things that make the internet work — Elsa Garmire helped make that all possible.

Never heard of her? You should have.

"She was a very important, early and pioneering contributor to the development of the laser," said Joseph J. Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering and Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth.

Garmire, now 76, will retire this fall from her job as the Sydney E. Junkins 1887 Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth.

"She really contributed to the fundamental understanding of how lasers operate, how laser phenomena operate, what lasers do to break down other material, and eventually contributed her understanding and her development to fundamental physics, which led to the development of things like semiconductor lasers that are ubiquitous," Helble said.

"These are the lasers that are in every optical mouse and CD reader and small-scale device you can think of," Helble said. "She did not invent the technology, but she was a pioneering scientist in helping unravel the fundamental physics that helped enable development of laser technology that we take for granted today in communications and pretty much everything else."

And she helped invent the laser light show, which is a not insignificant footnote to a career that, due to societal norms of her time, shouldn't have even happened.

Garmire was in the sixth grade when she figured out she was a scientist. Her dad was a chemical engineer, and she had read about Marie Curie as a kid in Buffalo, but it wasn't until she was handed a brochure around the age of 12 that something clicked.

"They handed out a brochure for all the children saying what jobs they could have," she said. "But it started with a lab tech and it went all the way back, to the end, where it said you could be a research scientist. And of course that was a man wearing a white coat, but looking very professional, and I said, 'That's what I want to do.'"

But how she actually became a scientist, well, she chalks that up to pure "serendipity."

As a high school student in the 1950s, she was supposed to graduate, sure, but then get married, stay home, keep house. But Garmire was way more competitive than that narrative would allow. She was tops in her class, earning all A's, along with four other girls and one boy.

"They all went on to great careers, mostly in science," she said. "So I knew girls could do it."

And being competitive, she said, she chose for college the hardest school to get into: Radcliffe — and that was only because Harvard didn't admit women at that time. But if you went to Radcliffe, you could take classes at Harvard, and actually it was even harder to get into Radcliffe than it was to get into Harvard.

"There were only 300 girls in our class, while there were 1,100 Harvard men," she said. "So we all thought we were three times better than the average Harvard man. Because Radcliffe was this very special place, we ended up with these strong feelings of self-confidence."

Assisting brilliance

After Radcliffe, she went on to MIT, where she was assigned to assist Professor Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize winner and inventor of the laser. She was the only student he took on. It was 1961.

"The laser had been first demonstrated one year before I started grad school," she said. "I had never heard of it, of course; I was starting at the beginning. And he assigned me to get started on the second laser that was commercially sold. I had this empty lab and this laser sitting there. But I was always willing to learn, and there was always people there to ask for help, (but) I didn't need help, I just started at the beginning."

And because the laser was so new, almost anything she did produced new and wonderful results she could publish.

"I was very fortunate that I was sort of able to make a name for myself," she said.

She wound up recruiting a friend to work in the lab with her. Because Townes was also the provost at MIT at the time, he didn't actually spend a lot of time on research. That fell to her and her friend.

"It was very inspirational and wonderful time," she said. "I think we knew in some sense (of how important lasers would be). Of course I didn't think that far ahead, I was a pretty naïve kid.

"We certainly knew lasers developed at that time as a solution looking for a problem, because they did so many things that nobody had ever done before. In fact, it was quite an unusual invention, in that it was not invented for any immediate use."

But Garmire said the brilliant Townes could see a future for lasers in the field of communications. At the time, Garmire explained, communication signals were all via microwaves. Towne wanted to make the jump from microwaves to optics — light.

"So the idea, if you could get light for your communications, you could get a thousand more people talking simultaneously on telephone calls," she said. "That was a big problem then, because the main trunk lines — Boston, New York and San Francisco — were really being filled up. There wasn't available space for everybody to talk when they wanted to talk.
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"There was the potential someday for people to do that, but nobody knew how it was going to be done. And at that time they were trying all kinds of ideas that in the end turned out not to work. But it turned out that what you needed was fiber optics. And that came out in about 1975 and the result is the internet."

Art and technology

After getting her PhD, Garmire moved on to Cal Tech, for her post-doctoral work. It was at that time she said, she realized she "wasn't smart enough to win a Nobel Prize."

"We all have to face our limitations at some time in our life, and I faced them early on because I had been working with this incredible genius and now I was on my own and I wasn't able to come up with great ideas," she said.

She thought seriously about getting out altogether, until she fell in with a group of artists who were marrying art and technology in new and advanced ways. This ultimately led her to be on the team that created the largest hemispherical mirror ever created and, later, the laser light show.

As she was dabbling in art and technology she met aspiring filmmaker Ivan Dryer. He was entranced by the intensity of the light emitted by the lasers she was working on, and wanted to capture them in a film set to music. But the film results didn't live up to the real life beauty of these optical creatures, so he convinced her to bring the Cal Tech laser down to Griffith Observatory and Planetarium in Los Angeles where she, Dryer and some other artists and engineers created the first ever live laser light show.

Soon after that they formed the Laserium, which sprouted locations across the country. Since then, their Laserium successors and copycat operations have been producing music-fueled laser light shows for the more than 40 years.

While laser art was fun, Garmire got out near the beginning. She missed her science, she said, her husband left her for her best friend and she decided to get serious about her work and her future.

She went on to specialize in non-linear optics, the technology that helped shape modern fiber-optic technology. She's produced more than 250 scientific papers and was elected to the National Academy of Engineers, which, in her estimation is, "one of the highest honors that can happen to somebody."

To Dartmouth

With that status, she was recruited by Dartmouth in the mid-1990s to be the first female dean of any research engineering school. But her deanship didn't very last long.

"I got impatient and I went back to being a faculty member," she said. "I wanted change to happen rapidly, and in universities, change happens slowly. And I didn't really have the right management tools to be a very good dean."

But she loved New England and remained on the faculty.

"I'm very happy to be here," she said. "I've spent 21 years here as a faculty member doing all kinds of things and having graduate students in laser areas, also doing a lot of work with the National Academy at the national level. And as of October 1, I'm going to be gone. I'm retiring and moving to Santa Clara, California, to get out of the weather and be near my children."

Except for more trips to the beach, retirement to Garmire looks a lot like the rest of her career. She's already signed on to work with a start-up in California developing better LED technologies.

Looking back on her career, she's cognizant of the impact she's had, but she doesn't dwell on it. Instead, she spends a lot of her time looking out for the young women coming up after her.

"These are the kinds of things she's been doing behind the scenes that have been extraordinarily important contributions," Dean Helble said. "I'm speculating a bit, but I think she believes that a scientist should speak publicly and loudly about the science... And (helping other female scientists) are the things you should be doing as part of your responsibility to train the next generation, but it's not the kind of thing you stand up and shout about publicly."

In other words, Garmire wants to be known for her science, Helble said, but she helps because "she thinks it's the right thing to do."

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