John Alcock: a laser-sharp 55-year career at the NRC

- Ottawa, Ontario

Metrology atomic fountain clock

Have you ever thought about how you wouldn’t be reading this, or anything online, without the invention of the laser?

When John Alcock started as a postdoctoral fellow at the NRC in 1965, lasers were experimental devices with few obvious applications at the time. After years of research and development, the laser has become indispensable in research, industry and medicine, but also in our daily lives.

It’s hard to imagine a day without lasers, devices that emit a very narrow beam of light through a process of optical amplification; we depend on this technology in so many ways. In our day‑to‑day life we use lasers for almost everything. Lasers are used to scan products we buy, in printers, in entertainment for light shows, and for surgical procedures. A great example of this is fibre‑optic communications technology because without the laser, the Internet as we know it would not be possible!

A ray of light among us

Dr. Alcock contributions led the way in the field of laser and plasma physics‑a phase of matter beyond solids, liquids and gases that consists of highly ionized particles.

John Alcock

Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1938, he studied at the Glasgow Academy during elementary and high school. In 1955, he moved to Toronto and enrolled in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto.  After graduating with a B.A.Sc. in 1959, he spent 5 years at the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford where he completed his PhD.

In 1965, when he joined the NRC as a postdoctoral fellow, his first supervisor was Dr. Stuart Ramsden, founder of the Plasma Physics Section in the Division of Pure Physics. The following year, Dr. Alcock would become a full‑time researcher with the NRC.

“I was a graduate student when the first laser made its appearance and this exciting new method for generating light immediately captured my attention. I started by fabricating a ruby laser to use as a light source in an optical pumping experiment, and got involved in building a helium neon laser. I was extremely fortunate to start working with lasers in the early 1960s, a time when lasers were being developed in many labs around the world. New laser materials (solid‑state, semiconductor, gas, even liquid) were being reported almost every month and it was an extremely exciting time. For several decades there were always new lasers to be investigated, developed and applied in new ways.”

A life dedicated to the advancement of research

John Alcock had several roles at the NRC: initially as a postdoctoral fellow in the Plasma Physics Section  when he worked full time in a laboratory investigating laser‑produced plasmas in gases. The following year, he joined the continuing staff of the NRC as an assistant research officer and worked on laser‑produced plasmas. During that time, he was involved in some of the first measurements of electron density and temperature in such plasma.

After 1970, following the development of the “transversely excited atmospheric CO2 laser” by scientists at the Defence Research Establishment in Valcartier, Quebec, he became involved in an NRC effort to scale the power and energy of these exciting new devices.

For 16 years (1974 to 1990), he was head of the Laser and Plasma Physics Section in the Division of Physics at the NRC and involved in much of the section’s work on laser development and short pulse generation. The section grew to a size of 24 people and the research carried out included the investigation of high‑intensity laser‑plasma interactions, ultrashort pulse generation, and CO2 laser and excimer laser development. 

In 1990, he became directly involved in laser development and initiated work on diode‑pumped solid‑state lasers, co‑authoring the first paper on the “grazing‑incidence slab laser.”  This laser configuration was patented by the NRC and eventually licensed to a spin‑off from Imperial College in the United Kingdom.

A brilliant career and devotion to science

Throughout his career, he co‑authored several publications and patents. In 1975, he was awarded the Herzberg Medal by the Canadian Association of Physicists for his outstanding achievement. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, The Optical Society and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

When he retired from the NRC in 2004, he was a principal research officer. Tireless, passionate and dedicated, he continued to work at the NRC as a researcher emeritus and volunteer visitor from 2005 to March 2020.

His latest contribution was to participate as a member of the team that developed the NRC's caesium fountain clock. The research team achieved a major milestone by building and characterizing a new caesium fountain clock, and passing the rigorous peer review that enables Canada to contribute at a world‑class level.

The pandemic lockdown in March 2020 coincided with the 60th anniversary of the laser and the end of Dr. Alcock’s long association with the NRC. This year also marked his 55 years of service at the NRC after spending an exceptional 5 decades on the advancement of science.

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