Bloembergen, Nicolaas (1920-), a Dutch-born American physicist, made pioneering developments in nonlinear optics and laser spectroscopy, nuclear and electronic magnetic resonance, and solid-state masers.
Bloembergen is a founder of nonlinear optics, the study of the interaction between electromagnetic radiation and matter. Bloembergen received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1981.
Bloembergen was one of six children. His father, Auke Bloembergen, was a chemical engineer, and his mother, Sophia Maria Quint, held an advanced degree to teach French.
The family moved from Dordrecht to a suburb of Utrecht before Bloembergen began primary school. Bloembergen attended the municipal gymnasium in Utrecht, a secondary school that emphasized courses in the humanities, including Dutch, Greek, Latin, and history. Only in his last two years there, when the basics of physics and chemistry were taught, did his interest in science become apparent.
In 1938, Bloembergen entered the University of Utrecht. As an undergraduate, he was given an opportunity to work with a graduate student on a research project. During World War II (1939-1945), however, German Nazis occupied Holland in 1940 and removed some faculty members at Utrecht. To complete his education, Bloembergen took independent study courses, earning the equivalent of a B.S. degree in 1941 and M.S. degree in 1943, just before the Nazis shut down the university. For the remainder of the war, Bloembergen went into hiding, studying physics by the light of an oil lamp and eating tulip bulbs to keep from starving. When the war ended in 1945, he applied to graduate school in the United States and was accepted at Harvard University.
Early in his career, Bloembergen studied nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Only six weeks before he began graduate school at Harvard, three scientists had detected NMR in condensed matter. As part of his graduate studies, Bloembergen developed NMR instruments. In 1948, he coauthored a paper, “Relaxation Effects in Nuclear Magnetic Absorption,” with two of the discoverers of NMR, Edward Mills Purcell and Robert V. Pound. The paper, which came to be known as “BPP” after the initials of the authors, is one of the most-cited physics papers on the subject. In 1948, Bloembergen received his Ph. D. degree from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The material covered in the BPP paper essentially served as his thesis.
In 1949, Bloembergen returned to Harvard, where he was named a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows. He later was appointed associate professor of applied physics (1951-1957), Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics (1957-1974), Rumford Professor of Physics (1974-1980), and Gerhard Gade University Professor (1980-1990).
In the 1950's, Bloembergen expanded his investigations to include lasers and masers (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). He applied his experience in designing NMR apparatus to this new area of research. His research has long been associated with laser spectroscopy, a field of study in which a beam is directed at a material in order to understand its molecular structure. From his experiments, Bloembergen learned that the interaction between electromagnetic radiation and matter was more complex than scientists had believed. This development gave rise to the new field of nonlinear optics. Bloembergen and Arthur Leonard Schawlow shared half the 1981 Nobel Prize for physics for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy. The other half of the prize was awarded to Kai Manne Borje Siegbahn.
In 1990, Bloembergen retired from Harvard as Gerhard Gade University Professor Emeritus. In 2001, he joined the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona. In addition to his academic responsibilities, he has been a consultant to industrial and governmental organizations and served as president of the American Physical Society.
Besides the Nobel Prize, Bloembergen has received a number of awards, including the Oliver Buckley Prize of the American Physical Society (1958), the Morris E. Liebmann Award of the Institute of Radio Engineers (1959), the Stuart Ballantine Medal of the Franklin Institute (1961), the National Medal of Science of the National Science Foundation (1974), and the Frederic Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America (1979).