In Memoriam: Ralph W. Nicholls, 1926-2008

Ralph NichollsRalph W. Nicholls, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of physics at York University, Toronto, ON, Canada, died suddenly of cardiovascular disease on January 25, 2008. Nicholls was an OSA Fellow Emeritus and had been an OSA member for 60 years. He was 81.

A pioneer in the Canadian space science community, Prof. Nicholls was the founding Chair (1965-1969) of York's Department of Physics, founding director (1965-1992) of York’s Centre for Research in Experimental Space Science (CRESS), later renamed the Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science, and Director of its Graduate Programme.

Nicholls’s research career focused on the many experimental, theoretical and observational aspects of the spectra of small molecules. He had an early interest in atmospheric spectroscopy and immediately saw the role that spectroscopy would play in the space age. CRESS became a vehicle for space research that made a significant contribution to Canada’s national space program and also involved Canada internationally.

Ralph Nicholls was born in Surrey, England and graduated from Imperial College, London, where he obtained his Ph.D. and D. Sc. degrees and also served as Senior Lecturer (1945-48). In 1948 he was appointed to the Physics Department at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), London, ON, Canada, where he established a theoretical and experimental group focused on the determination of transition probabilities in molecular systems. At UWO he was successively Lecturer (1950-52), Assistant Professor (1952-56), Associate Professor (1956-58), Professor (1958-63) and Senior Professor (1963-65). Between 1951 and 1965 he also served as director of the department’s Molecular Excitation Group.

Nicholls moved to York University in 1965. He appointed all of the original physics faculty members and designed the Petrie Science Building. In his early years at York he launched rockets to measure the ultraviolet spectrum of the aurora and added faculty members with space interests, building up an internationally recognized research center. Beginning in 1985 he also served as a member of a number of space mission teams. Nicholls was named Walter Gordon Research Fellow in 1982-83 and in 1983 he was made Distinguished Research Professor of Physics. He became Emeritus Professor and Director in 1996 but remained very active in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and in research.

An OSA member since 1948, Nicholls was named an OSA Fellow in 1978. He was also a Fellow of The American Physical Society (1976), The Royal Society of Canada, (Academy of Science) (1978), the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (1979), and The UK Institute of Physics (1956). Nicholls was the recipient of numerous honors and awards including the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002) and a Canadian Space Agency award “in recognition of an outstanding career contributing to the Canadian Space Science Program.” He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1998.

During his career Nicholls published more than 300 papers and book chapters in the scientific literature and was co-author of Emission, Absorption and Transfer of Radiation in Heated Atmospheres (1972). He served as editor of the Canadian Journal of Physics from 1986-1992.

He is survived by his wife, Doris, Ph.D., M.D. and Professor Emeritus.