James J. Snyder

In Memoriam: James J. Snyder

November 29, 2007


James SnyderRecently many of us in the optical physics community bade farewell to a much respected and cherished colleague, Jim Snyder, who passed away on November 29, 2007 after a long and courageous battle with leukemia. Jim’s career in physics spanned many decades, including time spent in government laboratories, private industry and academia. In all of these areas he made seminal contributions through his unique combination of mathematical analysis, experimental skill, and innovative inventions and designs.

Jim received a B.S. in Mathematics (Magna cum Laude) in 1969 and a Ph.D. in Electrical Sciences in 1973, both from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His alma mater honored him with the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1995. He received numerous additional awards throughout his career, including an IR-100 award for inventing the Fizeau wavemeter, and several Department of Commerce awards. He authored or co-authored more than 100 papers and presentations, and is listed as inventor or co-inventor on more than 20 US patents and patent applications, as well as being the principal designer of over a dozen successful commercial products.

Jim started his career at the National Bureau of Standards (now called the National Institute for Standards and Technology) where, shortly after joining NBS, he invented the Fizeau wavemeter. This invention was the first of many examples of Jim's ability to find clever solutions to challenging problems in optics. The importance of this wavemeter was quickly recognized, and it was soon developed into a commercial product. For a significant time it was the only device capable of high-precision wavelength measurement of a pulsed laser. While at NBS Jim also led a joint project to develop a novel laser method to perform ultra-sensitive isotopic analysis. In 1980 He took over the leadership of the Spectro-radiometric Group of the Radiometric Physics Division. While in that position he began two innovative projects which have developed into important new metrological programs at NIST. The first effort resulted in the establishment of the NIST Low Background Infrared (LBIR) Facility, a major national center, which greatly improved the absolute accuracy of radiometric calibrations in the 2 - 30 mm region. The second program involved using a laser heterodyning technique with a dynamic range of 12 orders of magnitude to measure precisely the absorption of optical density filters in the IR. In both these programs Jim provided an important stimulus for modernization of optical metrology by working closely with Department of Defense agencies, whose emerging needs for accuracy in the calibration of sophisticated infrared sensors exceeded the capabilities of existing technology.

After leaving NIST Jim joined the laser program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. While there he invented a new method for fabricating diffraction limited, high numerical aperture, asphere cylindrical lens for correcting the highly aberrated beams from laser diodes. This lens fabrication technique and specific optical lens designs based on this technique were patented by the lab and were subsequently incorporated into several commercial devices. The invention ultimately led to the formation of a new company, Blue Sky Research, co-founded by Jim, which also developed commercial versions of a number of Jim’s other inventions.

On the personal side, Jim was a collegial collaborator and good-natured friend. His lively mind and good sense of humor made him a pleasure to be with, whether in the workplace or in a social situation. He built a network of close friends and collaborators and maintained contact with this group over many decades through a steady stream of emails containing amusing stories and anecdotes which were always enjoyable to receive. Jim had a constant positive attitude toward life and the joy of being involved in photonics research. His constant optimism was only damped once or twice over the last 40 years: once when his daughter was in harm’s way, stationed at an air force base in the Middle East during the first Iraq war, and another time when his wife was seriously ill. Jim loved his family and was very proud of his children.

Those of us who had the enormous privilege of working with Jim over the 40 years of his career will miss him greatly. His family will remain in our thoughts and prayers.

This obituary was contributed by OSA President-Elect Tom Baer and Tom Lucatorto of NIST, long-time friends and colleagues of Jim Snyder.