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Emil Wolf

Emil Wolf

1978 OSA President and Honorary Member Emil Wolf was born 30 July 1922. He was a Czech-born American physicist who made advancements in physical optics, including diffraction, coherence properties of optical fields, spectroscopy of partially coherent radiation, and the theory of direct scattering and inverse scattering.

Wolf was forced to leave his native Czechoslovakia when the Germans invaded. After brief periods in Italy and France (where he worked for the Czech government in exile), he moved to the United Kingdom. He received his B.Sc. in mathematics and physics in 1945 and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Bristol University, England, in 1948.

Between 1951 and 1954, he worked at the University of Edinburgh with Max Born, writing the famous textbook Principles of Opticsusually known simply as “Born and Wolf.” After a period on the faculty of the University of Manchester, he moved to the U.S. in 1959 to take a position at the University of Rochester. He was the Wilson Professor of Optical Physics at the University of Rochester.

In addition to Principles of Optics Wolf has also written, along with Leonard Mandel, Optical Coherence and Quantum Optics, and is the author of Introduction to the Theory of Coherence and Polarization of Light and Selected Works of Emil Wolf with Commentary. Wolf was the editor of Progress in Optics, an ongoing series of volumes of review articles on optics and related subjects. Fifty volumes have been published in this series under his editorship.

Wolf’s research focused on coherence and polarization of optical fields. He predicted a new mechanism that produces redshift and blueshift, that is not due to moving sources (Doppler effect), that has subsequently been confirmed experimentally (called the Wolf Effect). He also discovered that two non-Lambertian sources that emit beamed energy, can interact in a way that causes a shift in the spectral lines. The Wolf Effect can produce either redshifts or blueshifts, depending on the observer's point of view, but is redshifted when the observer is head-on.

At the University of Rochester, Wolf and his research group investigated theories of coherence and polarization of light and inverse scattering. He found solution to a classic problem in the theory of reconstruction of crystal structure from diffraction experiment; namely the determination of phases of the diffracted beam.

Wolf received numerous awards for his scientific contributions. These include OSA’s Frederic Ives Medal, the Joseph W. Goodman Book Writing Award, Esther Hoffman Beller Medal, and the Max Born Award; the Franklin Institute’s Michelson Medal; and the Italian National Research Council’s Marconi Medal. Wolf is also an honorary member of the Optical Societies of India and Australia and is the recipient of seven honorary degrees from Universities in the Netherlands, Great Britain, Denmark, France, the Czech Republic and Canada. He was elected a Fellow of OSA in 1963.

In 1976, Wolf was elected to the OSA Board and served as President of the Society in 1978. In 1987, he was named an Honorary Member of the Optical Society in recognition of his preeminent service in the advancement of optics.

In 2008, the Emil Wolf Outstanding Student Paper Competition was established to honor Emil Wolf for his many contributions to science and the Optical Society. This competition recognizes the innovation, research and presentation excellence of students presenting their work during Frontiers in Optics (FiO). This program is sponsored by Optics Communications published by Elsevier. Additional support has also been provided by Physical Optics Corporation, the University of Rochester Physics Department, the Institute of Optics. 

Wolf died in 2018.


Emil Wolf died on 2 June 2018, please see Optica's memorial entry.

In our time of ever-increasing specialization, there is a tendency to concern ourselves with relatively narrow scientific problems. The broad foundations of our present-day scientific knowledge and its historical development tend to be forgotten too often. This is an unfortunate trend, not only because our horizon becomes rather limited and our perspective somewhat distorted, but also because there are many valuable lessons to be learned in looking back over the years during which the basic concepts and the fundamental laws of a particular scientific discipline were first formulate.

Emil Wolf, Einstein's Researches on the Nature of Light

Document Created: 26 Jul 2023
Last Updated: 28 Aug 2023

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