University of Rochester

Rochester Review
March-April 2009
Vol. 71, No. 4

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Optics A Lifetime of ‘Making Things Happen’ A new professorship in optics honors Provost Emeritus Brian Thompson. By Kathleen McGarvey
thompson OPTICS LEADER: Brian Thompson, provost emeritus and former director of the Institute of Optics, says he sees the goal of administrative work as to make academic programs “as strong as you can.” (Photo: Brandon Vick)

On the face of it, life in the lab and life in the administrator’s office look very different.

But, says Provost Emeritus Brian Thompson, those appearances can be deceiving.

“If you can create an environment in which people can prosper, that’s just as satisfying, and creative, as a new discovery,” he says. “I find it very stimulating to make things happen—which is not too different than research, if you think about it.”

Thompson, formerly the William F. May Professor of Engineering, director of the Institute of Optics, and dean of engineering, filled many roles in his career at Rochester. This spring he is being honored for those achievements with the creation of the Brian J. Thompson Professorship in Optical Engineering, established by John Bruning, former CEO of Corning Tropel Corp.

New Center Named for Robert Hopkins

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will formally dedicate the Robert E. Hopkins Center for Optical Design & Engineering at the Institute of Optics during a ceremony this spring. The center, made possible through the generosity of John Bruning, the former CEO of Corning Tropel Corp., is named in honor of Robert Hopkins, a professor emeritus of optics and director of the Institute from 1954 to 1965.

The center is home to a collaborative program in which faculty and students work together to design, create, and test ideas in optical engineering.

For more information, visit

“John’s always had a great respect for and relationship with the Institute of Optics,” Thompson says, and the two share a devotion to the applied study of optics.

“John Bruning’s gift supports our research and educational mission and at the same time recognizes a truly remarkable scientist, engineer, and administrator, Brian Thompson,” says Rob Clark, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “While Dr. Thompson’s contributions will always be part of the University’s legacy, his name will be forever carried by the many future faculty who will occupy this chair—and if we’re truly lucky, following the example set by Dr. Thompson himself.”

Wayne Knox, director of the Institute of Optics, agrees.

“When I came to the University as an undergraduate, I took physical optics, taught by Brian Thompson. I was immediately captivated by the beauty of the subject, and the elegance of Brian’s teaching style,” he says. “When Brian became dean of engineering, I remember seeing him, and calling him ‘my favorite dean.’ He would smile and say Hi.

“After several years of this, he finally remarked, ‘I’m your only dean!’ That I was able to return to the University and the Institute of Optics as director and professor of optics and follow in his footsteps, even in a small way, has been a great honor for me.”

As one who was instrumental in creating other named professorships during his career, Thompson appreciates their value.

“It’s a great attraction for bringing in stellar people,” he says. “It’s a badge of honor.”

And when asked for his own reaction to the news that the professorship will carry his name, Thompson, a native of Preston, England, replies with playful understatement, “I can’t say I don’t enjoy it.”

Thompson’s Rochester years were foreshadowed when he earned his doctorate at England’s University of Manchester in the 1950s. There he worked for a time with optical physics pioneer Emil Wolf, then a fellow in the Manchester physics department and now the Wilson Professor of Optical Physics and Theoretical Optics at Rochester. Thompson came to the United States in 1963 and worked in industry and higher education before arriving at the University in 1968 as director of the Institute of Optics.

A leading researcher in coherent optics, holography, phase microscopy, and image processing, Thompson kept up an active research program while working as an adminstrator. His experimental studies on partially coherent light and its effects became standard works in the literature of the field, and his illustrations of these, and other, optical phenomena appeared widely in optical textbooks and other works dealing with coherent optics. Thompson also developed the first direct application of holography, dynamic particle size analysis, which is now used in a range of fields.

The author of more than 180 scientific and technical papers, Thompson also cowrote the book The New Physical Optics Notebook: Tutorials in Fourier Optics in 1989. The work was translated into Russian, Polish, and Chinese. He was editor of the world’s most widely circulated optics scientific journal, Optical Engineering, from 1990 to 1997, and edited the 182-volume Milestone Series of books on selected subtopics in optics.

Thompson became dean of what was then the College of Engineering and Applied Science in 1975 and moved to the provost’s office in 1984.

Through his early years as provost, Thompson continued to teach—and he credits students’ own enthusiasm and interest for part of his success as a teacher.

“If the classroom is running well, students learn as much from each other as they do from the instructor, because of the questions they ask,” he says.

But his research was also integral to his work in the classroom.

“I believe you need to be teaching something you really understand,” he says. “If you’re not involved at the cutting edge, all you’re doing is interpreting what’s in the textbook. I wanted to convey, through experimentation and theoretical knowledge, physical insight. It was always about insight.”

He brought insight to bear in his job as provost as well. The job of provost is “making the academic programs as strong as you can,” he says. “Those were exciting years. The job gave me an opportunity to make things happen for other people, and I got a big kick out of that.”

One of the things Thompson made happen was the University of Rochester Press, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Thompson wondered why the University had no press of its own, and working with British publisher Boydell & Brewer—in a partnership that continues—established the press.

Today the press publishes 30 to 35 new titles each year in fields such as African studies, modern and early modern European history, and the history of medicine. The Eastman Studies in Music series is the press’s highest-profile publication. Thompson, formerly chair of the press, now sits on its board.

Thompson’s influence can also be seen on the University grounds. As provost, Thompson and his late wife, Joyce, lived in the Patrick Barry House, the provost’s residence on Mt. Hope Avenue. “We were always crazy gardeners, being English,” Thompson says. Last summer, the house’s extensive perennial gardens, planted by Joyce Thompson, were dedicated in her memory, and Thompson himself serves on the University’s Arboretum Committee.

Thompson retired as provost in 1994 and today holds the titles of distinguished University professor, provost emeritus, and professor emeritus of optics. And his enthusiasm for the field he first encountered in northern England in the 1950s is undiminished.

Thompson remains an optical engineer first and last. From the start, when he earned his undergraduate degree in applied physics, he was devoted to the application of knowledge.

“Engineering allows you to push the frontier of the technology,” he says, adding, “based on good scientific principles, of course.”