APL Colloquium

September 9, 2022

Colloquium Topic: Illuminating My Career – From Flash Gordon to Laser Surgery

As a child, I was fascinated by television programs about Flash Gordon. His partner in conquering the universe was Dr. Alexis Zarkov, a physicist, who had invented, among other things, a death ray gun. My personal “death ray” was a magnifying glass, focusing sunlight on unsuspecting insects, like crawling ants. I also practiced sneaking up on resting, flying, stinging insects and burning their wings before they could take off and attack me. So I understood something about the power of sunlight.

In my senior year of high school, I had a fabulous physics teacher, Lewis E. Love, and I knew after one week that I wanted to be a physicist, not a medical doctor, which is the career my parents wanted me to pursue.

It turns out that the first laser functioned on May 16, 1960, just one month before I graduated from high school, and it was inevitable that I would pursue a career working with lasers. My first job as a physicist, during the summer of 1963, was working with lasers at TRG, Inc. a small company whose guru was Gordon Gould, now recognized as the inventor of the laser. After three summers at TRG, I spent three years working on nonlinear optics for my PhD thesis, under the guidance of Prof. Nicolaas Bloembergen, who later won the Nobel Prize in Physics for codifying nonlinear optics.

Following completion of my PhD research in 1969, I joined IBM Research, where I have worked ever since. Upon joining the Quantum Electronics group in the Physical Sciences Dept. of the T.J. Watson Research Center, my management told me to “do something great” with lasers.

After working on atomic spectroscopy with dye lasers through the 1970s, I had the inspiration to acquire an excimer laser for the Laser Physics and Chemistry group. Using this laser, my colleagues and I discovered excimer laser surgery, capable of removing human and animal tissue with great precision, while leaving the underlying and adjacent tissue free of collateral damage. This discovery laid the foundation for the laser refractive surgical procedures of PRK and LASIK, which have been used to improve the visual acuity of >60 million people, including my son Keith, General Mark Milley, and Michelle Obama.

Today, I am working on validating my concept that the argon fluoride excimer laser can serve as a “smart scalpel,” capable of debriding necrotic lesions of the skin without damaging the underlying and adjacent viable tissue, leading to faster healing, reduced pain, reduced probability of infection, and minimal scarring.

To quote Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind!”

Colloquium Speaker: James J. Wynne

Dr. James J. Wynne is a member of the staff of IBM Research Headquarters. Since 1990, he has served as a catalyst to marshal the resources of IBM to enhance STEM education at local pre-college schools.

Dr. Wynne was raised in New York, earned a B. A. in physics in 1964 and a Ph. D. in applied physics in 1969 from Harvard University, and subsequently has spent his entire career with IBM Research. Prior to assuming his current position, he pursued a program of scientific research and management in the areas of laser science, medical applications of lasers, neuroscience, and chemical physics. His research contributions have been in nonlinear optics of semiconductors and insulators, nonlinear spectroscopy of atomic and molecular vapors, laser etching and fluorescence studies of human and animal tissue, and cluster science. He has held a number of scientific management positions, including manager of Nonlinear Spectroscopy, Laser Physics and Chemistry, and Biological and Molecular Science.

Dr. Wynne and two IBM colleagues discovered excimer laser surgery in 1981. Their discovery laid the foundation for the development of techniques for changing the shape of the human cornea, thereby surgically correcting the common vision abnormalities of myopia, astigmatism, and hyperopia. Two such techniques, LASIK (laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis) and PRK (photorefractive keratectomy) are widely practiced throughout the world, having improved the vision of more than 60 million people. For their discovery, Dr. Wynne and his colleagues were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) in 2002, won the R. W. Wood Prize of the Optical Society of America (OSA) in 2004, were awarded the Rank Prize for Opto-Electronics in 2010, received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2013, and were awarded the Russ Prize of the National Academy of Engineering in 2013. Dr. Wynne is currently working on a “smart scalpel,” an application of excimer lasers to debride necrotic lesions of skin, including burn eschar, without causing collateral damage.

Dr. Wynne is a Member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS), a Fellow of Optica (formerly the OSA), a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, a Member of the IEEE, and a Member of the American Association of Physics Teachers. He currently serves as a Courtesy Professor in the University of South Florida’s Institute for Advanced Discovery & Innovation (IADI). He has served as a member of the APS Council, representing the Forum on Education, which he helped to create, served on the APS Committee on Education, chairing that committee for one year, served as a member of the OSA Board of Directors and the OSA Education Council, and served on numerous boards and committees of the National Research Council.

Dr. Wynne believes that his professional community of scientists and engineers must be involved with the scientific, mathematical, and technical education of young people.  Technical literacy is a necessary tool for meeting the requirements of being an effective citizen in a technologically complex world.  The professional community needs an educated citizenry to understand and support its scientific pursuits and certainly needs a technically trained pool of young adults to provide a viable source of new members for the community.