University professor honored for laser study

by Amy Olson

The next time students pop a CD into their Discman or go through the check-out line at the supermarket, they can thank electrical engineering professor Marshall Nathan.
Nathan helped develop the semiconductor lasers in the 1960s used to read CDs and scan bar codes. The National Academy of Engineering recently recognized his work, which he began nearly 40 years ago while working for IBM.
Nathan will be inducted into the academy with 79 other engineers next October.
“You almost have to have some gray hair before you get into the academy,” Nathan said.
Nathan joins the rank of 25 University faculty members who have been elected to the academy since electrical and computer engineering professor William Shepherd was first elected in 1969.
Institute of Technology spokesman Paul Sorenson said 10 active faculty members have been elected to the academy, which has nearly 2,000 members nationwide. That group includes Institute of Technology Dean Ted Davis, who was elected in 1988, and mechanical engineering professor Subbiah Ramalingam, who was elected in 1998.
Electrical and computer engineering department head Mostafa Kaveh said the high number of professors elected to the organization is indicative of the high quality of faculty in the college and the department.
Nathan began his work on the laser with a group of engineers at IBM. A second team of scientists at General Electric was developing the laser and finished slightly ahead of Nathan’s group. The GE team was given credit for developing the laser, but both teams contributed to developing the semiconductor laser, Nathan said.
In addition to CD players and supermarket scanners, the red laser is also used to decode signals like long distance telephone calls transmitted by fiber optic cables.
While Nathan’s semiconductor laser sped up trips to the grocery store, Kaveh said it is typical for engineers to be recognized by professional organizations long after their work is completed.
Nathan likened his election to the academy to the baseball Hall of Fame inducting players long after they retired.
Unlike professors who leave academe to take higher-paying jobs in industry, Nathan joined the University faculty at age 55 after a 30-year career in industry.
Nathan said he enjoys the change of pace, noting the challenges to get funding for research.
“It’s nice because I haven’t been doing this since I was 25,” Nathan said. He is now testing materials to build a new type of laser capable of withstanding intense heat and extreme conditions.