Nicolaas Bloembergen – Nobel Prize Winning Physicist

July 25, 2006
Posted in interviews
July 25, 2006 brett

Nicolaas Bloembergen is one very smart man. In his little 86 year old, 5’ 5” frame, he articulately explained, in a Dutch accent, how he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1981 for his work with non-linear optics and lasers. He talked about other technologies such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and nuclear spin relaxation mechanisms with such simplicity and ease that it immediately made me wish I had better prepared for the interview. But how could I? This guy is a natural-born genius!

Nicolaas has helped develop a technology (NMR) that led to the development of MRI’s. On his ‘wall of fame’ in the Optical Sciences Building at the University of Arizona, there is an article referencing his “creation” of the non-linear optics field. This research was instrumental in developing fiber optic communications, in other words, the internet. His work with masers was later used in proving the Big Bang theory by detecting a “cosmic background.” This background is essentially a curtain of residual radiation from the Big Bang. Without Nicolaas’ maser, this astonishing discovery would never have been made.

Being an accounting student and receiving a “D” in the only science class I ever took, I was in complete amazement by his accomplishments. Even though I didn’t understand most of it. In preparation for the interview, I read some of his Nobel Prize speech, which began with him talking about “masers and lasers.” At the time, I thought it was just a catch phrase he used to capture the audience.

In the interview, I was taken back with the knowledge that he possessed and the accomplishments that he was a part of. After hearing about the Big Bang, MRI’s and the Internet, some of the biggest breakthroughs in the 20th century, I asked him about where technology was headed in the future. The conversation went something like this:

PTP: “So, can you kind of foresee, like, the future? Can you see where science and technology are headed?” (In other words: Are you God?)

NB: “Well, I uh” (thinking the question over) No. I can’t but I wish I could.” (Translation: No, I am not God.)

Nicolaas’ story is one of a Dutch immigrant who came to America and has contributed to some of the largest breakthroughs of modern times.

Born in 1920 Nicolass went to school in Utrecht and was the valedictorian at his high school. It was in his senior year that he decided he would study physics at the university level. In 1938, he enrolled at the University of Utrecht and majored in physics because it presented the biggest challenge to him. He is self-admittedly the type of person that welcomes challenges.

In 1939 World War II started and in the middle of 1943 the Nazis overran the Netherlands. Consequently, all of the country’s universities were closed. Fortunately for him, a few weeks previous he passed his final qualifying exam for his doctorate degree. This meant that he was no longer a student. He also avoided the Nazi mandated declaration of loyalty that students at the time had to sign. If they did not sign the document, they would be taken prisoner and forced to work as laborers in concentration camps.

He became a member of the fire brigade for a year, which allowed him to show his face without fear of the Germans. In 1944 he was forced to go underground to hide from the Germans until 1945. While in hiding he and his family survived off of tulip bulbs. They would boil them for six hours until they were nutritious enough for human consumption.

At this time he also read by the light of a storm lamp, which ran on heating oil. The Nazis had taken all of their kerosene. The lamp needed cleaning every twenty minutes because of the oil. It was by this dim lit fixture that Nicolaas taught himself quantum mechanics. Pretty amazing!

When asked how this experience shaped him today, Nicolaas said that more than anything it taught him to be steadfast and not give up or be discouraged.

In May of 1945, the situation in Europe was just as grim. Nicolaas longed to continue to do research physics. But where? On the advice of his older brother, he applied to three American universities including Harvard, UC Berkeley, and the University of Chicago.

He never heard back from Chicago and still holds a grudge against them to this day. He says that he has always responded to mail, no matter what, and thinks that everyone should do so as well. UC Berkeley said that they could not accept international students while the war was going on. This came as a shock to Nicolaas because he thought the war was almost over. He proved to be right, when two weeks later the A-Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Around the same time, he heard back from Harvard, who was the only school willing to take a chance on him. In early 1946, Nicolaas was headed for the United States.

He joined an elite group of people there and started working as a research assistant to professor Purcell. Purcell had just discovered nuclear magnetic resonance in condensed matter. This technology, also known as NMR, is used to study the molecular structure of pure materials as well as the composition of liquids. The discovery was notable enough to earn Purcell a Noble Prize in 1952. Nicolaas wrote his thesis on NMR, and his input is a part of one of the most cited physics papers in science, commonly known as BPP.

In the summer of 1947, a visiting professor by the name of C.J. Gorter invited Nicolaas to a postdoctoral position at Leiden, where he would earn his PhD. There he developed the nuclear spin relaxation mechanism, an accomplishment he says he values more than the Nobel Prize in Physics.

He returned to Harvard in 1949 and started working as a teacher. He remained there until June of 1990, when he was forced to retire because of school policy regarding age limitations. Despite Harvard’s policy, at 86 and at the University of Arizona, Nicolaas is jas articulate and on top of his game as anyone I’ve ever met.

I asked him about his Nobel Prize, and how it felt to win. He said that it didn’t make a difference really. The only difference it made in his life is that he learned how to say no because he was receiving all types of dinner invitations. I was thankful that he didn’t implement what he had learned towards our interview invitation.

In conclusion, Nicolaas is a man that lived through the largest-scale war in human history by living underground. He migrated to the United States, struggled through a language barrier and economic limitations. He has also contributed to society in ways none of us could ever imagine.

We asked for his advice regarding making decisions in life. His answer was put in a simplistic, matter of fact tone.

“Do what you want to do. Don’t give up and if professors argue against you, don’t give up. You have to be strong-willed and passionate about what you want, and if you are passionate about it, you are likely to succeed. Champions are not born, they are bred. Chess grand masters do it because they are motivated and they train to make brain circuits to help them succeed. If you train persistently, you persevere. In every experiment, it is 99% sweat, and 1% ingenuity.”


We are in his office at the University of Arizona.  The building is new- it has a whole wing of accomplishments dedicated to Nicolaas.  He is sharp in intelligence and proud in demeanor at 86 years old and about 5 foot 5 in height. 

How did your passion develop for science in your childhood years?

I eventually chose physics when I was a senior in high school.  I went to a Latin school.  I’m a native Dutch born and I went to a Latin School in Utrecht.  That was in ’38. I was the valedictorian.  I already decided I would enter university and study physics. 

As you know the Dutch European schools at that time were much further than the high schools here.  They included all the general education, and after that you could enter university and immediately specialize in a field.  You didn’t need a broad distribution of courses anymore.

So why did I decide in 1938 to enter the University of Utrecht?  I was a major in physics.  I found it the most challenging field.  I liked challenges and found it the most difficult.  I still feel that physics is one of the more difficult branches of human enterprise.  But that fascinated me.

Of course, looking back now, I’m glad that I made that decision.  But it wasn’t easy.  As you know, World War II started in 1939.  In 1940 the Germans overran my country of Holland.  Just before the Germans overran all the universities in 1943, a few weeks before that I passed my final qualifying exams for the doctorate.  That was a fairly fortunate thing for me.  Because once you had passed the doctorate qualifying exam, you were legally not a student anymore.  For the interpretation of the German laws. 

They required all students sign a declaration of loyalty or else they would be taken as forced laborists to Germany.  Not the concentration camps, of course if they were Jewish they were sent to horrible places like Ostrich and so on, but the non-Jews either signed the declaration of loyalty to stay.  But very few did that because they were no universities anymore after the Germans formally closed them.  Most didn’t sign the declaration of loyalty.  Many of my friends were shipped to Germany for a couple of years.

There was always the possibility to go underground and hide as well.  But in Holland, sometimes it was densely populated with no mountains or forest, so that was no very easy to survive in the underground organization.  But I was spared this difficult this difficult dilemma by having passed the qualifying doctoral exam.  I was a research position at the university, which didn’t do much anymore because everything was in shambles.  There was no new equipment and no money.  But I became a member of the fire brigade at the university.  That was in my identification permit.  So I could show my face among the men my age. 

Men 18-50 were liable to be picked up at random in the last year of the war.  I had to hide underground in the winter during the last year of the war.  1944-’45.  But I survived.  In May ’45, the situation was pretty grim because the country was in ruins. 

At the advice of an older brother, I wrote to three American universities.  All the European countries were all in shambles.  There wasn’t much possibility there.  Switzerland, possibly.  I wrote to three American universities.  I made my choice based on the scientific publications in the Physic Review.  But the most Physic Review I had was from September 1939.  Because clearly no American scientific publications were available under German rule.  Some scientists clearly had them, but we didn’t. 

In the library, the latest Physic Reviews were from 1939 (laughs).  I looked at those and found three places.  I made pretty good choices.  One was UC Berkeley.  Second one was University of Chicago.  The third one was Harvard University.  How did I end up at Harvard?  University of Chicago never answered my letter.  That taught me that you should always answer your mail!  Even if it is very brief.  You have to respond.  Chicago never answered my mail so I didn’t go to Chicago.

Berkeley wrote me a letter that caught me by complete surprise.  This was early July 1945.  V-E Day was May 10th.  The capture of European forces and of course, Holland was liberated.  Everyone said the war was over.  We didn’t think about the Pacific.  This letter from Berkeley said they’d love to consider me for scientific research, but as long as the war was on, they couldn’t admit any non-citizens.  No non-Americans citizens.  That suddenly dawned on me that the war wasn’t over (laughs).  There was this very big fight in the Pacific.  Two weeks later, the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Then of course, every one knew the war was still going on.

So Harvard answered and told me to send some more documents and letters of references.  I was admitted as a graduate student at Harvard.  I came in early ’46.  Together, there were a lot of bright, young people who either served in laboratories or in the armed forces.  They started studying again in the spring term of ’46.  But I was ahead of them because I had passed my qualifying exams.  So I got a research position with Professor Purcell, who had just discovered nuclear magnetic resonance in condensed matter. 

I was his first PhD student.  He was still busy writing at the MIT radiation lab for a massive 24 volume thing that explained all the technology that was so instrumental in nuclear energy and nuclear bombs.  So I had built equipment for nuclear magnetic resonance.  And in a year and a half, I had enough to write a thesis.  They said, ‘Why don’t you get your PhD?’  I said, ‘I don’t have any more money.  And I would have to pass more exams.’ 

In the summer of ’47, it was a year and a half, there was a Dutch professor who visiting a professor at Harvard.  He just missed out on nuclear magnetic resonance.  He was the first who suggested it and tried experimentally and didn’t quite succeed.  Partially because of the war circumstance in Holland.  But Harvard was very interested in his work all the time.  Soon after the war they offered him to come over.  He offered me a research position in Liden. That’s where I got my PhD.  But then I came back to Harvard in ’49 as a society fellow.

So in every body’s life there are good times and bad times.  During the war I was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time in the Netherlands.  Then after the war, I was in the right place at the right time at Harvard University where there was lots of physic activity blossoming up with the wartime efforts.  So that was very exciting. 

How do you think the war shaped how you are today? 

You have to be steadfast.  Don’t give up.  You shouldn’t be discouraged. 

The war time was awful.  I ate tulip bulbs just to have something in my stomach.  No nutritional value whatsoever.  And you had to boil them for six hours.  Then they taste bitter and you have no food.  So at least you have something in your stomach. 

I read a book on quantum mechanics by the light of a kerosene lamp.  But you didn’t have kerosene.  You had a few quarts of number two heating oil left.  The Germans had taken the house, so we saved a few quarts of number two heating oil.  You put that in the kerosene lamp and it burns and you get soot.  Every fifteen minutes I had to clean the lamp and clean the wick.  But that’s how I learned quantum mechanics.  By myself (laughs).

What I’m saying is you have to be steadfast and fight through difficult times.  There will be an opportunity and everything blossoms up.

How is that transition going from Europe where everything was in shambles to America and going to Harvard?

It was very exciting of course.  All these courses on advanced theory.  At Harvard, there was Puminan Shwinger (so not right), who got the Nobel Prize, and Norman Ramsey on the faculty in ’46-’47.  There was Professor Black who later got the Nobel Prize.  So it was at the right place.  Very exciting time.

What would you consider to be your proudest accomplishment in your career and in your research?

There are two things.  One there was a nuclear magnetic relaxation.  The data in my thesis had to do with so called relaxation times in T1 and T2 with nuclear spins, protons, water, and acre solutions.  It related to the basis of MRI. 

Leader Purcell, my professor, he was also 60 or 70 years old.  He didn’t forsee any applications in ’46-’47.  He said so even in public once.  We certainly had no inkling at all that our work would eventually lead to MRI.  That took an awful lot of conserved scientific effort of many other individuals.  That became a lot of standard diagnostic techniques in medicine.  But only in the last 25 years.  There’s this whole book on MRI. 

But we had no idea.  You never know of these implications.  It’s always fascinated me. 

My other field was optics and masers.  There again, there are so many applications.  Lasers have changed considerable segments of our society.  The most pervasive one is optical fiber communications throughout the world.  All they do with the internet now is transmit data using optical fibers (laughs).  So that was very exciting.  But then again, I never thought of optical fiber communication.  But my work I did on the properties of matter and high density, which you would get by focusing laser beams and so on, you get new optical properties, which is called the field of non-linear optics.  That field is important in analyzing what happens with these optical fibers and so on.  You have to know non linear optics to make optical fiber communication possible. 

I was always excited about being a consultant to the industry.  Not only because it brought in some money to amplify the low salary of beginning faculty members, but it also was a stimulus.  You get new perspectives on what you are doing and where it might lead. 

In regards to being a consultant, I read that you did some work with the U.S. Defense Department?  What was one of the coolest projects you worked on over there?

Well, I was a consultant for the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the fifties.  That was just pursuing applications of magnetic resonance and building new devices for microwave technology.  And of course the military were very interested in the three level maser that I invented.  Because that was in a few years used with distant early radar stretching all across North Canada to look for incoming planes from the Soviet Union.

I was interested because you could also look at the hydrogen hypofine stretcher line.  That so called famous 21 centimeter line.  That would be discovered by Purcell and a graduate student in ’51.  That was the first specter line to extraterrestrial matter.  Very important in astronomy in looking at the structure of our galaxy. 

But you needed very good low noise receivers and the maser would improve those technologies.

And then, something that I clearly didn’t forsee, was that the same maser was used by Pencias and Wilson to detect the 3 degree cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang.  That was successful because of the maser.

So you see a whole network of possibilities by interacting with colleagues and students.  You see all this interconnection.  Very exciting.

Does it fascinate you to see where technology is going today? 

Everytime you read something in the papers or in physics today, it’s fascinating stuff. 

Can you kind of forsee, like, the future?  Do you know where everything is headed?

Well, I…no.  I can’t.  I wish I could.  It’s so unexpected.  In thirty years before MRI and not an inkling that it would come.  Nor optical fiber communication.  It’s the synergism of many, many people.  Now of course there are large efforts in nano technology.  People are now excited about biophysics.  I think some of the most exciting things will happen in applications of physical principles to biology. 

Our whole body functions on nano devices and individual molecule proteins and so on.  And how they interact and how you can label them.

Are you still in the research field today?

Look.  I’m 86.  I just have an office to try and keep in touch and read a few physic journals and talk to occasional visitors.  I do my email, which I still get some.  I don’t have email at home.  I’m almost non-alphabetic in computer science (laughs).  But I hardly have a computer at home.  And I get some scientific mail too.  So I come in twice a week.

So why the University of Arizona?

I’m married, you see.  My wife was born in Indonesia, when it was a Dutch colony.  She did many things.  She didn’t like Holland’s climate and she didn’t like Holland either because she didn’t grow up there.  Life in Indonesia was much more like the United States.  Much more freedom with production constraints and so on.  She didn’t like the Dutch confinements. 

We got married in the United States.  We lived for forty years in Massachusetts.  She didn’t like the cold winters and the darkness (laughs).  It gets dark at 3pm in November and December.  So I promised her that we would go to warmer places after I retired. 

I retired when I was 70.  I had to.  It was under the old rules.  Nowadays you don’t have to retire anymore.  No discrimination of age.  But I had to.  I was under the old scheme.  I officially retired when I was 70 in 1990 from Harvard University.  But I stayed there and kept an office.  So I stayed another ten years.  But then we decided she could call on where we wanted to live.  She was smart enough to realize that we wouldn’t be happy in a place where there was no optics or no science.  So we looked at Florida.  There’s a very good optical science center called Creole Center for Research and Electoral Optics and Lasers.  University of Central Florida in Orlando.  I spent several months there.  Looked it over.  Didn’t quite like it as much.  In 1995, we looked here already.  I came here for several months.  We had some colleagues of course.  She had some music friends. So we decided to move to Tucson.  We moved 5 ½ years ago.

Do you like it?

She is very happy here.  I like it except for the summers (laughs).

How does it feel to win a Nobel Prize and be recognized for your accomplishments?

Well, I used to say