Campus & Community

Roy Jay Glauber, 93

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Memorial Minute — Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At a meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences on May 2, 2023, the following tribute to the life and service of the late Roy Jay Glauber was spread upon the permanent records of the Faculty.

Roy Jay Glauber was widely respected in the world of physics for his seminal work in three separate research areas: nuclear scattering (Glauber approximation), statistical physics (Glauber dynamics), and his establishment of the foundation for quantum optics (for which he won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics).

Glauber was born on Sept. 1, 1925, into an unconventional family.  When he was two, his family left New York to live in an automobile so that Glauber’s father, a traveling salesman, could work throughout the Midwest.  Glauber’s mother, trained as an elementary school teacher, determinedly made Glauber’s nomadic life as instructive as possible.  Their travels ended with the birth of Glauber’s sister in 1931, when the family settled in New York.  An astronomy book and a visit to the Hayden Planetarium converted Glauber into a science enthusiast, and he began to build scientific instruments.  The American Institute of the City of New York gave him the opportunity to give his first scientific talk when he was only 12 years old.

In 1938, Glauber enrolled as a freshman at the newly opened Bronx High School of Science.  He exhibited a six-inch reflecting telescope fashioned with a diffraction grating as a dispersion element at the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940 and gave an invited talk in 1941 about the photographs he had taken with it at a conference entitled “To-morrow’s Scientists” of the New York Electrical Society.  While in high school he also taught himself elementary calculus, mastering enough to skip several math courses in college.

Glauber enrolled at Harvard in 1941 at the age of 16 with a scholarship after having been encouraged to apply by an alumnus.  His freshman year was punctuated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II.  The mobilization of American resources required many faculty to depart for war work.  Glauber absorbed as many physics courses as possible by the time he turned 18, the recently lowered draft age.  He registered via the National Roster of Scientific Personnel for military service and was recruited in October 1943 for the Manhattan Project.  He arrived in Los Alamos a few months after the laboratory had been created and worked alongside luminaries such as John von Neumann, Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, and Robert Oppenheimer, the director.  During his time at Los Alamos (1943–1946), Glauber worked on neutron diffusion, key to finding the critical mass of fissionable nuclei.

In 2016, at the meeting of Nobel laureates at Lindau, Germany, Glauber was asked whether he believed that atomic weapons should be reduced.  He answered, “Absolute zero is the only thing, I think, that makes any sense.”

Upon returning to Harvard in 1946, Glauber wasted no time: he took the remaining required undergraduate and physics graduate courses and started his Ph.D. research.  He was formally supervised by Julian Schwinger but actually worked alone.  The experience shaped his perspectives and helped him develop skills that he applied to his later work in quantum optics.  He received a postdoctoral appointment (1950–51) at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton from Robert Oppenheimer, its director since 1947.  This stay was interrupted by several months spent with Wolfgang Pauli at ETH Zurich and was followed by a lectureship at the California Institute of Technology in 1951–52.  Glauber returned to Harvard in late 1953 as a lecturer and was appointed Assistant Professor in 1954, Associate Professor in 1956, and Professor of Physics in 1962, at age 37.  In 1976, he became Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard.

Glauber was a Fellow of the American Physical Society (1972) and the Optical Society of America (1985), a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1988), and a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (1997).  He served on the National Advisory Board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Glauber received many honors for his research, including the Albert A. Michelson Medal from the Franklin Institute (1985), the Max Born Award from the Optical Society of America (1985), the Humboldt Research Award (1989), the Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics from the American Physical Society (1996), and the Medalla de Oro of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (2008).

Following up on his thesis work, Glauber investigated the radiation of photons by classical electric currents and found, in 1951, that the photons produced obey the Poisson distribution, i.e., are statistically independent of one another.  He was thus well prepared to enter discussions about the then-puzzling Hanbury Brown–Twiss effect in the 1950s and the workings of the laser in 1961.

Glauber’s contributions to nuclear scattering, statistical physics, and, especially, quantum optics — his brainchild — created a legacy that permeates contemporary physics.  His concept of optical coherence has provided a framework for describing light and has fueled a quantum renaissance.  His work has been crucial to observing the violation of Bell’s inequalities and to advancing quantum information science, quantum measurement, photon entanglement, and teleportation.

The foundations of quantum optics, to which Glauber contributed so broadly, have had unexpected payoffs.  The detection of gravitational waves relies on squeezed states of light.  Quantum teleportation is being used for secure communications.  Glauber’s contributions to quantum optics have nurtured burgeoning areas of quantum science and engineering at Harvard and around the world.

Glauber was a dedicated teacher of high school, college, and graduate students.  His pedagogical gifts are reflected in his lucid papers that read as if they were written yesterday.

Roy Glauber raised two children as a single parent. In his Nobel biography, he noted that “raising those children and seeing them succeed was not an experience I would trade for the missing papers or any sort of recognition.”

Respectfully submitted,

Bretislav Friedrich
Arthur Jaffe
Daniel Kleppner (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Mikhail Lukin
John Doyle, Chair

Portions of this Minute were previously submitted by Bretislav Friedrich, Daniel Kleppner, and Dudley Herschbach, “About Roy Glauber,” Natural Sciences, April 10, 2023,