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Honorary Fellows: Professor Wilson Sibbett

University of St Andrews

For his pioneering research in optics and outstanding contributions to the physics community

Professor Wilson Sibbett studied physics at Queen’s University Belfast and graduated in 1970, before gaining a PhD in laser physics in 1973. Following a period as a research fellow and lecturer at Imperial College London, he reached readership level before moving in 1985 to St Andrews University as the Professor of Natural Philosophy and head of the physics department. From 1988 to 1994 he was head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, then director of research and then Wardlaw Professor of Physics from 1997.

Sibbett has conducted significant research on ultrashort pulse laser science and technology. His work on streak cameras was the first to demonstrate the technique of subpicosecond chronoscopy, achieved by synchronous scanning of streak cameras such that they function as oscilloscopes. This was followed by his pioneering work on coupled-cavity or additive-pulse mode-locking. In 1989 Sibbett’s group developed the technique of Kerr-lens mode-locking, which allows the generation of pulses of light with a duration of just a few femtoseconds, opening up a new field of study – ultrafast optics. This technique has enabled the commercialisation of subpicosecond pulse lasers of wide tuning range, as well as giving access to a completely new class of phenomena, such as the measurement of electron movements in an atom.

He has also exploited the advantages of diode-pumped solid-state lasers in the field of nonlinear optics for frequency conversion by demonstration of the world’s first all-solid-state optical parametric oscillator. These contributions have added, and continue to add, significantly to the power of coherent optical techniques in physical investigation.

Sibbett was the director of a major EPSRC-funded interdisciplinary research collaboration (Ultrafast Photonics Collaboration) where the primary objective was to develop femtosecond datacomms networks that might ultimately offer data transfer speeds up 100Tb/s. More recently, his other research interests encompass applications in biophotonics and medical photonics where a range of novel laser configurations are being designed for specific light-matter interactions.

In 2001, Sibbett was appointed to chair the Scottish Science Advisory Committee – making him Scotland’s first ever chief adviser on science – by the then Scottish Executive. This independent committee is a high-powered body that was formed, under the auspices of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as part of the Science Strategy for Scotland. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1997 and awarded its Rumford Medal in 2000. He received the prestigious Rank Prize for Optoelectronics in 2007 and the Charles Hard Townes Award from the Optical Society of America in 2011. He was awarded a CBE in 2001.