Technology Tribute
by Bruce J Tromberg, Ph.D., Director

Parallel Words

In his book Imagined Worlds, the great physicist Freeman Dyson wrote, "New directions in science are launched by new tools much more often that by new concepts." It seems Dyson had Dr. Arnold Beckman in mind when he made this insightful observation. As one of the world's most accomplished and influential inventors of new tools for scientific research, Dr. Beckman inspired a legacy that will long live on at the Beckman Laser Institute.

Dr. Beckman also provided us with many quotable observations, and one in particular captures the essence of the connection between his life's work as a scientist and inventor and the core mission of the five Beckman Institutes as UCI, Caltech, University of Illinois, Stanford, and City of Hope. In his straightforward style, Dr. Beckman observed, "There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence."

This adage provides the philosophical foundation for all of the Beckman Institutes, and it stands as the key thread of connection between Dr. Beckman and the Beckman Laser Institute. It is not an accident that Dr. Beckman was personally involved as co-founder, along with Dr. Berns, of the BLI - the first of all the Beckman Institutes. His role in our center was special, a reflection of his lifelong passion for invention and inspiration that remains as palpable today as it was 25 years ago when Dr. Beckman first visited Dr. Berns' laser microbeam lab in Steinhaus Hall.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Beckman advanced a series of technologies that were based on his own unique ideas and vision as a scientist. Many of these are famously familiar examples: the first pH meter using new vacuum tube technology that was capable of reliably and stably amplifying weak electrical currents; the first precision spectrophotometers, the DU and IR series, that gave scientists access to teh broadband spectrophotometric measurements ranging from the ultraviolet to the infrared; the first hand-held oxygen analyzers, radiation dosimeters, micrometers, and portable gas analyzers.

Although Dr. Beckman was Caltech's "Professor Beckman" in the early '30s when he conceived of his first high impact device, the pH meter, these new concepts clearly needed an original framework, an independent structure to nurture their growth and stimulate their success. To accomplish this, Dr. Beckman formed the "National Technical Laboratories" in a garage in Pasadena which several years alter evolved into Beckman Instruments.

In some ways, the Beckman Laser Institute is like that garage in Pasadena. We began with the promise of a new technology, pioneered by Dr. Berns, based on a new concept: laser microbeams. In order to support the growth and impact of these tools, a new structure was needed, and the Beckman Laser Institute was born. Ironically, it is difficult to imagine a multidisciplinary center such as ours thriving in a traditional academic environment.

Starting essentially as an extension of Dr. Berns' lab with a few students and postdoctoral fellows, BLI has grown dramatically over 18 years of operation. We have welcomed an incredible group of inventive scientists and engineers who have expanded the use of lasers and optics in biology and medicine, developing new tools and technologies at an extraordinary pace. Today, we have 13 faculty members and approximately 150 affiliated scientists, fellows, students and staff with an annual budget of more that $10 million. And, much like Dr. Beckman's original passion, our mission involves developing state-of-the-art tools for scientific research.

But the connection runs even deeper than that. BLI scientists work on problems that are remarkably similar to the concepts that Dr. Beckman himself pioneered. Clearly, his greatest passion was at the interface between biological and physical sciences. This is precisely where the Beckman Laser Institute is today, thriving in this great intersection and expanding the common link between Dr. Beckman's world and the world of BLI.

Much like Dr. Beckman's pH meter, Dr. Berns' laser microbeam technology was the first platform: informing us of laser interactions with single cells, creating opportunities for subsequent tool development, and stimulating tremendous activity in basic research throughout the world. With microbeams as our foundation, BLI was established to nurture the growth of new tools to understand and manipulate laser interactions with biological tissues. And BLI's "dynamic cooling technologies" have dramatically accelerated this process, providing tools that have become among the most successful in the UC system. In fact, Dynamic Cooling Technology is now widely available in nearly 8,000 therapeutic lasers throughout the world.

And the parallels continue...in the 1940s, Dr. Beckman made broadband UV/Vis/IR spectroscopy accessible to teh scientific community. BLI has pioneered similar technology from broadband spectroscopy and imaging in turbid media, including biological tissues. Even some of the applications are connected: Dr. Beckman's oxygen analyzer was used in the neonatal intensive care unit to assess incubator oxygen levels and prevent neovascularization in the eye that could lead to blindness. BLI's scientists have developed methods for measuring oxygen in the tissues of neonates and for acquiring high resolution images of blood flow and vessel formation in the retina.

He knew that with tenacity and imagination, from modest beginnings sprang endless possibilities. As Dr. Beckman was well known to say, "Everything in moderation, including moderation itself." Our connection with Dr. Beckman and his vision is further enhanced by the formation of new campus structures, such as the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and teh Department of Biomedical Engineering, which benefit greatly from the resources of the Beckman Laser Institute. The scientists, fellows and students of BLI, continue to embrace his spirit, relentlessly introducing new tools for discovery based on lasers and optics into our campus and throughout the world.

Ultimately, we have tried to remain true to Dr. Beckman's legacy. The scientists, fellows, students, and staff of the Beckman Laser Institute will be forever thankful to Dr. Beckman's imagination and inspiration, for the height of his expectations and the depth of his passion.