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The Optics Whisperer: Master Optician Hones His Art at LLNL

Our new #LabSpotlight series profiles standout individuals at the National Labs. The latest installment features Peter Thelin, an optics specialist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This post originally appeared on LLNL.gov.

Growing up in a household of artists and engineers, Peter Thelin was destined for a career in which art meets science. For him, art has come in the form of manipulating the shapes, sizes and qualities of optics, from telescopes to microscope lenses. We spoke with him about what it’s like to be one of the few remaining practitioners of hand-polishing optics.

“Art is anything you put your mind to,” says Thelin, who has been perfecting his hand-polishing skills for more than 30 years. His career began in 1978, hand-polishing optics at Zygo Corporation in Middlefield, Connecticut, while pursuing a passion for cartooning and painting. He soon realized that polishing optics, too, was a form of art, and he looked to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as the epicenter of cutting-edge technologies. His dream of working at the Laboratory came true in December of 1988, and Thelin has been a master optician at the Lab ever since.

Early on, Thelin collaborated on several key projects, including the NOVA laser, which is the predecessor to the National Ignition Facility and is still the flagship laser at the Lab. He worked closely over a span of 15 years on a large number of advanced lasers, including the high-repetition-rate Mercury Laser project. He has won several R&D100 awards, known as the “Oscars of Invention,” as a result of his many critical contributions to Lab optics over the years.

These projects required testing of new material samples, which often involves such challenges as the tiny size of the sample (some as small as 20 microns), their sensitivity to water and common polishing compounds and their extremely delicate nature, which makes them prone to stress fractures. Thelin’s expertise and valuable feedback were crucial to the success of many projects involving these exotic materials. His delicate touch enabled him to develop processes that allow him to work with the fragile crystals.

Thelin notes that few people today still do what he does, and that hand polishing optics is a curiosity and a topic of discussion at trade shows and among his peers, who always are eager to learn what materials he’s working with.

“For many one-of-a-kind jobs, your hands are the fixtures holding the part,” Thelin says as he explains the evolution of computer-controlled polishing machines in the industry. While manufacturing processes have changed over the years and automation has largely replaced the traditional craftsman-style optician, “it’s time-consuming to write programs for a machine to do work for research,” Thelin says.

The work being done at the Lab is unique and specialized, and requires the hands-on experience Thelin enjoys so much. He hadn’t previously encountered many of the unusual materials the Lab’s Optic Shop allows him to work with -- materials used only here. His shop offers challenges every day with a variety of unique and intriguing projects. He says the Lab’s constant demand keeps him engaged.

Asked about his legacy, Thelin said, “I hope the optical shop keeps going another 50 years and the art behind the optics continues.” His advice to young and upcoming opticians? “Try to determine if your job can become automated. The closer you get to the creative process, the less chance of that happening.”

When not in his shop, Thelin enjoys staying artistic with painting, working on cars, sailing and testing his strong ping-pong skills.