Peter Pitirimovich Sorokin

Peter Pitirimovich Sorokin, 84, of South Salem, NY, passed away on Thursday, September 24. He is mourned by his wife of nearly 38 years, Anita; their children Elena and Paul; and his brother, Sergei.

Peter was born on July 10, 1931, in Boston, MA, the son of Elena Baratinskaya Sorokin and Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin. He grew up in Winchester, MA and attended Winchester High School and Harvard University. He received a B.A. in 1952, and a Ph.D. in Applied Physics in 1958, also from Harvard.

Peter was a laser pioneer. For 43 years, he worked as a physicist at International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), mostly at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY. With his colleagues, he invented the world’s second and third lasers. Another notable achievement was the co-invention of the dye laser, which is used in many applications. For these and other discoveries, Peter received the Albert A. Michelson Medal in 1974 from the Franklin Institute, the Comstock Prize in Physics in 1983 shared with Theodor W. Hansch from the National Academy of Sciences, the Harvey Prize in 1984 from Israel’s Technion University, and the inaugural Arthur L. Schawlow Prize in Laser Science in 1991 from the American Physical Society. A fellow of the American Physical Society and the Optical Society of America, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. He was also an IBM Fellow, the company’s highest technical honor, from 1968 until his retirement in 2000. He never dwelled on these distinctions, and in fact preferred to discuss his latest area of scientific inquiry.

In retirement, Peter shifted his focus to the stars. He pursued a question in astrophysics: why is light from some very bright stars absorbed at specific wavelengths? Is it due to absorption by particles in interstellar dust, as many astronomers have speculated, or is it due, as Peter’s detailed theory explains, to laser-like effects produced under certain conditions by hydrogen, the most common element in the universe? Peter continued to research and publish his theory about hydrogen in space until shortly before his death. He published his most recent paper, “Evidence of H2 Four-Wave Mixing in 2175 Å “bump” stars” (Optics Communications, 2013). Peter loved to discuss his work, and anybody who knew him remembers his enthusiasm for research, his warmth, and his originality.

Aside from his work, Peter loved spending time outdoors. He walked and hiked whenever he could, whether in South Salem during the 21 years he lived there, or on mountain trails throughout the Northeast. He also loved spending summers at the family cabin in Canada, and could adeptly cut the grass there using a traditional scythe. He enjoyed listening to classical music. Peter had a whimsical sense of humor and laughed easily. He delighted in encouraging his family in all their intellectual and creative pursuits. He was a gentle, generous, highly principled person, and a loving husband, father, and brother.

Friends will be received Wednesday, September 30, 2015 from 5 to 7 PM at Kane Funeral Home; 25 Catoonah Street, Ridgefield, CT. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Doctors Without Borders or Save The Children.

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