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MIT Professor Hermann Haus dies at 77; Was pioneer in optical communications

Hermann Haus
Hermann Haus

Hermann Anton Haus, an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the world's leading authorities on optical communications, died Wednesday night, May 21.

Haus suffered a heart attack after arriving home in Lexington from his regular, 15-mile commute by bicycle from MIT in Cambridge. He was 77 years old.

Haus led research and taught at MIT for nearly a half-century, and inspired generations of new thinkers in a field that led to successive revolutions in communications. He received the National Medal of Science from President Clinton in 1995 for his research and his teaching, and was one of the few engineers in the country to become a member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences.

"Hermann Haus was one of the great scientist-engineers who helped to define MIT," MIT President Charles M. Vest said. "His pathbreaking work in quantum optics spanned from basic physics to engineering systems. He was a warm and inspiring teacher and colleague."

Haus was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in the former Yugoslavia, on Aug. 8, 1925. His mother was Helene Hynek. His father, Otto Maximilian, was a doctor and tuberculosis specialist. Haus' grandfather, Anton von Haus, was the commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian naval fleet under Emperor Franz Joseph during World War I.

Haus studied Latin and Greek at the Classic Gymnasium in Ljubljana as well as French and Serbian, but his Austrian family spoke German at home. When Tito's Communist-backed forces expelled the German-speaking population shortly after the end of World War II, Haus and his mother were taken from their home in the middle of the night of Dec. 17, 1945, and shipped by rail to Austria with other refugees.

The experience of the Communist takeover of Slovenia left Haus with two formative experiences. Conscripted to work in a factory as a machinist while still in his teens, he became fascinated with electricity and its properties, which eventually led to his career in electrical engineering. He would later recall that he met a chemist on the refugee train who had lost a lifetime's worth of notes. At that point he said he realized that "all that you can ever take with you are the equations that you have in your head," inspiring his love for the elegant simplicity of quantum mechanics.

Once relocated in Austria, Haus studied at the Technical University of Graz and the University of Vienna. Knowing that opportunities were limited, he wrote a letter to General Mark Clark, who had been the post-war commander of U.S. forces in Austria, seeking to study in the U.S. He came to the U.S. in 1948, and earned his B.S. from Union College in 1949 and the M.S. in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1951.

Haus received the Sc.D. from MIT in 1954, the same year he joined the faculty as an assistant professor. He became an associate professor in 1958 and a full professor in 1962. He was named an Institute Professor in 1986.

Haus' research and teaching ranged from fundamental investigations of quantum uncertainty as manifested in optical communications to the practical generation of ultra-short optical pulses (100,000 times shorter than a billionth of a second). Ultra-short laser pulses find applications in eye surgery, medical imaging and precision clocks, as well as in ultrafast instrumentation and fiber-optic communications. In 1994, the Optical Society of America recognized Dr. Haus' contributions with its Frederic Ives Medal, the society's highest award.

The fiber-optic undersea cables that provide rapid voice and data communications among the United States, Europe and Asia are the result of the pioneering investigations of Haus and fellow researchers at AT&T Bell Laboratories and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Research Laboratories. They helped develop "soliton" methods of transmission that have created new possibilities for transmitting voice and data signals across an ocean without distortion.

Haus authored or co-authored five books and published nearly 300 articles and presented his work at virtually every major conference and symposium on laser and quantum electronics and quantum optics around the world.

He was a visiting professor or consultant at a number of corporations, universities and laboratories, including Raytheon Corp., Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Cambridge University, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Research Laboratories, Bell Communications Laboratories, Technische Universit������t in Vienna, Tokyo Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley.

He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, and the Optical Society of America. He received Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships and several honorary doctorate degrees, including an honorary degree from the University of Vienna, and the Austrian government's Wittgenstein Prize, awarded for outstanding contributions to humanity. He was selected by his MIT colleagues for the 1982-83 James R. Killian Faculty Achievement Award, one of the highest honors that the MIT faculty bestows.

Haus is survived by his wife of 50 years, Eleanor (Laggis); four children and their spouses--William Haus and his wife Patti, of Maui, Hawaii; Stephen, of Honolulu, Hawaii; Cristina Haus and Paolo Alimonti, of Irvington, N.Y.; Mary Haus and Willard Holmes of New York City--four grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, May 27, at the Church of Our Redeemer, 6 Meriam St., Lexington. A wake will be held the night before at Douglass Funeral Home, 51 Worthen Road, Lexington, from 5 to 7 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to MIT, Hermann Haus Fund, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307, or the Church of Our Redeemer.

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