From white elephant to Nobel Prize: Dennis Gabor's wavefront reconstruction

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Dennis Gabor devised a new concept for optical imaging in 1947 that went by a variety of names over the following decade: holoscopy, wavefront reconstruction, interference microscopy, diffraction microscopy and Gaboroscopy. A well-connected and creative research engineer, Gabor worked actively to publicize and exploit his concept, but the scheme failed to capture the interest of many researchers. Gabor’s theory was repeatedly deemed unintuitive and baffling; the technique was appraised by his contemporaries to be of dubious practicality and, at best, constrained to a narrow branch of science. By the late 1950s, Gabor’s subject had been assessed by its handful of practitioners to be a white elephant. Nevertheless, the concept was later rehabilitated by the research of Emmett Leith and Juris Upatnieks at the University of Michigan, and Yury Denisyuk at the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad. What had been judged a failure was recast as a success: evaluations of Gabor’s work were transformed during the 1960s, when it was represented as the foundation on which to construct the new and distinctly different subject of holography, a re-evaluation that gained the Nobel Prize for Physics for Gabor alone in 1971. This paper focuses on the difficulties experienced in constructing a meaningful subject, a practical application and a viable technical community from Gabor’s ideas during the decade 1947-1957.
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