A. Prokhorov, 85; Physicist

From a Times Staff Writer

Alexander Prokhorov, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964 for work that led to development of the laser, has died. He was 85.

Prokhorov, whose work helped lay the groundwork for compact discs, modern surgery and other scientific advances, died of pneumonia in his Moscow apartment Tuesday, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Known for his strong will and fiercely independent mind, Prokhorov shared the Nobel Prize with countryman Nikolai Basov and U.S. scientist Charles Townes.

"Many believed that we had gone crazy, that it was impossible," he said in November 2001 archive footage shown on RTR state television.

"It was a very brave step, because before that no one had said it was possible to create a generator of optical range. Then it became a new, independent science--optics."

The research institute Prokhorov headed was also a key contributor to the Soviet program to counter President Ronald Reagan's plans for a space-based defense system, which became popularly known as "Star Wars."

But Prokhorov was anything but a conformist in an era when diversions from the accepted political line were rare.

After being appointed editor in 1969 of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, the Soviet Union's prime reference work, Prokhorov ignored orders to exclude dissident Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov from the volume.

He also refused a government invitation to become a deputy in the Soviet parliament.

"I said I do not want to be a deputy, because I am not a politician. I am a scientist," Prokhorov said in the archive footage marking his 85th birthday.

Officials said Prokhorov's passing marked the end of an era for Russian science.

"His name is linked to outstanding discoveries that in many ways defined 20th century civilization," President Vladimir V. Putin said.

The scientist had no computer, complaining that it would "interfere with his thinking," and preferred to make notes on scraps of paper, hundreds of which still litter his office.

Born in Atherton, Australia, in 1916, Prokhorov came to the Soviet Union in 1923 with his family, opponents of the czar.

After graduating from Leningrad State University in 1939, Prokhorov joined the Red Army, despite eligibility for exemption because of his academic research. He was wounded twice during World War II and was discharged as a disabled veteran in 1944.

After the war, he joined the P.N. Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow as a senior associate. He completed his doctorate in 1951 and in 1954 was named head of the institute. It was there that he and Basov produced a maser, a beam of coherent microwave radiation analogous to a laser, in 1954. Their work came a year after Townes had developed the first maser. Basov died last year at the age of 76.

A leading member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Prokhorov was twice made a Hero of Socialist Labor--the former Soviet state's highest civilian award.

In 1982, Prokhorov joined 96 other Nobel Prize winners from around the world in calling for a freeze on development and deployment of nuclear weapons.

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