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John Emmit Wessel


1942 - 2016 Obituary Condolences
John Emmit Wessel Obituary
March 8, 1942 - July 6, 2016 John E. Wessel, 74, a laser spectroscopist who investigated the interaction of light and matter, died in his Palos Verdes home, of brain cancer. Born in Los Angeles to John B. Wessel, M.D., and Lucy Wessel, a teacher, he earned a BS in chemistry from UCLA and a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago. A Woodrow Wilson Fellow and two-time recipient of the President's Award from Aerospace Corp., he retired as "Distinguished Scientist" in 2005 after 31 years and continued working part time until Sept. 2015. Throughout his career he carried out groundbreaking scientific research over a broad range of topics. As a graduate student, he did the seminal work on untangling the complicated quantum states of naphthalene, a model for an important class of molecules. The method he invented early in his career for analyzing gunshot residue is now the standard technique worldwide for determining if a person fired a gun. He also invented many techniques for highly sensitive detection of atoms and molecules using lasers, including ion-dip spectroscopy, single atom detection, and laser-surface-enhanced microscopy. His recent research focused on laser remote sensing of the atmosphere to improve weather prediction. Passionate about photography, he had his own darkroom by age 10. It was photography that catalyzed his interest in science and gave expression to his love of the natural environment. His pictures, seen in local galleries, captured the beauty of nature, from mossy rocks to glittering wet spider webs. John explored the outdoors on a bike, cross-country skis and on foot and was active in the Sierra Club and the Palos Verdes Land Conservancy. In their 40 years together, he and his wife, Judy Herman, shared a love of hiking, classical music and contemporary art. The Aspen Music Festival every summer and gallery hopping every week were joyous compulsions. John's adventurous spirit sent them from Patagonia to Komodo Island. Despite his scientific achievements, John is best remembered for the kindness and respect he showed everyone, whether it was another driver on the freeway or a five year old asking about spectroscopy. The memory of John's gentle, generous spirit will be an inspiration to Judy; brother-in-law, Gene Herman; niece Laura Herman and many friends. A fund to support photo classes for underserved youth is being established in his memory.
Published in the Los Angeles Times on July 13, 2016
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