With sadness we announce the recent passing of our retired colleague Al Thompson on May 30, 2020, after several years of medical challenges. He is survived by his wife, a number of children, grandchildren, a great-grandchild, as well as his sisters. Al was born on August 4, 1942, and grew up in Vancouver, Canada. From an early age, he enjoyed building electronic devices with his father. After receiving his PhD from Carnegie Mellon University, he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory before coming to Berkeley Lab in 1974.
At the Lab, he worked on x-ray detectors and applications in energy dispersive x-ray analysis before transitioning into synchrotron applications. He was involved, along with Joe Jaklevic, in early experiments of trace element measurements at what would become the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and also developed techniques for fluorescent extended x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) measurements. He brought things he learned from working with SSRL to Berkeley Lab and to the ALS. In 1984 he became one of the founding members of Berkeley Lab’s Center for X-Ray Optics.
His proposed x-ray microprobe beamline, developed with James Underwood, was the first to be constructed at the ALS. It was there that an image of the ALS’s “first light” was captured via a phosphor-coated screen at 12:20 a.m. on October 4, 1993. Over the years he used the beamline to study a wide variety of samples. He analyzed Napoleon’s hair, looking for traces of arsenic to find out if he was poisoned. He also took the image of a spider fang showing the distribution of zinc and arsenic within the fang that can still be found on the ALS experimental floor and is much beloved by tour guides and shown to many a tour group traipsing through.
Al also recognized a need for x-ray data tables to be available in an easy-to-use format (at a time when there were no smartphones). He played a major role in organizing the X-Ray Data Booklet, commonly referred to as the little orange book, which is known in the x-ray community around the world. It is handed out in hard copy to users at the ALS, and Al also took the lead in producing a second edition of the data booklet and made it available on the web.
Al was also an important resource to many of his coworkers for his computer expertise during the early days of computer data acquisition and analysis. His group relied on him to be up to date on the latest technology in the rapidly changing field of small dedicated computers, which eventually became the world of PCs. His friend and coworker Joe Jaklevic remembered that Al introduced him to the earliest version of Windows when it first came out.
Al enjoyed hiking, especially in Yosemite National Park, where he took most of his family members at one time or another. His ashes will be buried with a view of Mount Tamalpais at Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley.
He will be missed by his colleagues at the ALS who will remember him as a capable scientist and diligent worker.
This obituary is based on contributions from Al Thompson’s family, Joe Jaklevic, Eric Gullikson, and Rupert Perera. The community is invited to share memories at Al’s memorial site.