Arthur Schawlow, co-inventor of the laser, dies

May 1, 1999
Nobel laureate Arthur L. Schawlow died April 28 in Stanford, CA, from pneumonia and congestive heart failure following a prolonged battle with leukemia. He was 77 years old.

Nobel laureate Arthur L. Schawlow died April 28 in Stanford, CA, from pneumonia and congestive heart failure following a prolonged battle with leukemia. He was 77 years old.

An emeritus professor of physics at Stanford University, Schawlow picked up the nickname of Laser Man because he gave a number of popular demonstrations of the new tool that he had helped to invent. In one of his favorite demonstrations, he used a "ray gun" laser to shoot through a transparent balloon to pop a dark Mickey Mouse balloon inside without damaging the outer balloon in order to illustrate the laser`s selectivity.

With these exhibitions, Schawlow demonstrated two aspects of his character: the serious scientist who never lost his interest in how matter behaves and in ways to make it behave differently, and a deeply caring person with an irrepressible sense of humor. When reporters and science fiction writers began speculating about the use of lasers as death rays, Schawlow taped a particularly lurid poster, with the title "The Incredible Laser," on his laboratory door after adding his own subtitle, "For credible laser see inside."

Through the invention of the laser, Schawlow and his co-inventor, Charles H. Townes, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California-Berkeley, have had a major impact on a wide range of scientific disciplines. Lasers have played an essential role in scientific studies ranging from physics to geology to microbiology. At the same time, lasers have found a host of commercial applications, ranging from surveying to CD music players, from welding detached retinas back onto the eye to moving tremendous amounts of data across country via optical fiber.

Schawlow was born in Mount Vernon, NY, on May 5, 1921. His mother was Canadian, and at her urging the family moved to Toronto a few years later. As a boy, Schawlow was interested in scientific things-electrical, mechanical, or astronomical-and read nearly everything that the local library could provide on these subjects. He intended to go to the University of Toronto to study radio engineering, but he graduated from high school in 1937, the depths of the Great Depression, and his family couldn`t afford the tuition. It was only by obtaining a scholarship in mathematics and physics that he was able to attend the university.

After obtaining his graduate degree at Toronto, a post-doctoral fellowship took Schawlow to Columbia University to work with Charles H. Townes, an established leader in the field of microwave spectroscopy. Townes had intended to keep Schawlow at Columbia, but the young physicist "double-crossed" him by marrying his youngest sister, Aurelia, in 1951. The university`s anti-nepotism rules kept Townes from hiring his brother-in-law, so Schawlow got a job as a physicist at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he began studying superconductivity.

On the weekends Schawlow continued to work with Townes on a book on microwave spectroscopy that they had started while he was at Columbia. Townes had invented the maser, a device that creates coherent beams of microwaves-work for which he subsequently won the Nobel prize. The two were trying to extend the basic principle of the maser to optical wavelengths, when Schawlow got the idea of using a long chamber with a mirror at each end. The two published their design in 1957, which set off an intense scientific competition to produce the first actual laser, which was built in 1960.

Schawlow and Townes received a patent for the laser in 1960, but they never profited from it because Schawlow was working for Bell Labs and Townes was a Bell Labs consultant at the time. In 1961 Schawlow joined the physics department at Stanford, where he continued his research in the fields of optical and microwave spectroscopy, superconductivity, lasers, and laser spectroscopy. In 1981, he received a Nobel Prize for Physics for "his contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy."

Schawlow is survived by his son, Artie Schawlow of Paradise, CA, and two daughters, Helen Johnson of Stevens Point, WI, and Edie Dwan of Charlotte, NC, and five grandchildren, Thomasina and Cleo Johnson and Colin, Rachel, and Andy Dwan. Please send any donations to the Arthur Schawlow Center, 1629 Cypress Lane, Paradise, CA 95969.

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