Scientist's life traces laser's history

Sept. 1, 2000
It's rare that a scientist writes a book about his or her life that accurately reflects the highs and lows of scientific discovery. Such a book is "How the Laser Happened" by Nobel Laureate Charles Townes (Oxford University Press, New York, NY).

It's rare that a scientist writes a book about his or her life that accurately reflects the highs and lows of scientific discovery. Such a book is "How the Laser Happened" by Nobel Laureate Charles Townes (Oxford University Press, New York, NY). Townes did not invent the laser but, as a researcher, he certainly left his mark on twentieth century science. And the book certainly leaves the impression that Townes lived the life of a true scientist.

Townes was the co-inventor of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) with James Gordon, then a post-doctoral student at Columbia University. The first maser emissions were measured in April of 1954, several years before Theodore Maiman of Hughes Research Laboratory in Culver City, CA, demonstrated a ruby laser in May of 1960. Townes' road to the maser began with his post-graduate research at Caltech in the late 1930s. But the road was not always direct.

Townes is quick to acknowledge that many people contributed to his scientific odyssey, "...ideas, inspirations, and opportunities come as often from the people one happens to meet as they do from any sort of special vision. Any effort to chart a scientific career, or the evolution of a new concept or a new technology, must pay close attention to happenstance and to this, collegial, interactive aspect of science." Although the public often has the impression (sometimes fostered by the media) of the lone scientist struggling with brilliant ideas, that is not the general rule, Townes notes.

A fortunate detour

Happenstance played a large part in Townes' scientific career. In fact, because Townes went to Bell Laboratories (then in New York City) after getting his Ph.D. in 1939, he moved away from spectroscopy and into the engineering of radar bombsights as part of the laboratory's war efforts. Townes describes this turn of events with some regret since it took him away from basic physics research, but he later came to see this change of direction as fortunate in that it pushed him towards microwave radiation and, eventually, to the research that led to the maser.

Townes' ideas were met with considerable resistance from some of the most eminent physicists of the day. When Townes visited Denmark he met Niels Bohr, the famous pioneer of quantum mechanics, who, on being told of the maser, exclaimed, "But that is not possible!" Similarly, at a cocktail party at Princeton University, the brilliant theoretician John von Neumann declared, "That can't be right," when Townes described the maser and the purity of its frequency. However, 15 minutes later, von Neumann returned to Townes and snapped, "Yes, you're right!" Clearly, he had seen the point. In fact, papers published after von Neumann's death suggested that he had envisioned the theoretical idea of a semiconductor laser, but had not pursued the idea further.

Patent battles

But the book is not entirely concerned with the science of maser and laser development. Townes devotes an intriguing chapter to the various battles that were fought over the patents for the maser and the laser. When Townes patented the maser, he also sought to patent its extension, the "optical maser." However, the ideas behind the optical maser had been discussed with Art Schawlow of Bell Labs so the patent application was offered to Bell Labs. A young Bell Labs patent lawyer wasn't very interested in the proposed patent because the lawyer did not think that light waves had much to do with communications! Fortunately for Bell Labs, the young lawyer was overruled and a patent was granted.

In the course of a long career, Townes was significantly involved in advising the US government on science policy and defense. In 1960, he became a member of the Jasons, an ad hoc group of eminent American scientists whose aims are to provide objective evaluations of national issues involving science and technology. Little known outside the boundaries of academic science, the Jasons have been very influential in advising the president and Congress. Townes gives some rare insights into the workings of the Jasons.

The book is subtitled, "Adventures of a Scientist." Charles Townes' adventures make for a fascinating story of a true scientist.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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