Co-creator of lasers dies
Berkeley, Calif. – — Charles Hard Townes, the co-inventor of the laser and a Nobel laureate in physics, has died. He was 99.
Officials at the University of California, Berkeley, where Townes was a professor emeritus, said he had been in poor health before he died Tuesday.
Townes did most of the work that would make him one of three scientists to share the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for research leading to the creation of the laser while he was a faculty member at Columbia University.
His research applied the microwave technique used in wartime radar research to the study of spectroscopy, the dispersion of an object’s light into its component colors. He envisioned that would provide a new window into the structure of atoms and molecules and a new basis for controlling electromagnetic waves.
Later in his career, Townes earned praise and scorn for a series of speeches investigating the similarities between science and religion.
Townes joined the Columbia University faculty in 1948, and three years later had his inspiration for the laser’s predecessor, the maser, while sitting on a park bench in Washington, waiting for a restaurant to open for breakfast.
Scientists were stumped about ways to make waves shorter, but in the tranquil morning hours the solution suddenly appeared to Townes, a moment he famously compared to a religious revelation.
Townes scribbled a theory on scrap paper about using microwave energy to stoke molecules to move fast enough to create a shorter wave.
In 1954, that theory was realized when Townes and his students developed the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
Demonstrating that masers could be made to operate in optical and infrared capacities, Townes and his brother-in-law, the late Stanford professor Arthur L. Schawlow, jointly published a theory in 1958 on the feasibility of optical and infrared masers, or lasers.
A laser controls the way that energized atoms release photons, or light particles. Today, they perform tasks ranging from cutting metal to vision correction and tattoo removal, but its inventors say they didn’t foresee any of that.
“I realized there would be many applications for the laser,” Townes told Esquire magazine in 2001.
Others built the first working lasers, but Townes shared the Nobel Prize in 1964 with two Russians for his work leading to its creation.
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