You’ve seen them in movies like James Bond. Doctors use them for medical procedures. They allow information to be sent at high speeds through the Internet.
Lasers have become commonplace in our lives, thanks to inventor Charles Townes. The physicist, who won the Nobel Prize for his invention of the laser, passed away on Jan 27, 2015. He was 99 years old.
A Discovery-filled Life
In 1915, Townes was born in South Carolina. After attending school at his local high school and college, he pursued a Masters degree at Duke University and a Ph. D degree at the California Institute of Technology.
During the 1930’s, he worked at the Bell Telephone Laboratories—the company that would later become AT&T—and researched navigation systems and radar bombing systems for World War II. He also began studying electromagnetic waves, specifically microwave radiation.
A few years later, in 1948, Townes began working and researching at Columbia University. His main area of study was microwave physics. He was especially interested in trying to find a way to increase the energy of these electromagnetic waves so they would travel longer distances. This research was in part funded by the Pentagon, which wanted to use his findings to improve communications.
An Idea Sparks!
It was while sitting on a park bench that the idea flashed for him. He realized that he could use the particles of energy in the microwaves—called photons—to collide with other photons and bounce off mirrors to travel in a straight, concentrated path.
This sudden realization led to the development of the MASER, which is an acronym for “microwave amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation.” The MASER soon led to the development of the “light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation,” which used visible light rays instead of microwave rays, and was called "LASER" for short.
Lasers soon became a very popular tool in many fields. Its controlled high-energy waves allowed for the fast communication of information; it’s how you can access the Internet so quickly. These high-energy waves are so precise that doctors use lasers to perform surgeries on delicate body parts, such as the eye.
A World Of Applications
The development of the laser propelled Townes to fame and earned him recognition in the scientific community. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for formulating the basic principles of the laser. And around the same time, several government agencies approached him for advice and expertise. For example, he helped NASA with the Apollo missions in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Townes was also part of a secret group of scientists that worked with the Pentagon during the Cold War where he strongly discouraged the build-up and testing of nuclear weapons. Later in the 1980s, he began working at the University of California, Berkeley. His foray into the field of astronomy also proved a success; with his colleagues, he was able to discover the black hole at the center of our galaxy.
Townes’ revelations in the sciences changed the way we think of the world, and his legacy continues to revolutionize our world even after he has left it.