Charles Townes, the man responsible for inventing the laser, died this week aged 99. A Nobel prize winner and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Townes thought up the idea for the maser, the predecessor to the laser, helping to alter the course of technology, society, and science fiction.
Townes died in Oakland and spent much of his life at Berkeley, but it was on a park bench in Washington, DC, where he had a revelation that led to the development of the laser. The year was 1951, and the physicist was in the capital to meet with a Navy committee, in hopes of finding ways to enhance communications technology using microwaves. Townes had been hitting his head against the problem without success, when, seated upon the bench, a new approach came to mind "like a sudden revelation."
Townes thought up the predecessor to the laser on a park bench
The physicist declined to share his new idea, which he'd written on a scrap of paper in his DC hotel room, with the Navy committee. Instead, he went back to Columbia University and began building a device he called a "maser," the acronym standing for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." Townes said that a number of his peers, including eminent physicist Niels Bohr, had originally discounted his theory, arguing that it violated Heisenberg's uncertainty principle — but the machine he built worked.
He won the Nobel prize in Physics in 1964
Six years later, in 1957, Townes began to look into the creation of a new version of the maser, which used infrared light rather than microwaves. Townes first called the concept an "optical maser." The term "laser," standing for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation," came later, first published in a paper by graduate student Gordon Gould in 1959. The first laser was built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman, as research teams across the country scrambled to make the first working device. Four years later, the laser's importance was already recognized at the highest scientific level — Townes shared the 1964 Nobel prize in Physics with Nicolay Gennadiyevich Basov and Aleksandr Mikhailovich Prokhorov, two Soviet scientists who had been researching similar technology at the same time.
Townes' park bench revelation has been immensely important for the advancement of medicine, industry, and our daily lives — lasers are still used to read everything from Blu-Rays to barcodes. They've also had a huge cultural impact on our collective psyche. A world without lasers is a world without Star Wars, Star Trek, and the blaster-toting heroes of science fiction.