Drive To Discover

At 95, laser inventor has no plans to retire

Sunday, December 05, 2010

This year marks the 50th birthday of the laser. In 1960, a patent for it was issued to a team headed by Charles Townes, at Bell Labs. This year is also Townes' 95th birthday. Yet the father of this technology still goes to work every day at UC Berkeley to work with lasers.

"I'm still very pleased at how useful the laser is," says Townes, credited with inventing the laser. "But, of course, they're so common now, that I don't marvel every time I see one," he chuckles.

Townes is a marvel. He had already invented the predecessor to the laser -- the invisible beam MASER, that used microwaves instead of light -- when this idea suddenly struck him.

"I worked on it and worked on it, and nothing worked. I woke up early in the morning, went out in the park, sat on a park bench worrying about it, thinking, 'Why haven't we been able to get any ideas?' I said, well we tried this, tried that, and... Ooh, wait a minute! Atoms and molecules can do this... Oh, I think I see a way of using them to do it -- to have them do it for us. So, I had this sudden realization that we could do it. It was a great moment for me. I quickly pulled out a pen and wrote down some notes and equations. 'Yeah,' I thought. 'It looks like it will probably work.'"

So well that that bench in South Carolina was bronzed, and Townes was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics. Fifty years later, he is still publishing scientific discoveries, working every day at UC Berkeley with a young team of astrophysicists.

He shows us a purple haze inside a CO2 laser. The team takes starlight from its three telescopes and merges it with the laser beam. And in the pattern of interference between the lights, they can see stars and other objects at a resolution comparable to that of a space telescope -- without having to go into space.

"We take the light from a star," Townes explains, "coming to these two telescopes and join it. Then, the farther apart we put the telescopes, the more resolution we can get on the star, and see more and more detail."

All of this is impossible without lasers that keep the telescopes aligned precisely to millionths of an inch -- something Townes worked out a half-century ago.

So why isn't he enjoying retirement?

"Well, science is so much fun, why stop? I think people should choose the things they find most interesting and enjoy doing. The things that you enjoy doing are the things you are likely to do best. I like physics," he says. "I frequently say I practically never worked in all my life. I just have good fun. People pay me for it, of all things."

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