In Memoriam: Charles Hard Townes

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Dr. Charles Hard Townes, whose work on stimulated emission led to the creation of lasers and enabled the photonics industry, died Jan. 27 at age 99.

Townes won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the maser, sharing the prize with Aleksandr M. Prokhorov and Nicolai G. Basov, who had independently developed their own maser.

That pivotal discovery led Townes and his brother-in-law — future Nobelist Arthur Schawlow — to envision the optical maser in 1958. Better known today as the laser, the first working example of this concept was demonstrated by Theodore Maiman in 1960.

Charles H. Townes and James P. Gordon with maser.
Charles Hard Townes, left, is pictured in 1954 with a maser he developed with then-graduate student James P. Gordon, right, and then-postdoctoral researcher H.J. Zeiger (not shown). The device radiated at a wavelength of a little more than 1 cm and generated approximately 10 nW of power.

Today lasers are ubiquitous, having found myriad uses from consumer electronics to global telecommunications, industry, science and medicine.

“(Townes) was one of the most important experimental physicists of the last century,” said Dr. Reinhard Genzel, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. “To those who knew him as colleagues or students, he was a role model, a wonderful mentor and a deeply admired person. His strength was his curiosity and his unshakable optimism, based on his deep Christian spirituality.”

“This loss marks the passing of an era,” said Stanford University professor Dr. Philip Bucksbaum, past president of The Optical Society (OSA). “For more than 60 years Charlie Townes was a towering influence in American physics. He was a wonderful physicist and a very generous person.”

After his initial discovery, Townes went on to use masers and lasers for astronomy, detecting the first complex molecules in interstellar space and measuring the mass of the black hole in the center of our galaxy.

He was also a prominent player in national science policy. From 1966 to 1970, Townes chaired a NASA ad hoc science advisory committee for the Apollo moon flights. In 1981, he chaired a panel reviewing President Ronald Reagan’s planned deployment of MX missiles, and actively advocated for controls on nuclear weapons, including a test ban treaty to regulate underground weapons testing.

Born in Greenville, S.C., Townes graduated summa cum laude at the age of 19 from Furman University with bachelor’s degrees in physics and modern languages. He completed a master’s degree in physics at Duke University and moved to Caltech, from which he obtained his doctorate; his thesis involved isotope separation and nuclear spins.

During World War II, Townes worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey, designing radar bombing systems. After the war, he took a faculty position at Columbia University and was later appointed provost and professor at MIT in 1961. He continued his research on quantum electronics and moved into the new field of infrared astronomy, later becoming a professor-at-large at UC Berkeley in 1967.

Until last year, Townes visited the campus daily, working either in his office in the physics department or at the Space Sciences Laboratory.

Published: January 2015
The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
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