2012: The MASER

AWARDEE: Charles Townes

SCIENCE: The Maser

FEDERAL FUNDING AGENCIES: National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research

For a decade-long stretch of his career, Charles H. Townes, the inventor of laser technology, had to fight to convince others of the possibility, and the value, of the seemingly obscure technique of amplifying waves of radiation into an intense, continuous stream.  During his career, he received funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Navy.

Townes, born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1915, had earned his Ph.D. degree at the California Institute of Technology, and then went to work at Bell Labs. Later, as a professor at Columbia University, he began work on generating a controlled, extended stream of microwaves through contact with an electron in an excited state. The project sounded frivolous even to his colleagues, who told him directly that they thought he was wasting the university’s money.

In 1953, Townes, James Gordon and H.J. Zeiger built the first maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). About five years later, Townes and Arthur Schawlow published a paper saying the maser’s principles could be extended to amplify radiation at the frequencies of visible light, thus introducing the principle of laser technology.

Even then, Townes encountered doubters who saw no value in the technology. Luckily, however, the scientific community began to grasp the technology’s implications. In 1960, Theodore Maiman built the first laser.

The laser became the basis of countless technologies we use in our daily lives. Without lasers, the Internet and digital media would be unimaginable. Computer hard drives, CDs, digital video and satellite broadcasting would not exist. Nor would laser eye surgery or laser treatment for cancer.

The many uses of lasers were not conceivable during the years that Townes persevered in his lab. Townes, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964, has said, “The eventual results of research are very frequently unexpected.”  As his own work has demonstrated, this was an enormous understatement.