Inventor of the Laser Dies

By Matt Novak on at

Charles Townes, the physicist whose work would help lay the foundations for the development of the laser died on Tuesday 27 January. He was 99. His career also ranged far beyond an interest in lasers, into astronomy and a fascination with spirituality.

Dr. Townes had an incredible career as a scientist, winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964. But he's perhaps best known as the "inventor" of the laser. Townes was also a pioneer in the field of infrared astronomy and was the first to discover water in space.

The quotes around "inventor" aren't meant to detract from his accomplishments with lasers, but rather to acknowledge that invention is a really messy concept. Townes first built a maser in the mid-1950s, which used microwave amplification rather than light amplification.

Gordon Gould at ARPA (now DARPA) and Ted Maiman at Hughes Labs were working on similar research in the late 1950s. Maiman would actually be the first person to build a practical laser in 1960, working partially from the published research of Townes.

Dr. Townes shared his 1964 Nobel Prize with Russian scientists N. G. Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov because they were also working on the laser in the Soviet Union concurrently and independently of Townes.

Townes would be best known later is his life for advocating the idea that science and religion would one day merge, revealing the secrets of creation.

"I look at science and religion as quite parallel, much more similar than most people think and that in the long run, they must converge," Townes would tell a Harvard crowd in 2005. "It's a fantastically specialised universe, but how in the world did it happen?"

Photo: Charles Townes shows off his maser during a news conference in 1955 via AP