Orlando, Fla. – The Laser Institute of America (LIA) will present its first Lifetime Achievement Award to laser pioneer Dr. Charles Townes at the 29th International Congress on Applications of Lasers and Electro-Optics (ICALEO), which is held in Anaheim, Calif., from September 26 to 30.
Townes, 94, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964 "for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle,” according to the Nobel committee. The then-provost and professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shared the award with Nicolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov of the USSR. Their work was among the critical early steps in the development of the laser, which is 50 years old this year.
“I am very privileged to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award,” Townes said. “I feel my life has been very privileged by the opportunity to do research, discover new things, and particularly by the discovery of how a laser could be made. I am also delighted by the many contributions that colleagues have made in development of the laser and further associated discoveries. Many thanks for this honor, and more importantly many thanks for the many contributions other scientists and engineers have made towards the exciting growth of optics.”
Born in Greenville, S.C., in 1915, Townes – professor emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley, since 1986 – shares a patent for the laser with his late brother-in-law and fellow Nobel winner, Arthur L. Schawlow. The pair collaborated on their research at Columbia University and Bell Labs in New York City and together wrote the seminal book “Microwave Spectroscopy” in 1955 and the 1958 paper “Infrared and Optical Masers.” During World War II, Townes had designed radar-bombing systems at Bell and began applying those principles to spectroscopy. LIA honored Schawlow, who married Townes’ sister, Aurelia, in 1951, with an award in 1982 that now bears his name.
“I invented (the maser) back in 1951, and I worked and worked thinking about how to get to shorter wavelengths,” Townes recalled in a 2008 interview. “One morning, sitting on a park bench... I suddenly had the right idea, namely to use molecules and atoms and how to use them. One of my students, Jim Gordon, helped make the first one, which we called the maser because we wanted to make it work first in the microwave region, which seemed the easiest thing to do. I wrote a patent then that covered all wavelengths.” Years later, in pursuing shorter wavelengths, Townes said he “sat down (and) wrote some equations” and realized he could get down to light wavelengths. Shortly thereafter, he began collaborating with Schawlow.
Townes’ award will consist of a special citation and a cash prize, and he will become a fellow and life member of LIA. He will make a special address during the awards luncheon Sept. 29 at ICALEO. He attended the conference once before, in 2000. These days, he is using lasers for astronomy. “We now know that natural masers and natural lasers are occurring in extraterrestrial objects,” he said in 2008. “They’ve been there for a long time. Had we just looked at them earlier... that would have been the invention of the laser and the maser perhaps.”
Officers of the LIA “decided to present the special award to Professor Townes to recognize his contribution to the development of the first laser 50 years ago and in recognition to his lifetime body of work,” said executive director Peter Baker.