Charles Townes Laser

Charles H. Townes, famous for his contributions to science and technology with his invention of the predecessor to the Laser, has passed away.

Until his death, the 99-year old was said to be grappling with ill health. University of California, Berkeley officials stated that Townes died on his way to an Oakland hospital, where he sought immediate medical intervention.

Just as he was famed for his works leading to the invention of the Laser, Mr. Townes, a man with deep spiritual roots, was equally distinguished as a scholar who made a remarkable attempt at bridging the existential divide between science and religion – a feat that won him the $1.5 million Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities back in 2005.

Charles Townes was born in Greenville, S.C., in 1915 to Baptist parents who had a liberal take on theology. During his sophomore year at Furman University, Townes discovered he had a calling in Physics. This ultimately led him to Duke University where he earned a master’s degree in physics, and he later went on to pursue a PhD at the California Institute of Technology. Charles Townes earned his professorship in 1950 at Columbia, where he later served as chairman of the university’s physics department. He later served in the capacities of provost and physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961, before moving over to join the faculty at Berkeley in 1967.

In 1948, at a period of time when scientists were in a desperate search for ways to make waves shorter, just 3 years into his stay at the faculty in Columbia University, Townes wowed the science community when he came up with his theory for the laser’s predecessor – the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Townes’ theory, which was about using microwave energy to stoke molecules to move fast enough to create a shorter wave, reportedly came to him while sitting on a park bench in Washington, waiting for a restaurant to open for breakfast, a moment Charles Townes famously compared to a religious revelation. About 6 years later, Townes’ idea was brought to life when Townes and his students developed the first maser device.

Townes’ invention created a window to rapid development in science and technology, as well as make him one of three scientists to share the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for research leading to the creation of the laser – the others were Russian physicists Aleksandr M. Prokhorov and Nicolai G. Basov. Some of the applications of Townes’ invention in present day will be seen in medicine, manufacturing, and also be a core component in DVD players, gun sights, printers, computer networks, metal cutters, tattoo removal and vision correction. Charles Townes himself was amazed by the extent to which his invention has revolutionized the world. “I realized there would be many applications for the laser,” Townes told Esquire magazine in 2001, “but it never occurred to me we’d get such power from it.”

Outside the boundaries of science, Charles Townes attracted a cocktail of praise and skepticism in his career with a series of speeches and essays he put out trying to marry science with religion. The differences between religion and science “are largely superficial,” he wrote, “the two become almost indistinguishable if we look at the real nature of each.”

“Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans,” Townes wrote in 2005 upon being awarded the Templeton Prize for his contributions in “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

“Many people don’t realize that science basically involves assumptions and faith. But nothing is absolutely proved,” Townes said at the time. “Wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith and logic.”

My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other,” he encouraged.

Charles Townes is survived by his wife and four daughters.

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