Charles Townes, Laser Pioneer, Black Hole Discoverer, Dies At 99

Jan 28, 2015
Originally published on January 31, 2015 9:51 am

Charles Townes, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his part in the invention of the laser died Tuesday at 99.

Townes is best remembered for thinking up the basic principles of the laser while sitting on a park bench. Later in life he advised the U.S. government and helped uncover the secrets of our Milky Way galaxy.

Through it all, he maintained a deep religious faith. "He really was one of these rare people who could be a deeply thinking research scientist and yet, at the same time, be a deeply devout Christian," says Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.

Townes was born in 1915 in Greenville, South Carolina. He finished college at age 19. But often his smarts weren't the first thing that people noticed.

"He was a Southern gentleman. He was just a very nice person," says Elsa Garmire, a physicist at Dartmouth who studied under Townes when he was teaching at MIT in the 1960s. "At the same time, he was very dedicated and single-minded about what he did."

It was that single-mindedness that led Townes to come up with the idea for a laser, a device that sends out a bright beam of carefully synchronized light particles.

Townes wanted to use laser light as a precision tool for his research on molecules. He spent a long time thinking about similar devices that didn't quite work. Finally, the basic concept for a laser came to him in the spring of 1951, as he sat on a park bench in Washington D.C.

"Suddenly I had the idea. Well that was a revelation," he told NPR's Morning Edition during a 2005 interview.

At the time, he was doing fundamental research at Columbia University. But his former employers (at the research wing of AT&T known as Bell Labs) were also interested in his idea and asked him to consult. They wanted to use lasers for communication.

Fast-forward more than half a century, and the entire Internet uses lasers to send information over fiber optic cables. DVDs and Blu-ray discs also use lasers, as do doctors (for fixing eyes, among other things), engineers (for cutting material), and workers in many other professions.

Townes' discovery won him scientific accolades, but it also made him highly influential in government. He gave advice on NASA's Apollo program in the 1960s and '70s, and he helped found a secret group of Cold War scientists (a collective known as JASON) that gave frank advice to the Pentagon on everything from Soviet submarines to spy satellites. Townes was a strong advocate of arms control, and supported an international ban on nuclear testing.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964 for his discovery of the principles behind the laser. Townes shared his prize with Nicolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov, who independently developed the same idea while working in the Soviet Union.

Shortly after that, Townes got out of lasers.

"He said, well, a lot of people were working on it and he wanted to go where he could make major contributions," says Garmire.

Townes became an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley. That's about the time Genzel met him.

"He was such a wonderful person, always optimistic, and always curious," Genzel says.

Townes and Genzel studied stars and galaxies for years. In 1985 they discovered the black hole that lives at the center of our Milky Way.

Through all these scientific adventures, Townes maintained a deep faith in the existence of God. He saw his faith as intertwined with his science.

"Consider what religion is," he told NPR in 2005. "Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science? It's an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there's a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works, so those two must be related."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The U.S. lost one of its greatest scientists yesterday - Charles Townes was a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his part in the invention of the laser. As he told NPR in 2005, the idea came to him while he was sitting on a park bench.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHARLES TOWNES: Suddenly, I had the idea - well, that was a revelation - it's a little bit like Moses wondering about how to help his people and so on. And then in front of a burning bush one time, he suddenly said this is what ought to be done.

BLOCK: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more now on a man whose ideas changed the world.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Charles Townes was born in 1915 in Greenville, South Carolina. He finished college at age 19, but often his smarts weren't the first thing that people noticed.

ELSA GARMIRE: He was a southern gentleman. He was just a very nice person.

BRUMFIEL: Elsa Garmire is a physicist at Dartmouth who studied under Townes when he was teaching at MIT in the 1960s.

GARMIRE: At the same time, he was very dedicated and single-minded in what he did.

BRUMFIEL: It was that single-mindedness that led Townes to come up with the idea for a laser - a device that sends out a bright beam of carefully synchronized light particles. Townes wanted lasers as a tool to help him with his research on molecules. But the research wing of AT&T, known as Bell Labs, was also interested in his idea for a different reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Light could provide a communications highway of staggering capacity - a potential capacity of more than a million telephone conversations or a thousand television channels.

BRUMFIEL: Today, the Internet uses lasers to send information. Forget a thousand TV channels - we've got YouTube thanks to the laser. Townes shared the Nobel Prize in 1964 for his discovery, and shortly after that, he got out of lasers.

GARMIRE: He said well, lots of people were working on it, and he wanted to go where he thought he could make major contributions.

BRUMFIEL: He became an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley. That's about the time Reinhard Genzel met him. Genzel heads the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

REINHARD GENZEL: He was just such a wonderful person, always optimistic and always curious.

BRUMFIEL: Townes and Genzel studied stars and galaxies for years. In 1985, they discovered the black hole that lives at the center of our Milky Way. Through all these scientific adventures, Townes maintained a deep faith in the existence of God.

GENZEL: While this may sound like sort of a contradiction, he really was one of these rare people who could be a deeply thinking research scientist and yet at the same time be a deeply devout Christian.

BRUMFIEL: Actually, Townes didn't see science and religion as contradictory at all, as he told NPR back in 2005.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOWNES: Consider what religion is. Religion is an attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe. What is science? It's an attempt to understand how our universe works. Well, if there's a purpose and meaning, that must have something to do with how it works. So those two must be related.

BRUMFIEL: Charles Townes was 99. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.