Cover image for How the laser happened : adventures of a scientist
How the laser happened : adventures of a scientist
Townes, Charles H.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
200 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Reading Level:
1250 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QC687.2 .T68 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In How the Laser Happened, Nobel laureate Charles Townes provides a highly personal look at some of the leading events in twentieth-century physics. Townes was inventor of the maser, of which the laser is one example; an originator of spectroscopy using microwaves; and a pioneer in the studyof gas clouds in galaxies and around stars. Throughout his career he has also been deeply engaged with issues outside of academic research. He worked on applied research projects for Bell Labs; served on the board of directors for General Motors; and devoted extensive effort to advising thegovernment on science, policy, and defense. This memoir traces his multifaceted career from its beginnings on the family farm in South Carolina. Spanning decades of ground-breaking research, the book provides a hands-on description of how working scientists and inventors get their ideas. It also gives a behind-the-scenes look at thescientific community, showing how scientists respond to new ideas and how they approach a variety of issues, from priority and patents to the social and political implications of their work. In addition, Townes touches on the sociology of science, uncovering some of the traditions and values thatare invisible to an outsider. A towering and energetic figure, Townes has explored or pioneered most of the roles available to the modern scientist. In addition to fundamental research, he was actively involved in the practical uses of the laser and in the court cases to defend the patent rights. He was a founding member of theJasons, an influential group of scientists that independently advises the government on defense policy, and he played an active part in scientific decisions and policies from the Truman through the Reagan administration. This lively memoir, packed with first-hand accounts and historical anecdotes,is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of science and an inspiring example for students considering scientific careers.

Author Notes

Charles Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and attended Furman University. After graduate study at Duke University and the California Institute of Technology, he spent the years from 1939 to 1947 at the Bell Telephone Laboratories designing radar-controlled bombing systems. Townes then joined the physics department of Columbia University. In 1951, while sitting on a park bench, the idea for the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) occurred to him as a way to produce high-intensity microwaves. In 1953 the first maser became operational. In a maser, ammonia (NH3) molecules are raised to an excited vibrational state and then fed into a resonant cavity, where (as in a laser) they stimulated part of the spectrum. "Atomic clocks" of great accuracy are based on this concept, and solid-state maser amplifiers are used in radioastronomy. In 1964 Townes and two Soviet laser pioneers, Aleksander Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov, shared the Nobel Prize. Since 1966 Townes has been at the University of California, Berkeley. (Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Choice Review

This memoir, from Townes, one of the coinventors of the laser, should appeal to several audiences. Professionals in physics, engineering, and other closely related sciences will enjoy seeing how the interplay of those disciplines led to the invention of one of the most useful devices of the 20th century. Students from high school onward who might be considering a career in science will be surprised at the range of activities that can be part of the working life of a successful scientist, including academic and industrial research, commercial and government consulting, and academic administration. Readers outside the technical professions will gain insight into the culture of science, particularly as it existed and interacted with the government during the middle years of this century. The formal yet conversational style emphasizes the importance Townes places on interactions between scientists. A brief introductory chapter discusses the basic principles of lasers and some of their many applications. The rest of the book is autobiographical, with some digressions during the chapters on patents and public policy advising. All levels. D. B. Moss; Boston University

Table of Contents

1 The Light That Shines Straightp. 3
2 Physics, Furman, Molecules, and Mep. 17
3 Bell Labs and Radar, a (Fortunate) Detour from Physicsp. 33
4 Columbia to Franklin Park and Beyondp. 47
5 Maser Excitement--and a Time for Reflectionp. 69
6 From Maser to Laserp. 87
7 The Patent Gamep. 109
8 On Moon Dust, and Other Science Advicep. 129
9 The Rains of Orionp. 169
10 Glances Both Backward and Forwardp. 189
Indexp. 192