All achievers

Charles H. Townes, Ph.D.

Inventor of the Maser and Laser

A scientist has to decide: Is he right or is he wrong? And other people won't necessarily agree with you. Two very prominent professors in my department came in and said, 'Look, you know that's not going to work. We know it's not going to work. Why don't you just stop wasting time and money?'

1935: Charles Townes attended Furman University in Greenville, where he completed the requirements for the bachelor of science degree in physics and the bachelor of arts degree in modern languages, graduating summa cum laude in 1935, at the age of 19.
1935: Charles Townes graduated summa cum laude — at the age of 19 — from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, where Townes earned two degrees, one in modern languages and the second in physics. He went on to complete his doctorate from the California Institute of Technology before taking a job at the famed Bell Labs.

Charles Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina. Although his father was an attorney, the family lived on a farm outside the city, and young Charles Townes grew up close to nature. He studied the stars in the night sky and collected insects from the fields. His family supported his scientific enthusiasms. He entered Furman University, a small college in Greenville, in his mid-teens. With an omnivorous appetite for learning, he studied every science available to him and graduated at age 19. In only four years, he had earned two degrees, one in modern languages and a second in physics. The years between the world wars were exciting for a young physics student, and Townes, with his gift for languages, devoured the latest scientific literature, absorbing the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. Now settled on a career in physics, Townes earned a master’s at Duke University and a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology. On completing his doctorate in 1939, he took a job at Bell Labs in New York City, where he worked throughout World War II. During the war, he worked on an advanced radar system for Allied bombers, and received a number of patents for his work. As the armed forces sought to apply radar to shorter and shorter wavelengths, his work moved from the radio segment of the electromagnetic spectrum to that of microwaves. Townes looked forward to applying his work with microwaves to spectroscopy, the use of radiation to study the properties of matter. He foresaw that microwaves would permit unprecedented exploration of the structures of molecules and atoms.

Dr. Charles H. Townes at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory, which he headed in the 1950s. (Bell Laboratories, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Hecht Collection)
Dr. Charles H. Townes at the Columbia University Radiation Laboratory, which he headed in the 1950s. (Bell Labs)

After the war, Townes became an associate professor of physics at Columbia University, where he soon met Arthur L. Schawlow, a graduate student. For a time, Schawlow served Townes as a research assistant. Over the years, the two became close friends, brothers-in-law and scientific collaborators. In 1950 Townes became a full professor at Columbia and was appointed Executive Director of the Columbia Radiation Laboratory.

Charles Townes in 1955 with his invention, the maser.
1955: Charles Townes with his invention, the maser. In 1951, Townes conceived a new way to create intense, precise beams of coherent radiation for which he coined the acronym MASER for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. When the principle was applied to higher frequencies, the term laser was used.

The following year, Townes conceived an idea that would transform technology. He imagined that microwaves could be amplified through contact with an electron in an excited state, creating an intense, continuous stream of microwave energy. He and Schawlow soon set to work on making this concept a reality. Townes and his team named the concept MASER, an acronym for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” Fortunately for Townes, the U.S. government continued to support microwave research for its possible military applications, but many of Townes’s colleagues at Columbia saw his project as a waste of the government’s money. They believed the project was impossible at worst, and useless at best. Although the principle Townes was exploring was known to the physics community, no other researchers pursued its application. In 1952, Townes became Chairman of the Physics Department at Columbia and within another year the first practical maser device was tested successfully.

Dr. Charles H. Townes, co-inventor of the laser, stands with a ruby maser amplifier, a device that paved the way for laser technology, in a 1957 photo. (Bell Laboratories, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Hecht Collection)
Dr. Charles H. Townes, co-inventor of the laser, stands with a ruby maser amplifier, a device that paved the way for laser technology, in a 1957 photo. (Bell Laboratories, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Hecht Collection)

Townes’s vision was vindicated, but few in the scientific community saw any application for maser technology. In 1955, Townes published the book Microwave Spectroscopy, written with Schawlow. On sabbatical from Columbia, he traveled to France and Japan, lecturing and meeting with scientists from many fields whose work shared points of contact with his own. On returning to Columbia, he also served as a consultant to Bell Labs in the mid-1950s, further developing the maser concept. Townes was contemplating the possibility of amplifying energy at wavelengths a thousand times shorter than the maser. If he could amplify radiation at microwave frequencies, why not at infrared frequencies? And if at infrared frequencies, why not at the frequencies of visible light? While existing light sources emitted a diffuse beam over a range of frequencies with an inconsistent intensity, Townes pictured a narrow, focused, steady beam, operating at a single wavelength with controlled intensity. This concept interested both Bell Labs and the military.

Dr. Townes and his wife (the former Frances H. Brown; they married in 1941) with four daughters, Linda Rosenwein, Ellen Anderson, Carla Kessler, and Holly Townes.
Dr. Charles H. Townes at home with his wife, Frances, and their four daughters, Linda , Ellen, Carla, and Holly.

In 1958, Townes and Schawlow published a paper in Physical Review, proposing the concept of the laser (“light amplified by stimulated emission of radiation”). For years, Townes had argued that amplified radiation could have powerful applications, but now the rest of the scientific community “saw the light,” and a spirited competition began, to see who could build the first practical laser. Townes had little interest in profiting personally from his discoveries and had given his maser patent to the nonprofit Research Corporation. He intended to give the patent for the laser to Bell Labs, which had funded the research, but a number of researchers contested the application.

1964: Charles Townes at Nobel Prize Ceremony.
1964: Charles Townes at the Nobel Prize Ceremony. His Nobel Prize was awarded for “work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.”

In 1960, Townes received his patent, and the first working laser was built by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Aircraft. By this time, Townes had taken a leave from Columbia to serve as Vice President and Director of Research for the Institute for Defense Analysis in Washington. With the launch of the satellite Sputnik, the United States and the Soviet Union had entered into an intense competition in aerospace technology, and the expertise of top-flight physicists such as Charles Townes was highly sought after.

1964: Charles Townes and Princess Sybilla of Sweden at Nobel Prize Dinner. (Photos courtesy of UC Berkeley Physics Department)
1964: Dr. Charles Townes and Princess Sybilla of Sweden at Nobel Prize Dinner. (UC Berkeley Physics Department)

Laser technology won quick acceptance in industry, research and telecommunications, and Townes received the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for his “fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser-laser principle.” In 1966, Townes became Institute Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

1968: At UC Berkeley, Professors Charles Townes and Jack Welch were "the first to discover three-atom combinations — ammonia and water vapor — near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Others soon discovered even more complex molecules, providing evidence for a host of chemical reactions taking place in young and dying stars and giving credence to the idea that molecules from space could have seeded Earth with the building blocks of life. Welch and Townes went on to discover the water maser in space. (NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks DigitalCaption)
1968: At UC Berkeley, Professors Charles H. Townes and Jack Welch were “the first to discover three-atom combinations — ammonia and water vapor — near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Others soon discovered even more complex molecules, providing evidence for a host of chemical reactions taking place in young and dying stars and giving credence to the idea that molecules from space could have seeded Earth with the building blocks of life. Welch and Townes went on to discover the water maser in space.” (NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks)

As the United States embarked on Project Apollo, the manned moon mission, a rift opened between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and many in the scientific community. Colleagues of Townes’s at MIT expressed serious doubts about the value of manned space flight and suggested that the dollars budgeted to NASA could be better spent on other areas of research. Townes accepted an appointment as Chairman of the Advisory Committee to Project Apollo, to secure support for the mission from the larger scientific community and ensure that the moon flight would yield maximum benefits in scientific research. As Chairman of the Committee, he had the satisfaction of observing the first moon landing from mission control in Houston.

2005 Templeton Prize Laureate Charles H. Townes, his wife, Frances Townes, and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, at the Templeton Prize presentation ceremony at Buckingham Palace, May 4, 2005. (Photo credit: Clifford Shirley/Templeton Prize)
Templeton Prize Laureate Charles H. Townes, his wife, Frances Townes, and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, at the Templeton Prize presentation ceremony at Buckingham Palace, May 4, 2005. (Clifford Shirley/Templeton Prize)

In 1967, Townes became University Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he would spend the remainder of his academic career, until his official retirement in 1986. In the 1980s, the applications of the laser for transmitting data over fiber optic cable and reading optical media — such as computer hard drives, compact discs, digital video and even the supermarket barcode reader — have transformed the storage and distribution of information throughout the world. The Internet and all digital media would be unimaginable without the laser.

Townes received the Niels Bohr International Medal in 1979 for his contributions to the peaceful use of atomic energy. In the waning days of the Cold War, the rapport that physicists such as Townes enjoyed with their Soviet colleagues provided a valuable channel of communication between the superpowers.

2008: UC Berkeley physicist Charles Townes cleans one of the large mirrors of the Infrared Spatial Interferometer. (Cristina Ryan)
2008: UC Berkeley physicist Charles Townes cleans one of the large mirrors of the Infrared Spatial Interferometer.

In addition to many awards for his contributions to science, in 1995 Townes received the Templeton Prize for his efforts at reconciling the claims of science and religion. A practicing Christian, he always saw religious faith and scientific investigation as convergent paths to ultimate truth.

2009: Townes on park bench, similar to the one where he conceived the solution to the problems of stimulated emission from a microwave source. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley Physics Department)
2009: Townes on park bench, similar to the one in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., where he conceived the solution to the problems of stimulated emission from a microwave source. (UC Berkeley Physics Department)

In 1941, Charles Townes married Frances Brown. The couple enjoyed a marriage lasting more than six decades. They raised four daughters and enjoyed a lifetime of travel and outdoor activities, including mountain climbing. In his ninth decade, Charles Townes was still traveling the world, discussing the future of science. He told the story of his life and accomplishments in two books, Making Waves (1995) and How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist (2000). Mrs. Townes told her side of the story in a book of her own, Misadventures of a Scientist’s Wife (2007). Charles Townes spent his last years in Berkeley, where he was Professor Emeritus at the University of California.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1969

One bright spring day in 1951, Charles Townes was sitting on a park bench in Washington, D.C, when an idea occurred to him, an idea that would revolutionize life throughout the developed world.

As Director of the Radiation Laboratory at Columbia University, Townes, a pioneer of microwave radar technology, had long puzzled over how to generate a controlled, extended stream of microwave radiation from molecules. The laws of thermodynamics suggested such a thing was impossible, but in an instant, Townes imagined stimulating molecules to surrender their radiation to a continuous wave. This revelation soon led to the development of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), a continuous beam of light, pulsing in controlled waves at a stable frequency. This unvarying light made possible countless technical advances we now take for granted. The atomic clock, the CD and DVD player, the hard drive of your computer, satellite broadcasting, measurements of sub-microscopic particles and the vast reaches of space, laser optical surgery and laser treatment for cancer are all the fruit of discoveries made by Charles Townes.

In 1964, Dr. Townes received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his revolutionary work in quantum electronics. His work in subsequent years extended to astrophysics, and he played a significant role in Project Apollo, the manned missions to the moon. He was honored not only for his scientific accomplishments, but for his advocacy of the peaceful use of atomic energy and for his efforts to reconcile the claims of science and religious faith.

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January 25, 1955: Dr. Charles Townes explains his invention, the maser, during a news conference in New York City.
January 25, 1955: Dr. Charles Townes explains his invention, the maser, during a news conference in New York City.

Where were you when you realized you could create something called the maser? What were the circumstances?

Charles Townes: It happened that I was in Washington, D.C., and it’s almost a sort of a fairy story tale — just what a novelist would write about a discovery. I wake up early in the morning, and Arthur Schawlow, who was a colleague of mine, was in the same room. And I thought, well, I wouldn’t wake him up, so I’d go outside, and I went out to the park. The azaleas were out, and a nice bright sun in the early morning, and it was just a beautiful time, and I sat down on a bench. But what was on my mind was that we had a meeting coming up of a group of scientists and engineers who’d been trying to find ways of producing short waves. And I had been trying to do that myself for about five years. I’d tried a lot of different techniques. Some of them worked, but not terribly well. And so here I was, I was beginning to puzzle over how could we get anywhere on this. What would we do that day at the meeting? How could we get anywhere on this problem? Why was it we hadn’t succeeded? So I went over the things that wouldn’t work, why they wouldn’t work. And I recognized, well, if it’s ever going to work, we’re going to have to use molecules. Because molecules already made by nature, very small, they resonate at these high frequencies or short wavelengths, we just somehow have to use those. But of course I’d thought about that before too. And concluded from what’s known as the second law of thermodynamics, that if you have a batch of molecules and you heat them up, yes, they will radiate, they will produce these waves, but they won’t produce very much, because you heat them up enough so they begin to produce a lot, and then the molecules fall apart. So I dismissed that before, and it wouldn’t work. But this time, I thought, well, if it’s ever going to work, it has to work that way. You’ve got to get molecules, but yet it has this problem of the second law of thermodynamics. And it suddenly occurred to me, now wait a minute. One doesn’t have to obey the second law of thermodynamics. That’s when all the molecules are interacting and exchanging energy and so on. We can keep the molecules from interacting, so we can have some molecules with a lot of energy, other molecules with not so much energy, throw away those, and then we’ve got a collection of molecules with high energy only. And now we use what was Einstein’s idea, that always occurs if you have molecules or atoms with excess energy. If a wave comes along that resonates with them, sort of tickles the molecules and resonates with them, they will give up their energy to the wave, and the wave then passes by and picks up some energy. That’s called stimulated emission. The emission of radiation by stimulation of the wave that is coming by. So we have this collection of molecules, all of which have energy, then we can get energy from them by this stimulated emission of radiation. And that was the source of the word “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” The next problem was how to get such a collection of molecules. What immediately occurred to me was using molecular beams. That’s a technique that was common at Columbia University. I was quite familiar with it. I hadn’t used it myself but I was very familiar with it, and the idea was to send the beam of molecules, in a vacuum like this, and you put on an electric field, which can pull some of them out of the way, and the rest of them go on this way. And so I could — I knew there was a way of pulling away the molecules that had very low energy, keeping the ones with high energy, then letting them come into a resonator. A resonator — metal resonator — where the waves could bounce back and forth, and build up strength as they rob the molecules of energy. A resonator I was familiar with from Bell Labs experience, radar. I was familiar with molecular beams from Columbia University. The particular way of getting lots of molecules, I figured out how many we’d have to have, and they were quite a few. How do we get that many? Ah, yes. Just the month before there had been a German scientist who had come to Columbia University, given a talk about a special way of selecting molecules in a molecular beam. It gave lots of intensity. Very much more intensity than other people had. That way would work, would give us enough. And I could quickly calculate, yes, it looks like it’s very likely to work. One can’t be sure until you make it work. But I thought it was a very good chance. And of course it was an exciting moment for me to realize that was really the right way to do it.

Charles H. Townes (left) and James P. Gordon shown with the second of two microwave amplifiers, or masers, that they built in 1955 with H. J. Zeiger (not shown). Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for invention of the maser and the description of the laser, which was first built in 1960. (Courtesy of the American Physical Society)
Charles H. Townes (left) and James P. Gordon shown with the second of two microwave amplifiers, or masers, that they built in 1955 with H. J. Zeiger (not shown). Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for invention of the maser and the description of the laser, which was first built in 1960. (Courtesy of the American Physical Society)

What was the background of this revelation you had that led to the maser? What had you been working on?

Keys to success — Vision

Charles Townes: I had been working for a long, long time on trying to generate shorter and shorter waves with shorter and shorter wavelengths. So there was a wave which was closer and closer together — the peaks were. Because I had found microwaves very useful in studying molecules. Now, microwaves have a wavelength of about — oh, anywhere from about that long to that long — inches to half a centimeter. But I wanted to get still shorter waves in order to study additional molecules and study new aspects of molecules. So I kept trying to find ways of producing shorter waves. I tried a number of things. And they sort of worked, but none of them really were terribly good. It did enable me to do some new things. I kept looking at this, and we even organized a committee sponsored by the Navy, a committee of scientists and engineers around the country to try to stimulate work and thought in this direction, to try to produce shorter waves.

Franklin Square Park in Washington, D.C., where Charles Townes first conceived of the idea that led to the invention of the MASER and LASER, discoveries that have transformed our lives. (Wayne R. Reynolds)
Franklin Square Park in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Charles Townes, while sitting on a bench in the square, first conceived of the idea that led to the invention of the MASER and LASER, discoveries that transformed our lives.

I happened to be chairman of the committee, and we had been meeting for a year, off and on, looking at various ideas and so on. I went down to Washington to meet with this group. It was in the spring, and I was in the hotel with my friend Arthur Schawlow, who was working with me at Columbia University. I woke up early in the morning, and I didn’t want to wake him, so I went outside in the park. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the azaleas were out, and I sat down on the bench, and was admiring the flowers, but also thinking about how we’re going to get this done at a meeting of this group later in the day. What really has been our trouble? We just haven’t been able to find the right answer. And I thought back and forth about our efforts, and the problems, and what was it that might be done. And I decided, well, somehow it has to be done with molecules, because part of the problem, if you make something small enough that it produced these very small waves, and do it with human hands and precisely enough, along with all the other requirements, was very difficult. So we should start with things which are already small, and made by nature for us in a very exact way. I thought through that path once before, as a matter of fact, and concluded that, well, there was a law of thermodynamics that says, yes, you can get some waves, but not very intense.

Keys to success — Vision

Molecules can never produce very intense waves, because you heat them up to make them more intense, and then you heat them up too hot and they’ll fly apart, and you no longer have them. Well, that’s a fundamental law of thermodynamics. However, I went through that, and thermodynamics says you can’t do it — and suddenly I realized, well, wait a minute, that’s thermodynamics, and it applies to things which have a temperature, and equilibrium temperature. All the molecules are reacting in such a way that they randomize themselves, like a normal hot thing. But you don’t have to have that. You can isolate molecules and have them in special states, not obeying that particular law of thermodynamics, so one can get around it. Isolate molecules, put all molecules in a particular excited state, and they could all radiate, and could radiate intensively, and they would produce the waves by this effect that Einstein had proposed. Namely, if the wave comes along, it stimulates the molecule, like say jiggling its electrons back and forth, until they give up their energy to the wave, and the wave then is bigger as it goes on past.

2006: Sculpture of Charles Townes after its unveiling at the corner of Main Street and Camperdown Way in his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina. The breakthrough formula that led to the invention of the laser hit Charles Townes as he sat on a Washington, D.C. park bench 55 years ago.
2006: Sculpture of Charles Townes after its unveiling at the corner of Main Street and Camperdown Way in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. The breakthrough formula that led to the invention of the laser was conceived by Charles Townes as he sat on a park bench in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. 55 years ago..

That was a well-known effect. Not everybody had worked with it very much. It hadn’t been demonstrated in a very substantial way. But it was clear that, yes, that effect existed. I realized that could be done. Now how to do it?

Keys to success — Vision

I had been working at Columbia University, I had a number of friends working on molecular beams, and I knew all about molecular beams as well as the properties of molecules. So I pulled out a piece of paper in my pocket, it was an envelope, and started working with the numbers to see how many molecules would one need in order to produce enough energy so it would be useful, and how can you get that many molecules. And I realized one could send a beam of molecules in a vacuum, have an electric field which pulled out the ones you didn’t want, left the ones you did want going straight along. And they’d come into a cavity, and as they entered the cavity, the waves could be bouncing back and forth in the cavity, and take the energy out of the molecules. Now the cavity was something I learned about from microwaves. At Bell Laboratories, I had worked with cavities. The beam was something I had learned about at Columbia University. I knew a lot about that because my friends were working on that. Molecules, of course, I had been working with at Columbia University. So all of these things one puts together, and suddenly I realized, now wait a minute, that can do it. And I showed with calculations that, yes, one can get enough energy to make it work. And of course I was exhilarated by the idea that, yes, it looks like it could work. It was marginal. I said, “Well, it’s going to be difficult, but I believe it can be done.”

Charles Townes with his friend and collaborator Arthur Schawlow (1921-1999). Schawlow received his own Nobel Prize in 1981. (AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Segre Collection)
Charles Townes with his friend and collaborator Arthur Schawlow (1921-1999). Schawlow received his own Nobel Prize in 1981. In 1951, Schawlow married Aurelia Townes, younger sister to Charles Townes. (AIP Segre Collection)

So I went back to the hotel and talked to my friend Arthur Schawlow about it, and he agreed, that looks like a real idea. But it didn’t seem easy. So I waited a while, I wanted to get a student to do his Ph.D. thesis. I always work with students, and students who I was working with, students in the laboratory all the time, and they were undertaking interesting problems.

I thought, “Well now, this is a chancy problem, but maybe there will be a student who’s good and would feel like doing it. And so, fortunately, one appeared later that summer, Jim Gordon. And Jim Gordon had had a little experience with beams of molecules already. I talked with him about it, explained, “Well now, this is chancy, it might or might not work. I think it will work, but one can’t be sure. On the other hand, there’s some good things to do along this direction, that even if it doesn’t reach our ultimate goal, there are some good things to do, and it will be an adequate, good thesis program.” And so he agreed to undertake it. So he worked on it. I got another person, Herb Zeiger, a young post-doc, who had also had some experience with molecular beams, and he worked with us for a year. Now that problem — actually doing it — took about two-and-a-half years. It was not easy; we had to build things up from scratch. We had to make a cavity, we had to make a vacuum system, we had to arrange everything and so on. Get some circuitry, build up some circuits — and on a student basis — he was taking courses also. So it took a while, two-and-a-half years. But after that two-and-a-half years — we worked with it for some time — and I remember very well, I was sitting in a seminar with other students, and we were talking about something, and Jim Gordon burst in and said “It’s working!” That was a time that was really great.

Charles Townes on board the NASA Kuiper Airborne Observatory.
Charles Townes on board the NASA Kuiper Airborne Observatory, which supported research in infrared astronomy. The KAO made several major scientific discoveries, including the first sightings of the rings of Uranus in 1977, a definitive identification of an atmosphere on Pluto in 1988, and infrared spectrum measurements of Mercury.

I’d say there were two particularly great times. One when I was sitting there on that bench and I realized, see, here is a way it really could be done, and secondly when it actually worked, when we were getting real energy out of molecules and I knew the system was really functioning.

Keys to success — Courage

A scientist has to decide: Is he right or is he wrong? And other people won’t necessarily agree with you. Two very prominent professors in my department came in one day and said, “Look, you know that’s not going to work. We know it’s not going to work. Why don’t you just stop bothering with it, and wasting time, wasting time and money?” I had spent I guess about 30,000 dollars building this up. And they assured me it wasn’t going to work. Now, I had of course been working with it long enough, and thought about it enough that, well, I still think it has a good chance. And so I continued, and a couple of months later it was working. Now also, one should realize that many people came to my laboratory and looked at this, they weren’t terribly excited about it. They said, “Well, you know, that’s a kind of a nice idea.” But nobody else tried to do it. It wasn’t that interesting to other people at that time. They hadn’t yet really grasped what it meant. And everybody was looking at it, “Well yes, okay, that’s a kind of nice idea,” but some doubted it would work. And nobody else was interested enough to try to do it, even though they knew all about what I was trying to do. I had showed them. So we could take two-and-a-half years — no competition — we just went our own course, and did the things we thought had some chance. And it turned out well. Now, it might have not turned out so well. It would have been interesting in any case, but maybe not quite so successful. So it was worth exploring, I was sure of that.

Charles Townes with Pope John Paul II. Townes, a longtime member of the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, often emphasized the importance of faith in his life, and was honored with the 2005 Templeton Prize for contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
Charles Townes meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. Townes often emphasized the importance of faith in his life, and was honored with the 2005 Templeton Prize for contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”

We’ve read that there were actually graduate students who turned you down because they didn’t believe it was going to work, and they didn’t think they would get a decent doctoral thesis out of it. Did you ever doubt yourself, when all these other people were doubting you?

Keys to success — Perseverance

Charles Townes: I listened very carefully to the reasoning that other people had of why it wouldn’t work. And some of them had theoretical reasons why they believed it wouldn’t work. Others practical reasons. I listened very carefully to that. And I looked at those reasons very carefully, and I convinced myself that, no, they had not really understood it fully. That I thought they were wrong. But I examined it very carefully. I kept examining myself and my own ideas, of course. Now some people agreed with me. But not a large number, and as I say, no one thought it was exciting enough to try to do it themselves. I had no competition at all. Interestingly, when the laser came along, and when I started talking about the laser, then everybody jumped in, and everybody wanted to do it. With the maser, it was really too new and different, and people didn’t quite see the future of it. And after the maser was working, then it became the property of the field, the maser did. It became quite popular for a while. And then when Schawlow and I — Arthur Schawlow and I — wrote a paper about the laser, then that was exceedingly popular and everybody jumped in to try to make a laser. That was a very different kind of environment. But the really first ideas were not seized on by other people at all, and that’s where the scientist has to be ready to be alone a bit.