How do you know you’re right, especially when you’re talking about a theoretical idea? Is it mostly instinct, or is there another way you know you’re right?
Charles Townes: People think about things in different ways. It really depends on their own personality and mentality and background and so on, and ideas. Some people are very theoretical, and will think in their heads in terms of equations and will write down equations. Some people have more visualization. And for me, I do some of both. I have become so familiar with molecules and atoms and electrons, I write down equations about them to be sure just what they do, but then I can just see them. I visualize them. I can see them. They’re friends, and I know what they’re going to do. So you have instincts about them, and you just immediately recognize what they’re going to do. If it’s something that’s a little different, you’re not quite sure, but then you write down the equation, just to be sure. But you know them, as I say, they’re good friends and you know their characteristics very well, and so it’s an instinctive kind of thing frequently. You have a model, you sort of see them moving around and what they would do. Now, other people don’t necessarily think that way. There are many different things of doing science, but that’s a typical case for me. I really, I do a lot of visualization. But on the other hand, I also use equations. If there’s some doubt about it, I check it very carefully with equations. Now, I frequently have talked with other people about it to get them to see if they see any problems with it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they think they see problems, and I check that and find that they’re not right after all. So interaction with other people represents a very good check.
But on that day in Washington, D.C., you must have had a gut feeling you were on to something.
Charles Townes: Yes. Yes, and of course, I thought about the field for a long time. I had worked on it roughly five years, thinking about different ways. I wasn’t working steadily on it, but I was thinking about it off and on and seriously over a period of five years, trying various things, and I knew what the limits of everything else was. And I said, all right, if it’s ever going to be done, this is the way to do it. And I realized it could be done, and that was very exciting. I knew enough about it that I recognized immediately, and I had all the numbers in my head so to speak, so I could figure out exactly what was needed. And so that I did use equations, in a sense — very simple equations, numbers — but I had all that inside my head because I’d been mulling it over long enough that it was very familiar territory. I just hadn’t put it all together before.
Did you do anything to celebrate that day? Did you feel particularly high?
Charles Townes: I felt exhilarated. I didn’t do anything to celebrate, no. I went back and talked with Arthur Schawlow about it. And I went on to the meeting, and we had our meeting discussing techniques. I didn’t talk about it at the meeting, because it was quite new, and I wanted to think about it some more, before I started trying to propound it at the public.
When you first formulated the idea of the maser, did you have any idea what the practical applications would be? Did you imagine compact discs or laser surgery? Did you have any idea how wide-ranging this was going to be?
Charles Townes: I recognized it was going to be important and wide-ranging. But I had no conception of the real breadth of the range. I recognized a new way of producing waves, and waves have always been important to mankind in many applications. Even amplified in a new way. And we could amplify ways we hadn’t been able to amplify before. So there clearly were many new applications, but the most immediate ones that came to mind to me were in communications and radar, both things which I was quite familiar with. I saw immediately many applications there. Not in surgery though, certainly. I would say that the most exciting applications to me were in studying science. Using it to figure out more things about molecules and atoms and what was going on in scientific principles. That was what I foresaw a lot of use of it there. By no means all, and certainly not the uses of the laser.
You see, the laser, I expected to get down into the infrared, wavelengths of maybe a tenth of a millimeter or something like that. That’s terribly interesting. But it wasn’t down in the region of visible light waves. So I wasn’t thinking about that part of it at all at that point. Even after the laser came along, there was much of it I didn’t recognize, didn’t think about. I recognized that light was going to be very important, many new things that could be done. For example, I think one of the most fascinating immediate applications that came up pretty quickly was the reattaching of detached retinas in the eye. Because the light can go through the lens of the eye, be focused on the back of the eye by the lens, and sort of rivet the retina back onto the back of the eye. I had never heard of a detached retina. How could I think about that kind of application? I wouldn’t have known anything about it. So other people built on whatever I had done, and that’s typical of science. You find one idea, and you can think of some things, but then many other people think of other things, and it just grows like a tree. Everybody adding on and there’s lots of very interesting new ideas that are brought forth. I did predict a number of things, that’s quite true.
You said you did realize some of the practical applications very early on. What were those?
Charles Townes: I recognized, of course, some of the practical applications, because I’d been working a great deal with communications and radar at Bell Labs, particularly during World War II. I was occupied, as most scientists were, with applications and with radar at that time. So I realized many of the applications, with a new type of amplification, which could produce and amplify waves that were shorter than we had had before, and would also produce a very noise-free amplification. A better kind of amplification than we had before. So I could see some applications in communications and radar possibly. What excited me though, were the applications in science, because I wanted to use those waves to study things — study molecules and atoms and how they were composed and how they reacted, and solids too. That was the thing that interested me most. I had been thinking about it for a long time, if I only had such waves, the kinds of things that I could do. But there were practical applications that I recognized right away. Now many of the other practical applications that developed with time, I had no inkling of at that first point.
You also used the maser quite early for more accurate timekeeping, didn’t you?
Charles Townes: Yes, that’s true. That’s another thing which I was quite familiar with at that time, frequency standards and ways of producing a very constant frequency. I had worked with that some, using molecules in a different way still. And I was very familiar with that, and I recognized that we would have an oscillator then. Frequency depended primarily on the characteristics of the molecule. The characteristic of the molecule is made by nature, unchangeable in a sense. And so it would give a very constant frequency of oscillation, and hence a very good clock. And that was one of the early things we did, to test how constant it was. The first maser that worked was just great. We couldn’t tell how constant it was until we built another one. And we could compare the two, and their oscillations, to see how well they kept in step. And that allowed us to show that in fact it was a very constant oscillation, an excellent clock.
How soon after Jim Gordon ran into your seminar and told you it was working, did the scientific world admit that you had really found something?
Charles Townes: I gave a talk in Washington at a meeting, the national meeting of the American Physical Society. I suppose about a month later. But of course, many of my friends then came to the lab and wanted to see it. See that it was working and so on. And many of the local people got interested in it. The word spread around some, but would say the first big contact, when I gave a talk at the American Physical Society, I gave what’s called a post-deadline paper because it was too late to send in a normal paper. But I felt it was important, and the Physical Society recognized it was important and let me give a talk even though it wasn’t previously scheduled. And that interested a great many people at that point.
Did any of the scientists who said you were wasting government money working on the maser ever come by your office and admit they were wrong?
Charles Townes: Yes, one good friend of mine did. He came and said, “I guess you know more about what you’re doing than I do, after all.” That’s the beauty of science. People can recognize when you’re right or when you’re wrong eventually. And they recognize it generally in a good spirit.
Is it typical that ideas come to you rather suddenly, as they did with the maser, when you’re not in a laboratory? Is that the way revelations often appear?
Charles Townes: Revelations are revelations. And there are times when suddenly there’s a new idea that you have not realized before. And now some things you work through, you try to think about things, you write them down on paper, you figure out equations, and gradually you see from those equations something that you suspected might be there but you weren’t sure, and you have proved that, yes, it’s there. That’s a new discovery in a way, but it’s something that you felt might be there and you work it through more slowly. Then there are other times where it’s just sudden. You’ve been toying with something, trying to think of something for quite a while, and suddenly you think you see a way to do it. There are sudden revelations like that.
Now sometimes, you think about it, and you decide that really wasn’t right. It isn’t going to work after all. But then there are other times when you’re just almost certain that this is it. This really is the right idea. So there are many different ways in which it comes about. So far as the maser was concerned, here I was sitting in a beautiful setting of azaleas in the early morning. It was just a sort of a storybook kind of time when a revelation might occur. In the case of extension of the idea of light, to produce the laser, it was really very different. I had always had the idea, from the start, that I wanted to get to shorter and shorter waves, and I wanted to get down into the infrared. As you go from microwaves to shorter waves, you get down to about a millimeter, like that. Then you’re into what people would call the “long-wavelength infrared.” It’s still shorter, it’s infrared, then shorter and shorter, it’s ordinary heat waves, and so on. Eventually, you get short enough that you’re in light waves. But I wanted to get into the infrared. I felt surely it could be done. That what my original goal: to get into the infrared region, wavelengths shorter than a millimeter, let’s say. But I felt the best way to try it out was to produce waves of about a centimeter, which is what we did with the maser. Maser stands for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” That is, you stimulate the molecules to give up their energy, and thus amplify the microwaves. Microwave Amplification. But I knew the idea was applicable on down the shorter wavelengths, and that was my primary goal.
After we had worked with the maser for a while, I kept waiting and thinking, “Well, I keep thinking about how to get it down to very short waves. What’s the best way?” I knew some ways that would work, but they weren’t exciting ways. They would work, they wouldn’t get me down to very short waves, and I kept thinking, “Well, I’ll wait and see if I don’t have a better idea.” And I waited and I waited for about — well, after we built the first maser, I guess I waited three years. And at that point, I said, “I just haven’t had the right idea yet, but I must get down there to shorter waves. And I’ll just sit down at my desk and start writing down and figuring out what’s the best way I know now how to do it.” And I wrote down some equations and looked at them, thinking, “How many molecules do we have to have, and how do we get them excited and enough energy to give up radiation?” And as I wrote down these equations, I suddenly realized, “Well now, wait a minute, we don’t just have to get down to infrared. It’s just as easy to go right on down in the visible region.” As I looked at the equations, I could immediately see that, and I just never forced myself to sit down and think about it systematically. I was waiting for the great idea. But the great idea was writing down some detailed equations and thinking about those, and seeing, “Well, go right on down into the visible region,” and there we had lots of techniques dealing with light and short infrared. Instead of just going down slightly below a millimeter, I could go down to a thousand times shorter than that even, just as easily. And that’s where the laser came about. So I thought of ways of doing that then. That was a breakthrough, just sitting down there and saying, “Look, I’ve got to think about how to do this, and let’s see what’s the best way of doing it.” A very different kind of thing. A revelation in a sense, but not with a romantic setting.
What first sparked your interest in science? When did you first decide to become a scientist?
Charles Townes: What interested me about science really is our universe. And just everything about the universe. I like to understand and see. I lived on a small farm when I was young, and would go out and find things, and collect insects and look at trees and look at the stars. And just looking around at nature was what really interested me first, and that was from a very early age.
We had pets. I would raise animals. I would catch wildlife and raise them. I did carpentry. I also did some electronics and I collected stamps. Classification and understanding things was a great hobby of mine. In almost anything, I would sort of try to identify and collect and try to make work. When one of my cousins, who is an engineer, gave me an old radio set, that was just a great thing. And we’d tinker with the radio set, and made it work. My father used to bring home some broken clocks from a store of a friend he knew, a clockmaker, and we’d have broken clocks. And then we would play with them, and fix them and use the wheels and so on. So I enjoyed building things and making things.
What did you find so stimulating about the idea of being a research scientist?
Charles Townes: I like to try to understand things. You know, that’s a very great human drive, curiosity. What is this world here for? What’s it doing? What makes it work? How does it work? It’s like solving puzzles. But they’re interesting puzzles, in that once you find out something new, in science, then it’s the possession of everybody. And everybody else then builds on that. So you’re not just solving some puzzle that everybody else has solved once, and then you tear it apart and it has to be solved again. In science, you solve a puzzle, understand something new, and it’s exhilarating, and it’s everybody’s property then, which everybody can use. So it’s a permanent contribution.
Did your parents encourage your choice of science as a profession?
Charles Townes: They were not pushing me in any particular direction. They themselves, I would say, they were interested in natural history and they encouraged me. They didn’t object to my having insects in the house, for example, crawling around. So they were helpful, but they weren’t encouraging me in any one particular direction.
Didn’t you have a brother who also became a scientist?
Charles Townes: Yes, that’s right. I have a brother who is an entomologist. And I used to do a lot of collections with him. And even after I was grown, I did some collecting in various foreign countries to add to his collection.
We’ve heard that your father was big on encyclopedias.
Charles Townes: Yes, that’s quite right. My father, and my mother too, but particularly my father. But, a question would come up, and we would talk or argue about what the facts were. My father would always pull out the encyclopedia and really look and see if one could establish what really was the facts, rather than just leaving it open or a matter for opinion. We had several sets of encyclopedia. Whenever a new one came out that was good, he would buy it.
It sounds like he had a very scientific mind.
Charles Townes: I think that one might say that. He was a lawyer actually. I think there are many similarities between law and science. Investigation, understanding, and so on, logic.
Was there a particular person who inspired you as a child, to take the career direction that you did?
Charles Townes: I don’t think of anyone who I would say, that’s the person who inspired me. On the other hand, I was very much influenced by my older brother, certainly. He and I went around together, and I tagged along for a while. And I worked with him, we collected together. And we did a lot of things together. So I had a great time with my older brother. It was very stimulating, it was always challenging. He was usually a little better than I was. One reason perhaps I didn’t go into biology is because he was so much better than I that I had to pick something different. I did think seriously about biology, but on the other hand, I’m pleased that I went into physics. That attracted me even more.
Were there any books you read growing up that were particularly important to you?
Charles Townes: I liked books about the outdoors, stories of animals. But also people doing things. Swiss Family Robinson, for example, I enjoyed. There were people who were doing things, being creative in a tough situation and finding new things and learning new things. Also the books by (Ernest Thompson) Seton I liked. It was about animals, and then there were The Two Little Savages. The two little savages were two boys who learned to live like Indians and make do by themselves, out in the woods, and use the natural products and so on. That was quite interesting to me as a boy, to be able to do things. It’s also part of invention. Invention, thinking things through and finding out new ways of doing things.
Charles Townes: Yes, problem solving.
How did you do in school as a kid?
Charles Townes: I did quite well. I enjoyed some of school, at least. I did a lot of things outside of school. I had good marks. I was frequently at the top of the class, not always. But my sisters were much better. I had three sisters, and they were always really at the top of the class. They were valedictorians and so on, which I wasn’t. I did well, but I was more interested in doing things outside. My parents encouraged us, and sort of heard our lessons on occasion. So my whole family did well in school.
Was music also an interest for you?
Charles Townes: Yes, I enjoyed music. Several members of my family did some music, but I wasn’t terribly conscientious. I played piano for a while, and then I guess I got lazy and my parents said, “There’s no point in our paying for music lessons.” But later in life, I took it up again, and I studied voice after I graduated, just as a hobby. I was not terribly serious about it, but I enjoyed it.
Were there any subjects that you weren’t very good at, that you didn’t enjoy?
Charles Townes: One reason I went into physics is because I didn’t particularly like writing long essays or speaking. I felt a lot of this was just words that people were writing down. I didn’t feel particularly good at it, or it seemed kind of unnecessary to me. Physics, on the other hand, the question of understanding something, figuring something out — and to me, to get in a laboratory, and figure something out, and understand it — that was really interesting. Now of course, any scientist, once he figures something out, has to write about it or speak about it. So even though I never felt that I was very good or particularly enjoyed speaking or writing, I’ve had to practice a lot of that and do a lot of it. I realized of course I might have to, but I don’t particularly enjoy just writing.
It’s kind of an irony that the greater your scientific accomplishments, the more speaking and writing you had to do.
Charles Townes: The more speaking and writing I had to do, yes. And I don’t really mind it, but I don’t consider myself particularly skilled at it.
Were you a very social kid? Did you get along well with your classmates?
Charles Townes: I got along well with people. On the other hand, I was a little different, and I got picked on here and there. But I always had some good friends. And we had cousins and family around, and so there was a good deal of sociability.
Did people pick on you because you were a scientist type?
Charles Townes: I guess. Yeah. I was a little more oriented that way. I was young in most of my grades, too. Younger than the other children. I didn’t put on long pants as soon as other children did. My parents felt short pants were okay, and it didn’t bother me. But I got picked on, just for being a little different. Now I’ve always thought that actually that was very good training. My parents believed in what they believed, and they taught me to do that too, and to not worry if somebody else doesn’t agree with you. That’s a very important aspect of creativity. Because in looking at things that other people may not think are useful or good or right, and you have to decide for yourself what’s important. And that’s a part of certainly the scientific tradition. You have to think things through yourself. And just because somebody else doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean you should stop. That’s just the time you ought to think hard, see who really is right. So this being picked on a little bit, I don’t think it was a bad thing. And it didn’t trouble me all that much.
If you want to conform totally as a person, you can’t really be a scientist, can you?
Charles Townes: That’s quite right. You have to know how to be different, and to stand up for what you think of. And I guess my parents — my family — always taught me to be proud of being different, if you thought you really were right, and you’re proud of being able to stand for that.
How did you decide, out of all your scientific interests, that physics was the field for you?
Charles Townes: It was never really narrowed that much, it was just a practical matter. I liked mathematics. I liked biology. I didn’t like chemistry quite as much, because it was — at that time I was taught a kind of cookbook type of chemistry, not the exciting chemistry which is current today. But physics had so much logic in it. Such firm, demanding logic. One could really figure things out. That particularly attracted me. But I liked the other sciences too. However, at some point I had to decide. Actually, I didn’t decide until fairly late. The first course of physics I took was as a sophomore in college. And it was only the end of that year that I decided, “Yes, physics really is what I think I really want to do.” I would have been very happy in biology or some other sciences too, I’m sure.
But what was it about physics that inspired you?
Charles Townes: What I particularly liked about physics was the tight logic. That you could look at something, and if you figured it out correctly, thought about it carefully, you could be pretty sure. “Yes, this is right,” or something else isn’t right. Lots of new things to explore, but they were explored through logic, experimentation, but experimentation based on certain logical ideas. So it was the firmness and the definiteness which one could decide what really is right, I think, that attracted me. Plus the fact that it was dealing with what I thought were important ideas. Mathematics appealed to me, and I enjoyed mathematics, but I preferred to do something that involved the real world around me. Real objects, like physics. Even though that also involved mathematics, it was dealing with a sort of real life a little bit more, I felt, than mathematics.
Did you also see a kind of aesthetic beauty in the logic of physics?
Charles Townes: Oh yes, that certainly is part of it, that’s the emotional appeal. And in fact, it still is a very strong emotional appeal for most scientists including myself, to think of what enormous things, and complex things, and beautiful things can be explainable in terms of relatively few equations and principals, and how marvelously the world is put together. That’s aesthetically very appealing.
You also studied modern languages at Furman University. What drew you to that pursuit?
Charles Townes: I liked languages. I liked most subjects. There were not very many I didn’t like, really, and I liked languages, and I took Latin and Greek too. And languages, and I just took them along with everything else. I went to a relatively small college where there weren’t many science courses. So I took most of the science courses and then I took other things too. I just took any course that I thought would be interesting, and that included languages. As a matter of fact, I took my first degree in modern languages. I finished college fairly early. I could have finished fairly early, and my parents felt, well, I was a little young to be running off at that point, and I should stay around for four years of college. In four years I finished a degree in languages and then a degree in physics too. I knew I wanted to do physics, but languages were fun also, and so I just did that too.
Have the languages you mastered had an impact on your scientific work?
Charles Townes: Languages are of some importance to scientific work, yes. Of course, I think they’re very important to a general understanding of the world around us. Understanding of other civilizations, and being able to make contact with them and understand the culture of other civilizations. But they’re of some direct importance in science. A little less now than previously, because English has become such a predominant language in science, it’s not really necessary to learn other languages, but it’s still very helpful to know some Russian, and some German and other languages in which some of the sciences are written. Not everything is translated, although if you wait awhile, things can be translated.
You had to support yourself through most of college. How did you do that? What jobs did you take along the way?
Charles Townes: In college, actually, my father felt that he would support me, but any money I could earn would be helpful. And so I earned money.
I worked in my father’s office. I served legal papers, running around town giving papers to people. That was one thing. I also worked in the museum at the university. I put the museum in order and got things classified and so on, cleaned it up. I also taught laboratory. I taught physics laboratory and picked up some money. And then I had some scholarships, awards, and so on. But my father also paid some appreciable part of it. Now when I went to graduate school, then I was on my own. And I had saved up a little money and was able to get some help in graduate school too. And in graduate school I taught, as many graduate students do. You teach the undergraduates in the laboratory. And that helped out, so I got along all right.
Didn’t you sell apples at some point?
Charles Townes: That’s true. I sold apples, I picked cotton. My family lived, as I said, on a small farm, and we had apple trees. And I picked apples and I peddled them around in the neighborhoods, selling apples. That was another way of picking up a little cash. I did a wide variety of things, as I say, including picking cotton, and working in gardens, and things of this type.
At Caltech, is it true that you shared a six-dollar-per-month sleeping porch for a while?
Charles Townes: Yes. Yes, that’s true. I didn’t have very much money when I went to Caltech. I had been at Duke University before that, and I wanted to go to Caltech, which I felt at that time was the best place in physics during that period, as I believe it was. Oppenheimer was there, Millikan was there, and many other very well-known people. I could not, however, get a fellowship or any help at Caltech. Coming from a relatively small school, Furman University, and then at Duke, the competition was too fierce, and I just didn’t get any help at Caltech. But I had saved up five hundred dollars and I decided, well, I’ll take my five hundred dollars and I’ll go to Caltech, and see how long I can last. And so I was rather abstemious when I got there. And I got together with another student who also didn’t have any excess money, and we slept on this sleeping porch all the first year. And then, fortunately, Caltech gave me a teaching assistantship, which from then on allowed me to pay my expenses there.
How did you come to work for Bell Labs? That was a very crucial point in your early career.
Charles Townes: Yes. And you know, I have often said that well, there were many problems that I had, as everybody has, but it just seems to me that solutions come out of problems, and I have been very lucky in that respect. My going to Caltech, for example, I had a problem, but it turned out all right.
I really wanted to work in a university. I wanted to teach, and hopefully be able to do research. Teach in a university where I could do research, that was my goal, and I looked very hard, but this was the Depression, and the Bell Laboratories people offered me a job. They were just beginning to offer people jobs again, so it was the latter part of the Depression. This was 1939 and they offered me a job, and the professor with whom I worked said, “Look, that’s a job, you ought to take it, there won’t be many more.” I wasn’t all that eager. I knew Bell Laboratories was a fine place, but it wasn’t a university. So I went, and I learned an enormous amount. It put me in good contact with electrical engineering, for example, particularly during the World War. I worked on radar, learned a lot about microwaves, and out of that has grown a great deal of my own research, which is typical. You project forward on what you know already. And getting intimately acquainted with engineering — engineering techniques, electronics in particular — has been very important to my career. Bell Laboratories was just a wonderful place to work. And afterwards, sometime after the war then, I had an opportunity to go to a university, which I did.
Was there a particular person who gave you a big break, as a young scientist?
Charles Townes: I feel that I’ve had good breaks all along, and I’ve worked with many good individuals. I wouldn’t say there’s one single person. But the professor of physics in my undergraduate school was a very important figure. He taught very well, he was not highly trained in research, but he was very logical, very good mind. And the professor with whom I worked at Caltech was a good friend of mine, I saw a great deal of him, and he was helpful. So all along the line, all sorts of people have helped me. But I wouldn’t say there was one particular person that just made all the difference.
Which scientists influenced you or inspired you?
Charles Townes: Most scientists do. Of course there are the classical figures. I might talk about Einstein a little bit, for example.
Now, when I was in college, I was taking my second course in physics, I remember very well, and it had a chapter on relativity. And I took this relativity on a vacation in the mountains; my family went with me. And I remember very well sitting on a rock up in the hills there overlooking a stream, reading this relativity derivation. And it was just very exciting and interesting. It was a strange new world, relativity. I even thought I had found where Einstein made a mistake. And I went back for lunch, and I thought about it, came back. And I said, “No, he was right after all,” but it was still very exciting. To see a completely different kind of idea and world from what one’s normal intuition shows. Of course, Einstein was one of the great scientists; I’ve always admired him. I fortunately had a chance to talk with him and interact with him a little bit as well.
What was he like personally?
Charles Townes: Einstein was a very low-key person, personally. Very low-key. Very pleasant. Just a nice human being. And interested. But you would not, superficially, say, “Oh, there’s a very brilliant man.” You’d say, “There’s a nice man, and he’s thoughtful.” Einstein’s strength was really in depth. He thought about things very deeply. It wasn’t that he was so enormously quick, but he thought about things very deeply and he was imaginative, that was his strength. And he was very interested in what I was doing, and a very pleasant person.
I also met Millikan and Oppenheimer. Those people are all different, but very interesting and helpful. They set good examples. So there are many different scientists with whom I have interacted, and it meant a lot to me. But again, I couldn’t pick out one and say, “That’s it.” I think one interacts with a wide variety of people frequently. Einstein, I suppose, in special relativity. And then some of the figures in quantum mechanics, that I didn’t know so well personally earlier in my life, but quantum mechanics itself I found quite fascinating, and the figures there were sort of heroes of mine too.
Your work seems to have built on both Einstein and quantum mechanics in different ways, and built up from there.
Charles Townes: Those are both very basic ideas in physics, things every physicist wants to know, and uses. I would say, actually, my own research has been more innovative in the direction of quantum mechanics, not in relativity. On the other hand, the very basic idea of the maser came from something which Einstein had proposed. It came from so-called “stimulated emission,” where radiation, or waves, can stimulate an atom to give up some of its energy. And he first proposed that and showed that it must be present. And that is part of the basis for the maser. So in a sense, I built on Einstein’s work, but not on his work in relativity.
Do you set goals for yourself as a scientist? Did you have an idea in mind, a vision of what you wanted to accomplish?
Charles Townes: I would say my vision was a rather general one. I wanted to find out new things that were interesting. Important, yes, but important in a sense of intellectual importance. While I’ve done some things that have had applications, I wasn’t primarily interested in applications.
The thing that really excites me is finding new ideas and new principles, and I wanted to find out new things about anything that I encountered. Now in fact, how I did that is I started with the knowledge that I had, and I thought about, “Now what direction can I go in, where I think there’s a new idea that people have missed and where I should explore?” In other words, you look at a territory and try to figure out, now is it interesting to go this way, or that way, and what might I find there, and what would be most interesting, from the territory that you know. And so I projected forward from what I knew, of course. Everyone has to. And I asked, “What’s the most interesting thing to try to do with what I know, and that I think might be possible and other people have somehow missed so far?” And I worked in those directions. And then from that I would branch off in another direction, perhaps later, after that had worked through. And in fact, I’ve branched off in a variety of directions. Part of my pleasure is to try new fields. To look at new things. I work in one direction for a while, and that’s fascinating and interesting, and after I feel, well, that’s been explored now and it’s become popular — other people know about it and other people are working there — now I want to go off by myself in a different direction.
We were talking about clear goals. The way you meander in a sense, scientifically, is really interesting. Do you advocate this approach for young scientists, to follow several different directions?
Charles Townes: I think first one has to learn the field thoroughly enough so that you can see the things that are promising. That means you work with somebody else who’s an expert, try to learn from them, you take classes, you learn everything you can. At some point, you’ve learned enough that then you can perhaps be clever and wise about what next to do. And once you start doing that then, for me at least, everything sort of grows out of the things before. You take whatever experience you have, and that’s true of course of all of life, you take whatever experience you have, and you project it forward, and what new things you might do with that expertise or knowledge or experience and judgment. I would say, in a sense, almost everything I have done, while it may seem very different scientifically, it really is a continuous stream of things, branching off here and there, you see, in various directions, but still very closely connected.
You said you had a great interest in pure research, but the overwhelming practical applications of your work would be hard to match for any scientist pursuing purely practical research. Is that a coincidence, or do you think that is inevitable?
Charles Townes: One of the characteristics of research is that you can never predict what it’s going to turn up. So it’s very difficult to know, when you’re doing something, is it going to be most important in application? Most important in new ideas? Or both? And what applications? We have great trouble in this country sponsoring research directed at certain applications, because you can’t direct research, basic research, in that way. You try to find out new things, and when you find out something new, then you see, ah! that may apply to something that’s interesting, and has important applications. You can do some research directed in directions you think are likely to be applied and likely to find applications.
Many new ideas come forward that really produce great surprises. For example, the maser and the laser really came out of a study of molecules, and the interaction of molecules with microwaves, or radio waves. What did it do? Eventually, it produced a very bright light. Well, who would have said, “Let’s find out a new way of producing a bright light by studying radio waves and molecules.” Or a new surgical tool for example. No one would have planned of producing a new surgical tool by hiring me to study molecules. So the eventual results of research are very frequently quite unexpected. These were new things I was trying to do, and they have many applications in science, which was my primary interest. The maser and the laser, and particularly the laser, has been exceedingly important as a scientific tool, which is what I was interested in. At the same time, it had very many and surprising variety of applications in the more common world. I knew that it would have applications because of simply what it was dealing with, once I had gotten onto the idea, because we were dealing with light in new ways, and controlling light in a way very similar to electronics. Now if you look at electronics and you look at light around the world, you see they touch on a wide variety of fields. And the combination of those two was bound to touch on a wide variety of fields, but I didn’t know what they all were. I could imagine some of them, but I couldn’t possibly imagine all of the things that have really developed out of that.
Edison said that genius is “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Clearly, a lot of hard work has played an important role in your career.
Charles Townes: People tell me that I work hard. I never feel that I do particularly, because it’s fun. I always say, “Well, I’ve never worked hard in my life.” I’m busy, but most of what I do is enjoyable. It isn’t that it’s not tedious to some people, and so on, and of course I have routine to do, but I don’t mind it. I just don’t feel that I’m put upon. I spend a lot of time, but it’s fun. It’s a very intensive hobby. I would say it’s my most serious hobby. I have lots of hobbies, but the one permanent one is science, physics. So yes, I spend a lot of time, and I would agree with Edison, you have to work very hard and intensively. But it’s not what the ordinary person calls work to me. It’s really interesting, fun, enjoyable, exciting to be thinking about these things.
After you worked so hard on the development of the maser, you took a break in 1955, a sabbatical. Did you feel like you needed to refresh yourself? Were you tired or overstimulated?
Charles Townes: I don’t think I felt particularly tired, but I had planned for a long time to take a sabbatical leave. With a sabbatical, part of the reason for taking it is to think through what you’re doing, whether you’re doing the most interesting things, whether there’s something else that would be still nicer, and more interesting, to make new contacts with a different group of scientists, and sort of refresh yourself intellectually. I wasn’t physically tired. But I had been chairman of the department for three years. I had just finished a book on microwave spectroscopy, and I felt microwave spectroscopy had reached a point where I believe it was more or less mature, so far as the world of physics was concerned. We understood all the principles. It was very important for chemistry, and further study of molecules, but I felt we understood the principles, and Schawlow and I wrote this book and completed it. And I felt this was a time to stop and think about what I was doing. I took a sabbatical, and we had a nice trip abroad, spent some time in Europe, some time in France. I made a point of saying I’m not necessarily going to continue doing the things I’m doing. I’m going to think about what other fields, maybe what I ought to do. I looked into astronomy, for example. I had always been interested in astronomy. I thought about doing astronomy, and I associated with some astronomers in Paris, but also associated with people doing spectroscopy, and other things there, at the École Normale Superieure in Paris. And, as frequently happens, you run into somebody that sort of starts another train of thought.
I had a student who had gone over to Paris to work with Professor (Alfred) Kastler. Kastler I knew very well, and my student had gone to work with him in a post-doctoral position. And after I got there I ran into this student, and he told me what he was doing. He had found that he could orient electrons in silicon, a semiconductor. He could orient electrons in their spins in one direction, and they stayed there for a long time, and didn’t lose their direction. I recognized, well, that’s like an excited molecule. You can fix them in one direction by putting them in a magnetic field, then they’re like little magnets, you can produce energy. If they flip in the other direction, they will give you energy, and that’s a way of making another kind of maser, and particularly a maser which would amplify well out of a solid, rather than this beam of molecules. So running into him, we talked about it. I said, “You know, we should try that. We should try and see how far we can get.” I just had a few months in Paris. So he and I and other French physicists worked on that. Now that also combined my interest in astronomy, because the reason for getting a very sensitive amplifier in the microwave region, for me, was to do more sensitive astronomy, radio astronomy, detecting microwaves from outer space more sensitively. That was my goal at that time.
I thought that was very interesting, while I’m there in Paris I must look at that. But in the meantime I had looked at a wide variety of other things and other possibilities that were terribly interesting too. And was debating with myself what to do.
I went on to Japan, and I had a colleague there who had worked with me at Columbia. And again, running into him, I talked with him, and I ran into a biologist that I had known from Columbia University, he was spending a year over there. And I was puzzling over how to figure out exactly how much noise there was in this amplifier. And you create energy, and you take away energy, and this interchange of energy with waves and atomic molecular energy. And he said, “Oh, you know that’s somewhat like the microbes that I’ve been working with. I’ve tried to work out equations of how microbes live and die and are created, and hence how they develop.” And I said, “Oh, you know, that’s exactly the same process that occurs with a wave.” You create a photon, you destroy a photon, you have a probability that new ones will be created, so you have a generation of photons that grows just like a generation of microbes that grows or dies. You have fluctuations in the numbers. So I looked at those equations, I worked on them. There was a Japanese person there who was a good mathematician, and we talked about it with two of my Japanese colleagues. We worked that out to see just how well the amplifier would work. I knew it would work very well, but I didn’t have a good quantitative picture. We worked it all out there in Japan. Again, by running into the right people, ideas get suggested and exchanged and so by the time I came back to the United States, I had the amplifier all worked out. And you know, this is really what I would like to do. I want to build this amplifier, and do radio astronomy, because I can do radio astronomy in a new way now.
So that trip did produce some new ideas in the same field, actually. It also kind of assured me that this this was really the best thing for me to do at that point.
It sounds like you’re thinking about your work all the time. Is that true? Do you walk around mulling over these problems?
Charles Townes: Yes, that’s true. I think anyone who’s doing creative work frequently does some of their best work in off moments, when they’re thinking about things. You have to be interested enough that it occupies your mind. And sometimes in the shower, or walking along the street, or sitting on a park bench, or anything else, those are times when a little different slant on things appears, and you suddenly have an idea, so that these off moments, thinking about things, are very important. To me, if someone isn’t thinking about their research outside the laboratory, then they’re not really interested. You have to be really wrapped up in the subject to really try to master it. And frequently, the new ideas come in those off moments, when your mind is maybe even in a dream. And there’s some famous ideas that have come in dreams. And sometimes some ideas have come in dreams, and they’re wonderful and right, and sometimes you wake up and say, “Oh no, that really isn’t so.” But it’s the relaxation of the mind in the off moments, looking at things in a different way, that frequently produces those radically new ideas.
We’ve even heard of mathematicians and scientists finding solutions in their dreams.
Charles Townes: (Friedrich August) Kekulé is the most famous example of that. He was trying to figure out how a carbon could make the molecules that it did. He was sitting by his fireplace, kind of dreaming, and he sort of visualized snakes, growing up and biting their tails, and making a circle. He said, “Ah! That’s the carbon ring!” And that’s how the carbon ring was discovered. That’s a very famous case.
Stravinsky claimed that his wind octet came to him in a dream.
Charles Townes: I think that’s typical of everyone, regardless of the field. You’re intensely interested, you think about it in all kinds of ways, and in off moments, frequently, great ideas occur.
What qualities do you think are necessary for a fine scientist?
Charles Townes: That’s a very interesting question. Because science is done in many different ways and many different styles, and many different approaches. And you find people who are very non-mathematical and yet are able to visualize and do things and invent things and do very good science. And they go about it one way. Other people go about it in a completely different way. So science, if we’re going to explore it well, we need all kinds of different approaches, different people. Everybody in a sense has to be smart, I suppose you could say, but it’s not the kind of smartness that everybody would judge. It’s not just being very quick with repartee or something like that. Obviously very verbal, or something like this. It’s a very different kind of game. And I suppose the one thing that is most important of all is intense interest. You can’t do anything much in science unless you really are interested and want to do it. But exactly how you get ahead in science or discover the right things, that’s a highly personal thing, quite variable, and we need many different approaches. So, all I can say is you have to be interested, you have to work at it, think about it hard, keep at it, and talk with other people, share ideas, and bounce things around. That’s the general way in which I think it’s most likely to work.
You’ve said before that you have to be somewhat independent because you have to believe in your convictions. On the other hand, if you’re too much of a loner, you could become trapped in your own ivory tower.
Charles Townes: If you’re too much of a loner, then you lose what many other people have discovered and know. You want to know what they know, and to build on that, and they should know what you know, and be able to build on that. Also, just trying out ideas and talking about things, some chance comment may allow you to recognize something that the person making that comment hasn’t recognized. It’s an interaction which is also a field of discovery. Ideas come about in conversation, seeing somebody else’s work, or thinking about it, looking at another approach. Some of it’s a generation of ideas under new circumstances; some of it’s the importance of knowing what science is presently known, to build on that. Otherwise you’re just duplicating what other people have done already.
It sounds like you also have to be flexible and open-minded.
Charles Townes: Oh, that’s completely right. You have to be determined. You have to be open-minded. You have to be willing to examine. You have to be willing to stand up by yourself and differ with people, but you have to be very self-critical at the same time, otherwise you can waste a lot of time. If you just want to be yourself, and be different from everybody else, and not self-examining, then you can waste a lot of time. You have to be very self-critical and honest with yourself, when you’re right or wrong. At the same time be able to stand by what you think.
Integrity is important, too, isn’t it?
Charles Townes: Integrity is very important in science. Not fooling yourself, but also certainly not trying to fool other people. Other people will see through it in time. In science usually one can decide, and the community can decide eventually, whether somebody is right or wrong. And if you’re wrong, you need to admit it. If you’re wrong, you say, “I guess I misunderstood that. I didn’t see through this.” So you go on to something else. It’s common to be wrong in science.
It’s very important to be able to be wrong. That is, you want to be able to stand up against criticism, or people who differ with you. You want to be able to take chances. You also want to be able to recognize when you’re wrong. And you’re going to be wrong some of the time, and it doesn’t hurt a scientist to be wrong, especially if he can recognize it. If he recognizes it first, that’s great. If somebody else recognizes he’s wrong and proves it to him, well then okay, you accept that. Yes, I was wrong. And so you go on and do something else. It’s the sorting out of what’s right and what isn’t right, we do it all the time. And sure, we’re wrong some of the time and we’re right some of the time. But the fact that we can sort that out and decide is what’s great about science. So you can continue to build on what is right, and when that’s tested by other people, you may have to stand up against the community for some time, but eventually, other people will be able to decide whether you’re right or wrong. Doing experiments and showing it, for one thing. Or doing the experiment and finding out it doesn’t work. Then you know. You don’t want to waste too much time on being wrong, you want to say, “Well all right, I was wrong, and what did I learn from that?” And go on and find a better way of doing things.
Have you had many painful setbacks in your career?
Charles Townes: Painful setbacks? I’m not sure I think of anything as painful. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, I’ve had setbacks, made mistakes in that sense. I don’t consider them setbacks. If I work for a while on something, and find out that my idea wasn’t right, well okay. It’s not exactly a setback, I’ve explored that path. Down that particular path doesn’t lead anywhere, and so I’ve done something. To me it doesn’t seem like a setback. It’s a mistake, you might say. So I go off some other way, so it’s certainly not painful. But I’ve done plenty of things that aren’t right that I find out about, made missteps. The idea is to try to figure out the best thing to do, but stay self-critical. As soon as you find you’re wrong, backtrack and do something else.
You’ve talked about a connection that you perceive between religious belief and scientific faith. You see some similarities there. That’s very provocative, since science and religion have been at odds in many people’s eyes. Can you tell us how they come together for you?
Charles Townes: Yes, there was a time when many scientists, particularly back in the 19th century, felt that science proved things. It proves that everything is mechanistic and predictable, there’s no room for any free will, we’re not making any choices, we’re just automatons of the whole business. We’re started off, and we’re just running, and we have no control and there’s no room for anything else but that mechanistic kind of universe. Now, that was so deeply ingrained, and science was so successful in that viewpoint for a long time, many scientists felt there was no escape from that.
In this century, we started examining new things. For example, the very small things, atoms. We couldn’t examine them back in the 19th century very well. We have progressed enough that we can look at atoms. We find things which are very strange there, contrary to all of our intuitions and expectations. And quite contrary to the idea that everything is predictable. Things are not predictable. And people are beginning to be a little more conscious that, well, there are a lot of things going on that we don’t understand yet. Science may eventually understand them, but there are surprises and things which are counter-intuitive. They’re very hard to believe.
Einstein never really completely believed quantum mechanics. He said, “The Lord God doesn’t throw dice!” There are not chances in things, things are predictable. It was completely against his grain. And yet, it seems to be absolutely true, that things are not completely predictable. And we can say in what degree they’re predictable or not, and we find more and more strange things that are counterintuitive to us. Now, my general view is that science really has many broad similarities to religion. We don’t know that our science is right, completely. We don’t know that our assumptions are correct. Mathematicians have shown, again only in this century, that you can never prove anything mathematically, really. You make a set of assumptions, and if those assumptions are consistent and right, then you can make some conclusions. But you don’t know whether those assumptions are consistent and right. You have to make another set of assumptions in order to check them, and you don’t know whether those are right. So we now know that our logic is not so complete. We’re really living on faith in science, faith that our assumptions are right. They seem remarkably right, and we can check them against everyday experience and so on. And to me, religion, I think I like to treat them in the same way. Religion involves assumptions of faith that, yes, there is a structure, a faith that you have that this is the way things are. And you check it against life. Say, “Well, does life really work that way?” And that’s a question of experience. We can’t do experiments in the same way we can do in science, and yet, we’re experimenting all the time, in the sense we’re living life and experiencing and we’re observing. We know past history and past life, and that does seem to correspond to our religious faith.
Of course there’s room for various varieties of religious faith. Religious faith in many ways is the same kind of structure as scientific faith. You believe something may be true, it’s the basis on which you reason and think, and you check against the world and observe. So the process is similar. Very different in the precision with which one can check things, but broadly, philosophically I think, very similar.
They both involve a search for a greater truth.
Charles Townes: They both really are trying to understand our universe. They’re both attempts to understand our universe. And in the case of religion, one might say, they’re trying also to understand the purpose of the universe. But basically it’s an attempt for humans to grasp what is the meaning of our universe, and what is it like, how does it work. They’re both aimed at the same thing, and my feeling is that eventually, if they develop well, they will come together, much more closely. Because they’re both trying to understand the universe around us, and if we make progress, there’s bound to be more and more contact.
Religion has been an important factor in your own life, hasn’t it?
Charles Townes: Yes, it certainly has. I rely on it very much.
And you’ve never felt a conflict with your work?
Charles Townes: No, no. I don’t feel a conflict with my work at all. I can understand how some scientists, particularly in the 19th century could.
Pasteur was a very religious person, and a very good scientist. He was asked, “How can you be religious and still a scientist?” And he said, “Well, science is in my laboratory. My religion and my family are different. It’s a different domain.” That’s the only way he could solve it. Today, I think, we understand enough that we have a very different way of solving it. In fact, there’s not necessarily any inconsistencies. Now one may or may not believe in religion. You may or may not believe in the logic of science. You may or may not believe in religion. I wouldn’t insist that one has to believe in religion, because I can’t really prove it. But on the other hand, my own experience and observation is that it’s real, and it’s affected me in my own life a great deal.
Do science and religion afford a similar feeling of fulfillment, a sense of revelation?
Charles Townes: Oh yes. Both science and religion have these aspects of revelation. And that too is something that I think most people don’t quite recognize. They think of religion as involving revelation, science involves logic and proof and so on, but science involves revelation also. There are suddenly new things that come about, new ideas, new constructs. You can test them, but then religious revelation you can think about as to whether it’s real also.
You’ve taken time away from the lab to serve on government committees. That’s precious time for a scientist. Why have you devoted so much time to these pursuits?
Charles Townes: I have worked for the government, and in society, simply because I think that’s a duty of everyone to participate and try to contribute to the welfare of others and to the working of society. That’s not my hobby, let me say, the way science is. Science, I’m intensely interested and I enjoy doing it. In the case of working for the government, I don’t mind it, I don’t find it objectionable. On the other hand, it’s not what I would choose to do. I do it simply because I think it’s important and I want to be helpful and participate. In fact, there was a time, just when we were trying to make a laser, the laser had not been yet made. We were trying to make a laser, I had a really fairly difficult decision. Some people came from Washington, wanted me to come down and try to help them, advising the government, at the time when our space program was in the works. Missiles were a big issue, and we didn’t know exactly what the Soviets had. There weren’t many scientists in Washington, and the argument was that they badly needed somebody to help out. And I just felt I should do it. And so I left the laboratory at that point, and went down to Washington for two years. That’s the time that I worked most intensively in that area, trying to be of help. I thought I could stand it for a couple of years, and that was about right. Two years was enough. I didn’t really object to Washington, I just much preferred to be in the laboratory.
And since that time, I have tried to be helpful on various committees and served in a variety of ways, as I think most people would be inclined to do.
What kinds of problems did you work on for the government?
Charles Townes: In the case of the government, we worked on a variety of things, including problems of space science, space technology, missile science, missile technology. Arms control, how to regulate these things. I worked some with the State Department, some with the Defense Department. And just the general issues of our time in the areas of technology and technological policy. Now, since that time, I have continued to work in that area, some directly with government, some in other organizations. I was for some time, for example, active on a committee on the National Academy of Sciences, that went back and forth to the Soviet Union, met with a similar committee over there.
There was a time when the community of science was a very important link between the Soviet Union and the United States. Scientists can talk to each other, and enjoy talking to each other, in a way people in other fields don’t. A scientist in the Soviet Union wants to be thought well of by scientists in the United States, and vice versa. A politician in the Soviet Union wants to be thought well of in the Soviet Union, a politician here wants to be thought well of here. But scientists like to get together, and want to be thought well of, and they will generally be franker and easier to talk to, and interested in each other’s work more. So it was a natural communication link, which we did not have for a while with the Soviet Union. And it’s helped develop a kind of rapport and understanding, mainly our discussions which centered around arms control, and problems that tied to international science. And I think when we saw this recent change, those scientists in the Soviet Union who were familiar with the west were very important in helping those changes, and advising Gorbachev. Because they knew the West, the intellectual community in the Soviet Union knew the West in a way that other people didn’t. And Gorbachev called on them a great deal for that reason. So that liaison back and forth between the scientific communities, I think, has been a very important one.
Your work has led to some tremendous advances in military technology. Have you ever had any qualms about that?
Charles Townes: Many people have asked me, “What about the laser? It’s an instrument that kills people! It’s the death ray!” I’m sorry for them to think of it as a death ray.
Technology can do evil things as well as good things. But that’s true of any technology, essentially any technology. You know, if we make a knife, a knife was useful, but a knife can also kill people. It’s what you do with it that is most important. In the case of the laser, it happens that it really isn’t a very good death ray. It will burn you. It can kill people. But a pistol is much simpler and quicker and cheaper. I don’t think the laser will ever be really used as a death ray. Even though people think about it, they work on it. They think particularly about using the laser to shoot down missiles. It doesn’t work very well that way either. There are some cases where it will destroy, for example, a spacecraft. I think a laser beam can effectively destroy a spacecraft, unless the spacecraft is specially protected. But on the other hand, the most important military uses for lasers, very few people quite recognize. It’s in guidance. For example, it helps a tank cannon to see that the bullet hits another tank rather than something else. Even more important, it helps bombs dropped from aircraft hit the target. If the aircraft is aimed at a bridge across the river, it will really hit the bridge, and you can hit the bridge right in the middle, rather than scattering the bombs around the town and killing a lot of people, and so on. So overall, I think the extra technology the laser has given us has been very helpful militarily, and I’m very pleased with it. I’m sorry not so many people recognize that, but that’s a property of popular imagination and the newspapers, and I suppose Zeus’s thunderbolts, or something like that, has attracted everybody. But the laser really has very little importance in that direction. Very little actual importance.
You’ve worked a lot with defense technology. Is that something you feel is a very important priority for this country?
Charles Townes: I think not only that we must have a good defense, but also we have to manage it well, to see that it’s not threatening. We have to work on how to control it. And arms control, and so on. How to see that the situation isn’t unstable. To see that we’re protected, the Soviet Union is also protected, but not producing an unstable situation. Particularly in the missile world, that’s been very important. Now, I was asked to be chairman of a committee to examine how a particular missile should be deployed. And particularly, we were interested in how it could be deployed in a way which would be very stable, so it could not be attacked and we wouldn’t be tempted to shoot it off quickly so it wouldn’t be destroyed by the enemy and so on. Those problems are highly technical, very important to stability. Now, it would be best if we could get rid of all of them, but considering the present nature of the world, we do have to have some weapons, we have to have some protection. And we’ve got to manage them well and think them through well, and those are the places where scientists, many scientists, have worked on that kind of problem. To see that we have a stable situation, rather than one that is going to tempt people to burst out into all-out attacks.
Some scientists differed with you about the value of the Apollo program. There were people who didn’t think it was on the right track. Can you tell us about those pressures?
Charles Townes: The Apollo program, I thought was interesting. I wasn’t sure we should do it, but I was excited about it at the same time. It’s impressive to me, and when it was first announced, it was mostly planned and thought of by engineers, not scientists. Now engineers and scientists are close together, but they sometimes have different viewpoints. Scientists weren’t much involved in the original idea and planning.
But in the early days of the Apollo program, many scientists were very critical. And they were talking to the newspapers, and jumping on NASA, and jumping on the program, and so on. I happened to know the person who at that point was the head of this Apollo program. He had been an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories. He had done some microwave work, as I had, so I knew him. When I ran into him, I said, “Look, George, you have all these scientists jumping on you and talking to the newspapers and so on. They’ve got some real criticism. What you ought to do is get them together and have them advise you and talk to you, not just go talking to newspapers. Because they’ve got some sound things that they ought to be saying. But some of the criticism is not necessarily right, and you should get them together and talk with them, and get their ideas.” He went back to James Webb, who was head of the space program at that time, talked to him. He said, “Jim Webb thinks, yes, he thinks we ought to do that. We’d like you to be chairman and form the committee.” That’s the trouble, you know, if you have an idea, you get caught.
So I couldn’t turn him down very well, I felt, and so he asked me to organize it. I called around to many of the people who were very critical. Specifically got those people who were critical and said, “Let’s get together and talk with NASA, advise them.” And almost everyone agreed, “Yes, this is a national program, we’ve got to do it right.” And this is the way I would approach them: “The country is committed to this. You may not agree with it entirely, but we ought to give them some constructive and useful criticism and tell them how we think it might be done.” There was only one person, a good friend of mine who was a bit of a jokester, and I called him, and said, “We’re going to do this, and we just ought to see that it’s done well.” And he said, “I’ve always thought things that aren’t worth doing, aren’t worth doing well. No, I’m not going to sit on that committee!” But everybody else served on the committee. They were very helpful, they became very close to the head of the program, George Miller, and there was a very strong interaction, and people really contributed a great deal to the program.
Now there were still others who continued to criticize it strongly. Some of the criticisms, when we looked into it, were valid; some of them were not valid. But we had a good group of scientists and engineers who could look at these things outside of NASA, that is independent of NASA, and advise NASA and think about them. And I believe that helped the program substantially. As time went on, people enjoyed it a little bit more, but I was even criticized back at my university. I was at MIT then.
A very important figure at MIT had never liked the space program, and told Jim Killian — who was the head of them, head of the board at MIT — that “Look, what Townes is doing is just sinful. We shouldn’t have NASA spending any money at MIT,” and so on, and we shouldn’t do this, and the big rockets aren’t going to work. “The big rockets aren’t going to work, they will have instabilities and problems.” And so Jim Killian, who had been an advisor to Eisenhower — head of Eisenhower’s first big science advisory committee — came around to me and said, “What about this?” I told him we had looked very carefully into the instabilities; we felt that they were manageable. We felt they could work. And this very fine engineer, a very senior person who thought it was all wrong, who I really don’t — I really don’t agree with him. I’d be glad to talk with him, I really don’t agree with him. So that was that. We had looked at it quite carefully. We might have been wrong, but we had a lot of experts, and we worked at it hard, and I felt it was probably right. And it did turn out to be right, fortunately. And this same gentleman got on TV after the landing, and he said, “That was a remarkable accomplishment.” That was very rewarding to me, for him to recognize that. You have to struggle with those things, and hope you’re right.
What do you think should be our priority right now in space exploration? Is Washington enthusiastic enough about that program?
Charles Townes: I think there’s a great deal to be done in space which is valuable. And we should do. Many scientists would say, “We want to do space science, so let’s send up unmanned rockets and let’s make measurements,” and we send up telescopes, and all that is good, I believe, but there’s more to it than that. For example, the Apollo program, which landed on the moon, meant an enormous amount to the world and to the United States. It discovered some new science. We got lunar rocks. We know a great deal more about the moon. There was good science involved. But the importance of the Apollo program was in a sense it’s importance to the human spirit, to attitudes, and the position of the United States. In a sense, security. National security also is important, because it showed the Soviets that our missiles would probably work.
I happened to be in Africa shortly after the landing on the moon, and the people in Africa told me they were dancing in the streets when we landed on the moon. So it was a joy for everyone, and uplifting the human spirit in a certain kind of sense. This is one of just human aspirations. Now, is it economical to do that? Well, it’s economical in the same sense maybe that music is. Music is uplifting, it doesn’t buy us anything. It’s something that humans enjoy, they like, it’s a human aspiration, human enjoyment. It’s culture. So traveling into space is something that most humans find fascinating and interesting, they’re willing to devote some time to it, and have thought about it. And I think it’s more for that reason that we are likely to — and the human race will continue to — explore space. It’s not just for science. There’s science, but there’s adventure, there’s a frontier, there’s just general human aspirations. And so I believe in a manned space program, as well as an instrumental program. Both are very expensive, we need to examine them well, and I have spent a good deal of time advising on the space program too. I think we need to think about them very carefully as to what’s the best thing to do. The economical ways of doing it, the new techniques, how to do it well and safely. But I believe in the long run, this is one of the human aspirations, and we will fulfill it in some way or the other, and I hope we can fulfill it well.
That doesn’t mean we have to dash off to Mars five years from now or ten years from now or fifteen years from now. But we should be thinking about it, and planning for it, and when we can afford to, and when we find good ways of doing it, we will be there.
Do you think enough resources and passion are being devoted to that program these days?
Charles Townes: I think we’re considering the program carefully now. There’s a new interest, and a new examination, a fresh examination of NASA and its structure and its plans and so on. And I think we need that. We need that from time to time with any organization. And any program. To re-examine and think about it. And I think fortunately, we’re going through that process now.
You took a personal pride in that triumph.
Charles Townes: Yes, I was very pleased, and I happened to be involved with it. And initially, it received a lot of criticism from the scientific community, and I felt, well yes, there are ways of criticizing it, and it should be criticized and examined, but scientists ought to be there trying to help advise. So then, after expressing something like that, I was immediately asked, “How about doing it?” So we formed a committee and worked very closely with NASA then over quite a period of years, until we had the landing, and then shortly after that, I felt it was time for somebody else to take over, and that particular committee was disbanded. But it was an interesting time all right, and a great thrill to see that landing.
What was it like at Mission Control in Houston?
Charles Townes: Oh, it was both tense and joyful. And exciting. “It’s landed!” And it was just so successful, and it was not an easy thing. A lot of things had to be watched, and not an easy thing. I think NASA and the personnel there did a remarkable job.
A lot of people are afraid to become involved with science. It sounds too difficult or lofty or something. Do you wish that more people acquired a general knowledge of science?
Charles Townes: I think we need to realize that a nation’s wealth is no longer one primarily of raw materials and labor. It’s really skill. It’s knowledge and skill. That’s what constitutes wealth in today’s world. And this is one thing that makes it very difficult for Third World countries that have been relying in the past on raw materials, or raw labor, you might say. That’s no longer so critical. We have many ways of substituting. We still need raw materials, but we have other substitutes. And real wealth is in education and skills and the ability to do things. Now in that sense, I think we do need better public understanding of science and technology. That’s a very important part of it. Not everybody has to be an engineer or a scientist, but people should understand. I think it’s very important for our schools to teach young people about science, to interest them in science. And for them to be interested, so they understand and can grasp at least the significance and how science is done, and what the logic is, and so on. Be able to evaluate, because we have to vote on issues which are going to be very important and very scientific and technical. We have to make decisions; the public has to make decisions. So they ought to have a kind of an understanding that would allow that.
Now, in addition, we of course do need engineers. And we do need scientists. And we do need to do research. The public at large, I think, really badly needs to have a feel for science, what it is and what it can do, and what the methods are, and what is real and what isn’t. We find many political arguments about issues which are really rather shaky scientifically, not valid, and people have to know how to evaluate those. Part of the problem is, as you mentioned, that some people are scared of it, mathematics or something scares them. I think it would be very good if we started off young children, particularly in the interest in the out-of-doors, animals, the world around them — insects, as I was — animals, snakes or whatever. I think this is a good way to start. Because this is a fascinating world, and we want to know about it, and learn their names so that they’re friends, and you get familiar with them, rather than something that is out there to be scared of and so on. And I think starting out with the natural world is a very good way of making young people feel more comfortable and making children more interested. And then they can work up from that on to some of the more mathematical expressions of science.
We’ve progressed so much in the last 100 years in science and technology. What remains to be discovered? What mystery do you still want to attack?
Charles Townes: I’m convinced a great deal remains to be discovered. I would say there are a lot of things that we don’t know what they are. I would say there are unturned stones, you know, people say turn another stone, to do something. That’s an unturned stone, things we haven’t done. We don’t know what’s under them. We don’t know what will happen. We want to look. One can sort of predict science and development of technology for about a decade, in my view. Beyond a decade, things can change so much, new things can come along that completely change history. We simply can’t predict that, and I think we have to recognize that we can’t predict it. The observation we can make is that in all of past history, for the last several centuries, science and technology is continually revolutionized, throughout civilization. It’s happened faster and faster as time has gone on. So if one believes in the continuity of history, it certainly is going to happen some more, even though we can’t predict it in detail.
Now you ask what things I would like to solve. I would like to understand everything. I don’t expect to. But anything, any new idea or any new discovery or new understanding I feel is important and I enjoy it. You look at some of the most interesting and difficult problems; I would say some of them have to do with the origins of things. For example, the origins of life. Now many scientists feel we sort of broadly understand the origins of life, so some chemicals came together and they might have done this and they might have done that, but things began to work together and produce a living organism. We don’t really understand that in my view. We don’t understand the conditions. We don’t understand whether it was easy or very uncommon, very rare. We don’t understand whether that might be going on at other planets or not. We don’t really understand that formation of life, or whether there are some new laws there that we just don’t yet grasp. There may be some new ideas we haven’t yet thought of at all, that will make things very different from what we think.
Then there’s the origin of the universe. Now, whether we ever understand that, there is an interesting philosophical question. In a certain sense, science projects from one thing onto another, and predicts and projects and so on. What happens when it gets to an origin? There isn’t any way of projecting. And one might argue, science just doesn’t apply any more. I’m not sure of that. We need to think about it, I would say we always ought to try to understand more and more, and further and further back, and how it started. It’s a very mysterious thing. We know so much now. It’s amazing that we can today detect some of the radiation which was formed back almost at the beginning of the universe. From that, and from other things, we can project in great detail what was going on in those very early moments. But there’s a stopping point, and there are things we don’t understand there.
We were talking about areas of inspiration that await, and what you particularly would be interested in solving.
Charles Townes: I mentioned these areas that I think are fascinating and very fundamentally interesting. They’re not areas that I’m working on particularly, at this point. The origin of the universe, for example, I’m fascinated by it, the origins of life, although I’m not doing biology, I’m doing other things which are interesting to me. But you ask about the biggest problems that are unsolved, those are some of them. There are also some fundamental laws of physics we don’t yet know. We understand an enormous amount. We can sort of understand the small parts, put them together and see how everything must work. And it predicts things remarkably well, fantastically well. And yet, there are some very puzzling aspects of it, and things which clearly we’re missing still. I would like to see those missing pieces. For example…
There seems to be missing mass in our galaxy, and in other galaxies. There’s a lot of material there that we aren’t seeing, and what is it? It may be just some dark planets floating around, dark planet-like things floating around. Is it a new kind of particle? A new kind of radiation? What is it? It’s puzzling. There’s something there that really doesn’t fit yet. So there are many mysteries like that, that are fascinating and important. I myself am working now on trying to see more clearly in astronomical space, see particularly with heat waves. The heat waves will go through the dark clouds in interstellar space, look into the center of our own galaxy, which is surrounded by dust clouds, and see what’s there. We’ve done that to some extent, but without very high resolution. And I’m working on sort of constructing what we might say is like a microscope that we can look at the sky with it, see in more detail exactly what’s there. And do it in the infrared, with heat waves, that is, where we can see through all this dust, that visible light won’t come through. So that’s one of the kinds of problems that I’m personally working on myself.
There are many problems, lots of good ones. Lots of interesting ones. Remarkable progress is being made. Astronomy especially has developed enormously. Biology is developing fantastically. Fascinating field.
You’ve always shared your knowledge and your speculation very openly. These days we read about some very nasty rivalries in science. Competition in AIDS research is one that the general public may be aware of. That seems to be maybe a darker side of science, the cut-throat aspect.
Charles Townes: Scientists are human. When the stakes are very high, some people just can’t quite take it. When the stakes are very high, it means a whale of a lot to them personally and so on. Generally scientists treat each other well, and respect each other’s ideas and are fair, and so on. But sometimes, you know, there are misunderstandings, and so on, and this can create tension. Or just the high stakes involved sort of breaks down the normal kinds of ethics and attitudes, which is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate. It doesn’t happen all that frequently, really, but there are some notable cases.
Wasn’t there some competition about who was really responsible for the first laser?
Charles Townes: No, there was no competition as to who really made the first laser; the first laser was made by (Theodore) Maiman. There was a lot of competition to be the first to make it. And many people came close. My view on that is just, particularly those who did the work independently, and some were a couple months behind, and some were a couple of months before, I think they all deserve credit. A lot of people contributed. I was trying to make a laser, too. On the other hand, I decided, lots of people were doing it. When there are a whole of a lot of people in the field, very active, I know it’s going to be done. There’s no great point in my doing it personally. And I would have liked to have done it, but on the other hand, I had this call to Washington, and I thought it’s probably more important. The laser certainly will be built, and it was built, in several different ways, by several different people. But Maiman was the first to really build it, no dispute about that. Ali Javan, who was a former student of mine, built a completely different kind a little bit later, and a very good one. And then there was some semi-conductor lasers built by other people. Some people at IBM built some of the early lasers, of a different kind too. So the laser was coming along, and I think all of these people deserve a great deal of credit.
There was certainly a terribly lucrative aspect to the invention of the laser, since it has so many practical applications. But we’ve read that you actually gave your patent away for the maser. Why so?
Charles Townes: I like to do science. I like to have enough money so I can live reasonably and do science, but I didn’t want to get wrapped up with a lot of patent cases, and trouble administrating patents, and worrying about it and so on. And in addition, there’s an organization that takes patents from university people, collects money from it, and then puts that money back into university research. That’s called the Research Corporation. And I thought the Research Corporation was fulfilling a very good function, and they would take the load off of my back if I would just turn it over to them. They characteristically give the scientist some portion, and I got some portion of the proceeds in the maser patent. The maser patent really covered both masers and lasers. It was the basic idea, so it covered both of them, and Research Corporation had that.
When it came to the laser, I really did that in conjunction with Arthur Schawlow. I was a consultant for Bell Telephone Laboratories, and I had the first idea in my office at Columbia. I went over to Bell Telephone Laboratories, and talked with Arthur Schawlow, and he had a substantial improvement, and a good idea about it, and I said, “Let’s do this together,” and so we wrote a paper together. I felt at that time that he, clearly, is working for Bell Laboratories, and I was consulting at Bell Laboratories — whether I was at the time I first had the idea was not all that important — and I just gave the patent to Bell Laboratories. Anyhow, the maser patent covered both masers and lasers, so this was a subsidiary, what’s known as an improvement patent, you see. So that belongs to the Bell system. This was the first general laser patent. Now, many other people have invented lasers for various special types. For example, there’s a patent on the ruby laser. Javan, Bennett and Herriott have a patent on the helium neon laser. So there are many people who have invented lasers, there are many independent patents. I think all of these people deserve credit.
It’s admirable and impressive that the prospect of profiting from your discoveries didn’t really attract you.
Charles Townes: I didn’t want to. I never want to get just wrapped up in making money. A few people in this business have done that, and really devoted the rest of their lives to trying to make some money. And money is not bad, but it just is not the thing that interests me most. And I prefer not to be too distracted by that. I have had many opportunities to go into business, but that’s not the life I want. I want a university life. And so, it’s just a choice of what I think is really fun.
We understand that you gave your Nobel money away as well.
Charles Townes: I gave away some of it, yes. I felt that much of my work had been assisted by students, and post-doctoral people. And these people have all contributed, and they deserve some credit. So I sort of divided up the money. And there were so many of them, that nobody got very much, but at least it was a kind of a token, that they have contributed too, to the field, and made it great and made it what it was. Jim Gordon, I gave some modest fraction of the patent income. Jim Gordon, he was a very crucial person in the first maser.
Can you describe the day you heard you’d won the Nobel Prize and what it meant to you?
Charles Townes: You know, most scientists who’ve done important work are intelligent enough to recognize they might get a Nobel Prize. And, it’s psychologically somewhat difficult for many people, because they know they might get a Nobel Prize, even their friends may tell them, I’ve nominated you for a Nobel prize, and maybe it will come true this time, and so on. That frequently goes on for several years, and sometimes it occurs and sometimes it doesn’t. I had been told a year before. I had telephone calls from Sweden that I was on the list, and they told me even that I was the choice when I wasn’t. Somebody else got it that year. So I was a little accustomed to this kind of monkey business and uncertainties.
I recognized, sure, I might be one of those people who get lucky enough to get a Nobel Prize. I was traveling actually. I was chairing a committee, in fact the committee that was advising on the Apollo program at that time. It was 1964, the Apollo program was coming along, but we were not there yet by any means, and I was in a committee meeting, in Pasadena with my committee when the news came. And the news came first to my wife, and she held off the people, wouldn’t tell them where I was, because she wanted me to get enough sleep that night! Finally they got through to me about — I don’t know — about six o’clock in the morning. I guess she held them off that long. Got through to my hotel about six o’clock in the morning and woke me up and told me about it. Well of course it was a great moment. I can’t say it was completely unexpected. It was, still, exhilarating. Nobel Prizes, they go to real accomplishments, but it’s also partly a matter of luck and chance and variations. So I was very pleased and proud of it, of course. But the actual moment, was it exhilarating? Yes, I guess it was exhilarating. I would say the moment of discovery on the park bench was in a sense more exhilarating, and less expected. I hadn’t worried about it in the same kind of way. I’d already been called in the middle of the night the year before. So it’s a wonderful thing. I think the Nobel committee does an excellent job, and (it’s) a real gift to science and humanity that makes people conscious of the importance of certain scientific discoveries.
Looking back on your career so far, what are you most proud of? What do you think has been most valuable to society?
Charles Townes: I suppose it’s easy to say, and it may be true, that my role in the development of the laser is perhaps the most important to society. Certainly in terms of applications, and the direct effects on humans, that has been quite important. On the other hand, there are other things which most people don’t know about, and in the scientific area, that I could argue are really quite important, the discoveries there.
Charles Townes: Oh, I think the development of the microwave spectroscopy, of which I was one of the original contributors. And I think the development of the microwave spectroscopy was quite important. I think the discovery of stable molecules in interstellar space was a very important contribution to science. Little things, some things of that type. And of course, there’s still a different plane — the question is, how important was my work for the government? To what extent did I really do anything that was useful in helping the Apollo program, or working on arms control, and trying to see that we could be protected and at the same time avoid war? How important was that? It’s hard to evaluate. Maybe it was critical, maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. If I’d have stayed out of the picture, maybe somebody else would have done it better. So those things are hard to evaluate. I would say the same thing about the laser, of course. If I hadn’t done it, I suspect somebody would have done it, but in a decade or so. It’s the natural development of science. In other words, if you pick out a single thing that had a big impact, then I suppose it’s easiest to say it would be the laser.
Have you ever felt a sense of destiny about your career, that in a sense you were destined to make these discoveries?
Charles Townes: No. I don’t feel I’m destined to do anything. I do the things I feel are important. And fortunately, I have had good luck, and been successful, and it’s been a very enjoyable life. Was it destiny? In some broad sense, I suppose we’re all destined to lead the lives we lead, but I think it’s partly, certainly partly my upbringing and my parents, and my associates, and my situations which I happened to be. In some sense that is destiny. On the other hand, many other kinds of things could have happened. And I recognize that. I would say it was part luck.
You’ve met some very interesting scientists over the years. You mentioned Einstein. Tell us your impressions of the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov.
Charles Townes: Sakharov is truly a remarkable person. A very intelligent scientist, and I think quite dedicated and selfless. Not selfish in person. Of course, in the Soviet Union, he’s almost regarded as a saint now. Even though people differed with him very sharply at times in the past, now people hesitate to criticize Sakharov, generally, even in the Soviet Union. As I say, he’s almost a saint. Well, he is almost that. He’s a remarkable person. I don’t think he was always correct, was always right. He helped develop the Soviet bomb, of course. He felt that was a duty and important at the time. It was his understanding of the United States that that was a good thing to do. I’m not sure to what extent he continued to think that all of his life, but he felt it at the time, and I’m sure it was quite genuine. Certainly the time when I have known him, in the latter part of his life, he was very thoughtful, straightforward and honest, and someone being that honest, in a difficult society, that’s important. Many of us here can be honest and it doesn’t create such a mark, so we’re expected to be honest. But in a society where — you differ with the government and differ with the rest of society — to be honest in that sense just takes a great deal of courage. A great deal of courage, a great deal of faith, in a sense, and a great deal of willingness to stand up and take punishment, if necessary, to say what you think is really right. I think he deserves an enormous amount of credit.
I know some other Russian scientists who have always been honest with me. They haven’t had to go through quite the kind of suffering and difficulties that he has. But there are other Russian scientists, there are other people in Russia too, who have been honest. He is an exceptional case.
What about Edward Teller?
Charles Townes: Edward Teller, an interesting kind of case. Edward is a fantastically good scientist. I have not agreed with him, and some of his political views, or his views on weapons, and many American scientists don’t. On the other hand, I have a great deal of respect for Edward Teller. And it’s interesting, when Sakharov was here, he was very eager to meet Teller. He thinks highly of Teller. In a sense, he felt that Teller has some of the stigma in American society that he’s had to bear in Soviet society. He sees a certain parallelism there. The nuclear bomb was of course a very difficult, controversial, dangerous thing. So many people have very strong emotions about them. And again, let me say that while I have not always agreed with Teller, there’s no doubt that he’s an outstanding scientist. No doubt that he was following what he thought was right. I think American society ought to give him more credit. I would give him more credit than some scientists do in American society.
How have you differed with him?
Charles Townes: On policy issues, and “Star Wars” for example. I differed with him strongly on that. Some policy issues on how many bombs we need or missiles, and what should be done, things of this type. And there’s plenty of room for differences. There are technical differences, and there are policy and political differences. And I’m not surprised that people can differ on some of those issues. I’m surprised that he pushed “Star Wars” as much as he did. But that’s where I would differ with him perhaps the most clearly. On policy matters, those are more debatable, and I still differ with him some there. On the other hand, Edward Teller has performed a great service to this country too, and I think we have to recognize that.
You’ve had so many activities in so many different areas of science and government consultation. That has obviously taken time away from your family. Has that been a difficult balancing act for you, to maintain both?
Charles Townes: Yes, that’s not an easy balance. Of course, they compete primarily for time, and I think that’s a very real question for a person who is working intensively, particularly if there are children. Children really need time, and I tried to make a point of giving them — I sort of laid down a rule with myself of how many nights a week I was going to be home, and Saturdays I would be home, and so on. And we had great fun with the children. It doesn’t really take away from work, because it’s a restful change too, and refreshing for that matter. But in the long run, one does have to make a choice of where to spend time, the most valuable thing. I very much value family relationships. And my wife and my children are very important to me. And so, that’s why I would automatically see that there was enough time. Now it’s debatable how much time should one take. I think it’s particularly difficult for women in certain kinds of sciences, which are very intense, and women who have children just have to take some time off. And that breaking into a pattern of intensive scientific work can be difficult. But it can be managed, however. Many women do it very successfully. But those are the choices one has to face.
Finally, we want to ask you, what prompted you to climb the Matterhorn?
Charles Townes: I suppose partly the challenge. Curiosity again. Exploration, my sense of exploration. I want to see things and do things, and it was a challenge. But I’ve always liked the outdoors, and liked hiking, and it was just a kind of a climax of hiking. And it was good exercise, fun. I was on sabbatical then, and my wife and I could climb, and we both climb together a good deal, we’ve been in the Alps and worked up to it. And she went part way up with me, and I went on the rest of the way up.
Remarkable. Thank you so much for talking with us today. We’re all grateful.
Charles Townes: Well, thank you.