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If you like Charles Townes's story, you might also like:
Francis Collins,
Freeman Dyson,
Murray Gell-Mann,
Robert Langer,
Leon Lederman,
John Mather,
Linus Pauling,
Glenn Seaborg,
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and James Watson

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Charles Townes
Charles Townes
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Charles Townes Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Inventor of the Maser & Laser

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  Charles Townes

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.

Problem solving?

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.

What other projects or hobbies did you have?

Charles Townes: Collecting. Natural history, as I mentioned.

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.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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.

Charles Townes Interview Photo
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.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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.

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