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If you like Charles Townes's story, you might also like:
Francis Collins,
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Murray Gell-Mann,
Robert Langer,
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Linus Pauling,
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Charles Townes
Charles Townes
Profile of Charles Townes Biography of Charles Townes Interview with Charles Townes Charles Townes Photo Gallery

Charles Townes Interview (page: 7 / 8)

Inventor of the Maser & Laser

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  Charles Townes

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.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

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.

Charles Townes Interview Photo
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 whale 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.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

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.

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