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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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Charles Townes
Charles Townes
Profile of Charles Townes Biography of Charles Townes Interview with Charles Townes Charles Townes Photo Gallery

Charles Townes Interview (page: 8 / 8)

Inventor of the Maser & Laser

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  Charles Townes

Can you describe the day you heard you'd won the Nobel Prize and what it meant to you?

Charles Townes Interview Photo
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.

Like what?

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?

Edward Teller Interview Photo
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.

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. And, 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 Eisnehower'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.

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.

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 Interview Photo
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 like 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.

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