Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Today Arthur L. Schawlow would have turned 90 years old. Now, I don’t go around memorizing the birth dates of Nobel physics laureates as a matter of course, but Schawlow has been on my mind quite a bit these last few months, because I wrote a biographical article about him, and it’s the cover story of this month’s issue of Optics & Photonics News. It’s actually the “open content” offering for this month, so everyone can read it, not just OSA members. 🙂

Why did I want to write about Schawlow? I confess that before I joined the OSA staff in 2005, I had never heard of the gentleman. But one of my first tasks was to compile a list of interesting things that had happened in 1975, the year that OPN’s predecessor publication, Optics News, was founded. So I looked up the name of that year’s president of OSA, and it turned out to be Schawlow, so I asked our creative director whether she had any interesting photos of him in the files. She found several, and one in particular — of a grinning Schawlow poised to administer a Ping-Pong paddle spanking to another OSA official from the 1970s — made me roar with laughter. Since I had also noticed by then that Schawlow was a Nobel laureate for something or other, I suggested (after wiping the tears away) that we might want to pick something a little more dignified for the page of 1975-era trivia I was assembling. We ended up republishing the famous snapshot of Schawlow with his “laser ray gun” and double balloon, which now graces the cover of the magazine.

Over the years, I got more curious about Arthur Schawlow. I cross-checked the list of Nobel laureates and past OSA presidents and found that his name was the only one on both lists. I learned that he and Charles Townes co-wrote one of the most important papers in laser history back in 1958, but Townes was still around to enjoy LaserFest and Schawlow — his brother-in-law, even — was not.

So I pitched the idea for a feature story on Schawlow to my editor, and I got the assignment to write it for this round-number anniversary of his birth. I hope I struck a good balance between enumerating his scientific achievements and capturing the personality that made him so memorable to OSA members of an earlier generation.


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