Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for August, 2012

From “optical maser” to “microwave laser,” small steps and a giant leap

Imagine going straight from a vacuum-tube-powered black-and-white TV set from 1960 to the flat-panel digital displays of today. That’s the rough equivalent of the recent news of a room-temperature maser.

The maser, which is a source of coherent microwaves, is not exactly a new technology; Charles H. Townes, James P. Gordon and H.J. Zeiger built the first working maser in 1953, and the underlying principles came from the mind of Albert Einstein some 36 years earlier. However, masers have been clunky, complex, cryogenic things. Small wonder that, as soon as that maser came out, scientists started saying, “Gee, let’s see if we can build something with shorter wavelengths, like infrared or even visible.” Tra-la-la, in a few years we had the “optical maser,” or the “laser” as it soon came to be known.

Cut to recent days, and lasers are everywhere … so much so that, when news of this room-temperature solid-state laser came out, everyone’s so familiar with lasers that even a publication as sophisticated as Nature called the device a “microwave laser.” (Nature also termed this device “the first practical maser,” although old-style masers do perform some essential if non-obvious tasks, from helping us communicate with our farthest-flung space probes to serving as a high-precision frequency standard.)

For my OPN article last week I spoke to two of the paper’s three authors, Mark Oxborrow and Neil Alford. Most scientists love to talk about their work, to be sure, but as I was interviewing these guys, I started getting the sense that I was seeing something really new, something that could be all over the place 20 years from now. Who knows where a low-noise amplifier will be needed in future technology?

I certainly wish these guys well in their future attempts to improve the room-temperature maser. At the very least, they have — to use Arthur L. Schawlow‘s alternative meaning for the acronym “maser” — a “money acquisition scheme for expensive research”!

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The headline of this post, of course, is a play on the famous first words spoken on the Moon by Neil A. Armstrong, a lifelong hero of mine. A few years back I was happy that the entire Apollo 11 crew had lived to attend the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. Now we know that the crew will be incomplete for the 50th. May he rest in peace.