Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Today is the 98th birthday of Charles Hard Townes, the American physicist who developed some of the key theoretical underpinnings of masers and lasers. He won the Nobel Prize 49 years ago, when he was 49 years old.

Sadly, he has now outlived one of his most noted graduate students, James P. Gordon, who developed the maser with Townes back at Columbia University in 1953. For the May 2010 issue of Optics & Photonics News, a special issue on the 50th anniversary of the laser, Gordon wrote a first-person account of the work leading up the maser. (If you are able to read OPN online, I highly recommend checking it out.)

Fortunately, some of Townes’ other grad students — Ali Javan, Robert Boyd and Raymond Chiao — are still with us. So is Elsa Garmire, a past OSA president and current Dartmouth College professor, who studied under Townes during his tenure as MIT provost and, a few years later in her postdoc days, helped to start the modern laser light show industry. (She wasn’t being taken very seriously as a scientist, and it was the late 1960s and early 1970s, so….) I wrote about laser light shows for that same May 2010 issue of OPN.

I’ve been fortunate to have met Townes and his wife, Frances, at several optics-related events over the years. I hope they are still doing well.

I think that Townes may now be the oldest living Nobel laureate. I’ve been trying to figure that out. If anyone has any information on that, please comment on this post.

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