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Charles Townes

Discussion in 'WWII Era Obituaries (non-military service)' started by GRW, Jan 28, 2015.

  1. GRW

    GRW Pillboxologist WW2|ORG Editor

    Oct 26, 2003
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    Stirling, Scotland
    "Charles Townes, who has died aged 99, earned the unusual distinction of winning both the Nobel Prize for Physics, for his work on the theory and application of the maser (the forerunner of the laser), and the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
    Townes’s belief that science can be reconciled with a belief in God stemmed from his own career as a physicist. When in 1951 he suggested that microwaves could be used to make ultra-precise measurements in the laboratory, he was told by Niels Bohr, the pioneer of quantum mechanics, that he was wasting his time. His head of department at Columbia University, the Nobel laureate Isidore Rabi, also told him to forget it. Yet he refused to give up.
    Townes had first became involved with microwave technology during the Second World War when he worked at Bell Laboratories on the design of radar bombing systems. After the war, he turned his attention to applying microwave techniques to spectroscopy, which he saw as a potential tool for the study of the structure of atoms and molecules and for controlling electromagnetic waves.
    In 1951 he conceived the idea of a new way to amplify microwaves, by stimulating excited molecules to emit radiation. Three years later, he and his assistants built the first “maser” (an acronym for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”). An intense flurry of research followed. Masers have limited applications, although they are used in atomic clocks and as electronic amplifiers in radio telescopes. It was Townes’s brother-in-law, Arthur Schawlow (who would win the 1981 Nobel Prize for Physics), who in 1957 set the ball rolling for the more revolutionary “laser” when he began wondering if the maser principle could be extended to light waves instead of microwaves.
    The two men bounced ideas back and forth and decided that potassium vapour might be a suitable medium. Together they wrote a paper outlining the principles of “Infrared and Optical Masers” (now known as lasers – light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), which appeared in Physical Review in December 1958.
    Townes and Schawlow received the first laser patent, but made little profit from their discovery. Early in their research Townes had talked to Gordon Gould, a Columbia graduate student who subsequently wrote up his own ideas for a laser and was granted the patent rights in 1973. The US Court of Customs and Patent Appeals ruled that the patent awarded to Schawlow and Townes had been too general, and did not supply enough information to create certain key components of the laser.
    It came to him as he sat on a park bench in Washington DC — as a “revelation” akin to a religious experience, and he was often teased by his scientific colleagues for his religious beliefs. In 1966 he published a seminal article, “The Convergence of Science and Religion”, which established him as a unique voice in seeking common ground between the two disciplines. “My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other,” Townes wrote.
    After learning that he had won the Templeton Prize in 2005, Townes explained that his views arose out of his perception that science, like religion, embodies paradoxes which can only be resolved by acts of faith. “There are many mysteries still in science, many mysteries and inconsistencies. Quantum mechanics is inconsistent with general relativity… So what do we do? Physicists just accept it. They believe in both. I think that’s what we have to do in life, recognise there are inconsistencies, places we don’t understand. We have to accept the mysteries and proceed.”
    One of six children, Charles Hard Townes was born at Greenville, South Carolina, to Baptist parents on July 28 1915. His father was a lawyer. He was educated at local schools and at Furman University, a Baptist college in Greenville where he took degrees in Physics and Modern Languages and served as curator of the university’s natural history museum.
    After taking a master’s degree in Physics at Duke University in 1936 he went on to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) where he took a doctorate on isotope separation and nuclear spins.
    In 1939 Townes became a member of the technical staff at Bell Laboratories, where he specialised in microwave generation, vacuum tubes, and solid-state physics. The radar bombing systems which he developed during the Second World War proved particularly effective in the humid conditions of the Pacific theatre."

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