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Charles Townes honored during celebration of laser’s 50th birthday

The Lawrence Hall of Science is hosting a 50th-anniversary exhibit on the laser, Jan. 23-25, highlighted by a free public talk on Jan. 25 by Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, who conceived the idea of a laser in the 1950s.

What would life be like without the laser? No DVDs, no precision laser surgery, no high-speed optical communication, no laser light shows over the pyramids at Giza.

We have a lot for which to thank Charles Townes, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics and 1964 Nobel Laureate in physics. Fifty years ago, the first working laser was built to Townes’s specifications, launching the fields of quantum electronics and photonics.

In appreciation of the laser, and of Townes’ role in stimulating it, the world is celebrating the laser’s 50th birthday. Here at UC Berkeley, the kick-off is a Jan. 23-25 LaserFest exhibit at the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) and a Jan. 25 talk by Townes and colleagues about the past, present and future of lasers.

The free public talk by Townes, Roger Falcone, UC Berkeley professor of physics and director of the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Robert L. Byer, Stanford University professor of applied physics and vice president-elect of the American Physical Society, is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at LHS.

The LaserFest exhibit, which is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is included in the price of admission to LHS.

Charles H. Townes and James P. Gordon

Charles H. Townes (left) and James P. Gordon shown with the second of two microwave amplifiers, or masers, that they built in 1955 with H. J. Zeiger (not shown). Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for invention of the maser and the description of the laser, which was first built in 1960. (Courtesy the American Physical Society)

Townes demonstrated microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation – the maser – in 1954, and subsequently, with the late physicist Arthur Schawlow, laid out the design for visible light and infrared versions. The first working device, later dubbed the laser, was built from a synthetic ruby by the late Theodore Maiman, then with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif.

Since then, entire fields have sprung up around the laser, which plays an essential role in the fields of astronomy, chemistry, physics and biology. Starting with Townes’ Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964, more than a dozen Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work done with lasers. Lasers have been incorporated in consumer electronics, telecommunications equipment, surveying equipment and printers, dentistry and corrective eye surgery, light shows and laser pointers.

At the Lawrence Hall of Science, much of the main lobby and some of the downstairs area will house hands-on exhibits and demonstrations laying out the concept behind the laser and showing how lasers affect our daily lives. An exhibit by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will show how the world’s largest and highest-energy laser will be used to create nuclear fusion in the laboratory.

Following Townes’ lecture on the origin of the laser and its importance in society today, Falcone and Byers, a UC Berkeley alumnus, will discuss the future of lasers, which promise to be ultra-fast and big.

The LHS exhibit, a cooperative project with the UC Berkeley Department of Physics and NIF, is sponsored in part by the Optical Society of America and the American Physical Society. Other LaserFest events throughout the San Francisco Bay Area will take place at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and at Stanford University in Palo Alto, as well as the SPIE conference, Photonics West, in San Francisco from Jan. 23-28.

For other anniversary events and information on laser use today, link to LaserFest.