Charles H. Townes

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Charles Townes
Charles Hard Townes-Nibib-2007-retouched.jpg
Townes in 2007.
Charles Hard Townes

(1915-07-28)July 28, 1915
DiedJanuary 27, 2015(2015-01-27) (aged 99)
ResidenceUnited States
Alma mater
Known for Lasers
Frances Brown(m. 1941–2015)
(his death)
Scientific career
Fields Physics
Thesis Concentration of the heavy isotope of carbon and measurement of its nuclear spin  (1939)
Doctoral advisor William Smythe
Doctoral students

Charles Hard Townes (July 28, 1915 – January 27, 2015) was an American physicist [3] [4] and inventor of the maser. Townes worked on the theory and application of the maser, for which he obtained the fundamental patent, and other work in quantum electronics associated with both maser and laser devices. [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] He shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov. [2] [14] [15] Townes was an adviser to the United States Government, meeting every US President from Harry Truman (1945) to Bill Clinton (1999).

Physicist scientist who does research in physics

A physicist is a scientist who specializes in the field of physics, which encompasses the interactions of matter and energy at all length and time scales in the physical universe. Physicists generally are interested in the root or ultimate causes of phenomena, and usually frame their understanding in mathematical terms. Physicists work across a wide range of research fields, spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic and particle physics, through biological physics, to cosmological length scales encompassing the universe as a whole. The field generally includes two types of physicists: experimental physicists who specialize in the observation of physical phenomena and the analysis of experiments, and theoretical physicists who specialize in mathematical modeling of physical systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. Physicists can apply their knowledge towards solving practical problems or to developing new technologies.

Maser Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

A maser is a device that produces coherent electromagnetic waves through amplification by stimulated emission. The first maser was built by Charles H. Townes, James P. Gordon, and H. J. Zeiger at Columbia University in 1953. Townes, Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov were awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for theoretical work leading to the maser. Masers are used as the timekeeping device in atomic clocks, and as extremely low-noise microwave amplifiers in radio telescopes and deep space spacecraft communication ground stations.

Nobel Prize in Physics One of the five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 by Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize in Physics is a yearly award given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for those who have made the most outstanding contributions for humankind in the field of physics. It is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895 and awarded since 1901; the others being the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Nobel Prize in Literature, Nobel Peace Prize, and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.


He directed the US government Science and Technology Advisory Committee for the Apollo lunar landing program. After becoming a professor of the University of California at Berkeley in 1967, he began an astrophysical program that produced several important discoveries, for example, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Black hole astronomical object so massive that anything falling into it, including light, cannot escape its gravity

A black hole is a region of spacetime exhibiting such strong gravitational effects that nothing—not even particles and electromagnetic radiation such as light—can escape from inside it. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass can deform spacetime to form a black hole. The boundary of the region from which no escape is possible is called the event horizon. Although the event horizon has an enormous effect on the fate and circumstances of an object crossing it, no locally detectable features appear to be observed. In many ways a black hole acts like an ideal black body, as it reflects no light. Moreover, quantum field theory in curved spacetime predicts that event horizons emit Hawking radiation, with the same spectrum as a black body of a temperature inversely proportional to its mass. This temperature is on the order of billionths of a kelvin for black holes of stellar mass, making it essentially impossible to observe.

Milky Way spiral galaxy containing our Solar System

The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System. The name describes the galaxy's appearance from Earth: a hazy band of light seen in the night sky formed from stars that cannot be individually distinguished by the naked eye. The term Milky Way is a translation of the Latin via lactea, from the Greek γαλαξίας κύκλος. From Earth, the Milky Way appears as a band because its disk-shaped structure is viewed from within. Galileo Galilei first resolved the band of light into individual stars with his telescope in 1610. Until the early 1920s, most astronomers thought that the Milky Way contained all the stars in the Universe. Following the 1920 Great Debate between the astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, observations by Edwin Hubble showed that the Milky Way is just one of many galaxies. The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy with a diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years (ly). It is estimated to contain 100–400 billion stars and more than 100 billion planets. The Solar System is located at a radius of 26,490 light-years from the Galactic Center, on the inner edge of the Orion Arm, one of the spiral-shaped concentrations of gas and dust. The stars in the innermost 10,000 light-years form a bulge and one or more bars that radiate from the bulge. The galactic center is an intense radio source known as Sagittarius A*, assumed to be a supermassive black hole of 4.100 million solar masses.

Townes was religious [16] and believed that science and religion are converging to provide a greater understanding of the nature and purpose of the universe.

Early life

Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina, the son of Henry Keith Townes (1876–1958), an attorney, and Ellen Sumter Townes (née Hard; 1881–1980). [17] He earned his B.S. in Physics and B.A. in Modern Languages at Furman University, where he graduated in 1935. [3] Townes completed work for the Master of Arts degree in physics at Duke University during 1937, [18] and then began graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, from which he received a Ph.D. degree in 1939. [19] During World War II, he worked on radar bombing systems at Bell Labs. [2] [3]

Furman University private liberal arts college in Greenville, South Carolina, United States

Furman University is a private, coeducational liberal arts college in Greenville, South Carolina. Founded in 1826 and named for the clergyman Richard Furman, Furman University is the oldest private institution of higher learning in South Carolina. It became a secular university in 1992, while keeping Christo et Doctrinae as its motto.

A Master of Arts is a person who was admitted to a type of master's degree awarded by universities in many countries, and the degree is also named Master of Arts in colloquial speech. The degree is usually contrasted with the Master of Science. Those admitted to the degree typically study linguistics, history, communication studies, diplomacy, public administration, political science, or other subjects within the scope of the humanities and social sciences; however, different universities have different conventions and may also offer the degree for fields typically considered within the natural sciences and mathematics. The degree can be conferred in respect of completing courses and passing examinations, research, or a combination of the two.

Duke University private university in Durham, North Carolina, United States

Duke University is a private research university in Durham, North Carolina. Founded by Methodists and Quakers in the present-day town of Trinity in 1838, the school moved to Durham in 1892. In 1924, tobacco and electric power industrialist James Buchanan Duke established The Duke Endowment and the institution changed its name to honor his deceased father, Washington Duke.

Career and research

Charles Hard Townes Charles Townes Nobel.jpg
Charles Hard Townes

In 1950, Townes was appointed Professor at Columbia University. [3] He served as Executive Director of the Columbia Radiation Laboratory from 1950 to 1952. He was Chairman of the Physics Department from 1952 to 1955. [3]

Columbia University private Ivy League research university in New York City

Columbia University is a private Ivy League research university in Upper Manhattan, New York City. Established in 1754, Columbia is the oldest institution of higher education in New York and the fifth-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. It is one of nine colonial colleges founded prior to the Declaration of Independence, seven of which belong to the Ivy League. It has been ranked by numerous major education publications as among the top ten universities in the world.

External audio
Nuvola apps arts.svg “The Man, the Myth, the Laser”, Distillations Podcast, Science History Institute

In 1951, Townes conceived a new way to create intense, precise beams of coherent radiation, for which he invented the acronym maser (for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). When the same principle was applied to higher frequencies, the term laser was used (the word "light" substituting for the word "microwave"). [20]

During 1953, Townes, James P. Gordon, and H. J. Zeiger built the first ammonia maser at Columbia University. [3] This device used stimulated emission in a stream of energized ammonia molecules to produce amplification of microwaves at a frequency of about 24.0  gigahertz. [3]

From 1959 to 1961, he was on leave of absence from Columbia University to serve as Vice President and Director of Research of the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization, which advised the U.S. government and was operated by eleven universities. [3] Between 1961 and 1967, Townes served as both Provost and Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [3] Then, during 1967, he was appointed as a Professor of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he remained for almost 50 years; his status was as professor emeritus by the time of his death during 2015. [3] Between 1966 and 1970, he was chairman of the NASA Science Advisory Committee for the Apollo lunar landing program.

For his creation of the maser, Townes along with Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov received the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics. [3] Townes also developed the use of masers and lasers for astronomy, was part of a team that first discovered complex molecules in space, and determined the mass of the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. [21] [22] [23] [24] [25]

During 2002–2003, Townes served as a Karl Schwarzschild Lecturer in Germany and the Birla Lecturer and Schroedinger Lecturer in India. [3]


This information is drawn from the authoritative oral history on Charles Townes done by the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley and underwritten by the Sloan Foundation. Refer to other aspects of his life too.

Molecular astronomy

When Townes failed to be promoted to President of MIT during 1967, he accepted an offer from Clark Kerr to join the University of California at Berkeley and begin an astrophysical program. Townes soon began searching for molecules in space. At the time most astronomers thought that molecules could not exist in space because ultraviolet rays would destroy them. Townes eventually discovered ammonia and water in dust clouds, which shielded them from damaging rays, by essentially doing microwave spectroscopy on the sky. This created the topic of molecular/millimeter astronomy, which continues to find many complex molecules, some the precursors to life.

Galactic center

The center of the Milky Way had long puzzled astronomers, and thick dust obscures the view of it in visible light. During the mid to late 1970s, Townes together with Eric Wollman, John Lacy, Thomas Geballe and Fred Baas studied Sagittarius A, the H II region at the galactic center, at infrared wavelengths. They observed ionized neon gas swirling around the center at such velocities that the mass at the very center must be approximately equal to that of 3 million suns. [26] Such a large mass in such a small space implied that the central object (the radio source Sagittarius A*) contains a supermassive black hole. Sagittarius A* was one of the first black holes detected; its mass has been more accurately determined to be 4.3 million solar masses.

Shapes and sizes of stars

Townes' last major technological creation was the Infrared Spatial Interferometer with Walt Fitelson, Ed Wishnow and others. The project combined three mobile infrared detectors aligned by lasers that study the same star. If each telescope is 10 meters from the other, it creates an impression of a 30-meter lens. Observations of Betelgeuse, a red giant in the shoulder of the constellation Orion, found that it is increasing and decreasing in size at the rate of 1% per year, 15% over 15 years. ISI produces extremely high angular and spatial resolution. The technology is also playing an important role in the search for extraterrestrial life in collaborations with Dan Werthimer of SETI.[ citation needed ]

Personal life and legacy

Townes married Frances H. Brown, an activist for the homeless, [27] during 1941. They lived in Berkeley, California and had four daughters, Linda Rosenwein, Ellen Anderson, Carla Kessler, and Holly Townes. [3]

A religious man and a member of the United Church of Christ, Townes believed that "science and religion [are] quite parallel, much more similar than most people think and that in the long run, they must converge". [28] He wrote in a statement after winning the Templeton Prize during 2005: "Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives. If the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science." [29]

Townes died at the age of 99 in Oakland, California, on January 27, 2015. [2] [30] "He was one of the most important experimental physicists of the last century," Reinhard Genzel, a professor of physics at Berkeley, said of Townes. "His strength was his curiosity and his unshakable optimism, based on his deep Christian spirituality." [29]

Science and religion

Townes' opinions concerning science and religion were expounded in his essays "The Convergence of Science and Religion", "Logic and Uncertainties in Science and Religion", and his book Making Waves. Townes felt that the beauty of nature is "obviously God-made" and that God created the universe for humans to emerge and flourish. He prayed every day and ultimately felt that religion is more important than science because it addresses the most important long-range question: the meaning and purpose of our lives. Townes' belief in the convergence of science and religion is based on claimed similarities:

  1. Faith. Townes argued that the scientist has faith much like a religious person does, allowing him/her to work for years for an uncertain result.
  2. Revelation. Townes claimed that many important scientific discoveries, like his invention of the maser/laser, occurred as a "flash" much more akin to religious revelation than interpreting data.
  3. Proof. During this century the mathematician Godel discovered there can be no absolute proof in a scientific sense. Every proof requires a set of assumptions, and there is no way to check if those assumptions are self-consistent because other assumptions would be required.
  4. Uncertainty. Townes believed that we should be open-minded to a better understanding of science and religion in the future. This will require us to modify our theories, but not abandon them. For example, at the start of the 20th century physics was largely deterministic. But when scientists began studying the quantum mechanics they realized that indeterminism and chance play a role in our universe. Both classical physics and quantum mechanics are correct and work well within their own bailiwick, and continue to be taught to students. Similarly, Townes believes growth of religious understanding will modify, but not make us abandon, our classic religious beliefs.

Selected publications

Townes work was published widely in books and peer-reviewed journal articles, [15] including:

Awards and honors

Townes (right) receiving the 2006 Vannevar Bush Award Townes&ford.jpg
Townes (right) receiving the 2006 Vannevar Bush Award

Townes was widely recognized for his scientific work and leadership.

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  23. Schawlow, A.; Townes, C. (1958). "Infrared and Optical Masers". Physical Review. 112 (6): 1940–1949. Bibcode:1958PhRv..112.1940S. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.112.1940.
  24. Autler, S.; Townes, C. (1955). "Stark Effect in Rapidly Varying Fields". Physical Review. 100 (2): 703–722. Bibcode:1955PhRv..100..703A. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.100.703.
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  26. Genzel, R; Hollenbach, D; Townes, C H (1994-05-01). "The nucleus of our Galaxy". Reports on Progress in Physics. 57 (5): 417–479. Bibcode:1994RPPh...57..417G. doi:10.1088/0034-4885/57/5/001. ISSN   0034-4885.
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