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Charles Townes, Inventor of the Laser, Nobel Laureate, Believer

Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

John Burger - published on 01/30/15

A life spent exploring the universe, both physical and spiritual

Physicalism, in philosophy, holds that that there is nothing in existence except the physical.

Charles Hard Townes, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who dealt much with the physical world, would take issue with that.

Though Townes was acclaimed for his brilliance in physics and is known for his contribution in creating the laser, he had a deep and abiding faith in something that cannot be explained by science.

Religion and faith, he told UC Berkeley News in 2005, have “a very deep meaning for me: I feel the presence of God. I feel it in my own life as a spirit that is somehow with me all the time.”

Townes’ work has benefited mankind in a wide variety of ways. The laser is now omnipresent in modern life, in everything from the way we communicate to the way we listen to music to the ways we undergo surgery. Millions of people reading Townes’ obituary this week did so on the internet, which depends on the high-speed transmission of data through fiber optic cables. Such an innovation relied on the invention of the laser.

But the Greenville, S.C., native, who died Tuesday at 99, also spent a good deal of time thinking, writing and speaking about a different sort of science—theologyand for his efforts he won the 2005 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. The Associated Press summed it up this way:



Townes was also known for his strong spiritual faith. A devoted member of the United Church of Christ, Townes drew praise and skepticism later in his career with a series of speeches and essays investigating the similarities between science and religion.

"Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans," Townes wrote in 2005 upon being awarded the Templeton Prize for his contributions in "affirming life’s spiritual dimension."

"My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other," he wrote.

In 1966, he published an article entitled "
The Convergence of Science and Religion" in the IBM journal THINK. The difference between science and religion "are largely superficial," he wrote, "the two become almost indistinguishable if we look at the real nature of each."

In an era when many scientists steadfastly avoided ties to religion, the views expressed in the piece were seen as blasphemy by people in both communities. Over the years, he wrote and spoke often on the subject….

"Many people don’t realize that science basically involves assumptions and faith. But nothing is absolutely proved," Townes said at the time. "Wonderful things in both science and religion come from our efforts based on observations, thoughtful assumptions, faith and logic."

Somehow, we humans were created somewhat in the likeness of God,” he told UC Berkeley News. “We have free will. We have independence, we can do and create things, and that’s amazing. And as we learn more and more—why, we become even more that way. What kind of a life will we build? That’s what the universe is open about. The purpose of the universe, I think, is to see this develop and to allow humans the freedom to do the things that hopefully will work out well for them and for the rest of the world.”

In nominating Townes for the Templeton Award, David Shi, president of Furman University, wrote, “He points out that both scientists and theologians seek truth that transcends current human understanding, and because both are human perspectives trying to explain and to find meaning in the universe, both are fraught with uncertainty. Scientists propose hypotheses from postulates, from ideas that ultimately cannot be proven. Thus, like religion, science builds on a form of faith.”

Shi added, “Charles Townes helped to create and sustain the dialogue between science and theology. Thus he has made a profound contribution to the world’s progress in understanding – and embracing – the wonder of God’s creation.”

AP provided other details on his life:
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Townes was a faculty member at Columbia University when he did most of the work that would make him one of three scientists to share the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for research leading to the creation of the laser. Townes’ research, the basis of which he often said came to him like a religious revelation, applied the microwave technique used in wartime radar research to the study of spectroscopy, the dispersion of an object’s light into its component colors. He envisioned that would provide a new window into the structure of atoms and molecules and a new basis for controlling electromagnetic waves. His insights eventually led to the first laser.

Born on July 28, 1915, in Greenville, S.C., to Baptist parents who embraced an open-minded interpretation of theology, Townes found his calling during his sophomore year at Furman University and went on to earn a master’s degree from Duke University in physics and a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology.

He married his wife, Frances Hildreth Townes, in 1941, and during World War II designed radar bombing systems for Bell Laboratories. Three years after he joined the Columbia faculty in 1948, Townes had his inspiration for the laser’s predecessor, the maser, while sitting on a park bench in Washington, waiting for a restaurant to open for breakfast. Scientists were stumped about ways to make waves shorter, but in the tranquil morning hours the solution suddenly appeared to Townes, a moment he famously compared to a religious revelation.

Townes scribbled a theory on scrap paper about using microwave energy to stoke molecules to move fast enough to create a shorter wave.

In 1954, that theory was realized when Townes and his students developed the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Demonstrating that masers could be made to operate in optical and infrared capacities, Townes and his brother-in-law, the late Stanford professor Arthur L. Schawlow, jointly published a theory in 1958 on the feasibility of optical and infrared masers, or lasers.

A laser controls the way that energized atoms release photons, or light particles. Today, they perform tasks ranging from cutting metal to vision correction and tattoo removal, but its inventors say they didn’t foresee any of that.

"I realized there would be many applications for the laser," Townes told Esquire magazine in 2001, "but it never occurred to me we’d get such power from it." Others built the first working lasers, but Townes shared the Nobel Prize in 1964 with the two Russians for his work leading to its creation.

"I feel that very rarely have I done any work in my life," he told Esquire. "I have a good time. I’m exploring. I’m playing a game, solving puzzles, and having fun, and for some reason people have been willing to pay me for it. Officially, I was supposed to retire years ago, but retire from what? Why stop having a good time?"

Townes was named a full professor at Columbia in 1950 and later served as chairman of the university’s physics department. He was appointed provost and physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961, and in 1967 he joined the faculty at Berkeley. 

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