How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist

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9780195153767: How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist

In How the Laser Happened, Nobel laureate Charles Townes provides a highly personal look at some of the leading events in twentieth-century physics. Townes was inventor of the maser, of which the laser is one example; an originator of spectroscopy using microwaves; and a pioneer in the study of gas clouds in galaxies and around stars. Throughout his career he has also been deeply engaged with issues outside of academic research. He worked on applied research projects for Bell Labs; served on the board of directors for General Motors; and devoted extensive effort to advising the government on science, policy, and defense.

This memoir traces his multifaceted career from its beginnings on the family farm in South Carolina. Spanning decades of ground-breaking research, the book provides a hands-on description of how working scientists and inventors get their ideas. It also gives a behind-the-scenes look at the scientific community, showing how scientists respond to new ideas and how they approach a variety of issues, from priority and patents to the social and political implications of their work. In addition, Townes touches on the sociology of science, uncovering some of the traditions and values that are invisible to an outsider.

A towering and energetic figure, Townes has explored or pioneered most of the roles available to the modern scientist. In addition to fundamental research, he was actively involved in the practical uses of the laser and in the court cases to defend the patent rights. He was a founding member of the Jasons, an influential group of scientists that independently advises the government on defense policy, and he played an active part in scientific decisions and policies from the Truman through the Reagan administration. This lively memoir, packed with first-hand accounts and historical anecdotes, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of science and an inspiring example for students considering scientific careers.

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About the Author:

Charles Townes is one of the leading figures in twentieth-century physics, intentor of the maser, co-inventor of the laser, and a pioneer in microwave spectroscopy for molecular and nuclear physics and in the use of radio and infrared spectroscopic techniques for astronomy. A Nobel laureate, Townes was also one of the first academic scientists to accept a full-time position advising the Executive Branch during the Cold War, and was founder of the Jasons, an influential group of scientists independently advising the government. He also served on the Board of General Motors.


"Filled with personal anecdotes that provide insight into an immensely original thinker and scientist of enormous energy and prolific output....[Includes] a fascinating account of the patent disputes surrounding the maser and laser....[Provides] an inspiring case history of how an outstanding physicist got started and went on to do great science."--Steven Chu, cowinner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics, in Physics Today

"Captivating....In his plain-spoken fashion Townes makes the old verities vivid and resfreshing: the primacy of experiement over theory, the importance of teamwork, sharing ideas, keeping an open mind, and enjoying your work."--Infinite Energy

"An engaging human story, intertwined with a first-hand account of some of the twentieth century's most significant inventions and discoveries. Fine reading for anyone interested in science, scientists, or the roles they play in our fast-changing world." --Arno Penzias, Nobel Laureate in Physics and former Chief Scientist of Bell Labs

"In this exciting book, Charles Townes recounts how masers and lasers first appeared in his life and how they accompanied him throughout his scientific career. The book reveals the life of an outstanding scientist deeply engaged in his research, and shows how a scientific career can be shaped by encounters, discussions, and interactions with colleagues, and by periods of solitary thinking and a commitment to independent work. The book is also a perfect illustration of the importance of basic science: when the laser was invented, no one expected it would have such dramatic applications." --Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, Professor of Atomic and Molecular Physics at the College de France in Paris and winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics

"In this book one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century tells the story of his life, discoveries, and inventions, which include the maser and the laser. Charles Townes's pioneering research in microwave spectroscopy produced a wealth of new information on molecules and even on the masses of atoms and the structure of their nuclei. These studies also made it possible to discover and understand spectra of molecules in space and near astronomical objects like stars. They helped to provide compelling evidence for a giant black hole at the center of our galaxy. Townes also tells of his involvement in advising the government and of the problems of trying to give unbiased scientific advice in a political atmosphere. In all, a fascinating story of science and the people who discover it. The book is hard to put down." --Arthur Schawlow, Nobel Laureate in Physics and Emeritus Professor at Stanford University

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