Charles H. Townes

Charles Townes

Townes in 2007
Born Charles Hard Townes
(1915-07-28)July 28, 1915
Greenville, South Carolina, U.S.
Died January 27, 2015(2015-01-27) (aged 99)
Oakland, California, U.S.
Residence United States
Nationality American
Fields Physics
Alma mater
Thesis Concentration of the heavy isotope of carbon and measurement of its nuclear spin (1939)
Doctoral advisor William Smythe
Doctoral students
Known for Lasers
Notable awards
Spouse Frances Brown (m. 1941–2015) (his death)

Charles Hard Townes (July 28, 1915 – January 27, 2015) was an American Nobel Prize-winning physicist[3][4] and inventor of the maser and laser. Townes was known for his work on the theory and application of the maser, on which he got the fundamental patent, and other work in quantum electronics connected with both maser and laser devices.[5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13] He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964 with Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov.[1][14][15][16] Charles was also a key advisor to the United States Government, meeting every US President from Harry Truman (1945) to Bill Clinton (1999). One of the most notable committees he led for the government was the Science and Technology Advisory Committee for the Apollo flights, which were extremely effective at bringing the program to a successful fruition on time and under budget. After joining UC Berkeley in 1967, he began an astrophysical program that produced several important discoveries like the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Townes was deeply religious and believed that science and religion are converging to provide a fuller understanding of the nature and purpose of this universe.[17]

Early life

Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina, the son of Ellen Sumter Townes (née Hard; 1881-1980) and Henry Keith Townes (1876-1958), an attorney.[18] He earned his B.S./B.A. at Furman University. Townes completed work for the Master of Arts degree in Physics at Duke University in 1937,[19] and then entered graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, from where he received a Ph.D. degree in 1939.[20] During World War II he worked on radar bombing systems at Bell Labs.[1][3]

Career and research

Charles Hard Townes

Townes was appointed Professor in 1950 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]

In 1951 he conceived a new way to create intense, precise beams of coherent radiation for which he coined 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.[21]

In 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, in 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 in 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 pioneered the use of masers and lasers in 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.[22][23][24][25][26]

In 2002–3, 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 UC Berkeley and underwritten by the Sloan Foundation. Refer to other aspects of his life too.

Molecular Astronomy

When Charles was passed over for President of MIT in 1967 he accepted an offer from Clark Kerr to join UC Berkeley and begin an astrophysical program. Charles immediately began looking for molecules in space. At the time most astronomers thought molecules could not exist in space because UV rays would destroy them. Townes ended up discovering ammonia and water in dust clouds that shielded them from damaging rays by essentially doing microwave spectroscopy on the sky. This opened the field of molecular/millimeter astronomy which continues to find many complex molecules, some the precursors to life.

Galactic Center

The Galactic Center had long puzzled astronomers, and thick dust obscured its view. Charles and John Lacy, Neal Evans, Reinhard Genzel and Mike Werner worked together in what is known as "cowboy astronomy." As explained by Mike Werner, this means the often complicated task of creating new equipment and taking high-resolution observations never done before. When the team studied Sagittarius A which lies at the galactic center, they observed neon gas swirling around at such a velocity that SgrA's mass must be equal to 3 million Solar masses (3 million times the mass of our Sun). In such a small space this indicated a supermassive black hole, one of the first black holes observed in our universe.

Shapes and sizes of stars

Charles' most recent technological creation has been the Infrared Spatial Interferometer (ISI) with Walt Fitelson, Ed Wishnow and others. The project combines 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 meters lens. ISI observations of Betelgeuse, a Red Giant that is the shoulder of the constellation Orion found it is increasing and decreasing in size at the rate of 1% per year, and 15% over 15 years. ISI produces extremely high angular and spatial resolution and the technology is also playing an important role in the search for extraterrestrial life in collaborations with Dan Werthimer of SETI.

Personal life and legacy

Townes married his wife Frances H. Brown in 1941.[3] They lived in Berkeley, California.[3] They had four daughters, Linda Rosenwein, Ellen Anderson, Carla Kessler, and Holly Townes.[3]

Frances Brown is a homeless activist.[27]

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 in 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.[1][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' views on 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." Charles always felt that the beauty of nature is "obviously God-made" and that God created this universe for humans to emerge and flourish. He prayed everyday 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. Charles' belief in the convergence of science and religion is based on their overlooked similarities:

1. Faith. Charles argues that the scientist has faith much like a religious person does, allowing him/her to work hard for years for an uncertain payoff. 2. Revelation. Charles points out that many important scientific discoveries, like his invention of the maser/laser, occurred in a flash much more akin to religious revelation than interpreting data. 3. Proof. In 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 another round of assumptions would be required. 4. Uncertainty. Townes believed that we should be open-minded to better understandings of science and religion in the future. This will require us to modify our thinking, but not abandon it. For example, at the start of the 20th century physics had a deterministic outlook—everything in the universe can be predicted. But when scientists began studying the very small—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 bailiwicks, and continue to be taught to students. Similarly, Townes believes growth in religious understanding will modify but not make us abandon our classic religious beliefs.

Documentary film Unturned Stones

Charles is the subject of a forthcoming documentary film titled "Unturned Stones." Director and producer Taran Singh wants to blend Charles' scientific career, personal life, and belief that humans have a special place in this universe. Taran was lucky to get access to Charles and his wife Frances in the last few years of their lives, and "Unturned Stones" will expand their legacy forever.

A proof of concept video can be seen here

Selected publications

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

  • Gordon, J.; Zeiger, H.; Townes, Charles (1955). "The Maser—New Type of Microwave Amplifier, Frequency Standard, and Spectrometer". Physical Review. 99 (4): 1264–1274. Bibcode:1955PhRv...99.1264G. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.99.1264. 
  • Shimoda, K.; Wang, T.; Townes, Charles (1956). "Further Aspects of the Theory of the Maser". Physical Review. 102 (5): 1308–1321. Bibcode:1956PhRv..102.1308S. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.102.1308. 
  • Schawlow, Arthur; Townes, Charles (1958). "Infrared and Optical Masers". Physical Review. 112 (6): 1940–1949. Bibcode:1958PhRv..112.1940S. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.112.1940. 
  • Townes, Charles (1999). How the Laser Happened: Adventures Of a Scientist. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-512268-8. 
  • Townes, Charles; Schawlow, Arthur (1955). Microwave Spectroscopy. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-065095-4. 
  • Townes, Charles (1995). Making Waves. American Institute of Physics Press. ISBN 978-1-56396-381-0. 

Awards and honors

Townes (right) receiving the 2006 Vannevar Bush Award

Townes was widely recognized for his scientific work and leadership.


  1. 1 2 3 4 Boyd, Robert (2015). "Dr. Charles H. Townes (1915-2015) Laser co-inventor, astrophysicist and US presidential adviser". Nature. 519 (7543): 292. Bibcode:2015Natur.519..292B. doi:10.1038/519292a. PMID 25788091.
  2. 1 2 "Professor Charles Townes ForMemRS, Foreign Member". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2016-03-14.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 "Charles H. Townes — Biographical". 2006. Retrieved 2014-07-29.
  4. "Remembering Charles Townes". Furman University. 2015-01-27. Retrieved 2015-01-27.
  5. Bertolotti, Mario (2004). The History of the Laser. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-7503-0911-0.
  6. Bromberg, Joan (1991). The Laser in America, 1950–1970. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-585-36732-3.
  7. Chiao, Raymond, ed. (1996). Amazing Light: A Volume Dedicated To Charles Hard Townes On His 80th Birthday. Springer. ISBN 978-0-387-94658-0.
  8. Chiao, Raymond, ed. (2005). Visions of Discovery: New Light on Physics, Cosmology, and Consciousness, A Volume Dedicated to Charles Hard Townes on his 90th Birthday. Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-521-88239-2.
  9. Haynie, Rachel (2014). First, You Explore: The Story of Young Charles Townes (Young Palmetto Books). University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-61117-343-7.
  10. Hecht, Jeff (2005). Beam: The Race to Make the Laser. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-514210-5.
  11. Hecht, Jeff (1991). Laser Pioneers. Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-336030-4.
  12. Taylor, Nick (2000). Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-684-83515-0.
  13. Townes, Frances (2007). Misadventures of a Scientist's Wife. Regent Press. ISBN 978-1-58790-128-7.
  14. "Nobel laureate and laser inventor, Charles Hard Townes, dies at 99". Retrieved January 27, 2015.
  15. 1 2 Charles H. Townes's publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database, a service provided by Elsevier. (subscription required)
  16. Charles Townes — the Maser and the Laser, Office of Scientific and Technical Information, United States Department of Energy
  18. "Notable South Carolinians- Dr. Charles Hard Townes | Indigo Blue". 1915-07-28. Retrieved 2013-10-22.
  19. "Charles Townes". The Array of Contemporary American Physicists. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  20. Townes, Charles (1939). Concentration of the heavy isotope of carbon and measurement of its nuclear spin (PhD thesis). Caltech.
  21. author=Charles Townes|title="How the lazer Happened",|accessdate=1999|publisher=Oxford University Press
  22. "Laser inventor Charles Townes dies". The Guardian. January 29, 2015.
  23. Chiao, R.; Garmire, E.; Townes, C. (1964). "Self-Trapping of Optical Beams". Physical Review Letters. 13 (15): 479–482. Bibcode:1964PhRvL..13..479C. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.13.479.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
  26. Danchi, W. C.; Bester, M.; Degiacomi, C. G.; Greenhill, L. J.; Townes, C. H. (1994). "Characteristics of dust shells around 13 late-type stars". The Astronomical Journal. 107: 1469. Bibcode:1994AJ....107.1469D. doi:10.1086/116960.
  27. admin. "Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Frances H. Townes". Youth Spirit Artworks. Retrieved 2016-03-14.
  28. Harvard Gazette June 16, 2005 Laser's inventor predicts meeting of science, religion
  29. 1 2 Henry, David. "Pioneer of James Bond's Laser, Dies at 99". Bloomberg. Retrieved 2015-07-22.
  30. "Charles H. Townes Dies at 99; He Envisioned the Laser, Bringing It Into Daily Life". The New York Times. 2015-01-29. Retrieved 2015-01-29.
  31. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter T" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 7 April 2011.
  32. "Comstock Prize in Physics". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 26 February 2014.
  33. "Richtmyer Memorial Award". American Association of Physics Teachers. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
  34. "John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on 29 December 2010. Retrieved 13 February 2011.
  35. Editor, ÖGV. (2015). Wilhelm Exner Medal. Austrian Trade Association. ÖGV. Austria.
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