Nobel Prize in Physics Recipient. Dr. Charles Townes received notoriety as an American scientist, who shared the 1964 Nobel Prize with two Russian scientists, Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov. Townes' research was done independent of the Russian scientists, yet he had a strong support system of students and other scientists during his years of research. According to the Nobel Prize Committee, “ The Nobel Prize for physics is in this year given for the invention of the maser and the laser. “Maser” stands for “microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” and the word “laser” is obtained by replacing “microwave” by “light.” Their discovery was an essential part in making the microwave, corrective laser eye surgery, computer printers, the scanning of bar codes used by the cashier at the grocery store and many other everyday uses as well as more complex uses. Dr. Townes formulated the idea of developing a device which used the stimulated emission of radiation by excited atoms to amplify or generate coherent monochromatic electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range. The result was the "maser." He developed the use of maser and laser for astronomy, was part of a team that first discovered complex molecules and determined the mass of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. One of his last projects was using a laser to identify the shape and size of stars. Born the son of a lawyer, he attended public schools and then Furman University in Greenville, where he completed the requirements for the Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and the Bachelor of Arts degree in Modern Languages, graduating summa cum laude in 1935, at the age of 19. He loved science yet was active in sports, the editor of the school newspaper and curator of a museum. In 1936 Townes received his Master of Arts degree in Physics at Duke University in North Carolina, and then entered graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, where he received his PhD degree in 1939 with a thesis on isotope separation and nuclear spins. He began his career at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey from 1933 to 1947. During World War II while at Bell Labs, he was involved in a project concerned with a radar bombing system. Prior to being appointed in 1967 as Professor at the University of California in Berkeley, he had been an associate professor in 1948 at Columbia University in New York City followed in 1961 by positions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After his retirement in 1989, he held the position of professor emeritus at the University of California until his death at the age of 99. Over the years from 1955 to 2003, he was a lecturer at the University of Paris, the University of Tokyo, the University of Michigan, in Italy at the Enric Fermi International School, University of Toronto, and in Germany and India. Besides the Nobel Prize, he received the 2005 Templeton Prize for his contributions to the understanding of religion. Addressing his faith and science, his seminal 1966 article, “The Convergence of Science and Religion,” established him as a unique voice on this subject. He received 27 honorary degrees from various universities and a host of other awards including the National Medal of Science, National Academy of Sciences’ Comstock Prize and the John J. Carty Medal, Rumford Premium of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Stuart Ballentine Medal of the Franklin Institute given twice, the C.E.K. Mees Medal of the Optical Society of America, the Medal of Honor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Plyler Prize of the American Physical Society, NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, Thomas Young Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics and the Physical Society from England, Wilhelm Exner Award from Austria and the 1979 Niels Bohr International Gold Medal. He served on the Science Advisory Committee to the President of the United States for Harry Truman and Bill Clinton, Chairman of the Advisory Committee for the first human landing on the moon, and chairman of the Defense Department’s Committee on the MX missile. He also served on the boards of General Motors and of the Perkins Elmer Corporations. As a man with a strong Christian faith, he was an active member of the United Church of Christ and he and his wife worked to help the homeless. For his research contribution to lasers, the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics was presented to Townes' brother-in-law and co-researcher for many years, Arthur L. Schawlow.
Bio by: Linda Davis