Dr. Charles H. Townes | Conversations with Scientists & Astronauts


Dr. Charles Townes, a scientist and a Nobel Prize Winner, and the inventor of the laser, answers a student's question about how he became a scientist. He says it began with his interest in nature and the stars, and in physics and astronomy.  He had a lot of curiosity about how things work.

He tells the students that it was his students who suggested using an acronym, when they were helping him to come up with a name for the MASER (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and later, the LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). 

His idea of the laser first came up in 1951, when he was 36 years old, and it actually worked when he was 45 years old. Dr. Townes said that many scientific things develop as surprises. He was trying to produce waves that were shorter than could be produced by electron tubes in the standard ways. He wanted to produce shorter and shorter waves to do science, and to study molecules. Masers work as receivers for radio waves and lasers work in medicine, communications, and many things. He discusses the laser being used for eye surgery to stitch a detached retina, one of the first ways that lasers were used in medicine. Now there are many ways that lasers are used. Dr. Townes was the first South Carolinian to be awarded the Nobel Prize. It is the biggest public honor a scientist can get. He says the occasion was wonderful, and it was good fun, enjoyable and very impressive.

He says he got started by exploring, going to school and studying, and figuring things out for himself, eventually learning enough to start figuring out something that nobody has ever understood before, and how exciting that is. He says it was always good fun and he always considered it a hobby. 

Dr. Townes suggests learning all you can now, and think about things. All that is likely to be useful., but also try to figure out what you enjoy most, what you can do well, and then work very hard at it and do it well. That is likely to give you a very satisfying life. Almost anything you learn is likely to be useful. So learn all you can.