Photo of Charles H. Townes

Charles H. Townes

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For fundamental contributions to the understanding of matter through its interaction with electromagnetic radiations and the application of this knowledge to the service of mankind, most notably in the invention of the maser and laser.

Charles H. Townes had labored to produce short-wave, high-frequency energy for years, traveling the country and slaving in laboratories, before the revelation dawned on him in 1951 during a quiet morning in a Washington, D.C., park. He realized then that he could tease the radiation out of excited molecules with a flash of bright light.

The maser — a high-powered beam of microwave energy and Townes’ precursor to his laser, a beam of light — originally was a means to an end, the end being able to better study the behavior of molecules. Townes knew his invention was important, but had no idea in how many ways it would be applied — aiding eye surgeons in fixing detached retinas, enabling communication via fiber optics, producing nuclear fusion. Townes’ force of intellect made him a prominent government advisor, co-founding a secret Cold War group of scientist advisors, and advocating a ban on nuclear arms testing.

But Townes never abandoned his original plan to continue his study of molecules, eventually pushing his exploration into the Final Frontier: In the 1980s, he discovered the existence of black holes.

By Lauren Clason