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American Scientist

Charles Townes

How the laser happened

Lasers are to be found everywhere today, but when the proposal of stimulated emission was developed, there was little idea of what it would lead to - it looked like it would just be a way of improving microwave sources. In How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist Charles Townes tells the story.

Townes tells of his early life and interest in science. In World War II he bacame involved in the development of radar, and from then he was looking for ways of producing microwaves of shorter wavelength. When he thought up the maser, he was discouraged from wasting time on such a dubious idea, but he stuck with it and built one, and over time everyone else saw the benefits. The book goes on to tell of the subsequent development of the laser, of the patent battles over its invention, and of Townes's study of lasing in interstellar clouds.

The book is an autobiography rather than a history of the laser - you might want to look elsewhere if your interested in the early ideas about stimulated emission. What I found most interesting about this book was how Townes responded to the career choices he faced. Should he try to stay in academia, or could he do better working for a business. Was giving advise to the government his duty, or was it 'selling out'? I'd certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in such questions.

Amazon.com info
Paperback 208 pages  
ISBN: 0195153766
Salesrank: 1517974
Weight:0.87 lbs
Published: 2002 Oxford University Press
Amazon price $22.16
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Amazon.co.uk info
Paperback 216 pages  
ISBN: 0195153766
Salesrank: 667454
Weight:0.87 lbs
Published: 2002 Oxford University Press
Amazon price £17.49
Marketplace:New from £11.78:Used from £7.82
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Amazon.ca info
Paperback 208 pages  
ISBN: 0195153766
Salesrank: 2027919
Weight:0.87 lbs
Published: 2002 Oxford University Press
Amazon price CDN$ 31.95
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 23.02:Used from CDN$ 12.65
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Product Description
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.