Laser Vision

  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Text Size A A A

By Charles H. Townes, from his 1999 memoir How the Laser Happened. Townes, who taught at Columbia from 1948 to 1961, won the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for his work developing the laser. He died on January 27, 2015.

Any devoted scientist develops a deep intimacy with the problems, concepts, or devices in his field. As for me, starting somewhat at Caltech, more and more at Bell Labs, and most richly at Columbia, my career brought growing familiarity and fascination with molecules. How molecules absorb and emit energy, their motions, and the behavior of their electrons and nuclei — all those things, while never actually seen by anyone, became real for me and easily visualized. When I try to figure out how a molecule behaves under particular circumstances, it seems almost like a friend whose habits I know. Ammonia, without a doubt, has been my favorite. Its simple arrangement of a single nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms has been pivotal in many important moments of my career. I have met this very familiar molecule in the insides of masers, as the mainspring of atomic clocks, in clouds among stars at great distances from Earth, and in the atmospheres surrounding some stars.

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time