Charles Townes, inventor of the laser and friend to both science and religion, dies

Coherent light, coherent thinking


After looking down, Townes looked up

In 1967 Townes moved to the University of California Berkeley, where he remained for the rest of his career. He continued to work on masers and lasers, but changed his field of study to astronomy and developed radio and infrared telescopes using the technology.

Using these telescopes Townes and colleagues at Berkeley proved for the first time that complex molecules could exist in space – again bucking scientists who thought this was impossible. Using the telescopes they also showed that there was a super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy

Using lasers he created the Infrared Spatial Interferometer Array, currently housed in movable trailers at the Mt. Wilson observatory outside Los Angeles, which is so precise that it can measure the diameter of distant stars, and found that Zaphod Beeblebrox's home star is shrinking fast.

He also worked on developing receivers that could pick up lasers beamed to Earth from distant galaxies by extraterrestrial life, although there's been no luck in picking up any signals as yet. Townes also served as a consultant to the Apollo program.

"The passing away of Professor Charles Townes today marks the end of an era," said astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel, a professor of physics at UC Berkeley and director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

"He was one of the most important experimental physicists of the last century. To those who knew him as colleagues or students, he was a role model, a wonderful mentor and a deeply admired person. His strength was his curiosity and his unshakable optimism, based on his deep Christian spirituality."

God and science can coexist

Townes also focused his attentions on the intersection of science and religion. A devout Christian, Townes caused controversy with his assertion that the two fields were not antithetical, but complementary.

In 1964 he published a speech on the subject in IBM's THINK magazine and the MIT Technology Review which was so controversial that a boycott of the latter magazine was proposed by one academic. He continued to publish on the topic and in 2005 was awarded the $1.5m Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.

"My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other," Townes said in his acceptance speech.

"Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives. If the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science."

Townes continued to work regularly at Berkeley until last year, when he entered semi-retirement at the age of 98. On January 27 he fell ill and died in the ambulance on his way to Oakland hospital.

He is survived by his wife of 74 years, Frances Hildreth Townes (nee Brown), four daughters and six grandchildren. ®


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