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This Throwback Thursday, Please Enjoy The Amazing Legacy Of The Man Who Invented Lasers (Yes, Lasers, Bro!)

This Throwback Thursday, Please Enjoy The Amazing Legacy Of The Man Who Invented Lasers (Yes, Lasers, Bro!)
[Photo: Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images]

Between the Flash Gordon radio serials and Star Wars, one man turned the lasers of science fiction into science fact. Charles Hard Townes, inventor of the laser, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 99. As The New York Times succinctly explains, Townes’s invention made it possible “to play CDs, scan prices at the supermarket, measure time precisely, survey planets and galaxies, and even witness the birth of stars.”

In 1964, Townes and two Russians shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing microwave-emitting devices (“masers”) and their widely known light-emitting successor devices, lasers.

Townes thought up the maser–or, Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation–while sitting on a park bench in Washington in 1951. As The New York Times explains, “it would use molecules to nudge other molecules, and amplify their thrust by getting them to resonate like tuning forks and line up in a powerful beam.” The “optical maser,” or laser, paved the way for revelations in consumer technology, weaponry, and astronomy. Firing those molecules in a straight line has allowed us to read barcodes and guide missiles, cut steel with light, and make astronomical measurements. It also lets us transmit colossal troves of data-as-light across fiber optic cables.

From entertaining cats…


To impacting the physical world…


And while our dreams of space action has evolved from Flash Gordon’s pew pew pew to titanic cinema space battles, Townes’s innovations have lead to optical technology that far surpasses the tricorders and phasers we used to dream about.DL