Happy Birthday!

I can't let this week go by without mentioning that it is - officially - the 50th birthday of the invention of the laser.

Officially, anyway. On the 16th of May 1960, Theodore H. Maiman produced the first working optical laser. There was actually recently a huge slap-fight in the letters to the editor of Physics Today over the priority of his work compared to the work of some guys at Bell Labs. Still, it seems like Maiman was the first to actually have a working optical laser in his lab.

I say optical because at microwave wavelengths the maser had been previously invented in the mid-50s by some Soviet physicists named Nikolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov. Really this was in principle a full-blown laser, but at microwave wavelengths. But then again Charles Townes and his students had previously to that built a microwave device that produced gain, which is almost a maser.

And even if we only count optical lasers, Schawlow and Townes had invented the concept of the laser in 1958. They didn't beat Maiman to the working model, but the overall concept was theirs. And about the same time Gordon Gould independently came up with some of the crucial ideas for the construction of the laser as well as being the guy who came up with the word "laser" in the first place.

And what about the people who developed the quantum theory of light, which describes stimulated and spontaneous emission? People like Willis Lamb and Texas A&M's own Marlan Scully?

In any case, happy birthday to the laser, which had many parents. Though the popular image of science is of one brilliant person working in isolation, in reality it's usually very much a simultaneously collaborative and competitive enterprise involving many brilliant people. The laser is one of those results.

For more detail on how all this came to be, please take a look at AIP's history of the first lasers. It's a great writeup with more detail about the development of this ubiquitous jewel of optical physics.

More like this

Speaking of scientific developments of the last fifty or so years, did you ever try my science history quiz from earlier in the year?

It doesn't include the laser, but it does include events from a wide range of scientific fields, as well as everything from "world-changing" to "obscure but fun to know about". I'd like to think that most ScienceBloggers could try it and say, "Cool! You included the X!" for at least one value of X (but apologies to the archaeologists).