Obituaries for Charles Townes

Tuesday, January 27, 2015 to Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Charles Townes lived an intentional life.

A man of seemingly unbounded curiosity, not only about the world of science that he shaped but also the world at large. He wanted to understand how it all fit together.

"Charlie could talk on any topic, except maybe pro sports, Hollywood gossip and fashion," said John Taylor, his nephew.

"He was a very broad scientist," said Reinhard Genzel, a colleague at the University of California at Berkeley, where Townes had been a physics professor since 1967. "A classical renaissance type — keep your mind open and be curious."

Townes, Greenville native, Nobel laureate, nature lover and deeply religious man, died Tuesday in California. He was 99, six months shy of a goal he set for himself a decade or so ago to live to be 100.

He and his wife of 73 years, Frances, had recently moved from their home in Berkeley to an assisted living facility. He had been in declining health for about two years after a bout of pneumonia, friends and family said.

Townes met presidents and popes but was equally enthralled with his students and colleagues. Taylor said some years ago he asked his uncle to talk to a friend's daughter about a project for a Greenville High School science class. Townes, one of the greatest science minds in history, willingly did so. 
Read entire article in Greenville Online (pictures).


Charles Townes, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his part in the invention of the laser died Tuesday at 99.

Townes is best remembered for thinking up the basic principles of the laser while sitting on a park bench. Later in life he helped advise the U.S. government and helped uncover the secrets of our Milky Way galaxy.

Through it all, he maintained a deep religious faith. "He really was one of these rare people who could be a deeply thinking research scientist and yet, at the same time, be a deeply devout Christian," says Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.

Townes was born in 1915 in Greenville, South Carolina. He finished college at age 19. But often his smarts weren't the first thing that people noticed. 
NPR, All Things Considered.


Charles H. Townes, a Nobel laureate in physics who helped lay the theoretical foundation for the laser, a device with applications in fields as diverse as medicine, commerce, communications and cosmology, died Jan. 27 in Berkeley, Calif. He was 99.

Dr. Townes entered semi-retirement in 1986 after 20 years at the University of California at Berkeley, which announced his death. No cause of death was given.

Dr. Townes’s main interest all his life, he liked to say, was simply figuring things out. He said he made a habit of moving from one job to another or from one subject of interest to another, every 10 or 15 years, because he was always searching for new puzzles to solve. His curiosity enabled him to move easily from the atomic to the astronomic, from beams of light to black holes. 
Read entire Washington Post article.


Charles H. Townes, a visionary physicist whose research led to the development of the laser, making it possible to play CDs, scan prices at the supermarket, measure time precisely, survey planets and galaxies and even witness the birth of stars, died on Tuesday in Oakland, Calif. He was 99.

His daughter Linda Rosenwein confirmed his death.

In 1964, Dr. Townes and two Russians shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on microwave-emitting devices, called masers, and their light-emitting successors, lasers, which have transformed modern communications, medicine, astronomy, weapons systems and daily life in homes and workplaces.

One of the most versatile inventions of the 20th century, the laser amplifies waves of stimulated atoms that shoot out as narrow beams of light, to read CDs and bar codes, guide missiles, cut steel, perform eye surgery, make astronomical measurements and carry out myriad other tasks, from transmitting a thousand books a second over fiber optic lines to entertaining crowds with light shows. 
Read entire New York Times article.


Laser pioneer Charles H. "Charlie" Townes (PhD '39), a life member of the Caltech Board of Trustees and a recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics, died on Tuesday, January 27. He was 99 years old.

Townes, a professor of physics, emeritus, at UC Berkeley, won one-half of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in inventing the maser (for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation") and its cousin, the laser, in which light is emitted instead of microwaves. He shared the award with Aleksandr M. Prokhorov and Nicolai G. Basov, who independently developed the idea for a maser.

A native of Greenville, South Carolina, Townes graduated from Furman University in 1935 with a BS in physics and a BA in modern languages. He completed a master's degree in physics at Duke University in 1936 and in 1939 received his PhD in physics from Caltech. A member of the technical staff at Bell Labs through World War II, he joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1948. There, he built the first working maser. From 1959 to 1961, Townes served as vice president and director of research at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, D.C.; he then served for six years as provost and professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 
Read entire Caltech article.


The US physicist Charles Townes, who shared the 1964 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work that led to the development of the laser, has died at the age of 99. Townes played an integral part in the race to make the first laser by developing its forerunner – the "maser" – which could produce and amplify electromagnetic radiation in the microwave region of the spectrum.

Townes' key work began while he was at Columbia University in the early 1950s, when he proposed a device that could produce coherent electromagnetic waves through amplification by stimulated emission. He coined the term "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation" – or maser – although Townes was not the only person to have the idea. Independently, and at a similar time, Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Joseph Weber of the Catholic University of America, had also been working on the theoretical framework behind the maser. 
Read entire PhysicsWorld article.


Charles Townes, the Columbia University physicist who transformed modern society with his invention of the maser and the laser, receiving the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for his effort, has died. He was 99.
Townes, who had been in failing health, died Tuesday in Oakland while on his way to a hospital, according to UC Berkeley. He had been a professor of physics at the university since 1967.
Read entire L.A. Times article


Charles Townes, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose discoveries in quantum electronics led to the laser technology used in fiber-optic communications, medicine and James Bond films, has died. He was 99.

He died on Tuesday on his way to the hospital, according to the website of the University of California at Berkeley, where Townes had worked for almost 50 years, most recently as professor emeritus.

Townes won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964 for his discovery of the maser -- a device that creates a concentrated beam of microwave radiation -- a decade earlier. Soviet physicists Nicolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov, who independently produced the same findings, shared the award. Townes later laid the theoretical foundations for the laser, originally put forth by Albert Einstein in 1917, based on the emission of light, instead of microwave radiation.

“He was one of the most important experimental physicists of the last century,” Reinhard Genzel, a professor of physics at Berkeley, said of Townes, according to the article on the school’s website. “His strength was his curiosity and his unshakable optimism, based on his deep Christian spirituality.”
Read entire Bloomberg Business article


Charles H. Townes, the indefatigable Nobel laureate physicist known to the world as the “inventor” of the laser that ultimately led to bar codes in supermarkets and tools to help surgeons in the most delicate operations, died in Berkeley on Tuesday. He was 99.

A tireless theoretician and experimenter, Dr. Townes did pioneering laser work that gave the world the intensely focused light that explores planets and galaxies, measures time, and speeds transmission of messages. Lasers have revolutionized modern communications, long-range weapons systems and much of the high-tech world.

Dr. Townes had been making daily visits to his offices at the physics department on the Berkeley campus and at the university’s nearby Space Sciences Laboratory until only two years ago, his colleagues said.
“Charlie Townes was one of the most important experimental physicist of the last century, and his death marks the end of an era,” said Reinhard Genzel, a longtime colleague who is both a physics professor at Berkeley and director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.
Entire SF Gate/Chronicle article


When Bell Laboratories announced consultant Charles Townes' 1964 Nobel Prize win, the statement they sent out heralded the new technology of lasers as an invention that "holds promise" for the fields of research, industry, surgery and communications.

Working with his brother-in-law, Townes secured the first patent for a laser in 1959 through Bell Laboratories.

Townes, hailed as one of the co-inventors of the laser, died Tuesday at the age of 99.
Entire article


Winner of the Nobel Prize, inventor of the laser and devoted United Church of Christ member Charles Hard Townes died on Tuesday, Jan. 27, in California. His contributions are being celebrated by both the religious community and science community — a fitting way to remember a man whose strong faith helped open a discussion on the similarities between religion and technology.

Townes was 99.

"Charles was one of the most pre-eminent scientists in the United Church of Christ, and was also a man who was very open about the way in which his faith and spirituality informed his scientific imagination and vision," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, former general minister and president of the UCC. "He was important in the scientific world and religious world for finding common ground and seeing their vocation together at a time when the public assumed science and faith were at odds and competing."
Entire Chrurch of Christ article


The John Templeton Foundation mourns the death of Charles Hard Townes, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, on Tuesday, January 27 at the age of 99. Professor Townes was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2005 and shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the laser.

Townes often cited his discovery of the principles of the maser—an insight that suddenly occurred to him as he sat on a park bench in Washington, D.C. in 1951—as a “revelation” as real as any revelation described in the scriptures, and as a striking example of the interplay of the “how” and “why” that both science and religion must recognize.
Entire Templeton Foundation article


Arguably Greenville’s most illustrious citizen, Dr. Townes received the 1964 Nobel Prize in physics for his pioneering work in the development of the maser and laser. A book published in 1999 titled “1000 years, 1000 people,” ranked Dr. Townes 819 on a list of the 1,000 most important people of the millennium. The first five were Gutenberg, Columbus, Martin Luther, Galileo and Shakespeare. Those failing to make the cut included John Kennedy, William Gates and Ronald Reagan.

“The Furman community has lost a giant today,” said Furman President Elizabeth Davis. “Charles Townes' scientific explorations and path-breaking discoveries changed our world in wondrous ways, and new uses of the technology are unfolding even today. He represented the very best that Furman offers to the world—an individual of rare intelligence and unbounded curiosity, the courage to explore the unknown, the wisdom to serve humankind, an abiding faith that sustained him, and a generosity that has enriched each new generation of students here.”
Entire Furman University article


Nobel laureate Charles Hard Townes, an OSA Fellow and recipient of the Frederic Ives Medal (1996), died on 27 January 2015. He was 99. Charles was a luminary in the field of optics and photonics and was highly regarded by colleagues and the numerous students he mentored. 

"This week the optical community lost one of its greatest pioneers – a curious spirit who left an indelible mark on humanity and modern life," said Elizabeth Rogan, OSA CEO.  "His work has impacted fields as far flung as medicine and astronomy, and the technologies he pioneered have profoundly influenced the shape of the modern telecom and entertainment industries."

Charles Hard Townes was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on July 28, 1915. He attended Furman University in Greenville, where he received a B.S. in physics and a B.A. in Modern Languages in 1935. Physics had fascinated Townes since his first course in the subject during his sophomore year in college because of its "beautifully logical structure". Townes completed his M.A. in physics at Duke University in 1936, and then entered graduate school at the California Institute of Technology, where he received a Ph.D. in 1939 with a thesis on isotope separation and nuclear spins.

In a 2001 interview with science writer Joanna Rose, Townes describes how his inability to find a job in academia led him to work in an industrial laboratory.

"I got my PhD at a time when there were very few jobs – the Great Depression before World War II – and there were very few jobs in the universities, and I couldn't find the right job" Townes said. "So somewhat reluctantly I went into industry, you see, but it turned out to be a great thing for me."
Entire OSA article