Charles Hard Townes, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for invention of the laser and subsequently pioneered the use of lasers in astronomy, died early Tuesday, Jan. 27. He was 99 and in failing health, and died on his way to the hospital.
Life Story: Born July 28, 1915, in Greenville, S.C., Townes attended Furman University and graduated summa cum laude in 1935 at the age of 19 with a BS in physics and a BA in modern languages. He was a member of the swim team, the football band and the college paper. He completed an MA in physics at Duke University in 1936 and moved to Caltech, from which he obtained his Ph.D. in 1939. His thesis involved isotope separation and nuclear spins. He immediately joined the technical staff at Bell Labs in New Jersey, where he stayed through the war designing radar bombing systems. He then began applying his expertise in microwaves to spectroscopy, which he foresaw as providing powerful new tools for probing the structure of atoms and molecules and for controlling light. Bell Labs eventually terminated the program, however, seeing little application for it. Nevertheless, Townes continued this work after accepting a faculty position at Columbia University in 1948, where he built the maser with graduate student James Gordon and post-doctoral researcher Herbert Zeiger. In 1961, after a brief tenure at the Institute for Defense Analyses, he was appointed provost and professor at MIT. He continued his research on quantum electronics and moved into the new field of infrared astronomy. In 1967 he was named a UC Professor-at-large based on the UC Berkeley campus. Newly arrived at UC Berkeley, Townes soon learned of plans by young professor William “Jack” Welch to build a short-wavelength radio telescope, and offered some of his startup funds to build a maser amplifier and microwave spectrometer so the telescope could be used to search for evidence of complex molecules, like ammonia, in space. Told by many, including the astronomy department chairman, that such molecules could not possibly survive in space, Welch and Townes persisted and in 1968 proved them wrong. They were the first to discover three-atom combinations – ammonia and water vapor – near the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Others soon discovered even more complex molecules, providing evidence for a host of chemical reactions taking place in young and dying stars and giving credence to the idea that molecules from space could have seeded Earth with the building blocks of life. Townes was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Inventors Hall of Fame, South Carolina Hall of Fame and Engineering and Science Hall of Fame. He received honorary degrees from 25 colleges and universities and numerous honors, including the National Medal of Science, National Academy of Sciences’ Comstock Prize and the John J. Carty Medal, Rumford Premium of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Stuart Ballentine Medal of the Franklin Institute (twice), the C.E.K. Mees Medal of the Optical Society of America, the Medal of Honor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Plyler Prize of the American Physical Society, NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, Thomas Young Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics and the Physical Society (England), Wilhelm Exner Award (Austria) and the 1979 Niels Bohr International Gold Medal.
He also was a member and former president of the American Physical Society, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, and a foreign member of the Royal Society and the Russian Academy of Sciences. A member of the American Astronomical Society, in 1998 he was awarded the society’s Henry Norris Russell Lectureship for a lifetime of eminence in astronomical research. Townes is survived by his wife, Frances Hildreth Townes (nee Brown), whom he married in 1941; daughters Holly Townes, Linda Rosenwein, Ellen Townes-Anderson and Carla Kessler; six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.