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'Obscure' laser research earns Charles Townes an inaugural Golden Goose Award

19 September 2012

SPIE FellowCharles Townes at CREOL Charles Townes is among eight winners of a new award celebrating research whose value seemed obscure at best in its early days but that resulted in important new capabilities and quality of life improvements.

Dubbed the Golden Goose awards by their originator, U.S. Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), the honors were presented 13 September in Washington, D.C.

Cooper originally conceived of the Golden Goose award as a means of educating Members of Congress and the general public about the value of federal funding of basic scientific research, the award website notes. The name of the award is a play on the Golden Fleece awards issued between 1975 and 1988 by Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin), which targeted specific federally funded research grants as examples of government waste.

The name also alludes to the fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs. Researchers who have used federal funding to make their research breakthroughs constitute the "goose," and the innovations stemming from their work are the "golden eggs." The Golden Goose Award explicitly links the two.

Townes'  work in the 1950s helped lead to the invention of laser technology, without which much of modern medicine, communication, manufacturing, and entertaniment would be impossible. However, at the time the laser had no known application and was even called "a solution in search of a problem." His work earned him a Nobel Prize in 1964, along with the late Russian researchers Aleksandr Prokhorov (a Fellow of SPIE) and Nicolay Basov.

Read more about the awards, the winners, and their research on the event website.

Find out how the Golden Goose Awards connects with the new U. S. National Academies report "Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation."