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Laser pioneer Charles Townes receives honorary degree

02 February 2011

Professor Townes (left) and University of Strathclyde Principal Professor Jim McDonald. Photo by AP.

Nobel Laureate and SPIE Fellow Charles Townes, of the University of California at Berkeley, has been awarded an honorary degree from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. Townes recieved his honorary degree at a ceremony in San Francisco.

"Professor Townes' career is remarkable, not only for its longevity but also for the level of innovation he has achieved, said Strathclyde Principal Professor Jim McDonald. "By pioneering the maser, and carrying out pivotal work in the development of the laser, he helped to pave the way for technology which has a vast range of uses in today's world, in medicine, energy, communications and computing. After more than 70 years, he continues to contribute to exploration in physics and to the debate on its huge potential."

Townes has a long history with SPIE, and has authored numerous papers, served as symposium chair and presented at many SPIE meetings. He was the 2010 recipient of the SPIE Gold Medal of the Society, its highest honor, in recognition of his extraordinary foresight in recognizing the potential of the laser and coherent light 50 years ago, for his pursuit of the requisite scientific inquiry to turn lasers into one of the most potentially disruptive technologies of the 21st century and finally for his pioneering scientific contributions to the fields of optics, lasers, astronomy and molecular spectroscopy.

Townes studied at Furman University, Duke University and California Institute of Technology in the 1930s before joining the technical staff of Bell Laboratories. In 1948, he moved to Columbia University, where he continued research in microwave physics and developed with colleagues the maser, which used radiation to produce electromagnetic waves. Their research included theoretical work on optical and infrared masers, which were later developed into the laser. In 1961, Professor Townes was appointed Provost of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a post he held for five years. During this time, he joined the Science Advisory Committee to President Lyndon B Johnson and was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for fundamental work in quantum electronics. In 1967, he was appointed Professor of Physics at Berkeley, where he has remained ever since.