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Lasers & Sources

London, Paris events honor 50 years of lasers

25 June 2010
SPIE Newsroom

Click here for photo gallery from the two events

Kathleen Maiman and the original laser

Kathleen Maiman shows the first laser.

Laser anniversary celebrations held recently at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London and at the Palais du Louvre in Paris and École Polytechnique in Palaiseau featured appearances of many of the field's luminaries. SPIE was an Associated Member with 50 Years of the Laser in the City of Light in Paris on 17 June, and a contributor to the 22 June event at the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Charles Townes, who with Nicolai Basov and Alexander Prokhorov shared the first Nobel Prize given for laser research, was a featured speaker at both events. Townes is Professor Emeritus at the Univ. of California, Berkeley, an SPIE Fellow, and 2010 winner of the SPIE Gold Medal of the Society. At the London event, Townes related the story of the origins of the laser in the late 1950s, stressing that important things happen when researchers interact, sometimes in totally unintended directions. Townes cited the laser as an example of why society must support scientific research. "People getting together," he said, is what leads to important breakthroughs. He called this interaction "the great thing about science. People trading ideas, others freely contributing."

Townes also entertained with tales of meeting Niels Bohr in Paris and describing his work on the maser. But he said that Bohr did not believe him, dismissed it as impossible and never spoke to him again.

Laser experts speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering celebration included Anthony Siegman (Stanford Univ.), Colin Webb (Univ. of Oxford), Wilson Sibbett (Univ. of St. Andrews), and David Payne (Univ. of Southampton). A special session honored Sir Charles Kao, recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics for work in fiber optics and lasers that helped enable the internet. Kao is also a recipient of the SPIE Gold Medal of the Society.

Townes, Sibbett, and Kao were among another program of distinguished plenary presenters participating in 50 Years of the Laser in the City of Light on 22 June at the Louvre and 23 June at the Polytechnique.

Lord Browne, president of the Royal Academy, spoke about the importance of the laser and the diversity of applications. Commenting on the two honorees -- Kao's work of 44 years ago and how that had changed the world, and Townes' four decades of IR interferometry research, including more than 20 papers published since Townes turned 90 -- he emphasized the flow from science to applications and back, saying applications are what drive scientific discovery.

Katarina Svanberg and Ahmad Zewail

SPIE President-Elect Katarina Svanberg presents a necktie honoring the laser anniversary to Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zewail.

Other laser luminaries on the program included Nobel Laureates Nicolaas Bloembergen (Univ. of Arizona), Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (École Normale Supérieure), Ahmed Zewail (California Institute of Technology), and Herbert Kroemer (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), and other speakers, including:

  • SPIE Fellow Juris Upatnieks, co-inventor of 3D holography
  • Catherine Césarsky (Haut Commissaire à l'Energie Atomique, past president of the International Astronomical Union) and Ferenc Krausz (Max Planck Institute). Césarsky recently oversaw another major scientific celebration, the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.
  • Alain Aspect (Institut d'Optique) and Serge Haroche (Lab Kastel Brossel), participants in SPIE Photonics Europe 2010 in Brussels last April.
  • Sigrid Avrillier (Univ. de Paris Nord), frequent participant at SPIE/OSA European Conferences on Biomedical Optics and other SPIE events and publications
  • Erich Spitz (Thales), participant at SPIE conferences including SPIE Photonics West
  • Kathleen Maiman (Simon Fraser Univ.), wife of Theodore Maiman, who invented the first working laser on 16 May 1960.

SPIE President-Elect Katarina Svanberg (Lund Univ. Hospital) and CEO Eugene Arthurs represented the Society at the events. Photo displays developed by SPIE to honor laser luminaries and illustrate the timeline of laser development were exhibited at both events.

Attendees at the event who were featured on the panels of the display each autographed their own photograph. Below, Gérard Mourou (Ecole Polytechnique), pioneer of chirped pulse amplification, signs his photo.

Gerard Mourou

Related video interviews:

Gérard Mourou
Charles Townes
Theodore Maiman
Nicolaas Bloembergen

View more photos from the two events
Learn more about SPIE Advancing the Laser tribute
Advancing the Laser video series