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SPIE Professional April 2010

Advancing the Laser

Today's scientists and engineers have unlimited opportunities to use this extraordinary tool to improve the human condition.
Advancing the Laser

The international celebration of the 50th anniversary of the laser, including a display of new and vintage laser gear presented by SPIE at Photonics West in January, has evoked 50 years of memories and stories while inspiring today's scientists to advance laser technology even further.

Concepts behind the laser go back, some say, to Einstein. Valentin Fabrikant and others developed the theory of stimulated emission, but reduction to practice leapt forward when James Gordon, Herbert Zeigler, and SPIE Fellow Charles Townes demonstrated the maser in 1954. Townes and Arthur Schawlow proposed an "optical maser" in 1958, and Gordon Gould came up with designs for implementation and application. Some were beginning to think that the laser was an unrealizable dream when Theodore Maiman surprised the world by demonstrating the first ruby laser at Hughes Research Labs on 16 May 1960.

Advances in laser technology exploded with innovation and discovery after that and continue today with massive projects such as the National Ignition Facility in the USA and European projects such as the Laser Mégajoule under construction in France, the planned Extreme Light Infrastructure, and the proposed High Power Laser Energy Research Facility.

The laser anniversary celebration is a rich reminder that many physicists, electrical engineers, materials scientists, and others have changed the way we live with their extraordinary inventiveness—without the laser-powered Internet to aid research and before electronic computers for modeling.

During the last 50 years, advances in laser technology have given us everyday items such as the barcode scanner and the compact disk player. Lasers have also revolutionized our ability to improve our vision and to "see" inside atoms and the far reaches of the universe. Laser technology has created whole new industries and areas of research, and there were times when it seemed researchers came up with a new laser discovery every month.

"It was a truly exciting time of experiment often leading theory, and then theory explaining and suggesting new directions for research," says SPIE Executive Director Eugene Arthurs, whose PhD work and early career were in the laser lab of the late Daniel Bradley at Queen's University Belfast (Ireland).

Today's Laser Challenge

And the celebration isn't over.

"The observance of the 50th anniversary of the laser establishes a challenge for today's much more numerous and better-equipped scientists and engineers to push laser performance, power, pulse duration, stability, wave length, and cost of ownership and operation," Arthurs says.

"They are too late to invent the laser, but why not take on ambitious goals for renewable energy?" he asks. "Or build on the laser-enabled biomedical knowledge base to dramatically improve the human condition?"

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has also observed that the past 50 years have taught us that we haven't seen the last of the impacts from the discovery of the laser.

"I am sure there are many more revolutionary discoveries to be made from ongoing research and development that promise similar opportunities for our society in the future," says Chu, who shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics with Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Phillips for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.

Laser Events and Artifacts

image of laser photo timeline at Photonics West 2010

SPIE is leading the golden anniversary celebration with its Advancing the Laser tribute and as a founding partner in LaserFest. SPIE is also supporting a symposium and tribute to Maiman at Simon Fraser University (Canada) in May. (See story below.)

The Society kicked off the year-long celebration in January by organizing a laser display at SPIE Photonics West in San Francisco. It was so popular that it has now become a traveling showcase for the earliest lasers and technologies from the 1960s through today's ubiquitous everyday applications and sometimes massive research arrays.

The temporary museum chronicles breakthroughs and key players over the history of the laser in a large photo timeline created by SPIE and laser historian Jeff Hecht.

The display also includes new lasers and vintage laser equipment and video clips from interviews with laser researchers.

Though the entire collection won't be moved from place to place, parts of the laser anniversary display were shown at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History for a LaserFest event in February and at SPIE Advanced Lithography in San Jose. Plans are being made to reconstruct versions at SPIE Photonics Europe and SPIE Defense, Security+Sensing in April, CLEO in May, SPIE Optics+Photonics in August, and at other events.

Equipment displayed at SPIE Photonics West included the first supermarket barcode scanner, Maiman's original solid-state ruby laser designs, early holography and semiconductor etching lasers, and the first high-power green lasers.

Many industry-leading organizations contributed lasers to the exhibit in San Francisco, including Cymer, Nufern, Coherent, SCHOTT, CVI Melles Griot, Spectra-Physics, SCANLAB, Kentek, and Daylight Solutions as well as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Laser technologies represented included ruby, He-Ne, CO2, ion, solid-state, and fiber lasers, large and unwieldy power sources, laser slabs, and optics.

Laser Innovators

The display at Photonics West became a gathering place for many who shared stories of their interest and work with lasers. Visitors to the exhibit included Townes, who shared a Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the maser; Kumar Patel, inventor of the CO2 laser; laser pioneer Peter Chu of Boeing; Eric Spitz, who first patented the video laser disc; and George Valley, an original Hughes laser researcher.

Among the newer technologies on display were samples of the amplifier glass slabs of the type used in the National Ignition Facility's 192-laser array launched in 2009 and Raman analyzers used in medical, anticounterfeit, and biofuel applications, loaned by BaySpec.

"SPIE's eye-catching and highly informative 50-years-of-the-laser display was a special treat within the Photonics West exhibition halls," said Finlay Colville, director of marketing for solar at Coherent. "Featuring a diverse range of equipment on view in glass cabinets and superb timeline wall displays, the content and layout offered an enlightening tutorial for anyone captivated by developments in the laser industry over the past half century."

Private Collections on Loan

Two of the largest private contributors of lasers for the display were Bob Hess and Richard Stone.

Hess, a holographer, originally was interested only in older holography lasers like the 1963 Perkin Elmer/Spectra-Physics Model 111 He-Ne laser on display. His collection began to expand when he found a 1962 Hughes Aircraft Company Model 200 ruby laser system, the commercialized design of Maiman's original laser, still fully operational (also displayed at the Photonics West celebration in January). Hess' collection now includes a 1969 Hughes Model 3052 Argon Ion laser acquired in January, just a week before SPIE Photonics West.

Stone said he amassed much of his collection by rescuing defunct lasers from his job at Lockheed Martin, sometimes to the chagrin of his supervisors. "His bosses specifically told him to get rid of these lasers, but he couldn't just throw them away," Hess explains.

photo showing model of first working laser
On display at Photonics West in January: a model of the first working laser, built by Ted Maiman.

Maiman's widow, Kathleen, contributed numerous items to the display in January, including a Maiman-built model of the first laser, Maiman's research notebook, and his prototype for the first medical laser. The notebook was opened to the page of notes from the day he successfully demonstrated the first laser.

Hess likened the excitement of many visitors at seeing the original lasers to "the look an older guy gets when he sees an old classic car." He said he met a man who built a laser for a 1960s science fair, using information from a 1964 article in Popular Science.

"He won his high school science fair for building the laser," Hess said. "That kind of technology was just out there and available then."

Video tour of the historical laser display at SPIE Photonics West with Jeff Hecht.

Tribute To Theodore Maiman May 2010

Ted MaimanAdvances in laser technology and Theodore Maiman's role in them will be celebrated at a tribute symposium at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, Canada, on the 50th anniversary of Maiman's demonstration of the world's first laser.

The symposium will bring together approximately 200 leading researchers and their students as well as business leaders from around the world who have benefited from Maiman's discovery. Maiman taught at the SFU School of Engineering Science before he died in 2007.

The 15-16 May event is sponsored by SPIE and SFU. Speakers will include Maiman's widow Kathleen, who will talk about "Ted Maiman: The Scientist and the Man."

Registration and other information.

Chu Salute To Lasers

"The laser has been involved in more than half a dozen Nobel prizes. It has enabled us to stop atoms in their tracks and observe them as they form new states of matter.

"Lasers have also revolutionized our ability to 'see' into the combustion chambers of internal combustion engines to learn how to improve performance, to 'see' into our atmosphere to learn more about the climate of our planet, and even to search for gravity waves from distant events in the universe.

"These past 50 years have taught us how discoveries arising from fundamental research, such as the laser, can lead to breakthrough technologies, whole new industries, and even change the way we live (for the better!).

"Even though we haven't seen the last of the impacts from the discovery of the laser, I am sure there are many more revolutionary discoveries to be made from ongoing research and development that promise similar opportunities for our society in the future."

- Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy

Laser Anniversary Resources
logo for SPIE Advancing the laser  

The SPIE celebration of 50 years of advances in laser technology includes weekly reports and video interviews on advances in laser technology, free papers from the SPIE Digital Library and SPIE Professional on laser technology, free posters and DVDs for students and educators, and links to other resources such as a virtual laser museum. AdvancingTheLaser.org


This community-wide celebration includes programs and events that showcase the prominence of the laser in today's world and provides videos and other informational resources on laser technology and the work of laser pioneers. LaserFest.org

Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.   

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201004.02

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