R.I.P. Charles Townes, the physicist whose work touched all our lives

Just a short post to mark the passing of a truly great physicist, Charles H. Townes, who died yesterday at the age of 99.

Charles Townes, pictured in 2013

Charles Townes, pictured in 2013

Townes came to fame for his pioneering work on the theory and applications of the maser , which he then followed up by designing the first laser. Lasers are used in many common consumer devices such as optical disk drives, laser printers, barcode scanners and fibre-optic cables. They are also used in medicine for laser surgery and various skin treatments, and in industry for cutting and welding materials.

The work of Charles Townes in physics has thus had an enormous impact on everyday life; he was awarded the Nobel Prize for is his work on quantum electronics, especially lasers and masers.

It’s very sad that he didn’t quite make his century, especially because this year is the International Year of Light, which will involve many activities and celebrations relating to his work on lasers. Much of our experimental work in Physics here in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sussex involves lasers in various ways, and we will find an appropriate occasion to celebrate the life and achievements of a truly great physicist. Until then let me just express my condolences to the friends, family and colleagues of Charles Townes on the loss not only of an eminent scientist but of an extremely nice man.

R.I.P. Charles Townes, physicist and gentleman (1915-2015).

12 Responses to “R.I.P. Charles Townes, the physicist whose work touched all our lives”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    99, wow! Have any prominent physicists made the ton?

    • Friedrich Hund comes immediately to mind. (A former fellow student interviewed him less than 20 years ago, not long before he died.) I’m sure there are a few others.

      By the way, what is the origin of “made the ton”?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thanks Phillip; I didn’t know that Hund made the ton, and I can’t think of any unit that 100th part of either the imperial, American or metric ton corresponds to; good question. I first heard of it as a child as someone exceeding 100mph on the road “doing the ton”.

      • telescoper Says:

        The word “ton” has various meanings in English apart from the unit of weight. It can mean, colloquially, “a large quantity” but does have the specific meaning of 100 of something, e.g. pounds sterling. In sport it’s most often used in darts and cricket.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Presumably, Peter, because those are sports where a score of 100 is attainable. Any others?

      • telescoper Says:


      • Bowling (where 100 is not very good) and basketball come to mind.

      • My guess is that ton was first used to mean a large amount of something, then got restricted to 100 in cases where 100 was a large amount.

    • It wouldn’t surprise me if Wolfgang Rindler makes it. He is just 90, but surprisingly active. I met him personally for the first time at the Texas Symposium in 2013, commemorating 50 years of the Texas Symposium. Of course, he helped organize the first one as well as the anniversary one. When he came to Dallas from Cornell, he had already been in Liverpool and London and was already quite famous, and only about 10 years younger than I am now. That was a long time ago: most television was black-and-white, the Beatles had not yet appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, etc. He drove Rocky Kolb from downtown Dallas to the university campus in the suburbs for the public talk. His mind seems very fit as well, no sign of old-age symptoms there (except perhaps wisdom).

      Another candidate is Jack Steinberger. At the last Moriond cosmology symposium (also celebrating 50 years next year), he was in the front row for every talk, asking many questions.

  2. He looks much younger than he was if that picture really is from 1999.

  3. Alan Heavens Says:

    A sad day. My father worked with him on lasers in around 1960.

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