Published: January 15, 2010
In 1960, a physicist shined a flash bulb into a ruby crystal tube and the first laser was born. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the history of the laser, the intrigue surrounding its invention and why you can't pick up the phone or get in a car without having a laser to thank.
Thomas Baer, executive director, Stanford Photonics Research Center, Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.
James Gordon, physicist, retired from Bell Labs, Rumson, N.J.
Nick Taylor, author, Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War (Simon & Schuster, 2000), New York, N.Y. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.
Fifty years ago, a physicist by the name of Theodore Maiman slid a ruby rod into a coiled flash tube, flashed the light coil, and a beam of light shot out. And it was the first laser that was born.
That part of the laser story is uncontested. But who exactly deserves the credit, or at least the patent, was the subject of a 30-year court battle. And while Charles Townes won the Nobel Prize for the principle behind the laser, after three decades of legal battles, the courts awarded the laser patent royalties to a third person, Gordon Gould, a tireless physicist who never gave up his belief he deserved the credit.
Up next, we're going to be celebrating the invention that changed the way we live, its history, its place on our everyday life, how it has shaken up science, from astronomy to biology. I can't think of anything in this world now that's operating in modern society that does not depend somehow in some way on a laser beam. And we'll talk about why that is.
And let me introduce my guest. Thomas Baer is executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford University. He joins us from our studio on campus. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Dr.�THOMAS BAER (Executive Director, Stanford Photonics Research Center, Stanford University): Well, thank you, Ira. It's a pleasure to be on the show. I listen to your show whenever I can, and I always enjoy it.
FLATOW: You're the one. That's good to find somebody. Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: James Gordon is a retired Bell Labs physicist who worked on early laser development. He's here in our New York studio. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr.�JAMES GORDON (Retired Physicist, Bell Labs): Hello, Ira.
FLATOW: Nick Taylor, the author of "Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War." He's also here with us in our studio. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr.�NICK TAYLOR (Author, "Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War"): Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Tom, can you give us a simple explanation of laser physics? How is a laser, let's say, different from your flashlight?
Dr. BAER: Certainly I can, and I think Jim Gordon can probably help me out, as well. You know, a laser is a coherent source of light. And when you look at a laser, what you see is a very, very bright light source, and it is a very pure color, and it is collimated. It doesn't spread out very much. And these are the key properties of the laser.
A physicist would say it has spatial and temporal coherence, and the analogy I like to use, it's like an orchestra. When it's warming up, you hear all of this noise from all the instruments playing their different sounds, and that's like an incandescent light bulb with lots of different frequencies of light coming out. And then when the lead violinist, the first violinist starts to tune the orchestra, everybody plays the same sound, and that's like a laser.
FLATOW: Jim Gordon, Bell Labs was such a great place for invention back in the day, right?
Mr.�GORDON: Yes, it was.
FLATOW: You had the transistor. You had the laser. To give us an idea of where the idea for a laser started, how did it come about?
Mr.�GORDON: Well, it started some years before that. I guess it came from Charlie Townes, who in - when was it, in 1949 or something like that? No, around there - had idea of trying to make an amplifier without using the electrons, without some vacuum tube or transistor.
The reason for that was that to make an amplifier or an oscillator using electrons or some solid-state stuff, you have to have devices that are the size of the wavelength of the radiation that you're amplifying. And that's fine when the wavelength is one centimeter and when it's 10 centimeters, but when it gets down to a millimeter and less than that, it gets more difficult, and you can't make devices that are that small.
So he had this idea of using molecules, actual molecules and atoms - which are small, after all - as an intrinsic way to amplify things. And that was the invention, basically, of the maser.
FLATOW: That's using microwaves.
Mr.�GORDON: And that's - maser is an acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. In the early days, when the maser was actually working, it was also an acronym for money acquisition schemes for expensive research.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: I guess it really...
Mr.�GORDON: And that was...
FLATOW: Did you work on the maser yourself?
Mr.�GORDON: Well, yeah. That was my thesis project at Columbia. I was a student of Charlie Townes', and got there in the fall of 1949. And about 1951, after I had taken a bunch of courses and was doing a little work, a little bit of lab work, Charlie came around and said: How would you like to join this project of mine? And I thought that was a good idea. And he sort of - we started out together, and he a post doc also there, Herb Zeiger, who was also eventually a coauthor. And we sort of talked about this maser.
We didn't have a name for it yet, but we were going to use - going to make an amplifier out of a molecule beam of ammonia molecules. And that seemed very strange, but it was - but - and most people didn't think it was going to work, and I joined this project because I didn't know enough...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.�GORDON: ...to know it wasn't going to work. In fact, I thought it was - it looked pretty good.
Mr. GORDON: So - and then one thing led to another, and about two years after that, 1953, it was beginning to look pretty good. And in December of '53, we got the first indication that we were seeing some amplification.
It wasn't enough to make an oscillator. And along about that time, people seemed to come out of the woodwork knowing that this wasn't going to work, and some of them had - some of them had ideas based in physics, based on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. I think some of them just were molecular beam experts, didn't think he could possibly get enough molecules to make this thing work.
FLATOW: Let me just move on a little faster to Nick Taylor, because Nick, pick up the story, because your book is all about someone else who was not Townes in this. And that...
FLATOW: ...(unintelligible) about Gordon Gould.
Mr.�TAYLOR: Gordon Gould was a graduate student, a 37-year-old graduate student in 1957, to advance the story a little bit, and he was in the physics department at Columbia. He said he was down the hall, although I understand he was on a different floor from Charlie Townes. But as he said at the time, the laser was in the air. In other words, there were a lot of people thinking about it. They were thinking about how to amplify something stronger and more powerful than microwaves.
And so Gould, who was working on his thesis at the time, working on his doctorate at Columbia, went home one November evening, and he says he woke up in the middle of the night and conceived of what would make the laser work. And he got up and he started writing in his notebook, and he wrote laser: light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.
So he invented the word. And he put two mirrors at the ends of a tube, and he understood that these two mirrors would bounce light back and forth and eventually grow to the extent that it would become a laser, a coherent beam that would come out the end of the tube through a partially-silvered mirror.
And that, that's where Gordon Gould lies in the legend of the creation of the laser.
FLATOW: And it took 30 years of court battling and patent fights...
Mr.�TAYLOR: Well, his first notebook was not witnessed by another scientist. It was witnessed by a notary public in the Bronx at a candy store. He later used this notebook as the basis for his claims, which were eventually proven.
But when you talk about the invention of the laser, you talk about several devices. You talk about oscillators. You talk about resonators. You talk about amplifiers. And Gould was dismissed by the scientific community, I think, because there's this kind of war between invention and theoretical science. And Gordon Gould always wanted to become an inventor and he wanted to make money inventing, and I think that there are scientists who find that a little bit suspect.
So that war really continues today as to who invented - really invented the laser.
FLATOW: Jim Gordon, what was the reaction to this invention? Was it hailed, as soon as it was demonstrated that this ruby rod - hey, it's going to be the next greatest things since - put in your own words there.
Mr.�GORDON: Well, actually, I should go back just a little bit to Charlie Townes, and Charlie Townes was, of course, at Columbia. Art Schawlow, at the time, was at Bell Laboratories. And they wrote a paper - which was published in 1958, I guess - which was called "Infrared and Optical Masers." And there was exactly the sort of structure that we just heard about from Gordon Gould.
Now, Towne - they were all in the same building at the same time. So Charlie Townes there at Columbia doing this work, and Gordon Gould was down a floor below him, working in another laboratory, and they actually talked together. And then Nick Taylor wrote a book about Gordon Gould, and actually, Charlie Townes wrote a book about himself, which he describes all the goings on.
FLATOW: Charlie Townes got the glory, and Nick got the money.
Mr.�GORDON: Well, Nick...
Dr. BAER: Nick didn't get the money. Gordon Gould got the money.
FLATOW: I mean, I'm sorry, Gordon Gould.
Mr.�TAYLOR: Would that it were the other way around.
FLATOW: Right, I'm sorry, I misspoke. But he got - Charlie Towne won the Nobel Prize and...
Mr. GORDON: Charlie Towne...
FLATOW: ...and Gordon Gould got the patent rights for it.
Mr. GORDON: That's right. Well, where was I? It was Charles Towne - oh, yeah. When - they - and Shortly after Nick...
Mr. GORDON: ...after...
Mr. GORDON: No. The laser - oh, Gordon Gould? No, no, no, no.
Mr. BAER: Ted Maiman.
FLATOW: Ted Maiman.
Mr. GORDON: Shortly after Ted Maiman made a MASER, Ali Javan at Bell Labs and his cohorts made a laser out of gas in a tube which was very much like Gordon Gould's idea.
Anyway, that was sort of like the MASER because as you say what was the reaction? Well, the reaction was it was a solution looking for a problem?
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: I remember seeing pictures of (unintelligible) signs of it cutting through Gillette razor blades, right? That's what it did. And you measure its strength, then how many Gillette power it had.
Mr. GORDON: It did that. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GORDON: Well, you know, you come back to the difference between a light bulb and the laser. The light bulb is sending out light in all directions and at all frequencies. And the laser is sending out one in direction - one frequency. And it can be concentrated into a very, very hot spot.
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, now, Gordon Gould understood that from the very beginning. I think Charlie Towne said that he didn't foresee the laser being a major invention of any kind. But Gordon did understand from the beginning that it was going to be a very, very powerful device, one that would bring down two fractions of an inch, for example, the distance between the Earth and the moon once a reflector was placed on the moon that could bounce back a beam of laser light. And it was that coherent that you could beam it all those hundreds of thousands of miles and get it to bounce back. And you could make an incredibly precise measurement. That was just one of the things that he saw the laser being used for.
FLATOW: Tom Baer, how many things now - do you keep track of how many patents there are in lasers?
Mr. BAER: I have done some research on that, Ira, and the lasers, one of the most prolific inventions of the 20th century, there are well over 50,000 patents that have been issued that mentioned lasers in their abstract or title. And what's remarkable is that the number of patents is ever increasing that are issued each year. There are several thousand patents continuing to be issued, even to the present day.
FLATOW: Hmm. And when we think of lasers now, we think of, like, fiber optic cables and (unintelligible) the Internet things like that.
Mr. BAER: Well, that's one of the most prolific applications of laser. Essentially, all of the information today that we receive in real time is in some way encoded and transmitted by a laser. All of our movies on DVDs, our music on CDs, the television signals are delivered by fiber link - even this radio transmission is delivered by fiber optic to your studios and from your studios to the transmission towers. The Internet, of course, is all powered by fiber optic communications. So, essentially, all of our information is delivered on modulated lasers today.
FLATOW: We're talking about lasers this hour on Science Friday from NPR News.
In fact, we could not do without them, could we?
MR. BAER: Well, you know, I think they touch our lives in many ways we don't appreciate. In some ways, it's - theyre well characterized as being sort of an invisible reel.
Mr. BAER: The - they're used to cut sheet metal for cars and airplanes, for manufacturing the engines in airplanes and cars. They cut our clothes rather than using mechanical devices like scissors. They machine our computer chips, our memory chips; our flat panel LCD TVs are machined using lasers. They manufacture solar panels. So they're used really in all different areas of manufacturing. And in medicine, they're ubiquitous as well.
FLATOW: And the National Ignition laboratory has the biggest laser on the planet now, does it not? What you cant do with that?
Mr. BAER: Well, you know, it is remarkable. It's the size of three football fields and it generates a two megajoule pulse that delivers in one nanosecond, less than a nanosecond.
Two megajoules - to give you a feeling for this - is the amount of energy that's released in a stick of dynamite when it explodes. And that energy delivered by the laser is delivered a million times more quickly than is delivered by that chemical explosion. When you focus that on a target substance like hydrogen, you can compress this very light substance of hydrogen to a density 50 times greater than that of lead. And you push the nuclei of the hydrogen so close together that they react like a chemical reaction and fuse together to form helium and released a tremendous amount of energy.
So the idea is that this new laser will allow us to explore the possibility of using a laser as the engine to produce energy through nuclear fusion, which could be close to a limitless supply of carbon-free energy.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Our listeners are on the line. Ken(ph) in Grove, Oklahoma. Hi, Ken. Kevin.
KEVIN (Caller): Hello.
FLATOW: Hi, there.
KEVIN: Thank you. Hi. My question is when you shoot a laser at a wall - just a basic red laser - and you see the dot, it looks like it's swimming around. And theres - it looks like it's undulating or something.
FLATOW: You know, it's grainy, right?
KEVIN: And I'm just wondering what causes that.
FLATOW: It looks kind of grainy, doesn't it? Yeah.
KEVIN: Yeah. Yeah.
FLATOW: Why is that? Tom, do you know?
Mr. BAER: Well, yes. That's called laser speckle and it is caused by the special coherence of the light, which means that when it hits a rough surface it will interfere with itself upon reflection. So just the tiny imperfections in the wall will give rise to light and dark portions of the beam in reflection which speckle and move as you move the laser beam across the surface.
Mr. GORDON: Or as you move your eye and look at it from different directions.
Mr. BAER: That's right.
Mr. BAER: One of the...
FLATOW: I had heard one biologist describe it totally differently, saying that the light is so pure that it only tweaked some of the cones in your eyes and the other ones remain untweaked. So you see, like, little spots there but...
Mr. GORDON: No, that's not the right...
FLATOW: Well, that's why I'm here to...
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: ...clean out the misinformation. But...
Mr. GORDON: That's not the right answer.
FLATOW: But Kevin, one of the interesting things you can do is, if you're nearsighted, you can take off your glasses and you will see that the dots move much more quickly. And in fact, if youre nearsighted, they'll move the opposite direction that you move your head. If youre farsighted, they'll move in the same direction. And if youre perfectly corrected, they won't move at all.
KEVIN: Wow, there's an experiment...
Mr. GORDON: There you go.
FLATOW: ...you can try at home, but don't shine it into your eyes.
FLATOW: We're going to take a break. We're here talking with James Gordon, the retired physicist at Bell Labs. Thomas Baer, who is at the Stanford Photonics Research Center, and Nick Taylor, author of, "Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate and the Thirty-Year Patent War."
Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us at SCIFRI, that's at S-C-I-F-R-I and join the folks at SCIENCE FRIDAY island in "Second Life" and participate on our show, taking about lasers. Stay with us, we'll be right back.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: We're celebrating the 50th birthday of the laser, and in fact there's a laser fest going on for awhile. It's a bunch of science organizations - the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America. Folks like that are celebrating the invention of the laser. And it's quite an interesting story. I'm talking with Thomas Baer, executive director of Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford. In the studio we have James Gordon, one of the early laser pioneers; Nick Taylor, author of "Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate and the Thirty-Year Patent War."
One thing I remember - and I'll ask you how easy this is to make a laser, Jim. I remember in the amateur scientist column, in Scientific American, remember they have a column of amateur scientist...
Mr. GORDON: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Right.
FLATOW: ...every month. They had a do-it-yourself ruby laser. I wanted to make that thing. It looks just so easy to make. And I saw a video of Thomas Maiman demonstrating it on YouTube, you know, it looked like it could just throw in together very easily.
Mr. GORDON: Oh, you think that's true. You just have to have the right piece of ruby and a flash lamp and then you can do it.
FLATOW: And in the end...
Mr. GORDON: There's - well...
FLATOW: And don't look in through the end of it, as if you didnt know in those days.
Mr. GORDON: It's also...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GORDON: It's also...
Mr. GORDON: It's also, you can go to the - your local Walgreens and buy a little ruby pointer laser.
Mr. GORDON: And not a, I mean, not a ruby laser but a red little pointer laser.
FLATOW: And when you think about how cheaply they are made today, you know...
Mr. GORDON: Right. They cost...
FLATOW: ...50 cents.
Mr. GORDON: They cost you about five dollars or less and probably cost 50 cents to make. You're...
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Wow. I am - let me ask you Nick, are royalties still being collected?
Mr. TAYLOR: Not on Gordon Gould's patents...
Mr. TAYLOR: His patents ran out in - well, his last one, I think, ran out in 2004, 2005. But what is interesting about the whole story is that he had so much difficulty in getting awarded his patents as he ended up with four basic laser patents. And after 30 years, the laser industry was pretty fully developed. So - and in the meantime, he had bartered away 80 percent of his future earnings, because he needed to sustain the fight. He sold all of his shares to Patlex Corporation which, were the lawyers who...
FLATOW: The lawyers made all the money.
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, the lawyers made a lot of the money and investors. But he ended up at 20 percent and retired quite happily and wealthily on that 20 percent. And the laser industry, as I say, was fully developed. So he made much, much more money than he would have if he'd been awarded patents originally.
FLATOW: The whole patent industry is different now.
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, it's the term of patent is different. Its 20 years from a date of application as opposed to 17 years from date of grant. I think partly, Gordon's long fight was - Gordon Gould's long fight was responsible for that change in that patent law. But I dont understand, really, how the patent office does what it does. I tell people upon writing this book, I thought physics was difficult for me to understand. I'm an English major. But that was until I encountered the patent system. And that's really hard to understand.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Well, 1-800-989-8255. Tom Baer, that was a ruby laser, it shot out a beam - when did we - when did they - to change come to - when we can actually tune frequencies to make different kinds of lasers? Different colors, different wavelengths, things like that?
Mr. BAER: That happened about four or five years after the ruby laser. Peter Sorokin at IBM developed the organic dye laser, which was really one of the first lasers that allowed you to do - to tune the laser through divisible spectrum. And it was a - again, that was in the range of the mid-1960s that that was developed.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And now, we can make a laser just about - and what's the real frontier? What's the real challenge in laser technology?
Mr. TAYLOR: Well, there's so many...
Mr. BAER: There are some remarkable new lasers that are performing first light, as they say.
Mr. BAER: And you mentioned one of them which is the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore. And another one is up at the Stanford Linear Accelerator nearby. And that is a free-electron laser that uses a large accelerator, the SLAC accelerator, to generate coherent light in the X-ray region. Again, a region far beyond what the original inventors the laser thought would be possible.
They have coherent light emission down to two angstroms, which is close to a hundred or a thousand times shorter wavelength than the original lasers. Using this type of a source, they can actually take three-dimensional holograms of protein, individual protein molecules, and do things that you could - what I've been demonstrating with the lasers - but do them at the atomic and molecular scales. So it's a remarkable new source.
FLATOW: Wow. So we're really down to tiny little scale here. Mm-hmm.
All right. I want to thank you all for taking time to be with us today. We've run out of time. I want to thank Thomas Baer, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center at Stanford. James Gordon, thank you for coming out and being our historian here.
Mr. GORDON: You're welcome, Ira.
FLATOW: One of the early laser pioneers and retired Bell Labs researcher. And Nick Taylor, author of "Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate and the Thirty-Year Patent War." Very interesting book.
Mr. TAYLOR: A real pleasure. Thank you.
FLATOW: Thank you. Thanks for being here in our New York studio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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