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Stanford Report, May 5, 1999

Memorial service May 20 for Arthur Schawlow, laser co-inventor


A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday, May 20, in Memorial Church for Arthur L. Schawlow, a.k.a. The Laser Man, who died April 28 at Stanford Hospital from pneumonia and congestive heart failure after a prolonged battle with leukemia. He was 77.

An emeritus physics professor at Stanford, Schawlow picked up the nickname of Laser Man because he gave a number of popular demonstrations of the new tool that he had helped to invent. In one of his favorite demonstrations, he used a “ray gun” laser to shoot through a transparent balloon to pop a dark Mickey Mouse balloon inside without damaging the outer balloon in order to illustrate the laser’s selectivity.

With these exhibitions, Schawlow demonstrated two aspects of his character: the serious scientist, who never lost his interest in how matter behaves and in ways to make it behave differently, and a deeply caring person with an irrepressible sense of humor.

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Through the invention of the laser, Schawlow and his co-inventor Charles H. Townes, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California-Berkeley, have had a major impact on a wide range of scientific disciplines. Although dubbed a technology in search of an application when it was invented, lasers have played an essential role in scientific studies ranging from physics to geology to microbiology. At the same time, lasers have found a host of commercial applications, ranging from surveying to CD music players, from welding detached retinas back into the eye to moving tremendous amounts of data across country via optical fiber.

Schawlow was born in Mount Vernon, New York on May 5, 1921. His mother was Canadian, and at her urging the family moved to Toronto a few years later. As a boy, he was interested in scientific things -- electrical, mechanical, or astronomical -- and read nearly everything that the local library could provide on these subjects. He intended to go to the University of Toronto to study radio engineering, but he graduated from high school in 1937, the depths of the depression, and his family couldn't afford the tuition. It was only by obtaining a scholarship in mathematics and physics that he was able to attend the university.

Long time friend and colleague, Boris Stoicheff, met Schawlow in 1948 at Toronto. Schawlow had begun his graduate studies and was running an atomic beam spectroscopy experiment in the basement of a campus laboratory. In an introduction to an oral history of Schawlow's life, Stoicheff, who joined the faculty at the University of Toronto, writes, "It was a special pleasure to visit the basement lab, where often in the evenings Art would be serenading his atomic beam with the clarinet, which he played reasonably well." His repertoire consisted mostly of Dixieland jazz, and he had a large collection of jazz records. As his career progressed, Schawlow continued to devote his evenings to music halls and jazz concerts while attending scientific conferences in various cities.

After obtaining his graduate degree at Toronto, a post doctoral fellowship took Schawlow to Columbia University to work with Charles H. Townes, an established leader in the field of microwave spectroscopy. "It has been an enormous privilege to have known Art and work with him," Townes said last year at a symposium honoring his colleague. "I appreciate him as a fantastically good scientist, and a friend, and mostly as a person."

Arthur Schawlow used to entertain students and other audiences by shooting a beam through a transparent balloon to pop the dark Mickey Mouse balloon inside. The demonstration showed that the laser coould be tuned to pass through the transparent outer balloon without burning it.

Townes had intended to keep Schawlow at Columbia, but the young physicist "double-crossed" him by marrying his youngest sister, Aurelia, in 1951. The university's anti-nepotism rules kept him from hiring his brother-in-law, so Schawlow got a job as a physicist at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he began studying superconductivity.

On the weekends Schawlow continued to work with Townes on a book on microwave spectroscopy that they had started while he was at Columbia. Townes had invented the maser, a device that creates coherent beams of microwaves ­ work for which he subsequently won the Nobel prize. The two were trying to extend the basic principle of the maser to optical wavelengths, when Schawlow got the idea of using a long chamber with a mirror at each end. The two published their design in 1957, which set off an intense scientific competition to produce the first actual laser, which was built in 1960.

Schawlow and Townes received a patent for the laser in 1960, but they never profited from it because Schawlow was working for Bell Labs and Townes was a Bell Labs consultant at the time.

In 1961 Schawlow joined the physics department at Stanford, where he continued his research in the fields of optical and microwave spectroscopy, superconductivity, lasers, and laser spectroscopy. In 1981, he received a Nobel Prize for Physics for "his contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy."

At Stanford, Schawlow had a major influence on a number of young scientists. He gathered about him a large group of students, and a steady stream of distinguished visitors. "His students enjoyed the fatherly advice given with Art's usual sense of humor and understanding," Stoicheff said. Some examples are: "To do successful research, you don't need to know everything, you just need to know of one thing that isn't known;" and "Anything worth doing is worth doing twice, the first time quick and dirty, and the second time the best way you can."

Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu reports visiting a physics laboratory where a resident had posted "The Sayings of Art Schawlow" on his wall. Schawlow is someone who managed "to keep the humanity in science," Chu said.

When reporters and science fiction writers began speculating about the use of lasers as death rays, Schawlow taped a particularly lurid poster, with the title "The Incredible Laser," on his laboratory door after adding his own subtitle, "For credible laser see inside."

One of the reasons that Schawlow chose Stanford had nothing to do with his scientific career. His son, Artie, had autism and a special center for handicapped children, called the Peninsula Children's Center, provided a nearby place for him to go.

While attending the Nobel award ceremony in Stockholm, the Schawlows heard of a technique for treating autism called "facilitated communication." This involves using a hand-held communicator and a special calculator designed to improve communications with autistic individuals. They tried it with their son and felt it helped. So they became champions of the technique and were largely responsible for introducing it to the United States, where it remains controversial.

The Schawlows later helped to organize a nonprofit corporation, California Vocations, to provide a group home for autistic people. A further tragedy was the death of Aurelia in 1991, who was killed in an automobile accident while on her way to visit their son.

Schawlow is survived by his son, Artie Schawlow of Paradise Calif., and two daughters ­ Helen Johnson of Stevens Point, Wisconsin and Edie Dwan of Charlotte, North Carolina ­ and five grandchildren, Thomasina and Cleo Johnson and Colin, Rachel and Andy Dwan.

Donations may be sent to the Arthur Schawlow Center, 1629 Cypress Lane, Paradise, CA 95969.SR