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Stanford Report, April 5, 2000

Nobel Prize winner and laser co-inventor Townes to give Bunyan Lecture


Physicist and Nobel Prize winner Charles H. Townes will deliver the 20th annual Bunyan Lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 12, in Terman Auditorium. The talk is titled "Logic and Uncertainty in Science and Religion." Hosted by the Astronomy Program in the Department of Physics, the talk is free and open to the public.

"There's a relationship between the two fields [science and religion]," Townes said in a phone interview. "We should use all of our human faculties -- logic, evidence, intuition -- in understanding each. There are inconsistencies, things we don't understand about each. But we try to get the best answers that we can in both fields. My own view is that they will ultimately converge."

Townes' principal research is in microwave spectroscopy, nuclear and molecular structure, quantum electronics and, more recently, radio astronomy and infrared astronomy. His work in radio astronomy resulted in the first detection of polyatomic molecules in interstellar clouds and the use of molecular spectra to characterize these clouds. Much of this work is aimed at gaining a better understanding of the galaxy's center.

To measure the size of stars, Townes recently finished developing a pair of movable telescopes for very high resolution of astronomical objects at infrared wavelengths. The two telescopes employ interferometry to combined light as if it came from a single, gigantic telescope mirror. At 4 p.m. April 11, Townes will speak about this work at a physics and applied physics colloquium in Room 201 of the Teaching Center in the Science and Engineering Quad (TCSEQ). The title of his talk is "Behavior of Old Stars Observed by Infrared Spatial Interferometry."

Townes received the Nobel Prize in 1964 for his role in the invention of the maser and the laser. The maser (an acronym for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) was the forerunner of the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Townes holds the original patent for the maser. He holds the original laser patent with the late Stanford physics Professor Arthur Schawlow, who died in 1999.

Born in Greenville, S.C., in 1915, Townes graduated from Furman University in 1935 with baccalaureate degrees in physics and modern languages. He completed work for a master's degree in physics at Duke University in 1936 and received his doctorate from the California Institute of Technology in 1939.

From 1939 to 1947 he was a researcher at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and from 1948 to 1961, an associate professor and professor at Columbia University. He served as vice president and director of research at the Institute for Defense Analysis from 1959 to 1961. He was provost and professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1961 to 1965 and university professor at the University of California from 1967 to the present. (The title "university professor" refers to the fact that Townes has an appointment for the entire University of California rather than for one campus only.) In 1986 he became university professor emeritus, and in 1994, professor in the graduate school.

Active as a government adviser throughout his career, Townes served as a member of the president's Science Advisory Committee from 1965 to 1969. He chaired the technical advisory committee for the Apollo Program until shortly after the first lunar landing. More recently, he chaired committees on strategic weapons and the MX missile. He has participated in National Academy of Sciences efforts for international arms control. He also has helped formulate advice given by the Papal Academy to the Pope on issues of peace and the control of nuclear weapons.

Townes is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Max Planck Society, Royal Society of London, National Inventors Hall of Fame and Engineering and Science Hall of Fame. A few of his many awards include the National Academy of Science's Comstock Prize and the John J. Carty Medal, the Medal of Honor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Plyler Prize of the American Physical Society, NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal, the Franklin Institute's Stuart Ballentine Medal, the 1979 Niels Bohr International Gold Medal and the 1982 National Medal of Science. He holds honorary degrees from 25 colleges and universities. SR