Charles H. Townes, a laser pioneer, Nobel laureate and namesake of the Townes Laser Institute at the University of Central Florida, died Tuesday in Oakland, Calif. He was 99.
Townes, who made world-changing contributions in the field of optics and lasers, had long-term ties to UCF’s College of Optics and Photonics and the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers.
UCF dedicated the Townes Laser Institute in his honor in May 2007. The institute, one of the largest and best known in the nation, is led by Martin Richardson, a UCF Pegasus Professor and University Trustee Chair of Optics & Photonics.
Richardson said he would never forget the first meeting he had with Townes four years after Townes shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the laser.
“At that time (1964) his invention was described as a solution looking for a problem,” Richardson said. However, since Richardson had recently obtained his Ph.D. in lasers he was quick to take advantage of a trip to the University of California at Berkeley in 1968 by asking Townes for a meeting.
“He was so gracious with his willingness to talk lasers and science with someone he had never known before and who was just starting out,” Richardson said. “He gave me a sense of how big science was and how big the benefits could be to humankind.”
Richardson stayed in touch with Townes during the years and was instrumental in getting him to visit UCF on three occasions – in 1999 for the inauguration of the School of Optics, in 2007 for the dedication of the Townes Laser Institute and the receipt of an honorary degree from the university, and in 2012 for CREOL’s 25th anniversary. He last saw Townes during a visit last year in Oakland.
Many others at UCF benefitted from Townes’ generosity and his personal touch.
“He gave so much to humanity through his intellect, his curiosity, and his generosity, especially with his time. He was an inspiration to so many generations of students and will be for generations to come, said MJ Soileau, CREOL’s founding director and UCF’s vice president for research and commercialization.
During his last visit to UCF two years ago, Townes posed for a picture on campus re-creating what has become a world-changing moment in 1951. Townes, who was then at Columbia University studying various methods of stimulating atoms to emit light, was on a visit to funding agencies in Washington, when he left his hotel room early one morning to sit on a park bench and came up with the theory behind the maser which he published four years later.