Fifty Years of Lasers

May 16, 2010

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first working laser, developed by physicist Theodore Maiman at the Hughes Research Laboratory in California, as reported in an article at CNN.   There is a certain ironic element to remembering the anniversary, because Dr. Maiman’s initial paper on the laser was rejected when it was submitted to Physical Review Letters.  He submitted another, shorter article to Nature, which was published; in the meantime, though, many reacted to the news of the new technique as just another curiosity.

Maiman’s first scientific article about the discovery was turned down. While the second was awaiting publication, the laboratory went to the press with the news, prompting scientists who hadn’t seen his complete findings to initially dismiss the discovery as insignificant.

There is an interesting article on the discovery, “The First Laser”, by Charles Towes, taken from the book, A Century of Nature: Twenty-One Discoveries that Changed Science and the World, published by the University of Chicago Press.  It suggests that the reason the original paper was turned down also was a lack of understanding of its true significance:

Simon Pasternack, who was an editor of Physical Review Letters at the time, has said that he turned down this historic paper because Maiman had just published, in June 1960, an article on the excitation of ruby with light, with an examination of the relaxation times between quantum states, and that the new work seemed to be simply more of the same. Pasternack’s reaction perhaps reflects the limited understanding at the time of the nature of lasers and their significance.

Looking from today’s perspective, it is hard to overestimate the practical importance of Dr. Maiman’s development.  A partial list of the technologies that depend on the laser for their existence includes:

  • Compact discs (CDs), DVDs, and their variants and descendants.
  • Laser surgery techniques, like Lasik™
  • Fiber optic communications
  • Laser range-finding devices, like the ones used to measure the distance between the Earth and the moon, to an accuracy of plus or minus a couple of centimeters,
  • Laser cutting devices
  • Laser tag

There are many more uses, especially in instrumentation and other scientific applications.  And, lasers are just pretty cool.

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