back to article Charles Townes, inventor of the laser and friend to both science and religion, dies

Charles Hard Townes, one of the winners of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the laser and a pivotal player in astronomy and reconciling science and religion, has died at the age of 99 after a brief illness. "Charlie Townes had an enormous impact on physics and society in general. Our department and all of UC …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Great example

    of why tenure is a good thing for researchers. Though today he'd still have trouble pursuing research against the common wisdom because he couldn't get a grant unless he toed the line.

    1. dlc.usa

      Re: Great example

      "because he couldn't get a grant unless he toed the line" even with his Nobel. What's wrong with this picture?

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge
    Pint

    RIP

    Thanks to this gentleman, the life of sharks the world over has been immeasurably improved.

    Now protect your other eye, and raise a glass.

  3. William Donelson

    An astounding inventor and dreamer

    R.I.P.

    "A light that does not exist in nature"

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: An astounding inventor and dreamer

      I think they've found some natural SER but not light so I guess it still stands...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    LASERS

    Dunno why but lasers have fascinated me since i was a kid.

    I own several and have a great deal of fun with em.....

    The coherency of that light astonishes me still..

    RIP Sir, and thanks!!!!!

  5. Admiral Grace Hopper Silver badge

    I salute you Sir

    My degree is in Physics with Laser Physics. Without his work I would have neither a specialism to study nor, even more importantly, the ability to spend many happy hours dicking around with lasers.

    I can't put into words how much pleasure you can have dicking around with lasers.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Religion is...

    "Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe"

    No. Some aspects of it are, at a stretch, but most unfortunately are not.

    1. dogged

      Re: Religion is...

      I'm sure many religious people aim to understand the purpose and meaning of our universe and many others are conditioned or terrified of the responsibility that living without religion entails and a small number are power-seeking shits who treat people as things but they probably would be with or without religion.

      The big difference is that we can make blanket statements about the purpose of science with some degree of confidence. It's much harder to do so with religion, but that doesn't mean Professor Townes was wrong - only that he was not wholly right.

      And as a scientist, he would have learned a great deal from not being right. That's the whole point.

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        Re: Religion is...

        The problem is that in any religion about 5% is philosophy, 1% is common sense and the rest is pure politics.

        The 6% that are useful are totally overwhelmed by the 94% which have the sole purpose of propping up the wealth and power of the clergy.

        1. JDX Gold badge

          Re: Religion is...

          No you're confusing religion and people. You could just as easily pick holes in "science is about understanding the universe" since so much of science is also about politics and people i.e. where grant money is available, climate change, etc.

          1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

            Re: Religion is...

            No, I'm not :-)

            A religion consists of a philosophical premise (what kind of deity it deals with, the high-level structure of the world, the meaning of life and everything), a set of rules based on the common sense and universal morality (do not kill, do not steal, do not eat food that is past its use-by date etc) and the rules describing what the adept must do to curry favour with the deity.

            The first part is the philosophy, the second - common sense, the third is for the benefit of the clergy.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Religion is...

            Science is a system for understanding the universe by measuring repeatable phenomena unsubjectively and trying to organise these into a set of minimum principles, to help predict future phenomena accurately.

            Religion is a mix of dogma, population control, history, culture, mystique, and the deliberate obfuscation of honest inquiry.

            1. JDX Gold badge

              Re: Religion is...

              And that kind of trite, cliched, biased, ignorant response is why people like Townes are important regardless which side of the fence you're on. Maybe like me, you should try and find one of his books.

              1. sisk

                Re: Religion is...

                Personally I feel that if your science mentions God or god - be it positively or negatively - then you're doing it wrong. Religion belongs in the realm of philosophy, not science.

                Then again I also tend to keep my religion to myself most of the time and don't really feel any particular need to make the rest of the world agree with me. From my own observations that's a somewhat rare thing.

              2. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Religion is...

                @JDX

                The development of lasers and surrounding research was an important contribution to understanding the world....

                The time spent studying the accounts of 2,000 year-old illiterate, uneducated, peasants and imagining that this will somehow shed light on the way the universe works, is an utterly despicable waste of a great mind.

                1. Dave 126 Silver badge

                  Re: Religion is...

                  >The time spent studying the accounts of 2,000 year-old illiterate, uneducated, peasants and imagining that this will somehow shed light on the way the universe works, is an utterly despicable waste of a great mind.

                  Er, Townes explicitly said that understanding the *way the universe works* is science. As a human being he also wanted to think about what the meaning of universe might be - and we might call that religion, spirituality or philosophy. It's a point of view, similar to Stephen J Gould's 'Non-overlapping magisteria' - it isn't held by everyone, but is an attempt at a consensus that can allow one to stop fighting and do some science. The chances are that his faith/curiosity aided his scientific endeavours rather than hindered them.

                  Had he been a baseball fan, would you still have said that his study of the sport was "an utterly despicable waste of a great mind."? What about Einstein's violin playing, or Feynman's bongo playing?

                  1. Anonymous Coward
                    Anonymous Coward

                    Re: Religion is...

                    Feynman didn't look through ancient Bongo drum sheet music for hidden physics equations.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Religion is...

        Being pedantic, as soon as we make statements about the "purpose" of science we are entering the fields of philosophy and religion. No field of science has ever discovered anything corresponding to the word "purpose".

    2. Clive Harris

      Re: Religion is...

      I'm reminded of the university professor who remarked "When I need to find a good atheist to take part in a debate, I always go to the Philosophy department. It's useless trying to find one in the Physics department"

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Religion is...

        @Clive

        lol!!

        Yes, and that says a lot about how your 'Professor' arrives at his answers. I just hope he doesnt apply any insights gained from his 'debates' into anything that needs to actually work -- say, like medicine, engineering, chemistry, mechanics, physics, biology, computer programming, brain surgery, rocket science...

      2. Schultz Silver badge

        Atheist philosophers but agnostic physicists

        "When I need to find a good atheist to take part in a debate, I always go to the Philosophy department. It's useless trying to find one in the Physics department"

        I would agree with that statement because physicists (or good scientists in general) tend to be rather agnostic. You can't predict, reproduce, or prove your god? Well in that case your religious theory remains unconfirmed. Next theory please.

        1. sisk

          Re: Atheist philosophers but agnostic physicists

          I would agree with that statement because physicists (or good scientists in general) tend to be rather agnostic. You can't predict, reproduce, or prove your god? Well in that case your religious theory remains unconfirmed. Next theory please.

          I agree completely. I've gotten to the point that I simply roll my eyes and move on whenever someone starts talking about how science "proves God doesn't exist". I've given up trying to explain how it's not actually possible to do that and why good science ignores the question of God's existence entirely.

  7. JDX Gold badge

    As a Christian and Scientist (the 'and' is pretty important!) I'm sad I never even knew of the man. I shall have to look him up - maybe others could recommend if there's a good biography or if he wrote an "popular science" level books as well as hard academic material?

    1. JeffyPoooh
      Pint

      @JDX

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Hard_Townes#Books

      There are two listed with seemingly-attractive titles (plus one more, not so). I've not read them so I can't be sure. Good luck.

    2. stu 4

      "As a Christian and Scientist"

      Now there's an oxymoron.

      Thanks for the laser Charles - but religion has no place in science.

      Scientists that are religious are simply shit scientists.

      1. sisk

        Re: "As a Christian and Scientist"

        Now there's an oxymoron.

        Not at all. Science and religion have no overlap, despite what a lot of Humanists seem to think. Just because you're familiar with the laws of physical reality as we know them and try to discover the ones we don't know yet doesn't mean you can't believe someone wrote them. In fact I've heard more than one prominent scientist talk about how it seems like someone's fiddling with the dials on some of the universal constants. Likewise there's no reason that just because you believe in a higher power you can't also be knowledgeable about science.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "As a Christian and Scientist"

        "Scientists that are religious are simply shit scientists."

        Kepler thought God had organised the planetary orbits so as to fit into successive Platonic solids. Newton tried to establish a Biblical chronology. Sir Arthur Eddington and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell were/are both Quakers.

        I would completely agree that "scientists" who try to bend science to the dicta of a religion are bad - not scientists at all - but I don't think it at all odd that physicists and astrophysicists tend to stray off into religion. Physics explains how things are, but not why. Some people can live without the why - but some find it very difficult. If you don't find the fact that there is anything rather than nothing to be worthy of even passing thought, I think I can convict you of incuriosity. And curiosity is perhaps the scientific virtue.

      3. Anonymous C0ward

        Re: "As a Christian and Scientist"

        "Scientists that are religious are simply shit scientists"

        Do you include Gregor Mendel, father of genetics, also a monk, in that?

        1. DocJames
          Holmes

          Re: "As a Christian and Scientist"

          Do you include Gregor Mendel, father of genetics, also a monk, in that?

          Yup. Those who falsify research data are shit scientists. Mendel's data is sadly too good to be true, and is carefully cherry picked. It is fairly amazing though that he managed to guess the right answer, and then fiddled his data to get there.

          (Not sure I agree with the original assertion though...)

          1. sisk

            Re: "As a Christian and Scientist"

            A fan of Fisher I see, but you should realize the most recent assessments suggest Fisher was the one whose data suffered from cherry picking and bias, not Mendel's. Fisher's claims against Mendel have been shown to have been completely unfounded. Plus the fact that Mendel came to the correct conclusions 30 years before anyone else came close pretty much vindicates him. But don't take my word for it. See for yourself.

            1. DocJames

              Re: "As a Christian and Scientist"

              From your linked article: "The analysis presented here does not alter Fisher’s

              conclusions that, overall, Mendel’s results are closer to

              theory than expected on a chance basis."

              It goes on to defend Mendel if he did distort the data.I agree Mendel was incredible in getting the right answer (ie explaining hereditary characteristics) well before anyone else as in my post above, but that doesn't vindicate him misusing data.

              I was a little strong in complaining about it. And the article you linked has great analysis, thanks.

  8. Richard Taylor 2 Silver badge

    "Townes argued his case and refused to give up on the research. He later explained that he was able to refuse to stop his research because he had tenure, so there was nothing they could really do to stop him."

    The apparently short half life of tenure will do for this in the future.

  9. Solmyr ibn Wali Barad

    ""My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other," Townes said in his acceptance speech."

    Amen to that. More often than not, great discoveries are made outside the established domains of knowledge, in the shady areas between them. But only a special kind of person would dare to wander there. Especially when we're talking about conflict zones between science and religion. Very few are willing to explore those with an open mind and a good-natured curiosity. They're exposing themselves to a whole lot of trouble without having any guaranteed rewards in sight. There's only a hope, a naivish kind of hope, for something good to emerge from this. And sometimes it truly happens - a fool's errand turns out to be an act of wisdom.

    Rest in peace, great explorer.

  10. earl grey
    Pint

    RIP sir.

    Thank you for your persistence and insight (and as someone already said; making sharks everywhere happy).

    Congratulations for your long marriage. Another remarkable achievement in this day.

    If i could...

    1. Chris G Silver badge

      Re: RIP sir.

      I remember reading about his Nobel Prize in a copy of New Scientist in the school library, I also remember a statement that the laser was a solution to a question that hadn't been asked yet. Incredible how many things it has become a solution for, a fundamental part of everyday life.

      I also liked ' went into semi retirement at 98'.

      A great man!

  11. DNTP

    Quick everyone, do a count of how many lasers are around you, right now, in your living/working space, and post it here. I'll bet an upvote that there are very few in modern society that go through a whole day without being within an arm's reach of something that runs on lasers.

    My score (11):

    2 presentation pointers.

    5 computer optical drives.

    1 CD music player.

    3 optical mice.

    1 UV mass spectrometer.

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

      Count

      Well, I've got two optical drives and a laser pointer and a mouse.

      Wait.

      If I count the supercomputers I look after two floors down, there's a about 88,000 (fag packet calculation) individual lasers driving the optical interconnect!

    2. Schultz Silver badge
      Boffin

      My score (11) [lasers]

      Yes, same here.

      Oh wait, where did I put my mass spectrometer?

  12. adnim
    Devil

    Faith has

    no reason for science. For all the answers are in scripture. No research or questions are required. The answers to questions about a belief system usually if not always contradict said belief system. Therefore questions are blasphemy (imho a victimless crime) regardless of which god or religious doctrine one has been raised/taught/conditioned to follow.

    Science on the other hand has no reason for faith unless one has faith in the true nature of reality.

    I am a person of faith although I don't do god, any of 'em. Does that make me the spawn of Stan Satan.

    Thanks for the lasers Charles

  13. billium

    1 on shark in fish tank

    several mice

    several ODD

    IR thermometers

    laser pointer

    some laser diodes in the bits box, they are good to play with.

    First time seeing a laser, was a physics presentation in the school assembley hall on the properties of light. when I was 13.

    Thanks Charles

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    optional religion or optional science?

    Did science come about as mankind had religion and someone scratched their heads and said we don't have to sacrifice a virgin as the volcano won't blow up as it rumbles like this around this time every year or did mankind have science but the tools he was using were too rudimentary to explain what was going on so it became "it must be the god(s)!".

    Funny that we use science to explain what's out there in nature and why it does it but not why there is nature in the first place... kind of like the theory of the Big Bang to explain where everything came from and the expansion of our universe but not why was there a Big Bang in the first place?

    Answers in 140 characters or less...

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Re: optional religion or optional science?

      "and said we don't have to sacrifice a virgin as the volcano won't blow up as it rumbles like this around this time every year"

      That year, the summer was especially hot on Santorini...

  15. Robert Grant Silver badge

    To quote Dawkins

    "CLEVER SCIENTISTS ARE ATHEIST! IF YOU ATHEIST, YOU CLEVER LIKE THEM!!!!!!111eleven" *

    * citation needed

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Thank you for amusing my cats

    Tenure allows creattivty to flourish, individuals to strive to be their best. It is anathema for authoritarians, and perceived as mere protection of sinecures by those with a dim view of humanity.

  17. Darth Vader
    Thumb Up

    See you in heaven

    Great guy.

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