Charles Hard Townes
While Charles Hard Townes' public fame comes from his invention of the laser, he's equally recognized in professional circles for his work in molecular beams, radio astronomy, the discovery of interstellar organic molecules, developing the atomic clock, and many other projects.

Like all great teachers he doesn't really teach, he just helps people join him in his work. He was surprised when I told him that he was one of my most influential teachers because all he'd done was give me a job as an astronomer when I was an undergraduate. But what he taught me was critical, even though it came naturally to him, it was the joy of exploration and the rewards of discovery.

Afterward: Charlie Townes died on January 27th, 2015. He was 99.

Interview Excerpts
Read the full interview :

"When I was a youngster I was very interested in natural history. I used to walk in the woods and the streams and catch butterflies, and watch birds and look at the stars, and so on. All the universe was fascinating to me…"

"I think curiosity and discovery, and sense of discovery, and wanting to discover, and wanting to figure out things, figure out new things is great. Now, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read what other people have done carefully. And think about them, and work problems…"

"I did experimental work with a professor who… he was a little tough. He was a nice guy but he was tough on his students. He really made them work hard, so he didn’t have many students. And I thought, 'Well, he didn’t have many students so maybe I’ll get a lot of attention from him'… He really gave me a lot of attention…

"I went over to Denmark at one point… and I visited Niels Bohr and he was walking along the street with me and he asked me what I was doing. And I told him we had this device which produced a very pure oscillation from molecules… Now Niels Bohr, one of the most famous theorists at the time said, 'Oh no, no. That can’t be. No, you must misunderstand. It can’t give such pure frequencies… You must misunderstand' …

"You have to know how to disagree with other people. If somebody disagrees with you, if it’s a serious person, you want to think carefully about what he’s saying. Think carefully about whether you are really likely to be right or not…"

"A friend of mine comes to me and says, uh… 'You know this has saved my eyes.' And, oh boy, that’s very emotionally pleasing to me… Of all things, ah… A lot of these things I couldn’t imagine at the time… I didn’t know about the kind of eye trouble that’s saved by lasers. I’d never heard of it! I couldn’t imagine that…

"Now I’ve tried some things that don’t work. Well, OK. … You can be wrong. Don’t worry about it too much. Try hard to be right, but don’t be unwilling to take some chances. And look hard for things that might be there, that you think have a reasonable chance of being there. Look, and a failure or two won’t hurt you."


Copyright © 2010, Lincoln Stoller. All rights reserved.