Physicist Charles Townes, a Nobel laureate who co-invented the laser, has been awarded this year's Templeton Prize. The $1.5 million prize was announced in New York on 9 March. Townes said he was "overwhelmed and very humbled" to receive the award.
As a young professor at Columbia University in New York in the early 1950's, Townes confronted the problem of producing high frequency microwaves. He figured out a way to make a clump of particles (in this case charged ammonia molecules) behave as a collective wave, thereby shortening the wavelength and increasing the frequency. Applying this idea to optical wavelengths helped Townes develop the laser and the maser, a device that amplifies electromagnetic waves. The work won Townes and other researchers the physics Nobel in 1964.
Two years later, Townes stirred up controversy with an article in the IBM journal THINK, in which he maintained that science and religion are driven by the same assumptions and observations. Many students and scientists rejected Townes's ideas, but he says that only emboldened him to continue writing and talking about the subject. "It is important for us to be open-minded in science and religion. The two are more similar than one may think," he says.
Each year the Templeton Prize recognizes someone's contributions to advancing knowledge in matters relating to science and religion. Townes plans to donate half of the money to his alma mater, Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and a major portion of rest to various faith-based institutions. The Duke of Edinburgh will present the prize at a private ceremony in Buckingham Palace on 4 May.
"Professor Townes well deserves the honor," says Nelson Tansu, an applied physicist at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "His great contribution in science and his long-running interest to better understand the universe are clearly reflections of his great commitment to mankind and his faith."