Nobel laureate Arthur Schawlow, the co-inventor of the laser, died Wednesday morning after a long illness. He was 77. Schawlow, who was a researcher at Stanford University for much of his career, earned the nickname Laser Man for his many public demonstrations of lasers. Once called "a technology in search of an application," lasers are now crucial tools in scientific fields from geology to molecular biology. They are even more widespread in products such as CD players and optical fiber communications systems.
The invention that made Schawlow famous was rooted in his lifelong interest in spectroscopy, the use of electromagnetic waves to study matter. In the 1950s, that interest led him to the lab of Charles Townes at Columbia University in New York. Townes had previously invented the maser, a device that emits coherent beams of microwaves (for which he later won the Nobel Prize). Attempting to translate this principle to visible light, Schawlow and Townes designed the first concept for a laser in 1957, consisting of a chamber with two parallel mirrors that reflected light back and forth through an excited medium to generate an intense beam of coherent light of a very defined color. Three years later the first actual laser saw the light of day. In 1981, Schawlow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his sophisticated spectroscopic applications of laser technology.
"He was very imaginative and always full of ideas--and full of jokes," recalls Townes, who is now at the University of California, Berkeley. "We were very close and had a very productive collaboration," says Townes, whose younger sister Schawlow married in 1951.