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The Laser at 50

10/08/2010 5:30 PM Museum
Deborah G. Douglas, Curator, Science and Technology Collections, MIT Museum; Peter Moulton; Dick Williamson, '61, Phd '66; Erich Ippen; Richard M. Osgood, Jr.; Jeff Hecht

Description: This group of luminaries from the formative years of the laser expresses both wonder and delight at the astonishing ubiquity this technology has achieved in their lifetime. They recount their parts of a 50"year tale, and convey the excitement of scientific discovery and the pleasures of advancing knowledge in a new field.

Writer Jeff Hecht kicks off the celebration with a fast"paced, illustrated tour of laser technology. Although Einstein theorized early in the 20th century that photons could be excited to produce radiation, it was not until the 1950s that the race began in earnest to demonstrate this physics. Charles Townes and James Gordon came up with a microwave"based version of the technology, but it was graduate student Gordon Gould at Columbia who figured out it was possible to amplify visible light, says Hecht. Gould also coined the term LASER, for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

In May 1960, Theodore "Ted" Maiman cooked up the first actual device, using a synthetic ruby crystal inside a coiled flash lamp. Newspapers heralded the achievement with typical, Cold War hyperbole: "LA Man Builds Death Ray." From that moment, breakthroughs in the technology came in a rush: the first gas laser, emitting a continuous beam; semiconductor diode lasers; green light and argon"fluorine excimer lasers (deployed in eye surgery); lasers used in 3D holography; supermarket scanners; millions of CD and DVD players; and fiber optic cable. While the Reagan"era "Star Wars" defense envisioned orbiting laser battle stations, says Hecht, the only real laser weapon has been the "anti"mosquito laser."

Hecht pays tribute to "laser dignitaries" in the audience who were integral to these and other laser applications. He also notes two central figures sadly absent: Michael Feld, Director of MIT's George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory, and Charles Freed, who developed the first stable carbon dioxide laser at Lincoln Lab, and who donated to the MIT Museum a laser used to verify the Nobel Prize"winning work of Charles Townes and his collaborators. Both Feld and Freed died in 2010.

Among the pioneers who speak are Peter Moulton, who describes early failures while working to find "broadly tunable" materials for solid state lasers. Moulton helped develop a "cool" titanium sapphire laser, and his work continues to have a major impact in the scientific laser industry.

Richard M. Osgood, Jr. worked with gas lasers, which he found "tremendously exciting" because they had "a tremendous amount of optical power." As a U.S. Air Force Captain, he helped develop a carbon monoxide laser that emitted a wavelength 10 times longer than extreme light and was the most efficient laser of its time.

Dick Williamson describes the challenge of moving from his original perch at Lincoln Lab developing surface acoustic wave devices to taking over a laser group there: "It was my ultimate Dilbert moment. I knew nothing about lasers." He oversaw work to expand the wavelength range of diode lasers. "That's where I got my kicks."

Starting at Bell Labs in the 60s and during his MIT career, Erich Ippen has been intrigued with creating super short flashes of laser light, measured in femtoseconds (one quadrillionth of a second). This research permits greater accuracy with time"keeping (it has revolutionized the clock, says Ippen), 3D imaging of cells in real"time, and is opening up the field of optical biopsy. "Still at it, trying to make shorter pulses," says Ippen; it continues to be "a wonderful ride."

About the Speaker(s): Jeff Hecht has a particular affinity for topics concerning fiber optics and lasers, about which he not only writes but teaches and consults. He writes for New Scientist, Laser Focus World and other magazines. He recently published Beam:The Race to Make the Laser (Oxford University Press), which describes how the idea of the laser became reality. A previous boook, City of Light, was published 1999. In Hecht's spare time, he writes science fiction.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, MIT Museum

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

Category: Events | Updated over 1 year ago

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