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More Charles Townes

July 29, 2015

Back in the 1980s, Charles Townes developed a laser system that helped infrared telescopes get a sharper view of the center of the Milky Way. Other astronomers then used that system to make the first measurement of the mass of the giant black hole at the galaxy’s heart.

It was a remarkable achievement. And it’s all the more interesting because Townes was one of the fathers of the laser. He developed its predecessor, known as a maser, and he obtained the first patents for the laser itself. He even won the Nobel Prize for those accomplishments.

Townes was born 100 years ago this week. During his long career, he pursued many interests. He helped develop new applications for radar during World War II. After the war, he studied microwaves and the structure of molecules — work that led to the maser and laser. He provided scientific advice for the Apollo missions to the Moon. Then he turned to astrophysics — an area he pursued until shortly before his death early this year.

Townes and others turned his inventions and discoveries into tools for exploring the universe. Astronomers use natural masers to probe the composition of other galaxies, and to plot the sizes of black holes. They use lasers to sharpen the view of stars and other objects. And they bounce laser beams off special reflectors on the Moon to study Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity — pursuing the secrets of the universe with beams of light.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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