Charles Hard Townes died, Thursday, at 99 years of age.
You know the light saber? The “Luke, I am your father” light saber?
Only the most transcendent, gnarly piece of weaponized technology in the galaxy, light saber?
The “zzzuun zzzeen” light saber?
Our only hope?
Yeah. That one.
Townes invented it.
You know laser tag? Only the most futuristic, radical development in the history of photon war toys? The Red Ryder BB Gun of every boy’s ’80s Christmases? Yeah, that laser tag. Invented it.
You know laser pointers. The feline waterboard equivalent? Invented it.
You know laser eye surgery? The of-biblical-proportions, miracle surgery that gives sight to the blind? Like Jesus? Invented it.
Laser cutting, laser welding, laser engraving, laser mice, laser drilling, laser marking, laser peening (uh . . . yeah, that laser peening), optical tweezers, barcode readers, spectroscopy, raves, the laser discs, the band Electric Light Orchestra, and, yeah, you heard me, laser harps aka the infinite beam.
Invented, invented, aaaaaaaaand invented.
Maybe not directly all of the above, but the man invented the dang laser. Did I also mention he went to my alma mater, Furman University, here in Greenville, SC? And, the namesake of my kids’ primary school? (Other Furman related song content here.)
Oh I hadn’t? Sorry. Yeah so, as it turns out, I went to the same school as the guy who invented the, um wait, what was it? . . . pet rock? electric toothbrush? Sham Wow? ohhhhhhhhhhhh that’s right THE LASER.
Some guy from Greenville, South Carolina doesn’t just bother to invent the laser one day. I mean Einstein. Or Blade Runner. Cobra Commander. Almost anyone but a Greenville boy. It’s like saying, “Oh yeah, Kenny, from second grade invented crude oil.”
You should discover or harness or wield a laser. You don’t invent it. A laser has to spring forth from the clandestine experiments of a mad scientist or a murderous villain in pursuit of world domination.
I mean forget the practical implications, like the aforementioned laser mice. No Star Trek??
And, Dr. Who? Forget it. No that-guy-from-X-men-that-shoots-lasers-out-his-eyes.
Did I mention he first invented the maser? A concentration of the microwave? What in the world is a maser? It sounds like something you say when you’re trying to one-up a friend.
Friend: “Hey I invented the rubber band loom!”
One-upper you: “Oh yeah? Well I invented the, um, the, uh . . . maser! That’s right. You know Maser Tag? Well. That’s me.”
But, here’s the weird part. You miss Townes if you focus on the laser (see what I did there?) or the maser or their numerous useful progeny. Remarkably, Townes real contribution was even greater than the now literally ubiquitous laser (and the not nearly as ubiquitous shameful maser).
He is the winner of both the Nobel Prize for Physics and the prestigious Templeton Award for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. The list of people who have received both?
The 14th Dalai Lama.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta
And Charles Hard Townes.
That’s the list. (Actually may be one or two more but who would want to confuse a good story?) I’ve seen longer lists of people who can recite pi to 50 decimals.
Townes’ real legacy is one of rigorous intellectualism in science and faith. A witness to both. An apostle of academics and a doctor of doctrine. His theology would offend some. And, so would his science. Which probably made him just about on the nose.
“Science and religion are both universal, and basically very similar,” he wrote. “The essential role of faith in religion is so well known that taking things on faith rather than proving them is usually taken as characteristic of religion, and as distinguishing religion from science. . . . It is just this faith in an orderly universe, understandable to man, which allowed the basic change from an age of superstition to an age of science.”
It’s interesting that the God of the Bible is depicted as light.
The light of the world.
A light unto our path.
Lamp unto our feet.
A Flaming Sword
A Burning Bush.
A Pillar of Fire
Tongues of Fire
A Fiery Furnace
Paul to Damascus.
A Chariot of Fire.
But, it is not said that God is like “the light of the world.” It is claimed that He is the light of the world. What if it’s not so metaphorical?
Pardon my crude physics.
At the speed of light mass is infinite. Infinite. And, to reach that outer speed limit — which you can’t coincidentally – requires infinite amount of energy. All that there is. And, if you miraculously arrived there, alive, traveling with your infinite self, propelled by all the energy in the universe, you would be surprised to find that time had simply stopped. Timeless. Sound familiar?
I like to think of light, and lasers, as translation points between two languages. God’s and ours. That would make Townes a kind of lamp interpreter. A luminary.
Townes was seated on a park bench in DC when he scribbled the conceptual maser on the back of an envelope. Going so far as to even describe it as a kind of “revelation.” I like to think in the great tradition of biblical prophets, and appropriate to his life’s work, that he went home on a Chariot of very concentrated Fire.
Performed by theipoetlaureate. Music produced by Dalama Jones.
Today’s blong here:
Chariot of Fire