I just read How the Laser Happened, physicist Charles Townes’ memoir about the development of the maser and laser. In addition to chronicling Townes’ seminal contributions to “amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” the book provides a unique window into the process of discovery and invention. Townes reinforces some conventional ideas about the creative process while totally demolishing others.
For example, Townes recognizes the value of collaboration. However, it’s not clear that he believes individuals become more creative when they collaborate with others. Rather, he understands that ideas from multiple sources may be required to solve a complex problem. Collaboration may entail working together closely—or it may simply mean sharing ideas at a conference. Townes ends the book by concluding that discoverers and inventors must think what no one else has thought and take paths that no one else has traveled. To me, that sounds more like going it alone than collaborating.
Townes describes how at first respected scientists doubted his work. When he began developing the maser at Columbia University, both I.I. Rabi and Polykarp Kusch tried to dissuade him, arguing it was a waste of resources. One Columbia professor went even further, insisting that elementary physics precluded the maser working as Townes envisioned. Niels Bohr told Townes “But that is not possible” and John von Neumann exclaimed “That can’t be right.”
To say that most physicists came around once Townes demonstrated a working maser would be a tremendous understatement. Suddenly everyone wanted to climb on the maser bandwagon. A popular joke at the time was that maser stood for “means of acquiring support for expensive research.”
Townes denies that maser and laser development were carefully planned and managed. He attributes the inventions, instead, to the freedom granted researchers in those days to pursue their own ideas. Townes does not come right out and say that planning sometimes impedes scientific discovery, but I think that is what he means.
One of Townes’ most fascinating ideas concerns the scientific method. While most scientists like to test their ideas in the laboratory as soon as possible, Townes prefers to get the theory right first. That way, developing a device is simply a matter of correctly applying the theory. It isn’t that he considers empirical research the wrong way to do science—it’s just that it isn’t the right way for him.
Though Townes describes his method as if it were merely a matter of personal preference, there are obviously some big issues here. The orthodox view is that the scientific method requires experimentation and observation. Townes obviously believes that the underlying principles can all be worked out in advance.
This leads me to the conclusion that throughout his career Charles Hard Townes was primarily a theoretician in the tradition of Maxwell and Einstein. That is, Townes believed he could make discoveries working exclusively in the realm of ideas. Perhaps it was because he wanted to ensure his theories were proved correct that he continued on to the implementation stage. Or perhaps it was because he knew devices based on his theories would open further avenues of research.
Two things are certain. “Amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” has led to breakthroughs in fields ranging from precision time measurement to radio astronomy to fiber optic communication to eye surgery. And Townes made it happen not by following the rules, but by (gently) breaking them.