12 August 2009
The invention: Taking its name from the acronym for light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation, a laser is a beam of electromagnetic radiation that is monochromatic, highly directional, and coherent. Lasers have found multiple applications in electronics, medicine, and other fields. The people behind the invention: Theodore Harold Maiman (1927- ), an American physicist Charles Hard Townes (1915- ), an American physicist who was a cowinner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics Arthur L. Schawlow (1921-1999), an American physicist, cowinner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics Mary Spaeth (1938- ), the American inventor of the tunable laser Coherent Light Laser beams differ from other forms of electromagnetic radiation in being consisting of a single wavelength, being highly directional, and having waves whose crests and troughs are aligned. A laser beam launched from Earth has produced a spot a few kilometers wide on the Moon, nearly 400,000 kilometers away. Ordinary light would have spread much more and produced a spot several times wider than the Moon. Laser light can also be concentrated so as to yield an enormous intensity of energy, more than that of the surface of the Sun, an impossibility with ordinary light. In order to appreciate the difference between laser light and ordinary light, one must examine how light of any kind is produced. An ordinary light bulb contains atoms of gas. For the bulb to light up, these atoms must be excited to a state of energy higher then their normal, or ground, state. This is accomplished by sending a current of electricity through the bulb; the current jolts the atoms into the higher-energy state. This excited state is unstable, however, and the atoms will spontaneously return to their ground state by ridding themselves of excess energy.As these atoms emit energy, light is produced. The light emitted by a lamp full of atoms is disorganized and emitted in all directions randomly. This type of light, common to all ordinary sources, from fluorescent lamps to the Sun, is called “incoherent light.” Laser light is different. The excited atoms in a laser emit their excess energy in a unified, controlled manner. The atoms remain in the excited state until there are a great many excited atoms. Then, they are stimulated to emit energy, not independently, but in an organized fashion, with all their light waves traveling in the same direction, crests and troughs perfectly aligned. This type of light is called “coherent light.” Theory to Reality In 1958, Charles Hard Townes of Columbia University, together with Arthur L. Schawlow, explored the requirements of the laser in a theoretical paper. In the Soviet Union, F. A. Butayeva and V. A. Fabrikant had amplified light in 1957 using mercury; however, their work was not published for two years and was not published in a scientific journal. The work of the Soviet scientists, therefore, received virtually no attention in the Western world. In 1960, Theodore Harold Maiman constructed the first laser in the United States using a single crystal of synthetic pink ruby, shaped into a cylindrical rod about 4 centimeters long and 0.5 centimeter across. The ends, polished flat and made parallel to within about a millionth of a centimeter, were coated with silver to make them mirrors. It is a property of stimulated emission that stimulated light waves will be aligned exactly (crest to crest, trough to trough, and with respect to direction) with the radiation that does the stimulating. From the group of excited atoms, one atom returns to its ground state, emitting light. That light hits one of the other exited atoms and stimulates it to fall to its ground state and emit light. The two light waves are exactly in step. The light from these two atoms hits other excited atoms, which respond in the same way, “amplifying” the total sum of light. If the first atom emits light in a direction parallel to the length of the crystal cylinder, the mirrors at both ends bounce the light waves back and forth, stimulating more light and steadily building up an increasing intensity of light. The mirror at one end of the cylinder is constructed to let through a fraction of the light, enabling the light to emerge as a straight, intense, narrow beam. Consequences When the laser was introduced, it was an immediate sensation. In the eighteen months following Maiman’s announcement that he had succeeded in producing a working laser, about four hundred companies and several government agencies embarked on work involving lasers. Activity centered on improving lasers, as well as on exploring their applications. At the same time, there was equal activity in publicizing the near-miraculous promise of the device, in applications covering the spectrum from “death” rays to sight-saving operations. A popular film in the James Bond series, Goldfinger (1964), showed the hero under threat of being sliced in half by a laser beam—an impossibility at the time the film was made because of the low power-output of the early lasers. In the first decade after Maiman’s laser, there was some disappointment. Successful use of lasers was limited to certain areas of medicine, such as repairing detached retinas, and to scientific applications, particularly in connection with standards: The speed of light was measured with great accuracy, as was the distance to the Moon. By 1990, partly because of advances in other fields, essentially all the laser’s promise had been fulfilled, including the death ray and James Bond’s slicer. Yet the laser continued to find its place in technologies not envisioned at the time of the first laser. For example, lasers are now used in computer printers, in compact disc players, and even in arterial surgery.