Charles H. Townes was a Nobel Laureate and one of the most renowned physicists of the 20th century. He made unparalleled contributions in the field of science through his investigations into the properties of microwaves, which resulted in two major discoveries: the maser and the laser. His research opened the door to an astonishing array of inventions and discoveries now in common use throughout the world in medicine, telecommunications, electronics, computers, and other areas. He shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov. In addition, Townes received the 2005 Templeton Prize for his contributions to the understanding of religion, and a number of other prizes as well as 27 honorary degrees from various universities.
Townes received his B.S. degree in Physics and a B.A. in Modern Languages in 1935 from Furman University in Greenville. He completed his M.A. in Physics at Duke University in 1936, and Ph.D. from California Institute of Technology in 1939 with a thesis on isotope separation and nuclear spins.
Townes’s boyhood days inspired him to learn more about the natural world around. His father, Henry Keith Townes, an attorney, was interested in outdoor and natural history. He always took his family outdoors on Sunday afternoons to supervise the farms. It was here Townes nurtured his hobbies of collecting leafs, butterflies, shells, etc. along with his elder brother and of trying to understand about them. He said (in an interview conducted in 1991-1992 by Suzanne B. Riess, Regional Oral History Office), “I wasn’t so struck with those things which were man-made, just because it seemed to me that they were more temporary. Temporary kinds of things are okay, but the world of nature and the universe around us is a much more permanent and absolute kind of thing to learn about, which will always be here and which had some kind of an order in it, and would be worth understanding.” His father would get home discarded clocks and watches, old radio models, so that the children could set them apart and fix them. These unusual hobbies enhanced his skill in both theoretical and experimental physics.
Townes was highly regarded by colleagues and students for his deep knowledge and interest in physics as well as for his remarkable personal qualities. His curiosity to understand new phenomena, the simplicity of his approach, his quality endeavors, patience and honesty, his ability to balance science, family, and other activities always made him a role model for his students. In addition to inspiring and helping the students in learning how to formulate their own ideas, he was also concerned about their personal well-being. Every year he would invite his students to his farm for dinner and walk in the woods.
Another deeply appreciated aspect of Charles Townes is his faith in religion. It had been his lifelong practice to attend the church regularly on Sundays with his family. Closeness to the omnipresent and personal God gave him confidence and strength to do right things in spite of all odds. He had immense interest to explore the relation of physics to God. He wrote that “we must use our best wisdom and instincts, the evidence of history and wisdom of the ages, the experience and relations of our friends, saints, and heroes in order to get as close as possible to truth and meaning.” Dr. Townes highly appreciated Dr. T. D. Singh, founder director of Bhaktivedanta institute, for his efforts to present a synthesis of science and religion. He said, “Dr. Singh’s contributions to the understanding of religion and the relation between science and religion have been important and will have a long-standing influence.” His life has inspired many students and scientists towards fostering a harmonious relationship between science and religion.
Till the end of his life, Dr. Charles Townes was always an enthusiastic and lively person. When asked about his optimism and happiness, his reply was, “To live in God’s world with His purposes, I think that brings happiness.”