Inventor of the laser celebrates 99th birthday on Faculty Glade

Vasudha Doijode/Staff

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On Monday at the Faculty Glade, onlookers eagerly awaited the arrival of the day’s most important guest: Charles Townes. Cheers and applause broke out as a golf cart came into view and renowned physicist, educator and Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes made his way onto the glade — kicking off the celebration of his 99th birthday, spectated by family, friends, faculty, staff and students.

After the California Straw Hat Band serenaded Townes, speakers gave a brief history of Townes’ career and his accomplishments, weaving in anecdotes and memoirs of shared times together.

Steve Boggs, chair of the UC Berkeley physics department, pointed out that this year marks the 50th anniversary since Charles Townes received the Nobel Prize for discovering the laser, which he says is even more cause for celebration. Boggs wowed the audience when he said, “by the time Charles Townes came to UC Berkeley in 1967 as a university professor, he’d invented the laser, won the Nobel Prize, served as provost at MIT and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He was, at that point, only about a third of the way through his inaugural career.” Boggs also talked about how Townes’ invention of the laser led to findings of intergalactic complex molecules and prompted the discovery of the black hole, major milestones that radically advanced our interpretation of the universe.

Boggs also spoke about the Charles H. Townes Graduate Fellowship, which awards financial support to doctoral students of the Graduate Theological Union who demonstrate academic excellence in theologian-cum-scientific research, launching this fall. The fellowship was established honoring Townes’ championing of religious-scientific convergence — in a time when scientists were skeptical that religion had intellectual validity, Townes maintained that religion and science enlighten each other because religion reflects “the purpose and meaning of the universe,” while science determines “what our universe is like and how it works.” Students who wish to pursue this fellowship will follow in Townes’ footsteps and partner science with religion in search to understand the universe.

Speakers noted that the city of Berkeley and Townes’ hometown, Greenville, South Carolina, declared July 28 as “Charles H. Townes Day” because of Townes’ notable accomplishments and the impact he had on the world.

Vice chancellor and provost Claude Steele presented Charles Townes with the Chancellor’s Citation, “a framed document bearing the University seal that is intended for distinguished visitors whose presence honors and benefits Berkeley,” according to the UC Berkeley website.

John Seel of the John Templeton Foundation discussed how Charles Townes was awarded the 2005 Templeton Prize for being “a leading advocate for the convergence of science and religion.” The Templeton Prize is valued at more than $1.5 million, a larger monetary award than the Nobel Prize award. It’s given in honor of individuals who “understand the nature of divinity and its relationship to reality,” Seel said. Other notable recipients of the award include Mother Teresa and the 14th Dalai Lama. Seel credited Townes with embracing a “both/and” perspective (as opposed to an “and/or” perspective) that recognizes that the universe’s meaning is determined by both religion and science. He concluded his speech with, “Dr. Townes, you are our friend, saint and hero, and we see further because we stand on your shoulders.”

The birthday bash commenced with mini cakes for all participants and jumbo birthday cards for well-wishers to sign.

Image Source: Vasudha Doijode

Contact Vasudha Doijode at [email protected].