Nobel laureate, UC Berkeley professor emeritus Charles Townes dies at 99

Nobel laureate and campus professor emeritus in physics Charles Hard Townes, most notably remembered for inventing the laser, died Tuesday. He was 99.

Townes was one of three scientists awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for the development of laser technology, but the South Carolina-born physicist continued to be a prominent presence in academia for five more decades. Since pioneering the campus astrophysics department in 1967, he was a daily presence on campus, researching and mentoring until his retirement last year.

“In his early life, people emphasized his ambition and incredible achievement,” said campus physics professor Reinhard Genzel, who was mentored by Townes for 36 years. “But in the later years many people who knew him were taken away by his human qualities — he was a combination of this world class scientist and this fine Southern gentleman.”

Townes was born one of six children July 28, 1915, in Greenville, South Carolina. At 19, he earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and in modern languages from Furman University as the valedictorian of his graduating class. He went on to study at Duke University and the California Institute of Technology.

“He would have been a biologist if his older brother hadn’t been one,” said daughter Ellen Townes-Anderson. “He absolutely loved nature but didn’t want to compete with his brother, so he decided on physics.”

An avid birdwatcher, Townes liked giving talks in places he had never been so that he could go “birding,” Townes-Anderson said. She recalled how her father built a greenhouse in the backyard of every one of her childhood homes, primarily so he could grow his beloved orchids.

“Nature was really his big passion,” Townes-Anderson said. “It was the curiosity, just an incredible amazement of the intricacies of the world.”

Colleagues also highlighted Townes’ insatiable curiosity, describing him as having an energy unmatched by his peers. Genzel recalled how, after a full night of research on a NASA aircraft, Townes was eager to meet and discuss results immediately — to the disbelief of his exhausted counterparts.

“He was able to carry on innovative new research until he was 99 years old,” said another colleague, campus physics department chair and professor Steve Boggs. “I don’t know how you could be more impressive than that.”

A religious man all his life, Townes was awarded the 2005 Templeton Prize for his ideas on the convergence of science and faith.

“He felt that both science and religion could help determine both the purpose and the mechanics of the world and that we needed both to understand who we are,” Townes-Anderson said.

The campus community celebrated Townes’ achievements last July at his 99th birthday celebration on Faculty Glade.

“For the students, there was always that awe, that distance, yet everyone loved him,” Genzel said. “Not just respect, they just loved him.”

Townes is survived by his wife of 74 years, Frances Hildreth Townes; daughters Holly Townes, Linda Rosenwein, Carla Kessler and Townes-Anderson; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Arielle Swedback covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.