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The Laser Turns 50


Angela Stark
The Optical Society

Nadine Tosk
NDTosk Communications

Science Community Celebrates May 16 Anniversary of Ubiquitous, Transformative Technology

WASHINGTON, May 13 - This Sunday, May 16, the scientific community will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the laser - an invention that began as a scientific curiosity, but which has transformed into one of the most influential technological developments in human history.

"The laser has brought countless benefits to society in science, medicine, communications, industrial technology, and space, among others," says Elizabeth Rogan, CEO of the Optical Society (OSA), one of four scientific groups that founded LaserFest, a year-long initiative created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first working laser and educate the broader public about the laser's benefits.

On May 16, LaserFest hosts a special symposium titled "Retrospectives on the Invention of the Laser," at CLEO/QELS, the leading annual scientific meeting on lasers and electro-optics. Among the laser pioneers and experts who will speak at the San Jose, Calif. event are Charles Townes, who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for conceptualizing the maser, the precursor to the laser, and Kathleen Maiman, whose late husband, Theodore Maiman, demonstrated the first working laser at Hughes Research Labs on May 16, 1960.

"Laser" is an acronym for "Light Amplification of Stimulated Emission of Radiation". A flash-lamp in Maiman's early device delivered photons of light to a ruby crystal, exciting electrons in the crystal's chromium atoms to a higher energy level. As the electrons began returning to their original energy level, they stimulated other excited chromium atoms to release their energy, all at the same deep red wavelength. Mirrors at the ends of the ruby rod formed the cascade of photons into a bright beam of red light, which lasted as long as the flash-lamp pulse.

Since then, lasers have taken many forms. Some, like laser printers, laser eye surgery and laser light shows are ubiquitous and widely taken for granted. Others, like fiber lasers that perform tasks as wide-ranging as transmitting telecommunications signals and cutting granite, are largely hidden from view. Indeed, though laser innovations continue to produce new patents at nearly the same rate as the computer, its reach may not be as widely appreciated. Phone calls, package delivery, watching movies, sorting waste for recycling - nearly every aspect of modern life directly or indirectly involves a laser.

"We feel it's our responsibility to make sure the public understands the fundamental role lasers continue to play in the world's scientific, technological and commercial progress," says Rogan. "We hope that increased recognition of the laser's significance will not only maintain public funding for laser research, but also attract our best young students to science and engineering careers. The laser is, in many respects, a mature technology, but with tremendous opportunities to grow. There is an exciting future for the laser in areas like cancer diagnostics and alternative energy generation that we can all look forward to."

In the coming years, many scientists expect laser-based innovations to revolutionize the following fields:

  • Eye surgery, where ultra-short-pulse lasers called femto-lasers are making cataract surgery simpler and far less dependent on a surgeon's hand coordination.
  • Cardiology, where laser-based optical coherence tomography will enable physicians to more accurately prescribe drugs or artery-opening stents.
  • Medical diagnostics, where individuals can have their entire personal genome sequenced in less than a day and their susceptibility to specific diseases analyzed.
  • Data communications, where replacing wires with lasers in transistors will allow data transfer fast enough to download an entire movie in less than 30 seconds.
  • Criminal forensics, where new laser-based techniques match materials linking criminals to the scene of the crime.
  • Defense, where new high-powered lasers heat the ground around landmines and IEDs, thus detonating them at a safe distance.
  • Basic research, where laser techniques permit scientists to see molecules smaller than a wavelength of light interact.

"Even more laser breakthroughs like these lie in our future," says Rogan. "With LaserFest, we are striving to create maximum interest and support among numerous communities, including the general public, government entities, academia and industry, to make them a reality sooner."

Events hosted by LaserFest partners and sponsors are taking place throughout 2010. See the LaserFest website (www.LaserFest.org) for more information.

About LaserFest

LaserFest, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the laser, emphasizes the laser's impact throughout history and highlights its potential for the future. Through a series of events and programs, LaserFest showcases the prominence of the laser in today's world. Founding Partners of LaserFest are the American Physical Society (APS), the Optical Society (OSA), SPIE, and the IEEE Photonics Society. For more information, visit www.LaserFest.org.

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