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Blog

Happy birthday to the laser

By Margaret Harris

Fifty years ago today, a little-known scientist working in an underfunded lab in California set off a scientific and technological revolution. On 16 May 1960, Theodore Maiman and his assistant Irnee d’Haenens succeeded in coaxing a beam of coherent light out of a flashlamp-pumped crystal of pink ruby. The laser had arrived.

Of course, the events of that day were not the whole story. Although Maiman is rightly honoured for inventing the first working laser, many others played a role in the laser’s development, both before and (particularly) after the initial breakthrough. Among the key early figures were Einstein, whose predictions about stimulated emission laid the theoretical groundwork; and Charles Townes, who invented the laser’s microwave predecessor, the maser.

To learn more about the early days of the laser, I’d highly recommend downloading Physics World’s May special issue, which you can do for free via this link. On page 23, you’ll find a great article by Pauline Rigby called “And then there was light”, which describes the events leading up to Maiman’s breakthrough and some of the controversy that followed it.

As for what happened next, I think the thing that surprised me most when I was researching the special issue was just how quickly researchers in various fields found ways of putting Maiman’s new toy to use. Barely a year after its invention, a device that d’Haenens memorably called “a solution looking for a problem” was already being used for human eye surgery.

So what will we be doing with it in 2060? Well, as Niels Bohr supposedly said, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future” — but if you want to hear some experts’ views , check out “Where next for the laser?” on p53 in the downloadable pdf. You can also watch our laser video series .

Update: Pauline Rigby has written an entry on her own blog about how the article “And then there was light” came into being — including additional material from her interview with Maiman’s wife Kathleen. You can read it here

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