On 16th May 1960, a team of scientists at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, led by Ted Maiman, demonstrated the world’s first optical laser. Now, 50 years later, lasers have become a ubiquitous feature of modern life, not only within science, but in consumer electronics as well.
This year, a celebration called LaserFest has been organised by the four American scientific societies that were primarily involved in supporting the development of the laser - the Optics Society of America (OSA), the American Physical Society (APS), IEEE, and SPIE.
Dr Thomas Baer is the executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Centre, and is serving as president of the OSA. He explained to Electro Optics that the first goal of LaserFest is to honour and recognise the original pioneers of laser technology - the scientists and entrepreneurs who worked on the technology in the 1950s and '60s. 'Clearly there were dozens, or even hundreds of people who were working on the laser at that time,' says Baer, 'and they say that the laser was "in the air" at that point. There was a race by dozens of groups around the world to demonstrate the laser, but the group that won the race was Ted Maimen's group.'
Over the following few months, several groups duplicated the results: 'The clear sign of a breakthrough is when something of that sort is so quickly duplicated, and people start to build on the scientific results,' says Baer, who sees the demonstration of 16 May 1960 as being the symbolic date at which something began, rather than the day a race was won. 'It's not just Ted's group we're celebrating, but all the people around the world that made the breakthrough possible; this was just a good date to pick,’ he says.
Besides honouring the scientists of the past, LaserFest aims to support the current generation of scientists, and to inspire the next generation. 'A second goal is highlighting the laser, in the eyes of the general public, as one of the best examples of innovation,' says Baer. 'Investment into basic scientific research (in the '50s and '60s) has translated into technology, and this has resulted in great economic benefit, and created whole new industries that are integrated into many aspects of our lives. We want to say to the public "this is why these basic science investments are so critical" and demonstrate how much we rely on lasers. They’re kind of an invisible wheel - people don't recognise it, but lasers are now an integral part of daily life, almost every hour of our day.'
The organisers of LaserFest have another motive for making sure that laser research is given the attention it deserves. 'We want to explain to our government representatives and funding bodies that the money that supported this research came from the government,' says Baer, explaining that laser technology came out of a drive for improved radars after WW2. The societies organising the events hope to encourage continued support from the US government for basic science research, of the kind that created the laser.
'We're also talking to the rest of the scientific community,' explains Baer. 'Lasers are used in just about every branch of science you can think of. They've become a remarkable ruler, a clock, and a way of delivering energy, and so in the scientific world, there are major applications.'
The organisers have already had several major events, including a presentation at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History in Washington DC, at which the pioneers of the laser were formally honoured. On 16 May, the anniversary of the first laser will be celebrated in San Jose, alongside the CLEO conference. Furthermore, a special conference on laser applications is being planned in China for later in the year, and Paris will also host a 50 years of lasers celebration.
While the year-long celebration has only just gotten started, Baer and the organisers are happy with the way LaserFest has been received so far: 'We've already accomplished a lot of what we wanted to do, simply by raising the general public's awareness of the importance of lasers.'