When I was a grad student at the University of California, Berkeley, I would walk past Professor Townes' office nearly every day. I knew he was a Nobel laureate, a distinguished microwave designer, the inventor of the MASER and co-inventor of the LASER, and I was intimidated. I sometimes thought of knocking on his door and introducing myself, but I could never muster the courage.
Fast forward to July, 1996. I was attending a Bioastronomy Conference in Capri, and Prof. Townes was one of the keynote speakers. During a break between technical sessions, I wandered out into a plaza, where I encountered Townes and his wife Frances sampling wine and cheese. This being a social setting, I put down my own wine glass, summoned up all the courage its contents had afforded me, and walked up to the professor, my hand extended. "I wanted to meet you when I was a grad student at Berkeley," I stated boldly, "but I was too timid. I'm not timid anymore. Hi, I'm Paul."
Charlie Townes smiled, shook my hand, and simply said, "you should have introduced yourself sooner." Such was the measure of the man many idolized.
I consider Charlie Townes the Father of Optical SETI. In 1961, less than a year after the first crude laser was realized, Charles H. Townes authored the first scientific paper proposing interstellar communication via lasers. This was three years before receiving his Nobel prize, but Townes was already well known for his scientific contributions, as well as his interest in SETI. Maser amplifiers had become the gold standard for radio telescope front ends, and remained so even after the solid state revolution spawned Silicon Valley. Arriving at Berkeley in 1967, Townes helped Prof. Jack Welch (later one of my own thesis advisors) to procure a maser preamplifier and millimeter-wave spectrometer for the radio observatory at Hat Creek, now home to the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array. Using the Hat Creek facility, the two went on in 1968 to first detect interstellar ammonia, and other complex organic molecules, near the center of the Milky Way. These detections gave credence to Panspermia, the idea that molecules from space could have seeded Earth with the building blocks of life. Welch and Townes later discovered the first known naturally-occurring maser in space.
Townes remained intellectually active and professionally engaged as he approached the century mark, continuing to come to campus daily up until just last year. He retained the same office in the Physics Department that I had passed in my student days. He recently developed a laser spectrometer for the three-telescope Infrared Spatial Interferometer Array atop Mount Wilson, which is being used to search for infrared laser emissions from exoplanets newly discovered by the Kepler telescope.
Charlie Townes died at the age of 99 on Tuesday morning, 27 January 2015, while enroute to the hospital. He will be remembered as much for his spirituality as for his keen scientific insights. When he received the Templeton Prize for contributions to spirituality in 2005, he wrote:
"My own view is that, while science and religion may seem different, they have many similarities, and should interact and enlighten each other. Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives. If the universe has a purpose or meaning, this must be reflected in its structure and functioning, and hence in science."
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this page last updated 31 January 2015
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