Arthur Schawlow, Nobel Laureate and
Co-inventor of the Laser, Dies
April 29, 1999
By David F. Salisbury
Arthur L. Schawlow, a.k.a. The Laser Man, died yesterday morning, April 28, at
the Stanford Hospital from pneumonia and congestive heart failure following a
prolonged battle with leukemia. He was 77 years old.
An emeritus physics professor at Stanford, Schawlow picked up the nickname of
Laser Man because he gave a number of popular demonstrations of the new tool
that he had helped to invent. In one of his favorite demonstrations, he
used a "ray gun" laser to shoot through a transparent balloon to pop a dark Mickey
Mouse balloon inside without damaging the outer balloon in order to
illustrate the laser's selectivity.
With these exhibitions, Schawlow demonstrated two aspects of his
character: the serious scientist, who never lost his interest in how matter behaves
and in ways to make it behave differently, and a deeply caring person with an
irrepressible sense of humor.
Through the invention of the laser, Schawlow and his co-inventor Charles H.
Townes, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California-Berkeley,
have had a major impact on a wide range of scientific disciplines. Although
dubbed a technology in search of an application when it was invented, lasers
have played an essential role in scientific studies ranging from physics to
geology to microbiology. At the same time, lasers have found a host of
commercial applications, ranging from surveying to CD music players, from
welding detached retinas back into the eye to moving tremendous amounts of
data across country via optical fiber.
Schawlow was born in Mount Vernon, New York on May 5, 1921. His mother was
Canadian, and at her urging the family moved to Toronto a few years later.
As a boy, he was interested in scientific things -- electrical, mechanical, or
astronomical -- and read nearly everything that the local library could
provide on these subjects. He intended to go to the University of Toronto to study
radio engineering, but he graduated from high school in 1937, the depths of the
depression, and his family couldn't afford the tuition. It was only by
obtaining a scholarship in mathematics and physics that he was able to attend the
Long time friend and colleague, Boris Stoicheff, met Schawlow in 1948 at
Toronto. Schawlow had begun his graduate studies and was running an atomic
beam spectroscopy experiment in the basement of a campus laboratory. In an
introduction to an oral history of Schawlow's life, Stoicheff, who joined the
faculty at the University of Toronto, writes, "It was a special pleasure to
visit the basement lab, where often in the evenings Art would be serenading his
atomic beam with the clarinet, which he played reasonably well." His
repertoire consisted mostly of Dixieland jazz, and he had a large collection of jazz
records. As his career progressed, Schawlow continued to devote his evenings to
music halls and jazz concerts while attending scientific conferences in various
After obtaining his graduate degree at Toronto, a post doctoral fellowship
took Schawlow to Columbia University to work with Charles H. Townes, an
established leader in the field of microwave spectroscopy. "It has been an enormous
privilege to have known Art and work with him," Townes said last year at a
symposium honoring his colleague. "I appreciate him as a fantastically good
scientist, and a friend, and mostly as a person."
Townes had intended to keep Schawlow at Columbia, but the young physicist
"double-crossed" him by marrying his youngest sister, Aurelia, in 1951. The
university's anti-nepotism rules kept him from hiring his brother-in-law, so
Schawlow got a job as a physicist at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he
began studying superconductivity.
On the weekends Schawlow continued to work with Townes on a book on microwave
spectroscopy that they had started while he was at Columbia. Townes had
invented the maser, a device that creates coherent beams of microwaves -- work for
which he subsequently won the Nobel prize. The two were trying to extend the basic
principle of the maser to optical wavelengths, when Schawlow got the idea of
using a long chamber with a mirror at each end. The two published their
design in 1957, which set off an intense scientific competition to produce the first
actual laser, which was built in 1960.
Schawlow and Townes received a patent for the laser in 1960, but they never
profited from it because Schawlow was working for Bell Labs and Townes was a
Bell Labs consultant at the time.
In 1961 Schawlow joined the physics department at Stanford, where he
continued his research in the fields of optical and microwave spectroscopy,
superconductivity, lasers, and laser spectroscopy. In 1981, he received a
Nobel Prize for Physics for "his contribution to the development of laser
At Stanford, Schawlow had a major influence on a number of young
scientists. He gathered about him a large group of students, and a steady stream of
distinguished visitors. "His students enjoyed the fatherly advice given with
Art's usual sense of humor and understanding," Stoicheff said. Some examples
are: "To do successful research, you don't need to know everything, you just
need to know of one thing that isn't known;" and "Anything worth doing is
worth doing twice, the first time quick and dirty, and the second time the best way
Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu reports visiting a physics
laboratory where a resident had posted "The Sayings of Art Schawlow" on his
wall. Schawlow is someone who managed "to keep the humanity in science," Chu
When reporters and science fiction writers began speculating about the use of
lasers as death rays, Schawlow taped a particularly lurid poster, with the
title "The Incredible Laser," on his laboratory door after adding his own subtitle,
"For credible laser see inside."
One of the reasons that Schawlow chose Stanford had nothing to do with his
scientific career. His son, Artie, had autism and a special center for
handicapped children, called the Peninsula Children's Center, provided a
nearby place for him to go.
While attending the Nobel award ceremony in Stockholm, the Schawlows heard
of a technique for treating autism called "facilitated communication." This
involves using a hand-held communicator and a special calculator designed to improve
communications with autistic individuals. They tried it with their son and
felt it helped. So they became champions of the technique and were largely
responsible for introducing it to the United States, where it remains controversial.
The Schawlows later helped to organize a nonprofit corporation, California
Vocations, to provide a group home for autistic people. A further tragedy was
the death of Aurelia in 1991, who was killed in an automobile accident
while on her way to visit their son.
Schawlow is survived by his son, Artie Schawlow of Paradise Calif., and two
daughters -- Helen Johnson of Stevens Point, Wisconsin and Edie Dwan of
Charlotte, North Carolina -- and five grandchildren, Thomasina and Cleo
Johnson and Colin, Rachel and Andy Dwan.
A memorial service has not yet been planned. Please send any donations to the
Arthur Schawlow Center, 1629 Cypress Lane, Paradise, CA 95969.