Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A solution looking for a problem: the laser turns 50

This month the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the laser. Physicists and engineers are unveiling festivals and conferences to mark this key technological invention.

The anniversaty is ably marked by this fascinating BBC Radio 4 documentary,
The Death-Ray in Your Pocket: 50 Years of Lasers.  The website notes:

"Dr Hermione Cockburn tells the story of the invention of the laser, a battle that consumed some of the biggest names in electronics for almost two years, led to claims, counter-claims and academic back-stabbing, along with a 30-year battle over the patents. There's no simple answer to the question "who invented the laser" so this is the story of the leading claimants, assisted by extracts from their oral histories."

The documentary ends with a meditation on the role of lasers within arts, focusing on
UVA's stunning installation, Speed of Light. It reminded me that earlier this year, transmediale.10 in Berlin marked the anniversary with the production of from one to many by Yvette Mattern.

Famously described as "a solution looking for a problem" by Charles H. Townes, one of scientists credited with their invention, lasers have underpinned some of the last half century’s most important technologies - not least, the optical fibres which make today’s high speed internet possible.  This month, during the fiftieth anniversary, physicists are asserting the laser's influence is far from over.

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