HRL named Physics Historical Site

The development of the laser at what was known in the ’50s as Hughes Research Laboratory was an historic moment in science, opening the doors for its use in everything from CDs and fiber optics to being able to measure the distance from the earth to the moon.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

“Voila! That was it. The laser was born!”

This was how HRL Laboratories physicist Dr. Theodore Maiman described the historic moment, 50 years ago, when his new synthetic ruby laser produced the powerful light that has been so important in scientific progress, from medical innovation to telecommunications.

In honor of Maiman’s achievement, the American Physical Society, a 111-year-old scientific organization, will designate HRL Laboratories, LLC a Physics Historical Site in a ceremony next month. At the May 16 event, the society will present HRL a plaque commemorating Maiman’s historic moment that opened the door for what was then known as Hughes Research Laboratories to develop a billion-dollar, range-finding (a method of measuring distances with a telescopic instrument) business and spur significant advances in science, communications, manufacturing, medicine and defense.

“Without the discovery of a working laser, there would be no iPods,” Associate Executive Officer of APS Alan Chodos said in a phone interview from his Washington D.C. office. “There would be no CDs or DVDs or barcode scanning or even the Internet. One of the laser’s biggest applications was in fiber optics. So modern telecommunications exist because of the laser.”

It wasn’t always so. Chodos said that pre-1960, people had a theoretical concept of a laser, but weren’t sure of what applications there might be. Maiman was a young scientist who, along with his colleagues, Irnee D’Haenens and Charley Asawa, was challenged with the idea of capturing the powerful light of a laser. Assembling a central rod comprised of ruby crystal, with reflectors at each end and a three-loop flashlamp that looks sort of like a big, red, glass Slinky, Maiman and his colleagues first fired up the laser on May 16, 1960.

Chodos said the achievement ignited a blizzard of worldwide interest and applications utilizing the laser soon followed.

“Laser essentially creates a special coherent light, which means that the light is all one wavelength and all one color, as opposed to light from the sun which has a whole spectrum of color,” Chodos said. “Its light focuses tremendously direct power into a very small area. That’s why it’s particularly good for laser surgery.”

When the first astronauts visited the moon, they left mirrors on the lunar surface. By directing lasers toward those mirrors and measuring the time it takes to travel there and back, scientists can precisely gauge the distance from earth to the moon.

According to the IEEE Global History Network, which catalogues innovation in electrical engineering and computing, huge governmental grants were pouring into research labs across the country in the late ‘50s, primarily from the Pentagon, for scientists scrambling to create a functioning laser.

Maiman was working against the priorities of his bosses and the opinion of other physicists who were skeptical of his efforts. After his first successful test of the laser, Maiman founded his own research lab that went on to develop an explosion of commercial laser applications.

Maiman, who died in 2007, was able to see the effect his discovery had on the world at large. The laser figures largely in practically every physical aspect of modern day society, from rock band concerts to energy exploration, and continues to be a leading tool of scientists today. Chodos said that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is currently working on the world’s most powerful laser devise- 192 lasers focusing on one small hydrogen pellet to achieve nuclear fusion.

“Of course, there are weapons applications with this,” Chodos said, “but you can also use this to create nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, without the toxic waste from spent nuclear fuel.”

The American Physical Society started naming Physics Historical Sites in 2005 in an effort to, as Chodos said, “make passersby stop and read the plaque and say, gee, that’s interesting. I just learned some physics history.” Other historic sites have included Bell Laboratories, MIT Radiation Laboratory and The Franklin Institute, in honor of Ben Franklin, who launched physics research in America by flying a kite attached to a key in a storm. Chodos cautioned that children should not try this at home because “Franklin knew what he was doing.”

Michele Durant, spokeswoman for media services at HRL, said of Maiman’s accomplishment, “It’s been a great springboard to 50 years of innovation. Dr. Maiman and HRL have been responsible for discoveries that touch our world in every way.”

The plaque will be inserted in a rock placed next to a koi pond at the entrance to HRL Laboratories.

“Rather than back in a small dark hallway that nobody has access to, we want to put this plaque out where everyone can see it,” Durant said.

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