Arthur Leonard Schawlow

Arthur Leonard Schawlow (May 5, 1921 – April 28, 1999) was an American physicist and co-inventor of the laser with Charles Townes. His central insight, which Townes overlooked, was the use of two mirrors as the resonant cavity to take maser action from microwaves to visible wavelengths. He shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics with Nicolaas Bloembergen and Kai Siegbahn for his work using lasers to determine atomic energy levels with great precision.[1][2]

Arthur Leonard Schawlow
Artur Schawlow, Stanford University
Arthur Leonard Schawlow
BornMay 5, 1921
DiedApril 28, 1999 (aged 77)
NationalityUnited States
Alma materUniversity of Toronto
Known forlaser spectroscopy
Spouse(s)Aurelia Townes (m. 1951; 3 children)
AwardsStuart Ballantine Medal (1962)
Marconi Prize (1977)
Nobel Prize for Physics (1981)
National Medal of Science (1991)
Scientific career
InstitutionsBell Labs
Columbia University
Stanford University
Doctoral advisorMalcolm Crawford


Schawlow was born in Mount Vernon, New York. His mother, Helen (Mason), was from Canada, and his father, Arthur Schawlow, was a Jewish immigrant from Riga (then in the Russian Empire, now in Latvia). Schawlow was raised in his mother's Protestant religion.[3] When Arthur was three years old, they moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

At the age of 16, he completed high school at Vaughan Road Academy (then Vaughan Collegiate Institute), and received a scholarship in science at the University of Toronto (Victoria College). After earning his undergraduate degree, Schawlow continued in graduate school at the University of Toronto which was interrupted due to World War II. At the end of the war, he began work on his Ph.D at the university with Professor Malcolm Crawford. He then took a postdoctoral position with Charles H. Townes at the physics department of Columbia University in the fall of 1949.

He went on to accept a position at Bell Labs in late 1951. He left in 1961 to join the faculty at Stanford University as a professor. He remained at Stanford until he retired to emeritus status in 1996.

Although his research focused on optics, in particular, lasers and their use in spectroscopy, he also pursued investigations in the areas of superconductivity and nuclear resonance. Schawlow shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics with Nicolaas Bloembergen and Kai Siegbahn for their contributions to the development of laser spectroscopy.

Schawlow coauthored the widely used text Microwave Spectroscopy (1955) with Charles Townes. Schawlow and Townes were the first to publish the theory of laser design and operation in their seminal 1958 paper on "optical masers",[4] although Gordon Gould is often credited with the "invention" of the laser, due to his unpublished work that predated Schawlow and Townes by a few months.[5] The first working laser was made in 1960 by Theodore Maiman.

In 1991, the NEC Corporation and the American Physical Society established a prize: the Arthur L. Schawlow Prize in Laser Science. The prize is awarded annually to "candidates who have made outstanding contributions to basic research using lasers."

Science and religion

He participated in science and religion discussions. Regarding God, he stated, "I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life."[6]

Personal life

In 1951, he married Aurelia Townes, younger sister of his postdoctoral advisor, Charles Townes. They had three children: Arthur Jr., Helen, and Edith. Arthur Jr. was autistic, with very little speech ability.

Schawlow and Professor Robert Hofstadter at Stanford, who also had an autistic child, teamed up to help each other find solutions to the condition. Arthur Jr. was put in a special center for autistic individuals, and later, Schawlow put together an institution to care for people with autism in Paradise, California. It was later named the Arthur Schawlow Center in 1999, shortly before his death on the 29th of April 1999. Schawlow was a promoter of the controversial method of facilitated communication with patients of autism.[7]

He considered himself to be an orthodox Protestant Christian, and attended a Methodist church.[3] Arthur Schawlow was an intense fan and collector of traditional American jazz recordings, as well as a supporter of instrumental groups performing this type of music.

Schawlow died of leukemia in Palo Alto, California.



  • Schawlow, A L (1995), "Principles of lasers", Journal of clinical laser medicine & surgery (published Jun 1995), 13 (3), pp. 127–30, PMID 10150635
  • Schawlow, AL (1982), "Spectroscopy in a New Light", Science (published Jul 2, 1982), 217 (4554), pp. 9–16, Bibcode:1982Sci...217....9S, doi:10.1126/science.217.4554.9, PMID 17739964
  • Schawlow, AL (1978), "Laser Spectroscopy of Atoms and Molecules", Science (published Oct 13, 1978), 202 (4364): 141–147, Bibcode:1978Sci...202..141S, doi:10.1126/science.202.4364.141, PMID 17801904
  • McCaul, B W; Schawlow, A L (1969), "Plasma refractive effects in HCN lasers", Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. (published Feb 10, 1969), 168 (3), pp. 697–702, Bibcode:1969NYASA.168..697M, doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1969.tb43154.x, PMID 5273948
  • Schawlow, A L (1966), "Lasers", International ophthalmology clinics, 6 (2), pp. 241–51, doi:10.1097/00004397-196600620-00002, PMID 5958291

See also


  1. ^ "Arthur L. Schawlow". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved 10 August 2011.
  2. ^ Hänsch, Theodor W. (December 1999). "Obituary: Arthur Leonard Schawlow". Physics Today. 52 (12): 75–76. Bibcode:1999PhT....52l..75H. doi:10.1063/1.2802854.
  3. ^ a b "The religion of Arthur Schawlow, Nobel Prize-winning physicist; worked with lasers".
  4. ^ Schawlow, Arthur L.; Townes, Charles H. (December 1958). "Infrared and optical masers". Physical Review. 112 (6–15): 1940–1949. Bibcode:1958PhRv..112.1940S. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.112.1940.
  5. ^ Taylor, Nick (2000). LASER: The inventor, the Nobel laureate, and the thirty-year patent war. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 62–70. ISBN 0-684-83515-0. OCLC 122973716.
  6. ^ Margenau, H. (1992), Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo sapiens, Open Court Publishing Company, p. 105 co-edited with Roy Abraham Varghese. This book is mentioned in a December 28, 1992 Time magazine article: Galileo And Other Faithful Scientists
  7. ^][1]

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A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. The term "laser" originated as an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation". The first laser was built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories, based on theoretical work by Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow.

A laser differs from other sources of light in that it emits light coherently. Spatial coherence allows a laser to be focused to a tight spot, enabling applications such as laser cutting and lithography. Spatial coherence also allows a laser beam to stay narrow over great distances (collimation), enabling applications such as laser pointers and lidar. Lasers can also have high temporal coherence, which allows them to emit light with a very narrow spectrum, i.e., they can emit a single color of light. Alternatively, temporal coherence can be used to produce pulses of light with a broad spectrum but durations as short as a femtosecond ("ultrashort pulses").

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A maser (, an acronym for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation") is a device that produces coherent electromagnetic waves through amplification by stimulated emission. The first maser was built by Charles H. Townes, James P. Gordon, and H. J. Zeiger at Columbia University in 1953. Townes, Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov were awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for theoretical work leading to the maser. Masers are used as the timekeeping device in atomic clocks, and as extremely low-noise microwave amplifiers in radio telescopes and deep space spacecraft communication ground stations.

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