Skip to main content

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we'll come back to in a moment. In describing his route to creating the laser, Maiman doesn't cover up his own worries that he was using the wrong technology, but explains why he felt it was worth carrying on.

What comes through is that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he combined a strong awareness of what was sensibly achievable - so avoided extremely corrosive high-temperature alkali metal gasses such as sodium and potassium, used in other labs at the time in an attempt to create a laser. Similarly, he kept away from cryogenically cooled solutions, which might have worked in a lab, but were totally impractical for most real-world applications. And rather than accept that, as many others argued, it would be impossible to used a ruby as the lasing material, he went ahead and proved them all wrong.

When we hear his reaction to the 'establishment', Maiman can come across as bitter - but it was with good reason. He points out that 10 people were awarded Nobel Prizes linked to lasers... but the Nobel committee totally ignored the man who built the first laser - a bizarre decision. Almost as soon as Maiman's employer, the Hughes Corporation, announced the successful development of the laser, competitors who more part of the academic establishment, apparently sneering at Maiman's work in industry, tried to minimise his achievement and to suggest that others really 'invented' the laser, even though these designs were never made to to work. This counter-spin went on for decades. Although it's a sad story in some ways, the whole sordid business very much adds to the intriguing nature of the book.

I've only one minor criticism, which is that Maiman, probably feeling defensive after this ridiculous carping from his competitors, does seem to slightly play down the contribution of his assistant. In describing how he came to use a camera flash type lamp, Maiman says 'I remembered reading an article about photographic strobe lamps, a camera's flash mechanism... I now had my "aha"!' But in Jeff Hecht's book on the development of the laser - which Maiman appears to endorse - we are told that Maiman's assistant Charlie Asawa looked into pulsed light sources and got the idea of using a photographic flash lamp from an office colleague, Leo Levitt, which he showed to Maiman. This doesn't in any way reduce Maiman's role as the inventor of the laser, it just misses out a little on an interesting part of the process.

The Laser Inventor is an interesting and engaging peek into one of modern history of science and technology's most dramatic, far-reaching developments. It's even quite reasonably priced for a Springer hardback. Recommended.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Meet Your Bacteria - Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock ***

There have been a good number of books on our microbiome - the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in our body - from The Wild Life of Our Bodies throughI, Superorganism to I Contain Multitudes. Each of these is a traditional popular science book format, and all, to some degree, suffer from the same problem - in part, they have a tendency to present collections of facts, little more than bullet points of information strung together, rather than providing an effective narrative. As Meet Your Bacteria is in a significantly different format, there was a chance to imbue the subject with more dynamism and interest.'

When I first looked at the book, I assumed from its shape and cover that it would be in the style of highly illustrated, two-page spreads with large illustrations and the text little more than captions. In reality, Nicola Temple and Catherine Whitlock manage to subvert that format - it is, indeed, presented as a series of separate two-page spreads, but there is far more…