May 2010 was the 50th anniversary of the first demonstrated laser, but it is milestone that passed pretty much unmentioned in the general media.
May 2010 was the 50th anniversary of the first demonstrated laser, but it is milestone that passed pretty much unmentioned in the general media. (You can see nice retrospectives here and here.) I assume reporters were too busy following really important things, such as Lady Gaga, Angelina, Britney, Sandra, and other celebrities (if you don’t know who they are solely from their first names, well, that's your problem, it just proves how "out of it" you are).
The optical laser built on some of the physics concepts of the non-optical maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), which preceded it by about 5 years. Who should get credit for that first laser was the subject of a bitter 30-year long, complex patent case and lawsuits involving Charles Townes, Arthur Schawlow, Ted Maiman, and Gordon Gould. Reality, of course, is that very, very few inventions occur in a total vacuum (sorry about that pun) but instead build on efforts of others in the same field and also make use of advances in unrelated fields.
Try to think today of what our society would be without the laser, and how many things we could not do: bar-code scanning, CD/DVD players, materials cutting and welding, critical metrology, remote sensing, eyeball tracking, directed-energy weapons; the list of laser types and their applications is astoundingly long and diverse. Ironically, when the laser was first announced, the press presented it as "a solution looking a problem"; I guess we know how that discouraging scenario actually turned out.
It also should make us a little humble, when we see those market forecasts that go five and even ten years out, since the reality is that what the future brings us in technology is largely unknowable. Were the laser and all that it spawned on anyone's "road map"? No. That's one of the reasons that I think the semiconductor industry's much-vaunted and highly publicized road map—which is, at its core, an extrapolation of the past trend line—is both misleading and somewhat delusional. Maybe in the next decade we'll have shifted from nanometer silicon ICs to some form of integrated optical circuitry, or even biological-based logic cells, who knows?
I don’t expect the media and public, obsessed as they are with the here-and-now and what's "hot" today, to stop and pay attention to major retrospectives on the laser's half-century mark. But a little recognition would be nice, don't you think? Or is it another case of extraordinary science, technology, and engineering work and advances being taken for granted and viewed almost as entitlements, and thus being largely unappreciated? I'll let you be the judge. ♦