The Very Model of a Modern Maser General

This past week I had the rare experience of realizing that the government was going to do something that I’ve thought for a long time would be a really good idea. On September 13th, the inaugural “Golden Goose Awards” were given out on Capitol Hill. The awards, brainchild of Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper, are a response to the Golden Fleece “awards” used by Senator William Proxmire to draw attention to projects he saw as wastes of government spending– hence the vaguely unserious name. But aside from the unfortunate decision to trade gravitas for snarky wordplay, I could not be more excited about them.

Calling out government waste is certainly a laudable goal. But celebrating worthwhile government investments is a similarly important (and note: not at all mutually exclusive) pursuit. Scientific research, particularly at an extremely speculative or theoretical level, can easily seem like a poor investment, because indeed, a large large amount of it ends up producing results whose impact is unclear at best.

But here’s the thing: when basic research pays off, it can pay off in an enormous, almost incalculably big way. Case in point: Charles Hard Townes, one of four winners in the inaugural flock of Golden Geese*. Townes worked at Bell Labs during World War II using money from the Office of Naval Research to study uses of microwaves for radar. Later, he joined the faculty of Columbia University, where he continued researching techniques to generate and control microwaves. He wrote a grant application to the National Science Foundation asking for support for a project in which he’d attempt to generate an intense, coherent beam of microwave radiation, intending to use the technique to amplify radio signals from deep space and study the distant stars. He asked for the grant in part because he was having trouble getting support for the project from his own university, where the pressure was high to continue his work on radar devices, and where some colleagues openly called his new research “a waste of money.”

I tell you all this because Townes’ research exemplifies the kind of fundamental, speculative physics project that I hear derided all the time as a poor investment and a drain on public funds (these are the nice terms– often we’re directly accused of robbing taxpayers at gunpoint). His project was a long-shot, a combination of new, untested ideas. His work came at the expense of something that might have been used to make killing people easier. His colleagues were divided about its merits– Niels Bohr himself declared it likely unworkable. And even if it succeeded, the best Townes could offer as a reason for its existence was that it could be used to listen in on white noise from the other side of the galaxy. If the “Golden Fleece” awards had existed back then, it might have won one preemptively.

And yet thanks to government support, Townes produced in 1954 a working model of his device, calling it the “MASER,” because the effect it achieved was “Microwave Amplification through Stimulated Emission and Reflection.” By the end of the decade, the process had been generalized to work for not just “M”icrowaves, but “L”ight of any kind. The LASER was born.

So, what did the public get back as a return on its investment, which probably amounted to a few hundreds of thousands of dollars? To put it simply, the laser revolutionized nearly every field which called for any kind of precision measurement of engineering. Chemical analysis was revolutionized by laser spectroscopy. Mechanical engineers began using them to cut, weld, and level. Military applications, for guidance and targeting, appeared almost instantly. The entire space program depended in large part upon laser measurements. The US garment industry credited laser cutting techniques with helping them to maintain their competitiveness worldwide. Eventually, lasers began being used on smaller scales, to etch microchips, and transmit data between fiberoptic cables. When they entered the field of medicine, lasers began replacing scalpels with beams of light, dramatically reducing scarring and risks of infection. To top it off, I hear they go very well with the music of Pink Floyd.

So what kind of price tag should one put on all the technological innovations which came from the laser and hence from the maser, and hence from a government grant? It’s nearly impossible to give an accurate count. The productivity gains our collective species made when they stopped having to rewind cassette tapes just to hear their favorite song again are by themselves staggeringly large, and all made possible by laser devices writing and reading compact discs. The use of barcodes in supermarkets would be impossible without lasers to read them, and surely these have generated a few billion man hours of time you didn’t spend waiting for a teenager to type in the cost of a bag of gummy bears. And don’t tell me you’d happily trade your laser printer for your old dot matrix. In all seriousness, I don’t believe I engage in any hyperbole when I say that modern society would be unrecognizably different if not for Townes’ work.

Lest you think I am overstating the share of credit the maser deserves for all this, let me be clear about something. I cannot emphasize enough that Townes’ invention was not just the far forerunner of the laser, like the chariot is to the automobile. Every basic principle required to make a laser work was invented for the maser first. Lasers are just masers built with slightly different gasses in slightly different containers. If the maser had been made by Apple, the laser would simply have been called the maser3gs. Simply put, they are merely small generalizations of Townes’ original work. You can tell this because Townes himself did much of the generalizing during the 4-5 years immediately following the first maser’s construction.

By then, of course, he likely no longer needed to rely on the federal government for support, since hundreds of private corporations would have seen the potential for laser technology, and so of course I don’t claim that somehow the government funded all the applications of lasers I listed above.

But I do claim, as a matter of historical fact, that without government funding for basic physics, none of these technologies would exist. No private, quarterly-profit driven organization saw fit to fully underwrite the development of the laser, not even the extremely forward-thinking Bell Labs. Why? Because it would have been financially irresponsible for them to do so. It was an enormous gamble, unlikely to pay off. When it did yield results, it took years and years for them to turn into anything that could be slapped with a price tag and turned into profit. And even then, the vast majority of the benefits derived from the laser could never have been funneled back to a single company, but only to society as a whole.

This is why we need continued investment in bold, speculative scientific research. Because there’s no reason for anyone else to do it. Corporations are expert at taking a new technology and developing a thousand ways to commodify it. But it will never be in their interests to undertake projects in fundamental research. Such projects are, by their nature, quite likely to fail. And yet if even one in a million turns out to have the revolutionary impact that the maser did, I think it’s clear that society on the whole turns a profit, in ways no one could have anticipated at the outset had they been forced to defend the work before a board of directors.

After all, you remember the days of cleaning the little rubber ball from inside your computer mouse, vainly hoping that when you put it back it would stop sticking when you scrolled to the right. Tell me you wouldn’t singlehandedly fund another hundred obscure science projects if it meant you got to keep your smooth-sliding optical bad boy.


*See, was the “Golden Fleece” parallel really worth it?


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

8 Responses to The Very Model of a Modern Maser General

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