Fixing, building, improving is way of life for Charles Townes



Charles Townes attends a ceremony and unveiling of his statue by Zan Wells at the corner of Main Street and Camperdown Way on April 8, 2006.

Charles Hard Townes wasn't a typical boy. His Christmas wish list, at age 10, offers hard evidence.

Screwdrivers. Pliers. Drills. Anything that would help him repair or rebuild something – hopefully, a little faster than 12-year-old brother Henry.

“We were competitors,” said Townes, whose father routinely provided old clocks for his boys to disassemble. “We had to see who could make the best thing or invent something, or figure out how to build it better.”

Eighty years later, the toys have changed but the ideas just keep on coming. Townes' mission is an ongoing quest for information. He's a man who watches birds – keeping a set of binoculars on hand – but never watches television.

In the field of physics, Townes is revered worldwide. When he received the Templeton Prize last year in a ceremony at London's Buckingham Palace, Townes became only the second person in history to receive that honor and a Nobel Prize. The other was Mother Teresa (1910-1997), the legendary missionary in Calcutta.

Townes was honored in his hometown in 2007, when a statue of Townes was unveiled near Falls Park. The high-profile honor seems fitting for Townes, a modest man who in 1951 discovered a method of harnessing molecules in a way that created microwave beams – which Townes termed a maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). That led to the invention of the laser beam, which uses light beams rather than microwave beams. Today, those beams are used for products ranging from delicate eye and spinal surgery tools to CDs and DVDs.

The bronze statue, near the intersection of South Main and Camperdown, awaits visitors just a few miles from the farm where Townes once milked cows, on property where Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital now stands. The image rests within a mile of Townes' old classrooms at Greenville High, and just across the Reedy River from the former site of the Furman University physics classes that triggered his career.

Townes is a reluctant recipient of the attention.

“I was surprised when they told me about it,” Townes said with a slow smile. After his first glimpse of the statue Friday, he struggled to find words to accompany the headshake: “It's quite an honor,” he said.

An introvert by nature (which he considers a good fit for wife Frances' extroverted ways), Townes surprises strangers with his humility.

“His most powerful impression on guests is his warmth, sincerity, and curiosity,” says Furman University President David Shi, who marvels at Townes' lack of pomposity and his range of interests, which include “all sorts of things outside of physics.”

Shi also has had a front-row view of Townes' philanthropy. Shortly after receiving $1.6 million that accompanied the Templeton prize in May 2005, Townes donated most of it to charities. Half went to Furman, a place he has spoken of fondly from the time he enrolled there at age 16. The rest went to his church, the 700-member Congregational Church of Berkeley (Calif.), and to a charity that provides chaplains for Berkeley's homeless.

“I didn't need the money. Some charities did,” Townes said Friday, as he and wife prepared to drive to the airport to pick up one of his four daughters who are scheduled to be in town for the ceremony. On Sunday, the couple plans to drive to Asheville to visit 97-year-old sister Mary Townes Nyland, the only other survivor among Henry Townes' six children.

For Townes, the weekend trip is a break from a weekly routine that, even after 40 years of supposed retirement, involves 60 working hours. The couple began the week in Pakistan, where Townes was asked to share astrophysics information with Pakistani scientists. It also gave the couple a chance to visit an impoverished area that has been supported by donations from Townes' church.

When he returns home Monday, Townes will resume a routine that begins with Bible study and breakfast at 6:30 a.m., and continues with research for the next dozen hours – pausing only long enough to eat lunch and dinner. Three telescopes on California's Mount Wilson enable Townes to “see” planets through the radiation of light beams. For Townes, the view is mesmerizing.

Frances Townes, his wife of 66 years, feels that he works too many hours. Townes doesn't think he works at all.

“I don't call it work – I have a good time,” Townes says. “I do things I want to do. I feel very lucky.”

In the 71 years since earning physics and language degrees at Furman, where he played trumpet in the marching band and served as a staff writer on the school newspaper, Townes has immersed himself in a range of scientific research -- first in physics, and later moving to natural sciences. His passion in recent years has been astrophysics, which he distinguishes from astronomy.

At 90, Townes continues to marvel at the universe. He remains driven to discover what makes it function so well.

His ideas have long been valued by the U.S. government. In 1968, when many colleagues believed the depth of dust would make a moon landing impossible, Townes -- chairman of a committee that studied the NASA project -- noted that the evidence of rocks on the lunar surface was proof that some areas could support the weight of a craft and astronauts.

Swimming ranks among Townes' favorite recreations. Another is scuba diving. Sunday is usually reserved for church and hiking with Frances near their Berkeley home. He's played the piano and trumpet, and his bass baritone voice has for years been part of church choirs.

The son of an attorney, Townes pondered a career in biology during his days at Greenville High. That changed when he took his first physics class at Furman, where he graduated summa cum laude at age 19. Townes earned a master's degree in physics at Duke University a year later; by age 24, he had received a Ph.D. from Cal Tech.

He wanted to teach physics on the college level, but found teaching jobs scarce during the Depression era. He went to work instead with Bell Laboratories in New York, where he met his eventual wife and was exposed to electronics and microwaves. The latter marriage enabled him to become a pioneer in microwave spectroscopy.

Townes' work linking engineering and physics prompted the U.S. Navy to invite him to serve on a committee that probed light waves and radar for military purposes. That led to his discovery that molecules would be heated in a way that produced microwave beams. The laser, the use of the same system creating light beams instead of microwave beams, followed.

The idea came to Townes one spring morning as he sat on a Washington, D.C., park bench, enjoying the azaleas in bloom as he waited for a restaurant to open.

In a moment that has been captured by sculptress Zan Wells, in a work that will be unveiled today, Townes put some new ideas on a notepad.

That changed world history; it never changed Charlie Townes.

Abe Hardesty