Celebrating the laser

Introducing the special section on lasers

Celebrating the Laser | Credit: Society for Science & the Public

Read features from the special edition
The past/present/future of lasers. | Go

View interactive material on lasers
Laser History; laser uses | Go

Read past Science News coverage
Classic articles on lasers | Go

PDF Exclusive for SN subscribers

Download PDF
| Subscribe

Half a century ago, science took a step into science fiction when Theodore Maiman demonstrated that a method for making sharp beams of microwave radiation could be adapted to visible light. Those microwaves had been amplified by stimulated emission of the radiation, inspiring the acronym “maser.” Maiman showed how to do the same thing with optical radiation — visible light — hence the obvious parallel label of “laser” (although the Science News Letter cover story from July 23, 1960, referred to the “optical maser”). Eventually laser became the term applied to all similar devices emitting coherent radiation of various wavelengths. From death rays to bar code readers to light-beam scalpels for eye surgery, the laser has engaged the public’s attention and inspired popular awe like few other inventions. Its anniversary marks not merely a time to remember its history, but also an occasion to celebrate its many roles in everyday life and scientific research. From probing the inner workings of molecules to detecting gravity waves from deep space, lasers remain today a vital tool in the advance of science.

Inventing the light fantastic
By Ron Cowen

Ideas behind laser born long before device itself

Read | Download 

Lasing beyond light
By Lisa Grossman

Physicists focus on whole new types of waves, from beams of sound and plasma swells to looking for ripples in spacetime

Read | Download

Timeline | Inventing the light fantastic

View an interactive timeline highlighting milestones in laser history.
Requires Flash 9 to view.


Slideshow | Lasers, lasers, everywhere

Once called a “solution looking for a problem,” lasers have now infiltrated many areas of life.
Requires Flash 9 to view.

Laser History in the Making
In the years leading up to the invention of the laser and thereafter, Science News Letter kept its readers apprised of progress in the field. Some of the original reports of the laser’s history as it progressed are available here.

February 5, 1955
Science News Letter reports on the use of masers to make the most accurate atomic clock to date.

Feb. 16, 1957
New long-distance communications systems will be made possible with solid-state masers, Science News Letter reports from presentations at an American Physical Society meeting.

April 12, 1958
A maser device is being installed on a Naval Research Laboratory radio telescope to improve its listening sensitivity by a factor of 100, Science News Letter reports.

February 7, 1959
More than a year before the laser’s invention, Science News Letter reports on plans to develop an optical light analog of the maser.

July 23, 1960
Under the headline “Light Amplifier Operated,” Science News Letter reports Theodore Maiman’s “successful operation of an optical maser” using a ruby crystal.

October 15, 1960
Science News Letter reports that light from a ruby laser had been transmitted 25 miles, suggesting future use of lasers for communications through space.

December 31, 1960
A paper describing a uranium optical maser generating a continuous beam of infrared light (rather than pulses) is published in Physical Review Letters, Science News Letter reports, noting that another paper will soon appear, in the IBM Journal of Research, describing a samarium-based laser working in optical wavelengths.

January 20, 1962
Science News Letter reports on a variety of predicted applications for lasers, including mapping the moon, communicating in space, performing surgery as a knifeless scalpel, and serving as a death ray.

March 31, 1962
Science News Letter reports on experiments bouncing a laser beam off the moon.

November 7, 1964
Science News Letter reports that Charles Townes, Aleksandr Prokhorov and Nikolai Basov have won the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on masers and lasers.

October 24, 1981
Science News reports that Arthur Schawlow and Nicolaas Bloembergen share the Nobel Prize for their contributions to laser spectroscopy

Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

More Stories from Science News on Physics