What the 1964 Nobel committee failed to note was the vast potential for practical applications of the laser, emphasizing instead its opening of "new possibilities for studying the interaction of radiation and matter." That, of course was very true. A recent example is the 1997 Nobel in Physics to Steven Chu of Stanford University for his use of laser light to trap and cool atoms to nearly absolute zero.
But today, lasers--from semiconductor devices as tiny as grains of sand to experimental giants the size of buildings--are used in hundreds of applications, from cutting and welding metal to repairing damage to delicate tissue of the eyes. They are at the heart of many scientific instruments and are guiding surveyors and sighting weapons. With their light guided through threads of glass, they have revolutionized communications. Lasers scan bar codes at the supermarket and record sound on compact disks.
It's already getting hard to imagine what life was like without them. So, happy 40th--give or take a few months.
OPTICAL MASERS, Arthur L. Schawlow, Scientific American, June 1961
ADVANCES IN OPTICAL MASERS, Arthur L. Schawlow, Scientific American, July 1963
THE PRESSURE OF LASER LIGHT, Arthur Ashkin, Scientific American, February 1972
LASER TRAPPING OF NEUTRAL PARTICLES Steven Chu, Scientific American, February 1992.
Images: LUCENT TECHNOLOGIES (Townes and Schalow, laser animation), LASER STARS (Maiman, ruby laser), MIT LEMELSON INVENTION DIMENSION (Gould)