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Laser inventor who enabled first ‘moon measure’ remembered on International Day of Light

May 15, 2019
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When NASA scientists wanted to measure the distance from Earth to the moon for the first time, they shone a high-powered laser off of a reflecting disk placed on the moon by the astronauts during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. That laser was designed by Theodore (Ted) Maiman, inventor of the first laser in 1960 and a former adjunct professor in Simon Fraser University’s School of Engineering Science.

As scientists commemorate the second International Day of Light on Thursday, May 16 and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this summer, SFU engineering science professor Andrew Rawicz can reflect on Maiman's contributions.

Before his death in 2007, Maiman was active in the development of curricula in biophotonics, photonics and optical engineering at the SFU school. Rawicz is grateful for his contribution, saying: “As one of the most important inventors of the 20th century, Ted gave us a sense of the importance of practical solutions with a very strong scientific understanding of the problem.”

Maiman is widely credited with demonstrating the world’s first working laser in 1960. He received an honorary degree from SFU in 2002 and was recognized internationally through numerous prizes and awards, including the Japan Prize — known as the Nobel of the East — for scientific contributions and induction into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame. He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in physics but never awarded. “What made Ted’s invention stand out was that he only had $50,000 and the help of a part-time researcher,” says Rawicz, while other teams trying to develop the laser had far more resources.

Maiman’s own account of inventing the laser tells of turmoil in the scientific community – scientists at the time didn’t think it was possible to create a laser using a solid-state ruby. But it was because of the scientific community’s failure to see the potential of the ruby that Maiman eventually did just that. He published his findings in Nature in the summer of 1960 after his submission was rejected by the renowned Physical Review Letters

“Ted’s invention revolutionized aspects of telecommunications, industry, medicine, and virtually every branch of the sciences,” says Kathleen Maiman, his widow. “More recently, the laser has made possible high-speed internet and the smartphone. His elegant design was so good that it is the basis of lasers even today.”

Andrew Rawicz, Engineering Science, rawicz@sfu.ca, 778-782-3819
Kathleen Maiman, laser inventor’s widow, kathleen_maiman@sfu.ca