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Customer Review

September 3, 2002
In the contentious arena of laser history, there is one achievement that no one disputes. Theodore Maiman of Hughes Aircraft made the first working laser. This book contains a very personal account of how he did it.
Maiman used a ruby cylinder and a flashlamp to make a pulsed laser. It was "easy" to do this in 1960 in the same sense that it would have been easy to make a tinfoil phonograph in 1877, provided only that Edison showed you how. After Maiman's breakthrough other physicists (especially those associated with maser development) implied they had published or communicated information sufficient to make the pulsed ruby solution obvious. To that Maiman replied roughly as follows: "Everyone knows there was an all-out race to make the first laser. If it was so obvious, why didn't you build it?"
During his career Maiman became acutely conscious of the dismissive attitude sometimes exhibited by academic scientists toward industrial scientists. He was in a special position to observe such prejudice because he made a major scientific advance while employed by an aerospace company. The maser, on the other hand, had come from Charles Townes and his university/Bell Labs background. Although not a source of visible light, the maser was a coherent microwave amplifier widely promoted as the device that would naturally be "extended" to make a laser (Maiman's contrary views on this point are very interesting). When Maiman succeeded there seemed to be an implicit feeling in academia that the achievement came from the wrong side of the tracks and was therefore somehow illegitimate. Perhaps the earliest clear hint of such a feeling surfaced when the editors of Physical Review rejected Maiman's paper describing the world's first successful laser! The excuse that Hughes had already announced only seemed to underline the journal's anti-industry bias.
Although it is centered on laser technology, Maiman's book is really an autobiography. We learn about his childhood and education, his mentors, and an early project in which, somewhat ironically, he greatly improved the design of a maser. In contemplating his place in history, he is very frank about what he sees as injustices. He usually has good reasons for complaining and generously praises those he admires. Clearly Maiman has enjoyed the honors and awards that have come to him, since he describes them at some length. I had a bit of trouble getting used to his writing style, particularly the placement of commas, but that reduces not at all my enthusiastic recommendation of "Laser Odyssey."
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