Washington, DC – Nobel laureate and Carnegie trustee emeritus Charles H. Townes has received the 2006 Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board, the oversight body of the National Science Foundation. At the age of 90, Townes is an active researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, where he uses infrared interferometry to measure the size of old, dying stars and to study the gases that escape from them.

Townes and co-recipient Raj Reddy, a robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, accepted their awards at a dinner on May 9 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. In accepting the award, Townes implored scientists to participate in policy discussions so that the fruits of science can continue to benefit humankind.

Townes earned the award for his lifelong contributions to research and scientific advocacy. In 1964, one year before he joined the Carnegie board, Townes shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Alexander M. Prokhorov and Nikolai G. Basov for the development of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) and its optical counterpart, the laser. Over the last half century, these advances have transformed the way we live our lives, by enabling or enhancing technology used in surgical devices, consumer electronics, data encoding, and communication networks.

In his introduction to Townes’ 1974 Carnegie Evening lecture, Philip H. Abelson, then president of the institution, remarked that Townes is “…one of the few Nobel laureates whose recognition by the Nobel committee didn’t wreck him as a scientist. Indeed…it caused him to redouble his efforts and, in fact, to carve out for himself a new career…in astrophysics.”

Current president Richard Meserve, who dined with Townes and his wife Frances at the event, commented that they “are both role models for us all. They continue to lead active lives and engage the world around them, sharing their wisdom and extraordinary experiences freely. We at Carnegie are delighted to offer our congratulations to Dr. Townes and his family.”

Last month, Townes was honored with a statue in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. The sculpture recreates the moment when, while sitting on a park bench in Washington, D.C., Townes first imagined the idea that would eventually result in the laser. He was also awarded the Templeton Prize last year for his writings on the convergence of science and religion.

The National Science Board established the Bush Award in 1980 to honor the legacy of Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institution from 1939-1955 and a chief architect of postwar U.S. science policy. Bush’s influential 1945 report to President Roosevelt entitled “Science: The Endless Frontier” argued that federal investment in basic research is necessary for economic progress and stability, and also paved the way for the establishment of the National Science Foundation.

Townes joins the company of several Carnegie-related individuals who have received the Bush Award since its inception in 1980, including Abelson (1996) and president emerita Maxine F. Singer (1999).

For more information, see:

2006 Bush Award press release from NSF

Townes’ biographical profile on the Nobel Prize website

Greenville News story on Townes’ statue

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