Charles Townes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Adventures of a Scientist: Conversation with Charles W. Townes, Nobel Laureate, 2/15/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Professor Townes, welcome to our program.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I grew up in South Carolina, in the somewhat mountainous region of South Carolina. I grew up on a little farm. My father was a lawyer, but many Southerners like farming, and we had a farm just outside the city. It was a great experience; I had good fun there. I picked cotton and I milked cows; those were chores which we boys were supposed to do. And I roamed around and saw animals and plants and butterflies, and looked at the sky and had a good time.

And you liked to fix things, too.

Yes, that's right. I think growing up on a farm you have to fix things, but anyhow, I liked to know how things worked. Young Charles Townes with older brother Henry and sisters Mary and Ellen, exploring a Japanese umbrella around 1920. I liked to figure things out and see how they worked and try to make them work. So I made all kinds of things -- there were wagons and slingshots, and so on. And tried to make them better and bigger.

There's even a letter in your book, I think, to your sister, with your request for Christmas presents [when you were] ten years old. And a lot of the list included things for fixing and repairing.

Yes, I told her, "If you're going to give me a good Christmas present, you've got to buy out a hardware store," because I wanted some screwdrivers, and some pliers and drills, and so on. But I was making things, and my brother also liked to make things, and we were kind of rivals to see who could make the best thing or invent something, how to build it better.

At one time your father even invented a patent system between you and your brother to keep you from being at each other. Tell us about that.

Well, my brother was a couple of years older than I. I had learned a lot from him and we were always competing, and I was trying to keep up with him. And we would try to invent things, and I guess he felt I copied him, and I probably claimed that he copied me some, but my father said, "Well, we'll have a patent. Whoever does something first or shows how to do it first, the other person can't copy it." So we had to pay my father five cents, which was a lot of money for a little boy, five cents for him to say, "This is a patent and these are your rights, versus somebody else's rights."

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

My parents were interested in the outdoors, and they were interested in natural history, plants and flowers and animals. My father would take us around out into the streams and we would wade in the streams and the marshes and collect turtles, and so on. He was interested. I think he probably would have been a scientist if he had come along at a different age, but he was a lawyer instead. And my mother was very tolerant. We brought a lot of caterpillars, for example, into the house and fed them on leaves in the house, hoping that they would make butterflies, which they did, but they also crawled around the house. You can imagine that my mother had to be pretty tolerant. And they encouraged us to find out things and tinker with things. My father brought us some old clocks, for example, so we could take them apart and see how they worked, put them back together, and so on. So they were very encouraging.

And you read a lot when you were young? I mean, it was a family where books were important?

Oh, yes; well, my father particularly had lots of encyclopedias so we could look up things and find out. We could settle a question, almost. Decide who was right or what the real situation was. We'd look it up; he had several sets of encyclopedias. And we read a good deal. I liked to read, but I primarily read about animals and about doing things, things of that type.

How did you get interested in science, or did it just flow naturally?

I liked to understand things. How do things work? What's this universe? The universe is so marvelous, you know, you go look at the stars: Now why are they there and what are they and how do they work? And how do things grow? And how does machinery work? Solving puzzles, I liked that. And I thought, well, I liked animals and insects, maybe I might be a biologist; but then when I took my first course in physics I said, oh, physics! That really figures things out thoroughly, it tells you exactly what's likely to be right. And that was very pleasing. You can really decide what's right and what isn't right.

Was this course in high school?

Actually, this was a course in college. I took mathematics in high school, which I liked, too, but there wasn't any physics much in high school, and so I learned mostly from my friends and from myself. I learned science for a while besides mathematics, but then when I got into college, why, I took my first physics course and almost immediately I said, oh, that's what I want. I like mathematics, but mathematics doesn't deal with the world exactly. With physics you're dealing with things exactly how they work and you can figure things out. And find out new things, and make new things work.

I get a sense that your background and your parents' influence gave you a sense of awe and respect for the physical world and nature, but also a real will to understand it.

Yes, that's quite right; my parents encouraged us to be willing to be different. To do things we wanted to do. They were religiously oriented and they had an admiration for the world, all of the world, but also a considerable interest in the understanding of it, and they encouraged us.

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