James Gordon Dies at 85; Work Paved Way for Laser

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Distinguished Columbia University physicists, some of them Nobel Prize winners, called it a "harebrained scheme." But James P. Gordon, principal builder of a refrigerator-size device that would help revolutionize modern life, believed in it enough to bet a bottle of bourbon that it would work.

He was a 25-year-old graduate student in December 1953 when he burst into the seminar room where Charles H. Townes, his mentor and the inventor of the device, was teaching. The device, he announced, had succeeded in emitting a narrow beam of intense microwave energy.

Dr. Townes's team named it the maser, for microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, and it would lead to the building of the first laser, which amplified light waves instead of microwaves and became essential to the birth of a new technological age. Lasers have found a wide range of practical applications, from long-distance telephone calls to eye surgery, from missile guidance systems to the checkout counter at the supermarket.

In 1964, Dr. Townes and two Russians, Nikolai G. Basov and Aleksandr M. Prokhorov, shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for the development of masers and lasers, the Russians having worked separately from Dr. Townes. Some thought Dr. Gordon, who died on June 21 at 85, deserved a share as well.

At the time of the maser's invention, Dr. Townes credited it "to the triumph and glory" of Dr. Gordon.

"I worked on it with him," he said years later, "but it was really Jim who made it work."

Dr. Gordon handled much of the maser's design work and was the lead author of the one-and-a-half-page paper announcing the achievement in the journal Physical Review in July 1954. He also gave the first talk about it to the American Physical Society.

At Dr. Gordon's 80th birthday party, in 2008, Dr. Townes, who was 93 then, said one reason the Nobel committee did not recognize his younger colleague was its rule that no more than three people can be awarded any one prize.

He also suggested that Dr. Gordon might have been denied the prize because he was a student, although Dr. Basov was, too. Referring to the prize, Dr. Gordon once said, "It would have been too much too soon."

Dr. Townes gave some of his prize money to Dr. Gordon, who used it to buy a Buick station wagon. Dr. Gordon won the bottle of bourbon from a young physicist in the department who, he later learned, had lost a similar bet with Dr. Townes, that one involving a bottle of Scotch.

Dr. Gordon, who lived in Rumson, N.J., died of complications of cancer in a Manhattan hospital, said his wife of 53 years, Susanna.

The maser is credited with inaugurating the field of quantum electronics, which uses a laser's ability to shove around molecules and atoms in the development of electronic devices. Dr. Gordon went on to lead quantum electronics efforts at Bell Laboratories, for many years the world's most innovative scientific organization. The projects ranged from tracing the universe's origins to developing "optical tweezers" to manipulate atoms.

The research yielded many benefits. When Dr. Gordon was made an honorary member of the Optical Society in 2010, the organization's president, James C. Wyatt, said, "His work has led to countless application areas, especially optical communications -- the backbone of high-speed Internet today."

Linn Mollenauer, who worked with Dr. Gordon at Bell on laser advances that helped clarify long-distance telephone conversation, said Dr. Gordon tended to wait for his colleagues to bring him seemingly insoluble problems that had emerged from experiments.

"He would listen very patiently and carefully," Dr. Mollenauer said in an interview. "And then he would go away, and a few days later he would come by and present us with a few pages of a beautifully written theoretical model."

Steven Chu, who before becoming secretary of energy in the Obama administration won a Nobel in 1997 for his work on cooling and trapping atoms as a Bell scientist, mentioned Dr. Gordon in his Nobel lecture. He said that when he once asked a colleague a sophisticated physics question, the colleague replied, "Only Jim Gordon really understands the dipole force."

But Dr. Gordon was the first to admit that nothing important in science is done in isolation, and that success always comes in the wake of others' discoveries. Just as thinking by Einstein, Bohr and Planck laid theoretical groundwork for quantum electronics -- and World War II prompted the development of technology to make it work -- Dr. Gordon helped lay the foundation for a field honored by eight subsequent Nobel Prizes to 18 individuals.

James Power Gordon, the son of a corporate lawyer, was born in Brooklyn on March 20, 1928, and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and Scarsdale, N.Y. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After M.I.T. turned down his application for graduate school -- "fortunately, as it turned out," he wrote -- he went to Columbia.

In mid-1951, Dr. Townes asked Dr. Gordon to join his microwave project. Though he worried that it would hurt his doctoral dissertation if the maser did not work, Dr. Gordon said yes.

The students on the team built the maser with their own hands and encountered endless practical problems. One was that the vacuum chamber enclosing the maser sprang leaks.

"We even had names for the leaks," Dr. Gordon wrote in Optics & Photonics News in 2010. "There was the necktie leak, where your tie gets sucked into the box."

Even after it was proved to work and named, Dr. Gordon wrote, some of his Columbia colleagues questioned its usefulness. One said the maser actually stood for "money acquisition scheme for expensive research."

But by 1955, newspapers were reporting that the maser could be used to keep time so well that in 300 years it would be off by less than a second. A headline in The New York Times said, "New Clock Joins World's Wonders." In 1958, The Boston Globe reported that the maser was being adapted for military use by 20 universities and electronics firms. One use was to sense missile launchings as far as 4,000 miles away.

But its largest significance was in paving the way for the laser. In 1958, Dr. Townes joined with Arthur L. Schawlow to write a paper, "Infrared and Optical Masers," that described a device to produce laser light. They received a patent for it. A Columbia graduate student, R. Gordon Gould, came up with insights on how to build it and named it. Theodore H. Maiman, a physicist with Hughes Aircraft in California, built the first operational laser in 1960.

Besides his wife, the former Susanna Poythress Bland Waldner, Dr. Gordon is survived by a son, James Jr.; two daughters, Sara Bolling Gordon and Susanna Gordon; and four grandchildren. A brother, Dr. Robert S. Gordon Jr., who coordinated AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health, died in 1985.

Dr. Gordon, who won tournaments in platform tennis, liked to wear his raccoon coat, sit on his front porch and smoke a Meerschaum pipe. One time, his wife recalled, his hair was mussed, and she asked him, "Who do you think you are, Einstein?"

"I'm closer than most people," he answered.

science

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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