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Ali Javan
Physicist (1928-     ) - Inventor of Laser


Photo: Ali Javan, in his laser lab at MIT
(Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

      Ali Javan tested his "Gas Laser" invention on December 12, 1960. The following day, he conducted the first experiment of a telephone conversation ever to be transmitted by laser beam. Nearly 40 years later, laser telecommunication via fiber optics is commonplace, comprising the key technology used in today's Internet. Perhaps, laser is one of the greatest inventions in today's technology. Javan is still intensely involved with inventions, concentrating on the use of matter at "nano-scale", specifically working on electronics at optical frequencies. He anticipates the day when microchips will operate on light wave frequencies GHz (Giga-Hertz) rather than the radio frequencies of MHz (Mega-Hertz).

     Born in Tehran of Azerbaijani parentage, Javan came to the United States in 1949 where shortly afterwards he received his Ph.D. at Columbia University in New York City. He's been with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) since 1962.

Biography of Ali Javan

An Interview by Betty Blair

Biography of Ali Javan

Ali Javan is the Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A recognized world leader in the field of lasers and quantum electronics, he has won international acclaim for his invention of the first gas laser.

Professor Javan, a native of Teheran, Iran, received the Ph.D. degree in physics in 1954 from Columbia University in New York City under the direction of Charles Townes. Following a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University, he joined the research staff of Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey in September, 1958. In 1961 he joined the MIT faculty, where he has continued to teach and conduct research up to the present.

Professor Javan conceived of the gas laser principle in 1958, while a member of the Bell Laboratories technical staff, and in 1960 he brought this concept to fruition, successfully operating the well-known and widely used helium-neon laser. This invention, the first laser to operate continuously, attracted immediate international attention and laid the foundation for a great deal of subsequent work.


Photographed in the natural purple hue of light given off by a gas laser as it appeared in the "Smithsonian" Magazine, April 1971, Dr. Ali Javan sits behind his model of the first Gas Laser--the Helium Neon Laser which he invented in 1960. Photo .

Prior to his work on the laser, Professor Javan developed the theory of the three level maser and showed the importance of phase coherence in this microwave device. This work introduced the concept of masers without population inversion, and he further extended this idea to the use of the stimulated Raman effect to achieve gain, a concept that subsequently led to novel extensions in the optical regime.

Professor Javan's continued contributions over the years have advanced diverse frontiers in the field of quantum electronics. At MIT, he established a major research laboratory and developed it into the largest university laser research laboratory throughout the 1960's and 1970's. Many of the early breakthroughs in the scientific uses of lasers took place there. These include the many developments in laser spectroscopy at sub-Doppler resolution, which defined the field of gas phase nonlinear spectroscopy; the first use of lasers to accurately test the special theory of relativity and the isotropy of space; the introduction of absolute frequency measurement technology into the optical region, and the first development of laser atomic clocks.


Javan, in his laser lab at MIT

Professor Javan has continued to be active in novel areas of research, including his recent work exploring the effects of coupling light by an optical antenna into a nanoscale volume of matter. A number of active fields of research have emerged from his work. His contributions have also extended to applied research areas, from the development of high energy gas lasers and multistatic laser radars, controlled by accurate optical clocks, to lasers for medical diagnostic use. He has supervised the doctoral thesis research of a large number of physics graduate students. In addition, he has served as an active consultant to government and industry.

For his work on gas lasers, Professor Javan was awarded the 1964 Stewart Ballentine Medal of the Franklin Institute, the 1966 Fanny and John Hertz Foundation Medal, the 1975 Fredrick Ives Medal of the Optical Society, and the 1993 Albert Einstein World Medal of Science of the World Cultural Council. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an Associate Fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences, and an Honorary Member of the Trieste Foundation for the Advancement of Science. In 1966 he was named a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 1979 and 1995 a Humbolt Foundation Fellow.

An Interview
by Betty Blair

    Dr. Ali Javan was too busy to meet but being the gentleman that he is, he spent nearly an hour on the phone trying to convince me that he didn't have time for an interview.

    But Azerbaijan International was getting ready to publish an issue devoted to the achievements of Azerbaijani scientists. To leave Javan out would clearly be a mistake. "His place would be missing" (as the Azeris often say). Javan, who has lived in the United States since 1949, is of Azerbaijani parentage. His mother and father were born in Tabriz (Iran) and he, in Tehran.

    His contribution to world science through laser technology is widely recognized. In 1975, The Optical Society of America bestowed upon him their most prestigious honor, the Fredric Ives Medal, with a citation that commended him for "producing an optical device (the Gas Laser) of unparalleled applicability to scientific research." His Albert Einstein Award (1993) reads similarly.

    In the end, I managed to persuade him. It meant he would have to interrupt work at one of his laboratories and drive to his office at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge) on a Saturday afternoon. Despite how involved he is in his research, somehow I knew he would keep his word and so I flew 2,500 miles across country from Los Angeles to meet him on April 13th.

    Typical of Eastern hospitality, he first offered tea that he had prepared in one of the corners of his stately office at MIT. In the opposite far corner of the room was the "granddaddy" of all gas lasers-the original invention built in 1960 which Javan fondly, and rather appropriately, refers to as "Adam." Smithsonian Institute has their eye on it for their Museum collection. He has promised to give it to them-"in the future." He claims it's still in perfect working condition. This simple-looking apparatus, about one meter in length and now encased in glass, is one of the most significant inventions impacting modern technology.

    During the course of conversation interview, we went down to his laboratory two floors below to a room filled with dozens of lasers. There he demonstrated a beautiful blue (argon) laser (like those on the cover of this magazine).

    Javan is an intense person whose appearance belies his age-68. And it's true, he's as busy now as he's ever been in his entire life. When you're with him, you feel conscious that he's right on the brink of a scientific breakthrough that will make a dramatic impact on future technological development. You sense an immense concentration of energy, determination and perseverance that is being directed toward solving new theoretical problems that can be put to use in everyday practical life. Javan breeds a confidence that convinces you that, indeed, he will succeed and that mankind will, in turn, deeply benefit.

    What follows is the essence of our conversation together.

What experiences and interests in childhood would you say shaped your life and career?

    I think my fascination for science originated in my genes. I was born with it. When I was five or six years old, I was attracted to sketches and numbers. I started thinking about mathematics from childhood. It seemed so natural to enter physics when I grew up. I had no hesitation at all.

    As a child, I remember playing with gadgets a lot. Once when I was about seven or eight years old, I tried to make a camera from a little box. Now when I look back at some of the things I was trying to do as a kid, I realize that many of them were impossible. Conceptually, they violated the laws of physics. But I tried anyway.

    Neither of my parents were involved in science. My father was a lawyer and wrote a number of books, some having to do with human rights. My mother was very artistic in spirit. I can't say that they either encouraged or discouraged me from getting involved with science. They simply didn't interfere with my interests.

    I attended marvelous schools in Tehran. I think the teachers must have recognized something in me. They provided me with a tremendous background in math and physics and pushed me to explore concepts far beyond what was offered in the curriculum.

When I came to the United States in 1949 after finishing high school, I started taking heavy graduate courses in physics and math at Columbia University (New York). I was able to get my Ph.D. in 1954 rather quickly because of my strong scientific background.

I studied art and music as well. I remember taking music classes at Columbia with Henry Cowell (1897-1965), quite a distinguished composer. Physics and music-you find the same spirit in both of them. That spirit is particularly evident when you listen to composers like Bach. His works are so deeply mathematical or, perhaps, you might say that mathematics is so deeply "Bachian". It's especially true when you listen to a Bach fugue or a Bach Mass in a minor key.


Javan in his MIT office with the original laser apparatus that he invented in 1960.

But I think I became who I am simply because no one interfered with the process. I think this spirit of creativity is in all of us. It just manifests itself in different directions.

    There's something immensely beautiful about physics even though it's very difficult. Take the atom-a single atom is absolutely gorgeous. Ask anybody in physics. It moves in waves. It's very dynamic. These days we can study a single atom, track it and measure it. In the early days when I went to school, it wasn't possible to see how the atom emits light and sends a blink. It's such fun! These are the things that really attract you as a physicist.

    Of course, hard work is part of it. The hard work is actually what makes it enjoyable and rewarding. Why do you work hard? Because there is something very beautiful at the end of the line that you're looking for. Why are my students doing what they do? To make money? Yeah, sure, it's science. We make good money. But there are other ways to make money, too. There's something much deeper to it. There's an aesthetic element. The whole thing is aesthetics.

How was your own childhood different from that of kids growing up today?

    I don't think there's really that much difference between them if we set aside the exposure that young people have these days to media and high tech. Sure, the environment is different, the exposure is different. Today they have TVs, computers and a lot of technical things that we didn't have then. But in terms of childhood being different, loving parents are the same in any age. When I was growing up, you could have been born into an environment that was terrible, just as you can today. I'm not at all pessimistic about the youth today. Oh no! I see what they're doing since I'm surrounded by them at the university. I can tell that our childhoods were essentially the same.

What advice would you give to young people as they enter the 21st century?

    We are born who we are. Environment can only influence us up to a certain point, but not all the way, that's for sure. If I wanted to give advice to young people, I would just say: "Follow your bliss and live creatively. Listen to your heart."

    All of us are involved in this process of creating. It doesn't have to be anything high-tech or some sort of gadget. What happens is, we create what, without us, would not be-would not exist. We all take part in nature's creative process. So my advice to young people as they seek out a career is to follow what attracts you, not what sounds attractive. Live creatively and you'll find that you can live comfortably and make good money. And if what attracts you is to make a lot of money, well then, go ahead and make a lot of money. That's fine. But living creatively is what will give you that "high" that makes it all worthwhile.

What would you say is your greatest achievement in life? What do you want to be remembered for most?

    That's really difficult to answer. A number of things come to mind. Of course, I'll be remembered for the gas laser (1960s). It's been so meaningful to be able to make atoms emit light in new ways, making them do things that they wouldn't do by themselves-creating things that wouldn't happen on their own. Some of these inventions will turn out to be very worthwhile and will impact industry and technology. Not everything that we do as creative spirits makes it to the stage where everybody can benefit, but when such an occasion occurs, it's immensely satisfying.

New Research - On the Verge of a Breakthrough
    What's on my mind these days? Right now, I'm doing the next thing beyond lasers. In science, a person like me always wants to move on to the next stage of his work-to do new things. I look back and see this as a common denominator in all my past activities. Whenever my creative work takes off as a field of research on its own, I always get this urge to move on to a new area where there's a chance to make a new impact.

    I'm now working in a new area that I call "Electronics at Optical Frequencies." Computers, for example, use microchips that operate at radio frequencies-MHz (Mega-Hertz) and GHz (Giga-Hertz). I'd like to take electronics out of radio frequency into the light wave frequency range. This would speed up information processing tremendously. The question up until now has always been, "How can it be done?" Simply, it requires another invention.

My new work has to do with manipulating matter in a way that has never been done before. The concept is still in the theoretical stage. It involves the use of matter at "nano-scale". In Physics, "nano" refers to something almost infinitesimal in size, that is-very, very small. This work will require "nano-fabrication" at state-of-the-art limits, the same technology used in manufacturing computer chips.

My new approach will enable optical properties of matter in "nano-scale" to participate in the conduction of current at light frequency in "nano-fabricated" circuits. It's an enormous step from where we are now. It has taken me a long, long time to arrive at this. It's the culmination of the last 20 years of my research in one of the segments of my work. I'm now in the process of bringing out a major publication and hoping to put the final touches on it sometime this summer.

More of this interview is available here .


Sketch depicting the principles of Dr. Ali Javan's Gas Laser. "Smithsonian" Magazine, April 1971.

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