APS News


Shakespeare Would Have Blushed

Reading the haikus in the current APS News has reminded me of an amusing aspect of one of the limericks published in 1997. It dealt with the approach of a particle-antiparticle pair, upon which they both die in a blaze of glory. Perhaps not all of the readers of APS News realize that in earlier forms of the English language (e.g., that used by Shakespeare), the verb "die" was also a euphemism for experiencing sexual climax.

So-the limerick was richer than might have appeared.

Larry Slifkin
Chapel Hill, NC

Editor's Note: The verse in question was a finalist in the limerick contest that APS News ran in 1996/7. It was published in the March 1997 issue. For those whose recollection is not as good as Larry Slifkin's , it is reproduced below. Readers can find it, and most of the other limericks submitted to the contest, on the web

And Then There Were Photons
By William Rolnick

An electron, while trav'ling in space,
Met a positron there "face-to-face."
The electron then sighed,
At the sight of his bride
And they "died" in a loving embrace.

Arts/Science Collaboration Does the Job

I was intrigued last night in reading the article on the Back Page, APS News, 8 May, by Olson et al., "The Blood-Red Sky of the SCREAM."

The painting by Munch is indeed interesting and different. But it is nice when some physicists and an English prof get together and analyze the origin of a work of art. It is like a detective story, and they are undoubtedly correct in surmising that the event was caused by the Krakatoa explosion, but they had to do a lot of work to get there.


Jim Peterson
Palo Alto, CA

First Working Laser Due to Maiman

A. Laubereau's letter in the May issue about the first "working laser" reflects the limitations of relying entirely on formally published scientific papers. These problems are particularly evident in studying the origin of the laser. I have explored the problem in some detail in a book forthcoming from Oxford University Press (Beam: The Race to Make the Laser), but feel obliged to clarify the matter now.

Maiman's first laser used an imperfect ruby crystal which was the best he had available at the time. That was the basis of a manuscript he wrote and submitted to Physical Review Letters in June 1960, which the then-editor Samuel Goudsmit summarily rejected, either because he did not consider an "optical maser" distinct from a microwave maser or because he considered it serial publication with Maiman's earlier report of ruby fluorescence. Goudsmit refused to reconsider, so Maiman submitted a brief report to Nature, and announced his results at a July 7, 1960 press conference in New York. By that time, Journal of Applied Physics had accepted his full paper, but had a publication lag of six months.

In July Maiman obtained a better quality ruby crystal, which he used to obtain a beam of much better quality and threshold behavior on July 20. Those results are incorporated in the long Physical Review paper cited by Laubereau. Maiman does reference the Collins et al. paper cited by Laubereau, although that paper was written and published after Maiman began studying the better quality ruby. That inclusion may have been requested by the referees, since the Collins paper had already been published by the time Maiman submitted his.

Looking at the published papers alone does not give important points of context. The Collins et al. paper was the result of work stimulated by Maiman's press conference, although it cites the Nature paper. In fact, others also duplicated Maiman's laser, with Ron Martin's group at TRG Inc. probably the first to do so, although they never published. (They were working under a classified military contract.) According to Maiman's autobiography, he told Collins of his better laser before Collins submitted his paper. Maiman chose not to try to report his relatively incremental advance of threshold behavior in a separate paper; he had clear reason to doubt it would be published. (It is worth mention that Collins et al. took care to avoid the word "maser" in their paper.)

My research, including my own interviews and careful study of published papers, oral histories, recollections and other documents, has convinced me that Maiman deserves credit for the first working laser. The fact that it is not clear from the published record is an unfortunate consequence of the mistakes, misunderstandings, and misstatements that are inevitable when we first venture into a new realm in physics.

Jeff Hecht
Auburndale, MA

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette