APS News

Gala Laser Celebration Sparkles in the Snow

By Michael Lucibella

LaserFest Gala web
By Michael Lucibella/APS

Flag Hall of the Museum of American History was redecorated for the LaserFest celebration.

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LaserFest logoAPS and the Optical Society of America held a gala event at the Smithsonian Museum of American History to kick off the year’s physics outreach program LaserFest. Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu delivered the keynote address, highlighting the history of the laser, and laser innovations over time.

“Lasers are everywhere in society. Many times society doesn’t know how deeply embedded they are,” Chu said, “The first fifty years have been great, hopefully the next fifty years will be even better.” Chu won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for optically trapping and cooling atoms using lasers.

LaserFest is a yearlong series of events celebrating fifty years of laser innovations and applications. APS has joined with the OSA, SPIE, and IEEE Photonics to put together events throughout the year aimed at making the public aware of the importance of lasers in modern society and honoring the physicists and engineers who made it all possible.

For the kickoff event, the museum’s Flag Hall was transformed into a blue and white LaserFest extravaganza.  A giant LaserFest logo was projected onto the wall above the hall’s newly installed sculpture of Old Glory. At the center of the floor was a three-foot tall silver and red cake sculpture in the shape of Maiman’s original ruby laser.

cake web
By Ken Cole/APS

The LaserFest celebration featured a large birthday cake in the shape of Maiman's original laser. At some point, however, hunger overtook the crowd and the cake was sacrificed.

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To keep the celebration of lasers going, the Museum of American History will feature a display case on the first floor of the museum containing artifacts that trace the history of laser innovations and applications. The exhibit was developed to underscore the many different ways that lasers are used. In it, an old style laserdisc player and laserdisc copy of Disney’s “Fantasia” showed how lasers are an integral part of many consumer products. Next to them, a laser range finder used to direct guided missiles showed how lasers have been integrated into the country’s national defense. Historical artifacts include one of Theodore Maiman’s original lasers.

Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, said that in total there were over three hundred items in the museum’s laser collection.

Greeting guests in the downstairs hall off of the Constitution Avenue entrance stood a large timeline of the history of lasers, highlighting the physicists who made great contributions to the field.

Attendees braved a cold February night in Washington. Snow left over from the record-breaking storm the week before snarled traffic, slightly delaying the start of the event. Several invitees had to cancel because of lingering airport delays and adverse travel conditions. Even with the adverse conditions, nearly 300 people attended the event.

“It was terrific. Everyone came out in the elements and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary and had a fun time,” said Barbara Hutchison, the LaserFest project manager at OSA, adding also that the event was to “honor the contributions to the field, while looking towards the future and teaching the general public about the importance of science in everyday life, particularly lasers.”    

In total, five Nobel laureates attended the event. In addition to keynote speaker secretary Chu, Nicolaas Bloembergen, Roy J. Glauber, John Hall, and William Phillips were in attendance, all of whom either helped to develop lasers, or used them in their research. During his talk to the attendants, Secretary Chu pointed out that twelve Nobel Prizes in the last fifty years featured a laser in an important way.

“I thought despite change in scheduling thanks to the snow, it went very well,” said James Roche, the LaserFest coordinator at APS. “Everyone enjoyed the reception, Steven Chu is a fantastic speaker, and OSA did a great job organizing the entire thing.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos