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Professor Emeritus Ali Javan, inventor of the first gas laser, dies at 89

Longtime MIT professor was a trailblazer in the fields of laser technology and quantum electronics.
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Ali Javan
Ali Javan

MIT Professor Emeritus Ali Javan, the institute's first Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics, who was a trailblazer in the fields of laser technology and quantum electronics, died of natural causes in Los Angeles on Sept. 12, at the age of 89. In 1960, while working at Bell Laboratories, Javan invented the world’s first gas laser. The technology would be applied to telecommunications, internet data transmission, holography, bar-code scanners, medical devices, and more.

Javan came to MIT as an associate professor of physics in 1961, and founded the nation’s first large-scale research center in laser technology. Javan also developed the first method for accurately measuring the speed of light and launched the field of high-resolution laser spectroscopy. 

“In the 1960s and 1970s, Professor Javan's laser group at MIT was a hotbed of innovation and advances in amazingly broad areas in laser physics,” said Irving P. Herman PhD '77, who studied with Javan and is currently the Edwin Howard Armstrong Professor of Applied Physics at Columbia University. “His group was key to understanding the fundamentals of the interactions of laser with matter, and in implementing them. He will be remembered by his many students and colleagues as a brilliant man, a pioneer, an inspiring man, and a kind and dear man.”

From Tehran to New York City

Ali Javan was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1926, and came to the United States in 1949, where he studied and worked at Columbia University with Nobel prize-winning physicist Charles H. Townes. Not having received either a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, Javan earned his PhD in physics at Columbia in 1954, with Townes serving as his thesis advisor.

While at Columbia, Javan also studied music, continuing a lifelong passion for the arts that he often connected to his groundbreaking scientific work. “Physics and music — you find the same spirit in both of them,” Javan once wrote. “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.”

Making history: The first gas laser

In 1958, Javan developed the working principle of the first gas discharge helium neon laser. In the following two years, he worked at Bell Laboratories to build it, along with colleague William Bennett.

“The first laser, the ruby laser by Ted Maiman, used optical pumping to create the population inversion necessary to achieve lasing,” Herman notes. “At the time this was difficult and not applicable to all systems. Javan was able to see how a population inversion can be created in a gas discharge by selective, resonant energy transfer. This was key to his invention of the first gas laser, the He-Ne laser, which was also the first continuous wave laser.”

Javan’s breakthrough came on Dec. 12, 1960, after a snowstorm had forced an early closure of the Murray, New Jersey-based Bell Labs. At 4:20 pm that day (Javan checked his watch), for the first time in history, a continuous laser light beam emanated from a gas laser apparatus. As Javan later described it, he “drove the design into its self-sustained oscillation mode. Emanating at its output, for this very first-time ever, a continuous-wave (CW), collimated light beam, at a color purity as it proved to the limits that the law of nature will permit.”

On Dec. 13, 1960, Javan and his Bell Labs colleagues used the laser light beam to place a telephone call, the first time in history that a laser beam had been used to transmit a telephone conversation.

Joining the MIT community

Javan was already an internationally-acclaimed scientist when he came to MIT in 1961. He would spend the next four decades working to drive advances in atomic, molecular, and optical physics. From 1978 to 1996, he was the first Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics, and was emeritus professor of physics from 1996 until his death.

Javan sought to be at the scientific forefront, making the next important advance. He once told an interviewer why he worked so tirelessly to answer difficult and diverse scientific questions: “There is something very beautiful at the end of the line that you're looking for. There's an aesthetic element.” Lila Javan, his daughter, says: “He always wanted to break new ground. For example, he was working very hard on nanotechnology at the end of his career.”

Javan was the recipient of numerous awards. In 1993, he was presented the Albert Einstein World Medal of Science in recognition for “his more than 30 years of research into the physics of lasers.” In 2006, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Javan’s original 1960 helium-neon laser device is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

A passionate, inspiring teacher

Javan was a passionate teacher who developed lifelong bonds with generations of students, not only sharing his passion for science but for music and the arts. He wanted students to be well-rounded individuals conversant in more than just physics. As Javan’s former student and colleague Said Nazemi PhD '81, who helped him found Laser Science, Inc., recalls, “I spent a lot of personal time with him and his family, and knew him not just as a great teacher but as someone with a big sense of humor who also loved classical music and gourmet cooking.”

Another of Javan’s associates was Ramachandra Dasari, the associate director of MIT’s George R. Harrison Spectrography Lab, who first came to MIT in 1966. Javan helped shape his entire career, says Dasari: “I became a new person in science because Javan taught me about lasers.” Dasari fondly remembers Javan’s enthusiastic, hands-on approach to pedagogy: “He used to come into the lab often and see what his students were doing with their experiments. He liked to prod and touch things, which made students so nervous, but he just couldn’t help himself.”

Javan helped Dasari gain the financial resources to bring his Indian family to the United States in the late 1960s. Dasari notes that he’d been working at MIT for $8 per day (paid by the U.S. Agency for International Development) when Javan helped him obtain a visiting scientist position at MIT that paid $8,000 per year.

Dasari recalls one memorable, late-night interaction with Javan. They were seeking to measure a laser’s frequency, something that hadn’t been done before, and they’d been working at the lab for about week. “I was doing the experiment, and finally it succeeded around midnight,” says Dasari, who noted that Javan was resting at home. “I thought to myself, well it’s midnight and I shouldn’t call him at home, but I called him anyway. Lo and behold, he came to the lab at 3 a.m. because he was so excited and wanted to see it for himself.”

Javan’s daughter Maia recalls, “He found MIT, and the community of students around him, to be the perfect place for him to grow and flourish. He loved teaching his postdocs, and treated them like part of our family. They’d often have dinner over our house, and then go back to work at the lab. Sharing food and laughter, and enjoying life, that was so important to him.”

A doting father

Javan’s two daughters, Maia and Lila, remember their father as someone with a wide-ranging passion for life, someone brimming with enthusiasms, including science, music, museums, the outdoors, fine food, and more. Javan loved to ride around Cambridge on his bicycle, his daughter Lila Javan recalls, often stopping to buy flowers or chocolate to bring back to his family. “He was a supportive, fun father who was also a great teacher,” she says. “He loved to bring us to his lab, to ‘turn the knobs’ as he liked to say, having us there among his students, and sharing in the fun.”

He could be “extraordinarily absent-minded” at times, explains Javan’s daughter Maia: “His mind was always engaged — he loved to think expansively. On many occasions, dad would drive the family car to work at MIT in the morning and then, lost in thought, walk home in the evening, which would take him about 45 minutes, forgetting that he’d left the car parked at work. So we’d remind him, and send him back to MIT on his bicycle to bring the car back home.”

Final days: Family, music, and physics

During his final days, Javan was surrounded by family and friends in Los Angeles, spending his time “very peacefully,” says daughter Lila. “He was listening to Mahler and Mozart, two of his favorite composers, and having family members read to him from physics journals,” she says.

Ali Javan is survived by his daughters Maia and Lila, his grandchildren Valerik and Riva Perelman, and the mother of his children, Marjorie Javan.

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