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Theodore Maiman, Inventor of the Laser

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Wikimedia Commons

In our Retrobituaries series, we highlight interesting people who are no longer with us. Today let's explore the life of Theodore Maiman, who died at 79 in 2007. 

Without Theodore Maiman, Captain Hammer might still be with Penny. Han Solo might have turned to hokey religions and ancient weapons, as he wouldn’t have had a blaster at his side. When things got tense, Captain Kirk wouldn’t have had anything to set on stun. Goldfinger would have been forced to find a faster way of slicing James Bond in half. Dr. Evil wouldn’t have had to find something else to strap onto sharks. And the letters “CHA” wouldn’t still be carved on the moon. The point is, when Theodore Maiman invented the laser, he gave us countless hours of great science fiction, and a way to read those little silver discs they’re printed on. At Retrobituaries, we look at the lives of the insufficiently celebrated. Here are a few reasons to celebrate the life of Theodore Maiman. 

1. He was a self-starter. (More on this in a moment.)

His father, Abe Maiman, was an electrical engineer and inventor, and kept a lab in his house. There, the young Theodore tinkered with projects and came to understand how electrical devices work. At 12, Theodore got a job as a repairman at a local appliance store. After high school, he did a stint in the Navy, where he worked with communications and radar equipment. He would eventually enroll in the University of Colorado, studying engineering physics, and earned his graduate degrees at Stanford. (His Master of Science was in electrical engineering; his doctorate was in physics.) 

2. He was the Steve Jobs of the maser world.

I know that some of you are salivating to point out that my inclusion of phasers in the opening paragraph is an error, because on Star Trek, the weapon is not a laser, but rather a photon maser. “But wait,” I reply, “You are discounting the contributions of Dr. Maiman to the maser world as well!” In 1956, he found a job at Hughes Atomic Physics Department, where he directed the ruby maser project. There, he took a good look at the 5000-pound maser and thought he could improve it. A lesser scientist would have settled for a 500-pound maser. Some might have called 50 pounds a good day’s work. But Theodore Maiman not only improved the maser’s performance, but reduced it to a mere 25 pounds. “I was not obsessed with practicality,” he wrote. “I was obsessed with simplicity.” By the time he left the project, he had the maser down to a svelte five pounds.

(If you want to quibble over whether a blaster from Star Wars is a laser, here’s a good point of reference.) 

3. Impossible was his starting point.

Over at Westinghouse Research Laboratories, physicist Irwin Wieder’s laser project was attempting to use ruby crystals to produce a laser, but found little success. According to their experiments and calculations, it just wasn’t possible to pump sufficient energy into rubies that they might emit light. Over at Hughes Laboratories, Maiman disagreed. His calculations said just the opposite, and he was going to prove it.

As he wrote in his autobiography, “It was time to confirm or deny all the fears of why the ‘ruby can't work’; Or, why ‘lasers can't be made to work.’ No more new calculations, no more diversionary experiments. This was the moment of truth!” He and a lab associate started the experiment, performing initial runs and increasing energy input while recording light output. “When we got past 950 volts on the power supply, everything changed! The output trace started to shoot up in peak intensity and the initial decay time rapidly decreased. Voila. This was it! The laser was born!”

The laser’s birthday is May 16, 1960. 

4. Maiman’s experience with editors is not unlike my own. (Excluding my editors at mental_floss, of course.)

Inventing the laser was a pretty big deal with enormous consequences, and like a good scientist, Dr. Maiman submitted his findings to Physical Review Letters, a respected scientific journal. “Within just two days,” Maiman later wrote, the journal’s editor sent him “a curt reply of rejection.” In short, the editor called Maiman’s unprecedented findings old news. Maiman, undaunted, submitted his findings to the highly regarded and incredibly selective Nature, which went on to publish Maiman’s report. Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize laureate for his work on masers and lasers, called Maiman’s submission “the most important per word of any of the wonderful papers” in Nature’s century of publishing.

5. He really wanted to be a comedian.

Tinkering in his dad’s shop was nice and all, but it wasn’t Theodore Maiman’s original calling. As a young man, his plan when he grew up was to be a comedian. It makes you wonder what George Carlin would have invented if he’d given up on comedy. 

6. He had a Bill O’Reilly Moment.

Early on, the word from other laboratories was that attempting to build a laser was a fool’s errand. Such reports made the pointy-headed bosses at Hughes nervous. When Maiman first approached them with the idea of building a laser, he met resistance. By “resistance,” I mean they told him no. Maiman had a Bill O’Reilly freakout, and said that if they weren’t going to support his laser project, he’d quit and build the thing in his garage. 

7. He knew how to stretch a buck.

While other laboratories spent millions of dollars to build the first laser, at Hughes Laboratories, Maiman did the job with a mere $50,000.

8. Voila! A laser. Now what?

After Maiman invented the laser, Hughes Laboratories lost interest. What possible use could there be for a laser, anyway? Maiman himself called lasers “a solution seeking a problem," but grew frustrated at the shortsightedness of Hughes’s management. Eventually, he quit and formed Korad Corporation. Later, he founded Maiman Associates. His companies were devoted to the development, refinement, and application of laser technologies.

9. He died from systemic mastocytosis.

The extent of my medical training is having seen every episode of House, but I’ll give defining systemic mastocytosis a go. Basically, you’ve got systems of cells in your body that support and surround organs and “organized” tissues. These cells are called mast cells. If you’ve got bones or blood, for example, you’ve got mast cells. Systemic mastocytosis is when the body goes haywire and produces an excess of mast cells, which, when triggered, overwhelm the body. The result, depending on the severity of the disease, varies from flushed skin to severe organ damage. Dr. Maiman suffered from the bad kind, and died in 2007.

10. The world’s first laser is in Vancouver.

The laser Dr. Maiman invented is still around. After his death, the Maiman estate took steps to safeguard it. At last report, it was placed in a safe deposit box at a bank in Vancouver, Canada. It’s in a white box wrapped in bubble wrap and Styrofoam, and written on the outside in red marker are the words: “Maiman’s laser.”

Previously on Retrobituaries: Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth's Chris Steak House. See all retrobituaries here

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Edward Curtis, Library of Congress
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Retrobituaries
Retrobituaries: Buffalo Calf Road Woman, Custer's Final Foe
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Three Cheyenne warriors on horseback.
Edward Curtis, Library of Congress

For the Native Americans of the Northern Plains, the Battle of Little Bighorn was a glorious victory against U.S. government forces intent on claiming their land. Fought on June 25, 1876, in Montana Territory, the battle saw Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors quickly overwhelm and kill some 260 U.S. troops. George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War hero sent to remove the Native Americans to their reservations, was among them.

Though the exact circumstances surrounding Custer’s death have long been the subject of debate, a new and intriguing account of his final moments surfaced in June 2005 when members of the Northern Cheyenne broke more than a century of silence to recount their tribe’s oral history of the battle. According to their account, it was a female fighter named Buffalo Calf Road Woman (alternately called Buffalo Calf Trail Woman) who knocked Custer off his horse that day, leaving him vulnerable, and who may have killed him.

Frank Rowland, a Cheyenne elder, told the Montana-based Independent Record, “The chiefs said to keep a vow of silence for 100 summers. One-hundred summers have now passed and we’re breaking our silence.” (In fact, almost 130 summers had passed by 2005.) The Northern Cheyenne said they had never publicly issued their account of the battle before because they feared retribution from the U.S. government.

The 2005 account wasn't the first mention of Buffalo Calf Road Woman at Little Bighorn, however. Thomas B. Marquis’s posthumous 1967 book Custer on the Little Bighorn includes the account of a female eyewitness who says: “Most of the women looking at the battle stayed out of reach of the bullets, as I did. But there was one who went in close at times. Her name was Calf [Road] Woman …[she] had a six-shooter, with bullets and powder, and she fired many shots at the soldiers. She was the only woman there who had a gun.”

Other details of Buffalo Calf Road Woman's life are scant. Most likely born in the 1850s, she was married to a warrior, Black Coyote, with whom she had two children. In the 1953 book Cheyenne Autumn, the Western historian and novelist Mari Sandoz describes her at the 1878 Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork in Kansas as both a mother and a warrior—“a gun in her hands, ready, the baby tied securely to her back.”

Her battlefield courage first cemented its place in tribal history about a week before Custer's Last Stand, at the June 17, 1876 Battle of the Rosebud, where the Cheyenne and Lakota tribes fought against the U.S. Army. There, Buffalo Calf Road Woman saved her brother—whose horse had been struck down—by charging on horseback into a melee of gunfire to rescue him. After that, the Cheyenne referred to the Battle of the Rosebud as the “Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.”

Wallace Bearchum, Director of Tribal Services for the Northern Cheyenne, tells Mental Floss that her warrior exploits then surfaced at the Battle of Little Bighorn, where she fought “out in the open” instead of taking any cover, and where “she stayed on her horse the entire time.” Bearchum adds that although Buffalo Calf Road Woman was an “excellent markswoman,” she used a club-like object, not a gun, to knock Custer off his horse. It's not clear exactly what happened after that, but Bearchum says that Buffalo Calf Road Woman and other Cheyenne and Sioux women “finished off Custer and the other Calvary soldiers right after the battle was over," going "from soldier to soldier to finish them off or take things from them … remembering relatives killed by [U.S.] soldiers in previous attacks.”

"When [Custer] fell," Rowland explained to the Record in 2005, "he wasn't touched by the warriors because he was unclean. He was bad medicine." A scouting party found Custer's nude body two days later with two potentially fatal bullet holes, although we may never know for sure who caused them, or exactly which wound led him to lose his life.

A 1903 painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn
"The Custer fight," C.M. Russell, 1903 // Library of Congress

No matter how brave she was, Buffalo Calf Road Woman was fighting a losing battle against the federal government. Doggedly pursued by U.S. troops, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, her warrior husband Black Coyote, and the other Cheyenne in their group had been on the run and were reaching the point of starvation. They were eventually relocated in the summer of 1877 to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

Finding themselves homesick and miserable in their new territory, however, they soon joined the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, which took place from the fall of 1878 to the spring of 1879, during which some 300 members of the tribe sought to return to their homeland in the northern part of the U.S.

Unfortunately, during the exodus, Black Coyote's personality changed: He became unhinged, flying into fits of hostility and brandishing a gun against his own people. He also stole horses that were property of the U.S. Army. When then confronted by a tribal elder, Black Coyote fatally shot him.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman’s husband was also a danger to outsiders. On April 5, 1879, a party he led ambushed two U.S. soldiers who were repairing a telegraph line in Montana Territory, killing one of them. When U.S. forces tracked down the party, Black Coyote had some of the slain soldier’s possessions on his person. He and two cohorts were arrested and in short order tried, convicted, and sentenced to be executed by hanging.

While this was going on, Buffalo Calf Road Woman’s own situation began to deteriorate. She had caught the “white man’s coughing disease,” also known as diphtheria, and died at some point in May 1879. Bearchum says he doesn't know the exact location of her burial, but explains that back then, the Cheyenne custom was to bury the dead immediately in the nearby hills. He thinks Buffalo Calf Road Woman was buried in the hills near what is now Miles City, Montana.

Although there is no monument to her, and Bearchum says “funding is needed” for further commemorations, she has been the subject of at least one prize-winning novel, by Rosemary and Joseph Agonito: Buffalo Calf Road Woman: The Story of a Warrior of the Little Bighorn.

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Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library
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Karen Wetterhahn, the Chemist Whose Poisoning Death Changed Safety Standards
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Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library

Karen Wetterhahn was pipetting a small amount of dimethylmercury under a fume hood in her lab at Dartmouth College when she accidentally spilled a drop or two of the colorless liquid on her latex glove. The chemistry professor and toxic metals expert immediately followed safety protocol, washing her hands and cleaning her tools, but the damage was already done, even though she didn't know it. It was August 14, 1996. By June of the next year, the mother of two was dead.

Scientists would later learn that Wetterhahn’s latex gloves offered no protection from the dimethylmercury, an especially dangerous organic mercury compound. Although a few other people had died from dimethylmercury poisoning before, including English lab workers in 1865 and a Czech chemist in 1972, no one understood how dangerous the substance really was. Wetterhahn’s death would change that, and usher in new safety standards for one of the most toxic substances known to humans.

A photograph of two disposable latex gloves
iStock

Born in 1948 in Plattsburgh, upstate New York, Wetterhahn loved science. After graduating from St. Lawrence University in 1970, she earned her doctorate at Columbia University, then spent a year working at Columbia’s Institute of Cancer Research for the National Institutes of Health before joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1976.

As Dartmouth’s first female chemistry professor, Wetterhahn mentored students and co-founded the college’s Women in Science Project, which encourages female undergraduates in science majors. She served as an academic dean, and in 1995, with a $7 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, started Dartmouth’s Toxic Metals Research Program to investigate the effects of common metal contaminants on human health.

Wetterhahn also made a name for herself outside Dartmouth, especially through her investigations into how our cells metabolize chromium and how the metal can cause cancer. She served as an officer of the American Association for Cancer Research, and wrote over 80 research papers for scientific journals. While she wasn’t working, the professor spent time with her husband Leon, their son Ashley, and daughter Charlotte.

In November 1996, Wetterhahn began vomiting and feeling nauseous. Over the next couple of months, her condition worsened; her speech was slurred, she had trouble seeing and hearing, and she was regularly falling down.

At first, doctors in the emergency room didn’t know what was wrong. After a series of spinal taps and CT scans, doctors told Wetterhahn her symptoms were consistent with mercury poisoning. One of them asked her husband if she had any enemies who might have poisoned her; Wetterhahn told them about the dimethylmercury spill in her office. She was diagnosed with mercury poisoning in late January 1997 and soon after began chelation therapy, ingesting medication that would bind to the toxic chemical and help it pass through her body.

In the late 1990s, although scientists knew about the dangers of mercury and some of its compounds, the danger of dimethylmercury was little understood. The compound was employed exclusively for research: Scientists used it as a reference standard for nuclear magnetic resonance (NRM) spectroscopy, a process that allows scientists to study the effects of toxins in human cells. As a liquid, dimethylmercury made an ideal reference standard, because scientists could use it in its pure form without diluting it in a solution and potentially altering its properties. When she spilled the drop of dimethylmercury on her glove, Wetterhahn was measuring its NRM so she could get a baseline to study the effects of other toxic metal compounds.

While Wetterhahn was fighting for her life, her colleagues at Dartmouth (as well as scientists around the world) read scientific papers about mercury, hoping to discover a way to help her. They also tested her hair, clothing, car, students, family, and hospital room to make sure that no one else had been exposed to dimethylmercury.

Sadly, the level of mercury in Wetterhahn’s blood was too high—800 times the normal level—for doctors to save her. She went into a coma in February, and died on June 8, 1997.

According to Dr. David Nierenberg, a member of the toxicology team that treated Wetterhahn, one of her last wishes was for scientists and physicians to investigate dimethylmercury so that other researchers wouldn’t be sickened as she had been.

“She really, really cared that the message get out to other scientists and doctors that poisoning with mercury is possible and we need to do everything possible to prevent it,” he told The New York Times.

A vial of liquid in front of scientific papers
iStock

Wetterhahn did not die in vain. Her death changed the kinds of precautions scientists at Dartmouth and around the world take when working with toxic substances.

Shortly before she died, her colleagues initiated research that showed dimethylmercury races through latex gloves almost instantly [PDF]. They then published an article [PDF] warning scientists about her fate and urging them to wear two pairs of gloves, including heavier laminate gloves, when working with toxic chemicals.

That same year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Dartmouth for failing to adequately train staff on the limits of disposable gloves, and published a bulletin about Wetterhahn’s death, instructing scientists about the precautions they should take in the lab—wearing impervious gloves and a face shield, immediately reporting spills, getting periodic blood and urine testing when regularly working with dimethylmercury, and substituting less-hazardous substances when possible. All of this has made scientists more cautious when it comes to using simple latex gloves around toxic materials.

Her death also raised the alarm about the long time frame that can elapse between exposure and manifestations of mercury poisoning—Wetterhahn had largely forgotten the incident by the time her symptoms began to occur. Conventional toxicological wisdom had assumed that large doses of mercury would produce poisoning symptoms sooner than small doses, but Wetterhahn's death proved otherwise. In 2002, her case was one of three reviewed in an article in Environmental Health Perspectives [PDF], which noted that “low-level exposures are more likely than high-level exposures to show evidence of adverse effects or, at least, to show them more rapidly.” In other words, the stealth of high-dose mercury poisonings makes them even more dangerous.

But stepped-up safety standards aren’t the only way Wetterhahn has been remembered. Dartmouth has honored her legacy by naming chemistry fellowships, faculty awards, and an annual science symposium after her. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences also established the Karen Wetterhahn Memorial Award, for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who demonstrate “the qualities of scientific excellence exhibited by Dr. Wetterhahn.”

"The accident was a wake‐up call," Ed Dudek, a post‐doctoral fellow working in Wetterhahn’s chromium group, told Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. "We’re now extremely aware of everything we’re doing.”

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