Geek Trivia: Shedding some (laser) light

Who wrote the first published use of the word laser?

This week, we start by dispelling a Geek Trivia myth: Albert Einstein did not win a Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity.

Yes, everyone's favorite patent clerk did win a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, but the award specifically cites his paper on the photoelectric effect—one of four papers that Einstein published during his "Year of Wonders" in 1905. The other three papers are on Brownian motion, special relativity, and energy and mass equivalence.

(Bonus trivia: Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity, which specifies the unique breakdown of Newtonian mechanics at velocities near the speed of light, does not contain the famous E=MC2 equation; this appears in the energy and mass equivalence paper. Relativity and E=MC2 are intimately related, but the terms aren't interchangeable.)

Although we Geeks are fans of both special and general relativity, let's not be so quick to dismiss the photoelectric effect, people. Besides introducing physicists to the concept of the photon—which Einstein refers to as energy quanta—his paper on the photoelectric effect lays the groundwork for the eventual development of the laser. Every time you rip some BitTorrent feeds to your DVD+RW burner or use the barcode scanner at the self-checkout line, you can thank Uncle Albert.

The term laser didn't exist when the first coherent beam of electromagnetic radiation was produced in accordance with the quantum principles Einstein describes in the photoelectric effect. The precursor to the laser is the maser, which used microwaves instead of visible spectra of light. Charles H. Townes built the first working maser at Columbia University in 1953. When Townes began working on a maser using visible light spectra in 1957, he referred to the proposed device as an optical maser.

In the same year, another Columbia University grad student began theoretical work on a visible-spectra maser, which he called a LASER (note the capitalization). This student's later published works brought the term laser into the public consciousness.


Which physicist effectively coined the term laser, bringing into the public consciousness a device and concept that was previously known in academic circles as an optical maser?

Every now and then, Geek Trivia tries to sneak one past you; the man who "coined" the term laser is also credited with inventing the laser: Gordon Gould.

In 1959, Gould wrote the paper, The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, which represents the first known publication of the term laser. It also lays out the principles that would allow Theodore H. Maiman to build the first working laser in 1960. Of course, Gould did have plans for the term LASER that didn't quite come to pass.

First of all, Gould spelled the term in all capital letters, considering it an acronym. Secondly, he intended for the first letter in the word to be interchangeable, shifting to reflect whatever EM band was amplified by stimulated emissions of radiation. For example: microwaves would make masers, visible light would make lasers, x-rays would make xasers, gamma rays would make grasers, ultraviolet light would make uvasers, infrared radiation would make irasers, etc.

The scientific community has largely abandoned the acronym etymology of laser, with the word appearing as an all-lowercase noun. Common vernacular is the exact opposite of the original laser phraseology, with xasers instead being known as x-ray lasers. Only masers, which predate lasers, escaped this etymological revisionism, though it's possible you still might hear someone use the term microwave laser.

Finally, laser produced a derived verb, lase, which means "To function as a laser; emit coherent radiation by the action of a laser" (according to It's doubtful even Gould could have seen that one coming, but such is the nature of enlightening Geek Trivia.

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Quibble of the week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from our assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the March 29 edition of Geek Trivia, "Ahead of its time (and space)." TechRepublic member Larry busted me for conflating two distinct astrophysical phenomena.

"You seemed to intermix the terms radiation pressure and solar wind. Note that solar wind and solar radiation are not the same thing. Solar wind is actually made up of high speed gas particles from the sun's corona and it travels, on average, at a mere 1,000,000 miles per hour (approximately 275 miles per second). Solar radiation consists of EM radiation particles such as photons and travels at 186,000 miles per second."

English major + advanced physics = plethora of quibbles. Thanks for keeping me humble, dear readers, and keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.