For many, Dr. Charlie Townes is a renowned scholar and for me, well, it is different.
A day after returning from the IYL2015 opening ceremony trip, I open my laptop to send an email to Charlie but I see another email that he has passed away! I am shocked, confused and upset. Thoughts are running through my head: “but we were supposed to meet soon; but I had gifts for him from UNESCO; I can’t imagine what Frances is going through now.” He was looking forward to become 100, and for some reason everyone, including me, believed he would. I cannot stop my tears. Last 4 years flashed in my memory; there are too many emotions and thoughts going on in my head for me to decipher at the moment.
I remember one cold October day at Lick Observatory. Kostas, the telescope operations manager at the time, and I were going through the potential locations for my instrument. Kostas pointed to a storage space called “Laser Pool” in the basement of the 3m Shane telescope coudé focus. It was used to develop instruments in old days. History has always been interesting for me, and so we went to check it out. It was dark, dirty filled with lots of boxes and old tools. We crawled in a midst of spider-webs, and turned on the dusty lights, only one working. All at once it was a passage into an unknown history and future. It was accessible with pool ladders and its walls were covered in dirty greasy pool tiles, something to do with the laser lunar experiment that once was there. There were some black felts covering one side of the area indicating someone had tried to make a dark room there and there was a mysterious milling table without the top sitting in middle of the space on a concrete floor. We decided to repurpose the storage for my instrument, and little that I knew at the time, my instrument in Laser Pool would become my entire world for the upcoming four years, and that I would cross my life path with the work of giants in the astronomical instrumentation.
The first time I heard Dr. Townes’ name, it was a couple of weeks since I had started working at the Laser Pool. I was adjusting the alignment of my optical elements when Steve Vogt stopped by, looked inside the basement, and said with curiosity “so someone is using this place?” Then he said “the last time I saw someone using this place, it was about 30 years ago by Charlie Townes’ group. I used to come here and see him working.” Based on the Lick observatory’s logbooks (1), Dr. Townes was the last observer using the Laser Pool with his instrument May-Oct 1981. Since then Laser Pool was used as storage until I cleaned it up and started using it in December 2010 for building Khayyam. My conversation with Steve about Charlie and his work at the Laser Pool completely changed my feeling about the Laser Pool as well as my level of responsibility for using the Laser Pool for my project. It made a huge difference to know that it was Charlie’s group that used the old black felts that I replaced: I was working and designing my instrument in the very same location as Charlie but three decades later!
Working at Lick Observatory gave me an incredible opportunity to learn about world famous scientists who have built instruments there. Among all Charlie Townes became a prominent figure in the development of my dissertation project long before we met in person. In every successful or frustrating event, hopeful moments and hopeless tears I would remember him and ask myself “What would have Charlie done if he was instead of me here?” … I must have asked that question more than million times. I would sit inside the Laser Pool, walk around and pretend to think like him, finding the right questions to ask, figuring out how to know what I do not know, and learning how to learn. I remember one of those nights I got the courage to send him a short email, basically saying “Hello! I am Sona and I’m working in your old lab!” He replied to me within two days and we met for the first time in person a week later in his UC Berkeley office lab with him, Frances, and Walt.
It was an amazing experience. He asked about my project and what I was doing at Lick, and I told him everything! All the stories about how I always dreamed of designing and building my own astronomical instrument and doing science with it. I very much enjoyed our conversation and the questions he asked about my instrument. It was amazing to see that he instantly noticed the difference between the SHS technique and the other interferometers, and then cut straight to the chase of its setup criteria and practical applications. I absolutely loved it! He started telling me some of his stories and the people he worked with at the Laser Pool. It was exciting to exchange similar stories from Lick and the Laser Pool from different decades! He told me how Ali Javan became his student and some of the projects on which they worked together. He told me his opinion about instrumentation project nowadays, and expressed his concerns about lack of young people getting their hands dirty in the field, “they lack vision,” he said about those who only build instruments on computers. I was ecstatic to see how happy he was to see me being engaged in all the aspects of instrumentation from mechanical and optical design to data reduction and scientific observation. When I told him “this is the first time we meet, but not the first time I speak to you”, he chuckled and said, “You’ll be just fine young lady.”
I was fortunate to see Charlie and Frances again and have more discussions later. We maintained the friendship and I kept them updated about the progress of my work. Last time I visited them, they invited me to their apartment and I handed him the draft of my dissertation. Charlie recalled the Laser Pool; there were few minutes of pause and silence when he was skimming through my draft. I was looking at him and thinking of all the memories that maybe passing through his mind from Lick, Laser Pool, his projects and his friends and colleagues. He kindly made few comments on my pictures and signed my cover page as a gift; the best graduation gift! I told them about the International Year of Light 2015, all the activities and the opening ceremony in UNESCO HQ in Paris in January and we talked about catching up afterwards.
Unfortunately, the news of Charlie passing away came exactly the day that I intended to write back to him to set a time to meet. I was back from the IYL2015 opening ceremony, and was so excited to tell them about the event and give them my gifts. It is hard to describe but simultaneously as I was reading the news of him passing away, my Pandora radio station played the music that reminded me of Charlie when I was working at Lick (Dietro Casa by Ludovico Eiaudi) as if the world also wanted to present an elegant ceremonial way to honor him and his part in my career.
Dr. Townes had an unforgettable and great role in my PhD process. From the very beginning, I felt his presence in the Laser Pool and in my project. His scientific work on the laser lunar experiment, microwave spectroscopy and the optical and infrared maser and laser devices had changed the pathway of science and technology, but just like other great achievers in the world his true contribution was in the life of all the people he touched who came after him.
My story about Charlie illustrates the inspiration he gave to students and scientists that have never met him, the tradition of people designing, building and operating their own instruments, and his accessibility and support to students like me even when he was not able to give any scientific assistance. Moreover, the role facilities like Lick played in his and others’ work. Although I have never worked with Charlie in the lab but for what he have achieved at Laser Pool, the same underground basement I spent nearly 4 years of my life he became one of my greatest mentors. Every time I was ready to give up, I asked myself “What would Charlie do?”, I reminded myself of the times he must have felt the same way in the Laser Pool, thinking he knew what to give up and what not to give up; retelling myself activity is not the same as achievement. My short time at Lick was truly challenging on professional and personal levels, and I cannot imagine what Charlie had gone through over years living and working on site and in the end being so successful. For that I learned from him that whenever I want to achieve something, I have to concentrate and make sure I know exactly what it is I want, and then work on the simplest set up version that gives me what I want. What I learned from Charlie did not come in great books; it came in the form of turning a dream into a vision and perseverance.
Charlie has always been present and will always remain present for me for rest of my career.
1- Private conversation with Kosats, Keith Baker, Tony Misch, Walt Fitelson, Ed Wishnow, Remington P.S. Stone.
Sona Hosseini fell in love with astronomy during her elementary school trip to NASA Houston center at first grade and since then Astronomy has been a center of her personal and school activities. For her PhD project at University of California Davis, she spent nearly 4 years at Lick Observatory, Mt. Hamilton to design and build her instrument, Khayyam, a Special Heterodyne Spectrometer to observe comets and extended astronomical targets at high resolution, wide field of view using small aperture telescopes.
Sona is serving in the UNESCO IYL2015 steering committee in the optics under 40 and entrepreneurship sub-committee. During her PhD program she has served as the student representative in AAS Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS), planetary sciences section in American Geophysical Union (AGU), and also in SPIE (the international society for optics and photonics) where she currently chairs the future leaders committee.