Theodore H. Maiman couldn't possibly have guessed how the ruby laser that he and his coworkers first demonstrated 50 years ago at Hughes Research Laboratories would influence the world of chemistry research. But the effect was colossal.
"Modern physical chemistry simply wouldn't exist as we know it without lasers," insists Daniel M. Neumark, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. These coherent light generators have been used so broadly to uncover the fundamentals of chemistry, as well as chemical aspects of biology, physics, and materials science, that a few pages in C&EN are hardly sufficient to illustrate their impact. The handful of topics and research projects discussed in this special feature—from atmospheric probes to femtochemistry to cellular imaging—are merely illustrative examples. They were selected to suggest the depth of the laser's impact on our growing understanding of the chemical sciences over the past five decades.
The advances in laser technology during that period have been profound. It used to be that "you'd go around aligning the laser from morning till night, and then, most of the time, experiments didn't work," says X. Sunney Xie, a chemistry professor at Harvard University. These days, highly stable, one-box turnkey systems are common.
The golden jubilee of the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) is being celebrated throughout the year by special symposia and conferences, many of which are listed at laserfest.org. Event attendees will no doubt be inspired to wonder what the next 50 years will bring. Laser aficionados may choose to weigh in on that question, but it probably won't be settled for years. For now, here's wishing a workhorse tool in modern chemistry research a very happy anniversary.