Azerbaijan International

Winter 1999 (7.4)
Pages 26-27

Famous People: Then and Now
Ali Javan
Physicist (1928-)

Ali Javan
Ali Javan tested his "Gas Laser" invention on December 12, 1960. The following day, he conducted the first experiment of a telephone conversation ever to be transmitted by laser beam. Nearly 40 years later, laser telecommunication via fiber optics is commonplace, comprising the key technology used in today's Internet.

Javan is still intensely involved with inventions, concentrating on the use of matter at "nano-scale", specifically working on electronics at optical frequencies. He anticipates the day when microchips will operate on light wave frequencies GHz (Giga-Hertz) rather than the radio frequencies of MHz (Mega-Hertz).

Photo: Ali Javan, in his laser lab at MIT
(Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Photo: Blair, 1996.

Born in Tehran of Azerbaijani parentage, Javan came to the United States in 1949 where shortly afterwards he received his Ph.D. at Columbia University in New York City. He's been with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) since 1962.

What experiences and interests in childhood would you say shaped your life and career?

I think my fascination for science originated in my genes. I was born with it. When I was five or six years old, I was attracted to sketches and numbers. I started thinking about mathematics from childhood. It seemed so natural to enter physics when I grew up. I had no hesitation at all.

As a child, I remember playing with gadgets a lot. Once when I was about seven or eight years old, I tried to make a camera from a little box. Now when I look back at some of the things I was trying to do as a kid, I realize that many of them were impossible. Conceptually, they violated the laws of physics. But I tried anyway.

Neither of my parents were involved in science. My father was a lawyer and wrote a number of books, some having to do with human rights. My mother was very artistic in spirit. I can't say that they either encouraged or discouraged me from getting involved with science. They simply didn't interfere with my interests.

Ali Javan
I attended marvelous schools in Tehran. I think the teachers must have recognized something in me. They provided me with a tremendous background in math and physics and pushed me to explore concepts far beyond what was offered in the curriculum.

Photo: Javan in his MIT office with the original laser apparatus that he invented in 1960. Photo: Blair, 1996.

When I came to the United States in 1949 after finishing high school, I started taking heavy graduate courses in physics and math at Columbia University (New York). I was able to get my Ph.D. in 1954 rather quickly because of my strong scientific background.

I studied art and music as well. I remember taking music classes at Columbia with Henry Cowell (1897-1965), quite a distinguished composer. Physics and music-you find the same spirit in both of them. That spirit is particularly evident when you listen to composers like Bach. His works are so deeply mathematical or, perhaps, you might say that mathematics is so deeply "Bachian". It's especially true when you listen to a Bach fugue or a Bach Mass in a minor key.

But I think I became who I am simply because no one interfered with the process. I think this spirit of creativity is in all of us. 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. It moves in waves. It's very dynamic. These days we can study a single atom, track it and measure it. In the early days when I went to school, it wasn't possible to see how the atom emits light and sends a blink. It's such fun! These are the things that really attract you as a physicist.

Of course, hard work is part of it. The hard work is actually what makes it enjoyable and rewarding. Why do you work hard? Because there is something very beautiful at the end of the line that you're looking for. Why are my students doing what they do? To make money? Yeah, sure, it's science. We make good money. But there are other ways to make money, too. There's something much deeper to it. There's an aesthetic element. The whole thing is aesthetics.

How was your own childhood different from that of kids growing up today?

I don't think there's really that much difference between them if we set aside the exposure that young people have these days to media and high tech. Sure, the environment is different, the exposure is different. Today they have TVs, computers and a lot of technical things that we didn't have then. But in terms of childhood being different, loving parents are the same in any age. When I was growing up, you could have been born into an environment that was terrible, just as you can today. I'm not at all pessimistic about the youth today. Oh no! I see what they're doing since I'm surrounded by them at the university. I can tell that our childhoods were essentially the same.

What advice would you give to young people as they enter the 21st century?

We are born who we are. Environment can only influence us up to a certain point, but not all the way, that's for sure. If I wanted to give advice to young people, I would just say: "Follow your bliss and live creatively. Listen to your heart."

All of us are involved in this process of creating. It doesn't have to be anything high-tech or some sort of gadget. What happens is, we create what, without us, would not be-would not exist. We all take part in nature's creative process. So my advice to young people as they seek out a career is to follow what attracts you, not what sounds attractive. Live creatively and you'll find that you can live comfortably and make good money. And if what attracts you is to make a lot of money, well then, go ahead and make a lot of money. That's fine. But living creatively is what will give you that "high" that makes it all worthwhile.

What would you say is your greatest achievement in life? What do you want to be remembered for most?

That's really difficult to answer. A number of things come to mind. Of course, I'll be remembered for the gas laser (1960s). It's been so meaningful to be able to make atoms emit light in new ways, making them do things that they wouldn't do by themselves-creating things that wouldn't happen on their own. Some of these inventions will turn out to be very worthwhile and will impact industry and technology. Not everything that we do as creative spirits makes it to the stage where everybody can benefit, but when such an occasion occurs, it's immensely satisfying.

Ali Javan
was interviewed by telephone in his home at Cambridge, Massachusetts by Betty Blair. For more about Javan, see "Scientists Who Made a Difference: Ali Javan, The Gas Laser and Beyond" in AI 4.2, Summer 1996.

Azerbaijan International (7.4) Winter 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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