Art Schawlow

Art Schawlow

By tradition, Nobel laureates present a token gift to the king of Sweden when they receive their prizes. What would the laser pioneer Arthur L. Schawlow give to the monarch in 1981? A silver tray? A laser-inscribed paperweight?

Hardly. The 60-year-old professor from California presented King Carl XVI Gustaf with a measuring stick—a “ruler for a ruler.” The gift epitomized Schawlow—fun, unassuming, creative and inspired. Even when Schawlow had reached the height of his distinguished career, he never lost his sense of playfulness.

Schawlow, who passed away on 28 April 1999—just before his 78th birthday—once described himself as “the most uncompetitive person you ever saw.” He worked best as part of a team, and his most famous collaborator was his own brother-in-law, Charles Townes.

I was fortunate to have experienced Art’s kindness and help in my work on cold fusion while I was living in Palo Alto. He was one of several Nobel laureates who lived or had offices walking, more often bicycling distance from my home and garage lab.

Edward Teller who was helping me with my work to understand cold fusion introduced me to Art with a recommendation that I might benefit from my quick study ability with some tutorials from Art. It was a good assumption and I enjoyed my time with Art, visiting him in his apartment near down town Palo Alto on a number of occasions. It was a nice bike ride from my home to his.

In these informal talks about the experiments in cold fusion I was doing in my garage lab I received much needed insights, coaching, and encouragement to keep at the work. Art was not a skeptic he was a man who looked for wonder in science and knew well that if one is not open to the unexpected, even heretical discovery one will never experience the wonder. He graciously reviewed my work and data and stood up for me on number of occasions as I presented my heretical findings to others in science. He was one of four Nobel laureates who I have counted as advisors and friends in this quest.