Charles H. Townes

Banquet speech

Charles H. Townes’ speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1964

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen:

The wisdom of the Swedish people, the warm interest of Sweden’s Royal Family and the dedication of its Academies have made much more than a reality of Alfred Nobel’s magnificent concept. They have endowed the Nobel Prize with an aura which has inspired intellectual and creative work everywhere. They brought a special affection for Sweden and its ideals. And they have made this occasion to the highest point in the public part of any scientist’s career. I am, of course, deeply grateful to you and will treasure this connection with Sweden.

But there are also other things for which I am grateful, which may be a little less obvious on this occasion when a few individuals are singled out for high honour. There is some truth to the idea that in the fields of science individual contributions of great significance are possible. The development of science is basically a social phenomenon, dependent on hard work and mutual support of many scientists and on the societies in which they live. Scientists do, as we have heard, stand on the shoulders of giants from the past. And we who have been honoured here today have also depended heavily on the work of many others – our colleagues, some of whom are as worthy of being here as we are, some of whom have carried out fascinating and essential exploration of a slightly less spectacular nature, some of whom have done necessary work with devotion and courage on problems which today seem not to have been very fruitful. To all of these I am grateful.

The worldwide character of scientific community and much of this mutual support in science is well illustrated by the Laureates here tonight. No one can be an intimate part of a scientific effort without being appreciative of the exciting and cumulative effects of this broad cooperation and of the coherence – if I may use a term familiar in my own field: the masers – of the many individual contributions to science. Nor can any scientist be an intimate part of his world, without wondering if somehow other more difficult aspects of human affairs can experience more strongly these coherent and cumulative effects, if a larger portion of human efforts can be additive and mutually supporting. Our nature is of course more severely taxed in nonscientific fields, to clearly recognize overriding human goals and to work towards them with objectivity and sometimes at personal and national sacrifice when we no longer have hard experimental results to straighten us out, when we err a little too far. But the imposing edifice of science provides a challenging view of what can be achieved by the accumulation of many small efforts in a steady objective and dedicated search for truth.

Alfred Nobel really understood very well the necessary supra-natural character of the human enterprise. His representatives here, and Sweden as a nation, have carried out a noble and an extraordinary pursuit of this idea. For this we can all be grateful and we wish them well. There is, however, hard work ahead for all of us. And if we succeed in making appreciably more coherent our individual human effort, and in crossing a few thresholds, we have not attained so far, the results can be amazing. Thank you.

At the banquet, S. Friberg, Rector of the Caroline Institute, made the following remarks: Mr. Basov, Mr. Prochorov, Mr Townes. Your basic researches in the field of experimental physics, which led to the discovery of the maser and laser, not only laid an inspiring foundation for continuing research, but also opened up vast new macrocosmic and microcosmic horizons. Thanks to you we are justified in looking forward to progress in space research, nuclear physics, in telecommunication and transmission of power, in microbiology and medical therapy. Your discoveries, marked by keeness of thought and imaginative power, open a new and fascinating chapter in all natural sciences. To adapt Newton and Coleridge, I would say: “If we can see farther, it is because we stand on giant’s shoulders.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1964, Editor Göran Liljestrand, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1965

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1964

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