Thursday 29 January 2015

Laser-guided down memory lane

The man who made it real
The news of the death of Charles H. Townes at 99 yesterday had me travelling down memory lane about an interesting science lesson that came from some of my early days of activism.
Charles H. Townes according to Wikipedia is known for his work on the theory and application of the maser for which he got the fundamental patent and this was the precursor to the laser and for this and a greater body of work in quantum electronics, he shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with two others, taking a 50% share.
A short history of failure
Now, my story was a simply one. After completing my diploma in Electrical/Electronic Engineering at the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro, I was on the mandatory one-year Industrial Attachment programme at an Information Technology services outfit known as I. T. Systems.
I had always been involved in the Students’ Union movement from when I was at the Yaba College of Technology where I was the class representative in the Senate with the resulting academic exercise in futility. Smart, depressed and suffering too many things I never had any idea to get help for, I had nothing to speak of academically, two polytechnics and 4 years after secondary school.
It took a whole year to find my bearings again where an uncle, shielded me from scathing criticism and mentored me towards rebuilding my life again, this is how I eventually ended up at the Federal Polytechnic Ilaro with my uncle as my guardian, distant and removed from the influence of my restless parents.
Back in my mettle
This time, moving from being one of the youngest in class all through primary, secondary and two tertiary schools to being a grandee of sorts. I was elected the class monitor and I played my role fully as a representative of our class. We were the noisiest class by far and I fully represented my constituency in the cacophony we were so good at.
I graduated in the class of 1988 and soon we found we would not be able to return to Ilaro for the higher diploma until the school had fulfilled some additional accreditation criteria.
I drafted a letter to our Head of Department and Rector asking that they work harder that getting us back for the higher diploma. In my free time, I travelled round Lagos and environs collecting signatures of my classmates, I probably gathered about 30.
Technology back then
I had typed the letter on WordStar and printed it on our office Epson dot-matrix printer, saved to a 5.25” floppy disk, my friend Tope Agboba working for desktop publishing firm near the University of Lagos, took the letter and printed it out on their Hewlett Packard HP LaserJet 2 printer.
It was copies of these rather professionally looking letters that we took to Ilaro to present to our Rector and Head of Department (HoD). It was a matter of courtesy to first meet the HoD and he welcomed us heartily. We stated our purpose and presented our letter which he read intently.
Then he said, the quality of the print of the letter was so high, asked how it was produced? We told him, it was created with a laser printer.
A lesson I cannot forget
He then said, ‘Do you know what laser is?’ we said we did not.
He then told us that laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Simulation of Emissive Radiation, with that, the full implication of what a laser is and does became apparent. I never forgot that little conversation. We never really got what we wanted, but most of us were dispersed around polytechnics and universities continuing our education.
And life afterwards
I moved into desktop publishing consultancy where laser printers were in everyday use and eventually migrated to the United Kingdom fully ready for the market and then eventually embarking on a post-graduate programme, the wealth of my experience standing in for fulfilling all the prerequisites.
There are myriad applications of lasers, too many to mention because of work done by Charles H. Townes, the shoulders of the theorists which he stood and the applications that came from the pioneering work he did. Somewhere along the line, this impacted my life, in fact, I have owned a laser printer of sorts for almost 20 years.
There is no telling what a little funny idea in a head somewhere can do to change the world.

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