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Laser

In perhaps the most famous scene of any Bond film, secret agent 007 lies strapped to a table with his legs spread. Archvillain Auric Goldfinger directs an industrial laser toward Bond’s manhood, and slowly the thick red beam surgically cuts the table in half. The secret agent calmly convinces his foe to shut off the laser in the nick of time.

During World War II, South Carolina–born Charles Townes worked on nascent microwave technology and designed radar-based bombing systems for Bell Labs. After hostilities ended, he accepted a position at Columbia University. One spring morning in 1951 he experienced a eureka moment when he realized he could generate microwaves with molecules instead of free electrons.

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