Hold the Phone! You Might Miss a Whale, or Even a Whale of a Bright Idea Like the Laser

Charles H. Townes, Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate, explains his invention the maser during a news conferenc
Charles H. Townes, Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate, explains his invention the maser during a news conference in New York City, Jan. 25, 1955. The maser, microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, uses directly the energy radiated by molecules of ammonia gas. (AP Photo)

A ton of fun is being poked online at the unnamed guy caught on camera sitting on a sailboat, fixated on the screen of his cellphone. What he's obviously missing, as the picture by photographer Eric Smith shows, is the sight of the breaching humpback whale right alongside the boat.

We may sneer at his inattention, but this image is really a teachable moment for us all, simply because we're all guilty of some form of cell-centric behavior.

Every time we choose to stare into our little screens or nervously fiddle with our phones, whether for a second or an hour, we risk missing whatever may be happening immediately around us -- like, say, the breach of a whale, or, more ominously, a car that unexpectedly stops right in front of ours. Using a phone while walking is proving to be problematic too, and not just because of missing spectacular scenery (think stairs, escalators, walls, motorists checking their cellphones).

The other side of this cellular coin is that we may also be missing out on what's going on in our very own heads -- or what would be going on if we weren't busy talking, texting, tweeting, emailing, gaming, Googling, scrolling through Facebook and watching cat videos. These phones we carry -- and check as often as we might scratch a pesky itch -- are about much more than making and receiving calls, although there's that too. Oh, wait just a sec; I've gotta take this call--

Sorry! That was my cat's agent calling about this awesome video gig! Just another sec; I should probably tweet that. (Don't worry! I'm not walking or driving.)

Anyway, the point is that these pocket-sized supercomputers we call smartphones and carry everywhere we go (admit it: You've texted while toileting!) can interfere with allowing our minds to simply wander. A variety of studies have made a case for unstructured mental downtime, and some tout the benefits of outright boredom, which is why it seemed oddly poignant that the image of that phone-fixated sailor began circulating around the same time as the obituaries for the esteemed physicist Charles Townes, who died Jan. 27, six months shy of his 100th birthday.

While never a household name on the order of Einstein, Charlie Townes was a major figure in 20th-century physics, a Nobel laureate credited with, among other things, laying the scientific foundation for the development of the laser, a device that's become an indispensable tool in settings from supermarket checkout counters to surgical suites.

Townes often told the story about how he came up with the idea for the predecessor of the laser, called the "maser," for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." ("Laser" stands for almost the same thing, only with an "l" for "light.") It occurred to me that if that picture of the whale-missing man is worth a thousand words, Townes' story is certainly worth a few too. Better yet, we should enshrine it in our multitasking, cell-centric culture. Call it a Townes timeout.

As Townes told me during an interview in the mid-1990s at his longtime UC Berkeley office, the story was simply this: He and his colleagues had been stymied in their maser quest until a possible solution crystalized in Townes' mind rather unexpectedly one day in 1951. He was in Washington, D.C., away from his 10th-floor lab at Columbia University, to chair a conference about such problems as how to create something like a maser, which could have a variety of useful applications. The affable scientist got up early in the morning, before the day's meeting, and effectively allowed his mind to wander as he himself wandered the short distance from his hotel over to Franklin Square. It was a fresh spring day, and Townes sat down on a park bench, taking time out to admire the blooming azaleas.

As he sat there, allowing his neurons to fire at will, he hit on a critical insight about how to produce an orderly, tightly focused beam of microwaves. That in itself would be a breakthrough, and if they could achieve this feat with microwaves, then they should be able to do it with higher-frequency light waves and produce the now-familiar laser beam.

So in many ways the laser was born on that park bench, which is why, especially after the whale picture surfaced, I couldn't help but wonder: What if Dr. Townes, instead of taking that timeout, had taken a phone call, or checked his email, or sent a text, or played Angry Birds? Might we be in the dark about the laser? Maybe or maybe not. And I realize that even if the rest of us take a Townes timeout to allow ourselves some cerebral downtime, we may be unlikely to have Nobel-worthy revelations. Nonetheless, as research and Townes' example suggest, the unpredictable sparks of our own mental machinations should be something we don't want to miss any more than the majestic sight of a passing whale.