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Columbia Business Monthly

The Brilliance Behind the Beam

Aug 01, 2017 10:00AM ● By Emily Stevenson
Two days before the 2017 total solar eclipse gives the Midlands and its guests the natural thrill of two and a half minutes of darkness, a man-made electric switch will be flipped Aug.19 near EdVenture and the South Carolina State Museum (SCSM). 

Current pulsing through that signal will launch a signature laser light sculpture whose twin beams, reflected by strategically-placed mirrors, will transect an urban section of the Congaree River between the Gervais Street and the Blossom Street bridges. 

“There is nothing else in the United States like what we will have here,” said Chris Robinson.

Laser sculptor Robinson explained that the sculpture’s name, Southern Lights, is a play on Northern Lights, a natural visual spectacle seen near the North Pole. 

For several hours a night, beginning when dark descends over the inner city, stunning blue and green beams will be seen from distances determined by weather and ambient light. 

Robinson explained his colors choices for the light sculpture. 

“Light creates a visual structure. What viewers perceive as color is light reflecting off particles of dust or moisture at certain wave lengths. I chose green and blue because they are the specific wavelengths of the argon ion lasers being used. The eye is most sensitive to green, making the beam more apparent.” 

Robinson is the brilliance behind the beams. An art professor at USC for 42 years, he designed the laser light installation to be part of the Midlands’ public aesthetic. Southern Lights should prevail for nearly a decade. 

Connecting Midlands communities is a key goal for Southern Lights. The laser sculpture is also intended as a source of residents’ pride and a draw to visitors. 

“I have been working with lasers for 45 years and, for this installation, I wanted to draw attention to interesting aspects of the surrounding environment.” 

Robinson, an avid outdoorsman, conceived the sculpture as contemplative. He knows contemplation played a role in the invention of the laser.

South Carolina’s first Nobel Laureate (for his contributions to the invention of the laser), Dr. Charles H. Townes was in a contemplative state when the formula for the maser, the laser’s precursor, came to him.

The South Carolina native son was sitting on a bench in Franklin Park near the nation’s capital on an April morning,  in 1951, when the physicist’s ‘Eureka!’ moment arrived. 

Robinson, born the year of that ‘Eureka!’ moment, feels an affinity for Townes. Both he and Townes experienced first-hand that getting out into nature and switching gears can open up solutions to problems. 

The two first met when Robinson created a laser light show to celebrate SCSM’s first anniversary in 1988. 

“Townes had given a public lecture, and was speaking again later at the Capital City Club. He pulled out and began gesturing with what looked to be a box of stick matches.” Robinson said. In his talk, the holder of the laser patent eventually used the device as a laser pointer, for emphasis.

“He told us a German company created the match box laser as a gift to him. The demonstration was not only about the size of the laser, but also about solid state electronics versus ionized gases for lasers.” 

Townes returned to his home state again in 2002 to lend support to Windows to New Worlds, a development campaign that ultimately made possible the state-of-the-art planetarium, Boeing Observatory, and 4-D theater. 

Robinson’s long-standing high regard for Townes led to his designating Southern Lights as a celebration of his inventor friend’s life and work. Townes, who grew up on a Greenville farm, died in 2015, only months before he would have turned 100. 

Since Townes won the 1964 Nobel Prize, a least a dozen more laser-based inventions have received the prestigious award. Applications for lasers have been developed by industry, defense, medicine and communications.

Stakeholders in Southern Lights are: Blue Cross Blue Shield; What’s Next Midlands, an arm of EngenuitySC; the Congaree Vista Guild; the City of Columbia; One Columbia for Arts and History; the City of Cayce; and the City of West Columbia. 

Robinson’s launch of Southern Lights marks the conclusion of his teaching career at USC’s flagship campus. He is the new head of the art department at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.

Rachel Haynie is author of “Charles H. Townes: Beam Maker” and “First, You Explore: The Story of the Young Charles Townes.”