We live in the future, my mom always says. Tiny smartphones, the internet everywhere, little speakers that talk to you, answer questions, etc. That’s all pretty cool, but, as my dad always asks, “Where’s my jetpack?”
My version of my dad’s joke is, “Where’s my laser gun?” Whenever I watch sci-fi movies from back in the day, the big thing they seem to think we’ll have (besides interstellar spaceships!) is lasers. Lasers on spaceships, lasers in guns, lasers that will cut James Bond in half (unless he escapes at the last minute, of course)–where are all these lasers? Is it really possible to use a laser in any of these ways, or is it just that lasers seemed cool to people in the 1970s?
Lasers did seem pretty cool to people in the 1970s–they still seem pretty cool to this day, if you ask us. But, as boring as it may seem, it’s fair to say that lasers are not suited to some of the tasks they’re given in the movies. Here’s the interesting truth, though: lasers are used quite often in the modern day, including in all sorts of ways that would have been impossible 50 years ago!
Let’s start by talking a bit about what a laser is. LASER is an acronym that stands for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Lasers concentrate light particles and line up light waves so that they peak at the same points–scientists call this being “in phase.” The result is a very concentrated form of light, which can be very powerful.
Pretty cool, right? It seems science-fiction-y to us. And since science fiction writers, comic book artists, and movie makers love to fill their stories with action, it stands to reason that lasers would soon be drafted to serve as laser swords and laser guns. Is any of this possible?
Sort of, but not often in the ways that the movies show. A real laser weapon wouldn’t fire “bolts” like the guns in Star Wars or Star Trek–light moves much too fast for us to see individual bolts flying through the air, of course, and there’s no reason to model laser beams after bullets that fire one at a time. And, of course, there’s no known way to make a beam stop at a given distance in order to create a lightsaber-type weapon. But there are military uses for lasers. While laser “guns” are not always practical (dust particles in air dissipate the strength of the laser), lasers can be used to aid with aiming and targeting, to disable missiles, and to take away visibility from enemy troops and technologies, experts say.
And it’s not just a military technology: lasers are used quite a bit in our modern world. Lasers can be tools, especially in the worlds of cosmetics and medicine. For instance, lasers can be used in tattoo removal: the light particles can break up the ink and render it less visible. Lasers can also remove hair. It’s not unusual for health spas and doctors’ offices to have lasers, say pros: buying a new or used cosmetic laser is a pricey proposition, for but businesses that serve many patients and customers, it’s one that can make a lot of sense. That’s not quite a chicken in every pot and a laser gun in every hand, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless.
So while lasers aren’t quite the things that you saw in Star Wars (did you expect them to be?), they are very much a part of our modern lives in cutting-edge ways. So don’t be too bummed: you’re still living in the future.
Oh, and by the way: that laser that almost cut James Bond in half? Though they made the laser beam more visible for the purposes of the film, that industrial laser was a real-life thing, even back in the 1960s. At least one of your film lasers was the real deal!
“Focus like a laser, not a flashlight.” Michael Jordan