Jan
28
2013

Reach for the lasers

Lasers! The future condensed into a single beam of penetrating light. What did I know about lasers? Next to nothing. What do I know now? A little bit more, including the surprising fact that laser is an acronym.

Someone asked me to write about lasers. Ahem. You could easily write everything I knew about lasers on the back of a fag packet. A small fag packet. In fact, even if you wrote in unusually large letters and left generous spacing between words there would still be room to draw a few doodles around the edges.

You see, science writing is far, far from my métier. I had to study separate sciences all the way to GCSE and gleefully jettisoned in favour of the soft, fluffy and human disciplines of history, English, geography and politics. But a request is a request, and, in this case, the requestor is unusually charming.

So it came as a pleasant surprise to be given an immediate etymological gift. Laser, it turns out, is an acronym. An acronym so lost in time that most people don’t even realise it stands for anything. The Oxford English Dictionary confidently states its debut in written English as 1960, and says it stands for ‘light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation’.

Intriguingly, the OED goes on to say this developed from an earlier 1955 discovery, the maser, or microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. You don’t hear of many masers these days, but watch this space – British scientists made significant discoveries last year that may open the door for masers to be used in communications, space exploration and medicine.

Back to the laser. It is widely used in the modern world, including day to day products such as CD and DVD players, laser printers, speed cameras and, of course, in euphorically colourful displays at raves around the world. But look more closely and you’ll find lasers everywhere.

Self scan yourself silly with a barcode detecting laser, laser yourself beautiful with treatments for hair removal, acne and cellulite. Read this blog more clearly after having your slightly defective eyes lasered to perfection. Give a sublimely professional presentation by highlighting key points with a laser pointer (actually, don’t do this – it is indefensibly naff).

Increase the power and take the laser away from the everyday uses and you have a whole range of specialist applications. Surgical lasers allow precision, bloodless microsurgery and a painless treatment for kidney stones. Watch in awe as industrial lasers slice through metals cleanly and with micrometre precision.

Finally, duck and cover as the inevitable military applications are demonstrated: laser guided missiles, precision bombing, target marking, gun sights and missile defence. Missile defence? Oh, yeah – the Strategic Defense Imitative (SDI), nicknamed Star Wars. Actually, scrap that – just like the US did in 1993.

So, lasers are pretty useful. But what are they? Pretty beams of light? A laser is a device that emits electromagnetic radiation through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of photons. Got that?

Let’s break it down. Lasers can be understood as a special form of light. So special, in fact, that they can’t exist in nature; lasers can only be created by human technology. Lasers are a single colour, or wavelength, with a coherent wave pattern. Whilst ‘ordinary’ light will spread out in all directions, laser light travels in the same direction, exactly parallel to each other and producing the distinctive laser beam.

So, plenty to read up on if you are still interested in lasers. I’ll leave you with some of my favourite fun facts about lasers:

  • the full potential of lasers was not always appreciated. When first reported in 1960, lasers were described as being “a solution looking for a problem”.
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1 Comment »

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