L is for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

…Otherwise known as a laser.

Lasers are a staple of science fiction, and with good reason. Lasers are beams of directed energy; they have a finesse that a projectile weapon lacks.

Some science fiction authors seem not to understand what lasers can do, and why they can do it. The principles are fairly simple, though: Photons are emitted in a coherent stream. Those photons can be focused over vast distances, called spacial coherence. Lasers have been used for many years for industrial cutting, etching, surgery, grocery store scanners, cat toys, and measuring long distances. The Apollo moon missions left scientific equipment on the moon, including reflectors. Since then, university physics students have been using lasers to measure the distance to the moon by bouncing lasers off those reflectors. (So much for ‘lasers cannot do anything because they have no range’!)

The early lasers were solid-state ruby lasers, first developed in 1960. Interestingly, the maser (Microware Stimulated Emission of Radiation) came first. Masers link satellites and transmit intercontinental calls. Other types of lasers were developed from tube technology, similar to a florescent light tube. Many modern lasers are solid state Light Emitting Diodes, LEDs. Your TV controller is probably an infrared LED laser.

In the 1980s, the US military developed bomb-pumped grasers for Project Star Wars. This was a project to develop a missile defense system, which proceeded until banned by treaty. These lasers were powerful enough to reach hundreds of thousands of kilometers and still be focused enough to blast an enemy missile out of space. They were powered by an exploding nuclear bomb. The energy was channeled in a single direction and formed a coherent beam of gamma radiation. Hence GRASER, aka: Gamma Ray Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

Sounds a bit like science fiction, doesn’t it?

Another thing that ought to be mentioned, just because I’ve seen the term laser used extremely incorrectly a few times in works of fiction: There is no such thing as a “sound laser.” [tirade narrowly averted] By definition, a laser must be from somewhere along the electromagnetic spectrum. A laser can travel through vacuum; sound cannot. If you want to have sonic weapons in a science fiction story, that’s all well and good — they’re rather useful for some applications. But call them sonic weapons, or make up something that implies the same, and don’t call them lasers when they’re not.


About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to L

  1. Drew Llew says:

    I’m learning a lot from your A to Z posts. Thanks! I’m comingto appreciate teh science behind teh fiction – and the application of Picasso’s quote “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist”


  2. Following from Blogging AtoZ.
    I’m writing “Things My Husband Has Broken” A to Z at http://AMomsPointOfView.com
    Come by and check it out.


Don't hold back -- tell me what you really think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.