9 Badass Lasers That Prove the Death Star Isn't Far Off

The purpose of science is to shine a light in the darkness, and lasers do it hard enough to set the darkness on fire.

Metaveld via Wikimedia Commons.
Enlightenment is awesome.

Lasers embody how technology allows everyone to benefit from the smart people. They've taken quantum mechanics, the single most mind-boggling science in existence, and put it to work in our supermarket checkouts. If you want to build supercomputers, set up a global communications network, trigger thermonuclear fusion, melt steel and weld flesh, lasers have you covered. They're like the Swiss Army Knife for people planning to attack the Justice League. Science has been kicking fiction's ass for several decades now, and lasers are how they pulled it off.

#9. Targeting Artificial Lightning

Lightning used to be so scary that people prayed to it, but when the modern world couldn't make up its mind whether to copy or steal it, we decided "Both!" Laser-triggered lightning (LTL), which we still can't believe isn't a D&D spell, is a technology that allows scientists to steer thunderbolts by laser-blasting the sky. Understand: When faced with towering thunderheads of heavenly power, the scientists' gut reaction is to pull a Han Solo and shoot first.

LucasArts, 20th Century Fox
This image is now required by law when using that phrase.

Scientists from Osaka University were triggering bolts with a crude CO2 laser system back in 1998, though it only worked well enough to be awesome, not practical. But laser science is the fastest-moving science in the last half century, and modern femtosecond pulse lasers have allowed them to control and direct lightning in the laboratory. Yes, the fact that scientists can make lightning in the laboratory is the incidental context in this death-metal apocalypse of a news story.

AIP Advances 2, 012151 (2012); doi: 10.1063/1.3690961
"You'll notice in c) that lasers can make even lightning straighten up and fly right. So, Senator, let's talk about funding."

French scientists have found a way to laser-designate Zeus's wrath. Lightning strikes occur when the potential difference between sky and Earth builds up enough to ionize the air, and ionizing air is what lasers do. So by lasering the air, the scientists create a path of least resistance for the lightning -- a priority lane for Thor. In tests, the system was able to steer lightning strikes away from otherwise guaranteed victims of Skyblasting and even redirect bolts that had already started to form. These laser lightning rods produce positive charge streamers -- the pre-lightning paths that both sound and destroy like Ghostbuster proton packs, 10 times faster than nature.

This system is intended to protect buildings more effectively than metal lightning rods. The ability to weaponize the gods the next time the sky darkens is presumably an incidental bonus.

#8. Human Laser Systems

Science fiction gives scientists a bad rap. Never mind how Marvel scientist can't go a week without exposing teenagers to mutagenic radiation; the real insult is that a clumsy victim of radiation exposure takes 30 seconds to discover some amazing side effect the scientists didn't. If there were real scientists in comics universes, their latest findings would be delivered by people twice as fast as the flash while their windows were washed by Spider-man. But in the real world, we only have living human laser components.

Nature Photonics 5, 406–410 (2011) doi:10.1038/nphoton.2011.99
Wait, "only"?

Scientists, presumably sick of having to stop working to go to the bathroom, genetically engineered human kidney cells with green fluorescent protein (GFP) to act as a laser gain medium. You only need a few external parts, which the scientists added, and you have living kidney cells emitting a directed laser beam. Which is weird because we were always told the X-Men were accidental.

20th Century Fox, Marvel
Now you know where Cyclops comes from, and why he's always pissing people off.

Professors Yun and Gather reported these results from Harvard Medical School, presumably in order to maintain the secret location of their subvolcanic secret base. The cells used are known as "immortal cell lines" because they don't die like most cells removed from humans. Because if there's anything we want to gift with laser power, it's something that is immortal, has only ever experienced human waste and was once a man.

#7. Bacteria

"No, wait, there is something else non-supervillains would want to give lasers even less than that!" That's what Yun and Gather said later the same year, when they gifted Escherichia coli with the same inhuman powers. The bacteria maintain their GFP during replication, meaning you can grow a biolaser gain colony. These colonies can work to lase together and can also heal themselves. Synthetic gain media degrade over time, but the living cells could grow more GFP to replace their losses. So basically, as soon as Doc Terror hears about this, the human race is doomed.

DC Comics, Centurions #4
He's just upset he can only have one laser kidney.

The emitted laser light contains information about the amplifying cell, and not just information like "It's a mutant and hates you." The cell is also undamaged by lasing. In fact, being able to fire energy blasts means they're probably better than they've ever been. The team is now investigating ways to include the rest of the components biologically, using bioluminescence as a pumping power source and thinking very hard about living mirrors. The long term aim is to use biolaser cells as an ultrafast man-machine interface, and to finally kill Captain America.

#6. The Most Powerful Laser Blast Ever

As well as having the most Cobra Commander of all possible names, the National Ignition Facility is the embodiment of human scientific awesomeness. We looked at the sun, the source of almost all life and energy on Earth, and decided "We could do that!" The sun is a gravity-powered fusion reactor with hydrogen compressed by 2 megazettatons of material, which is about 2 megazettatons more than we have on Earth. What we do have is more lasers than the Transformers.

NIF, Wikimedia Commons
"Uh, don't fire it up just yet, guys. Guys?"

The NIF's 192 lasers are precisely timed and amplified in the most sophisticated optical setup in the world. Earlier this month, they fired the most powerful laser blast in human history: 1.875 megajoules of focused ultraviolet light in 23 nanoseconds, delivering a power of 411 trillion watts. The rest of the United States put together only consumes half a trillion watts. (Though in fairness, the United States does last for slightly longer.) This record-breaking shot signals the beginning of full-power fusion experiments, working toward little things like limitless energy from seawater instead of compressed dead animals, no chance of meltdown and zero greenhouse pollution. If you're into that sort of thing.

#5. The Hottest Thing on Earth

X-rays can pass through solid objects, but X-ray lasers don't have to, because whatever they're pointed at isn't there any more. The Linac Coherent Laser Source (LCLS) is the world's most powerful XASER and every bit as incredible as it is made-up sounding. It recently created the hottest material on the planet, making a chunk of aluminum into a star in both "scientific fame" and "actual density and temperature."

University of Oxford, Sam Vinko
Also winning the 2012 Badass-Looking Equipment Award.

The target was heated to 2 million degrees. Not including the type of degree usually means the writer is an idiot, but at this level it really doesn't matter. Celsius and Kelvin only differ by about 300 degrees, and science doesn't use Fahrenheit for the same reason it doesn't use woolly mammoth skins to insulate the vacuum chamber. Fahrenheit is an obsolete scale invented by a visceral lunatic, based on salty water and "blood heat," with 64 degrees between blood and iced water only because it was easier for him to draw the little marks that way. When something's based on laziness, a hot body and salty fluids, it's porn, not science.

Wikimedia Commons
Seen here with the world's earliest and least-appealing fleshlight.

These hot dense plasmas will help us understand stars, planetary cores and even nuclear fusion. In fact, the only hotter place in the solar system is the heart of a star, and it's not like stars can fire lasers back at us.

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