Login or Register

Sign in with Facebook

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.

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.

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.

Continue Reading Below


"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.

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.

Continue Reading Below

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.

Laser Stars Firing at Us

We've been using lasers to create bits of stars, and in a reversal so powerful every judo judan in the world just flipped through a window, stars are creating lasers right back. The Death Star was a misnomer because it was only the size of a small moon. Laser stars are a misnomer in the opposite direction: They can be the size of an entire solar system.

Jon Morse (University of Colorado), and NASA
Eta Carinae, which survived a supernova-level explosion, is now firing UV lasers, and may actually be Galactus.

Lasers work by "pumping" a gain medium so that the atoms are in a higher energy level, ready to fall back to their resting state and emit light. When a photon of the right frequency passes, it triggers this fall, releasing a second photon, then four, then eight, 16, 32 ... an exponential avalanche of light in the exact same direction and phase. A laser. We use lamps to pump a rod or container of gas. Circumstellar lasers use an entire star to pump a stellar system of gas. And because the star is hosing out a whole range of frequencies, different regions of the cloud fire out intense ultraviolet lasers, infrared lasers, visible lasers, even microwave lasers (MASERS).

via laserstars.org, Courtesy of Strelnitski et al., 1995

For example, star MWC 349 has rings of laser and MASERs that astrophysically blow the shit out of Jupiter's precious little rings of ice and dirt. "Rings of star laser" aren't just events; they're how Norse gods propose to each other. It's either that or an alternate name for that Tron sport where they kill each other with Frisbees.

Walt Disney Pictures
Literally Ultimate Frisbee.

Continue Reading Below

Laser Planets

OK, so there are laser stars larger than our planet's orbit. But we're not scared. We live in a universe with matter overflow errors (called "black holes") ripping up the entire fabric of existence. We're hardcore, we can take it, and most importantly we know they're all incredibly far away. But what if we told you there were laser planets? And that the signal is coming from inside the solar system?

NASA, Wikimedia Commons, the glorious Voyager 1

Jupiter radio lasers might sound like a trance-dub Internet radio station, but it's a real thing. (Though its random whistling and crackling could be either one.) The following sentence contains more kickass per word than a mute Tony Jaa: The volcanic moon of Io hurls electrically conducting gas-lava into Jupiter's magnetosphere, driving magnetohydrodynamic waves that carry 40 trillion watts into polar radio storms, pumping up the atmosphere so hard they become natural radio lasers. The air itself is so excited that when it hears a radio signal it quantum mechanically rocks out in perfect coherence. Oh, and humanity only uses about 15 trillion watts. Total.

NASA, Wikimedia Commons, the glorious Voyager 1
We would like to apologize for what we said about its rings in the previous section.

We can't confirm that Radio Laser Jupiter will also act as the Radio Free Europe of our future solar battle against interplanetary robots, but only because writing it down on a computer would tell them. Technically, the radio laser should be called a RASER, but we figure scientists wanted to avoid the inevitable crappy jokes. So that was a close shave.

Vaporize Mars

This is where we reverse the reversal and stomp on planets with lasers, right? Right! The Mars Science Laboratory lander Curiosity is almost a ton of nuclear-powered laser-wielding robot. Part of its mission is to help determine if Mars has ever supported life, and if it has, to let them know who's boss around here.

Hint: It's the group sending nuclear-powered laser robots and hoping Martians don't have a John Connor.

The most kickass instrument on the rover is the ChemCam, a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument. Yes, that is Scientifickese for "blow things up to see what they're made of." The mast-mounted laser can vaporize rocks, analyzing the explosion to see what it was made of before we noticed it. When Wordsworth said "We murder to dissect," he was talking about wimpy poetry. We're doing it with exogeology.


Continue Reading Below

Mind Control

You'd think it would be easy to make people do what you say when you're aiming a laser at their brains, which is why they're going to escape and blow up your base. Again. Honestly, Stormtroopers, you're really bad at lasering.

LucasArts, 20th Century Fox
Really, really bad.

The key to real mind control is optogenetics: genetically engineering neurons to contain light-activated proteins, so you can literally turn on thoughts with a light switch. One team of researchers has worked out how to remote control living organisms. They built a computer-controlled laser system to target individual neurons in freely moving worms and make them turn, stop, and even lay eggs on command. It seems the Terminators are starting smaller but much more accurately than you ever thought possible. Possibly because they've been lasering that thought out of your head every time you had it.

Bonus: Now you know how he got elected.

Another group has fired bad memories directly into flies, and not just the bad memory of having a laser fired directly into your living brain. Your brain doesn't actually notice this without the optogenetic upgrade. In fact, firing lasers into a brain would traditionally do the opposite of teaching you things. By triggering the "associative learning cluster" when the fly was exposed to a new smell, they made it believe that smell was evil and should be avoided, an unshakable conviction delivered in a burst of light from on high.

Mr.checker, Wikimedia Commons
The St. Paul of Drosophila.

Of course we're working on doing this to ourselves. Another group has proven that you can show primates the light by directly triggering circuits in macaque monkey minds. This could revolutionize society. The brain is the most wonderful machine in existence, but still a complicated device well known for going wrong. When we discover an error, we're limited to carpet-bombing the entire brain with chemicals or collaterally damaging huge sections with electroshock and unintended side effects. Lasers can target and trigger brain cells with unprecedented precision. Incredible precision is lasers' entire job. Such direct brain links, activating specific brain circuits on demand, could revolutionize treatment of neurological and psychological disorders, with the minor fringe benefit of enabling direct man-machine connections. Every single thought and sensation in your head is a neuron firing. With precise neurolaser links, never mind controlling computers with your thoughts; you could replace your entire reality with a custom Matrix.

Our version has slightly less Keanu Reeves. And still makes more sense.

Luke explains Why Kickstarter Won't Affect Mainstream Gaming (and Why That's OK). He also tumbles and has a website.

For more spectacular science, behold 5 Mind-Blowing Things Found in Our Own Solar System and The 7 Most Mind-Blowing Places Science Has Discovered Life. Science just loves going down on your intellect.

To turn on reply notifications, click here


Load Comments