A veteran science and technology writer delivers an insider’s account of the military’s obsession with laser weapons.
First, New Scientist contributor Hecht (Beam: The Race to Make the Laser, 2005, etc.), the author of multiple scholarly books on lasers, delivers an amusing account of fictional death rays from Archimedes to Tesla to Hollywood. All of these are “updated versions of the mythic bolts hurled by mythic ancient gods, born more than a century ago…when scientists were puzzling over new discoveries from X-rays to radio waves, inventors were seeking new weapons of war, and storytellers were looking for thrilling new ways to entertain.” In 1960, a properly stimulated ruby emitted the first tiny laser beam. The author explains that when a light photon stimulates an atom’s electron to jump to a more energetic level and then fall back, it produces an identical photon. With repeated stimulation, massively amplified by mirrors, this light can swell to an intense, narrow beam that carries a great deal of energy. Of course, LASER is an acronym: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. A torrent of civilian applications followed the initial discovery, and the military began to pay attention. Hecht reminds readers that, struck by a laser beam, a target does not conveniently explode but rather gets hotter. Industrial lasers burn holes in metal held immobile a few inches away. Generating a beam capable of hitting, following, and destroying a speeding rocket hundreds of miles distant seems wacky, but readers may recall that this was the “Star Wars” anti-missile system launched by Ronald Reagan in 1983 and officially abandoned in 1993. All was not lost, however. Wildly expensive research produced technical advances, and lasers continue to grow more powerful, efficient, and compact. Now in field testing, powerful beams have destroyed small boats, shot down drones, and punched holes in vehicles. An occasionally choppy but intriguing and informative history of laser weapons.