Happy 50th Birthday, Lasers

Illustration for article titled Happy 50th Birthday, Lasers

If you had to single out one cool, geeky technology as the preeminent cool, geeky technology, lasers would be a fine choice. They've enriched our gadgets, confused our cats, and, for half a century, lit up our imaginations.

On March 22, 1960, back when everybody had three names, Arthur Leonard Schawlow and Charles Hard Townes received the first laser patent. The event marked the beginning of a long, contentious patent dispute with a physicist named Gordon Gould who claimed that he, in fact, was the true inventor of the laser. But this isn't about Schawlow or Townes or Gould or patents—it's about lasers. And how awesome they are.

Lasers, of course, replaced needles as the predominant method of reading circular media, finding homes in all of our CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray players. They won us over in the form of laser pointers, which we immediately found to be more effective for terrorizing neighbors and perplexing kittens than for directing attention to PowerPoint presentations. But lasers are now essential in a wide variety of fields, with scientists and soldiers and countless specialists in between depending on them every day.

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Still, despite the widespread use of lasers today, there is something undeniably futuristic about them. As evidenced by their role in such a wide variety of science-fiction favorites, we've always been certain that no matter what the future holds, lasers will somehow be part of it. In fact, the Death Star is a telling example in this respect, as if the only logical end point for the industrial military complex and humanity's entropic tendencies was a gigantic planet-destroying laser beam. (Reagan's Star Wars program wasn't only life imitating art, but life imitating laser.)

But I'm not so pessimistic when it comes to the future of lasers. Even at 50, lasers are being tested in exciting new applications seemingly every day. Chief among them: elevating the process of zapping mosquitoes dead to a balletic art.

So all at once now: happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear lasers, happy birthday to "pew." [Wikipedia]

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Image credit Thomas Ormston

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In 1970, my senior year in Physics at the University Of Maryland College Park, I worked part time as a docent at the Smithsonian's "Laser 10" exhibit marking the 10th anniversary of the laser. At a black tie reception opening night, I approached a frumpy little man peering into a open cavity laser we had on display. I went into my spiel about Brewster windows and population inversion, when my boss walked up to me and said "Oh, I see you've met Dr. Schawlow". He was very gracious about it. Later on, I personally fired his original laser which was on exhibit. Ah, memories...