Half the appeal of James Bond movies are the action sequences—dramatic gunfights, daring car chases, the final showdowns that dismantle the villain’s masterfully laid plans for world domination at the last minute. The other half are the gadgets—watches that deploy circular saws, Aston Martins with machine guns behind the headlights, and gigantic satellite lasers that can annihilate entire cities.
In Superspy Science: Science, Death, and Tech in the World of James Bond, chemist Kathryn Harkup, also the author of Agatha Christie’s Poisons, traces how deadly lasers beams like Auric Goldfinger’s became “fatal status symbols” that every self-respecting would-be world-dominator has in their lair.
The following excerpt comes from the chapter “Goldfinger and the Laser.”
Goldfinger is widely regarded as the gold-standard for the 007 film franchise. It has everything: a phenomenal title song, a great villain, a grand scheme and even grander sets and gadgets.This, for many, is what James Bond is all about.There are more memorable moments from this film than perhaps any other in the series, but one stands out among the others as encapsulating the very idea of a Bond film: the villain stood in an opulent set, nonchalantly looking down on a beaten and bound Bond, about to execute our hero in an elaborate and convoluted manner using the biggest, brashest gadget at his disposal. Auric Goldfinger plans to emasculate and execute James Bond with a laser beam between the legs.
The Goldfinger of Fleming’s novel threatens to divide Bond in two with a circular saw.The idea was already fairly old hat even in 1959 when the book was published. To reflect the film’s cutting-edge aspirations Bond’s life, and masculinity, would be threatened by the latest technology. Goldfinger is given ‘a scientific device so new that only a minority of the general public have even heard of it’. It was a fantastic choice.
Lairs, cars, guns, even diamond-studded satellites; everything is better with a laser attached.They are showy, futuristic and potentially lethal – every villain should have one. Smaller, stylish lasers discreetly hidden inside Bond’s car or watch only enhance his sophistication.
These high-tech devices have become inextricably linked to Bond films. When Goldfinger was released in cinemas in 1964 hardly anyone knew what a laser was or even looked like. Invented only four years before the film’s release, lasers had not yet found many applications outside of niche scientific research. It meant the film’s props department could get very creative without undermining the basic science of the laser itself.And, while lasers were certainly very modern, the idea of a glowing beam of light that could kill was already familiar.The death ray was a science fiction staple, and so well established in popular culture, audiences wouldn’t need lengthy explanations that would slow the pace of the film.
The idea of using light as a weapon is very old. It started with Archimedes, the Greek polymath. In 212 bc the coastal city of Syracuse was under siege, its harbour blockaded by Roman ships. Knowing that a curved reflective surface focused light and could be used to ignite kindling, Archimedes proposed installing huge, curved sheets of metal along the city walls to concentrate the rays of the midday sun onto the enemy’s wooden ships, setting them alight. It might have worked, but the mirrors were never made. It’s almost the same idea used by Gustav Graves in Die Another Day, but instead of curved metal sheets on harbour walls, he has a giant parabolic mirror in space that can focus a destructive beam of light on a place of Graves’ choosing.
A giant space mirror might seem one of the sillier additions to Die Another Day – and it’s a crowded field – but it is not completely ridiculous. In the 1990s Russia launched Project Znamya, a satellite with a 20m (65ft) wide solar mirror to reflect the sun’s rays onto regions where winter days were particularly short.The first satellite reflected a 5km (3 mile) wide spot of light, as bright as a full moon, on the ground below.A second 25m (80ft) wide mirror was launched,with the aim of generating a 7km (4.3 mile) wide spotlight with the intensity of five to ten full moons. But the mirror got caught on an antenna and ripped.The project was abandoned.1
Graves’ space weapon is big, bright and very destructive, but it isn’t a laser. The column of light from Graves’ Icarus satellite is a concentrated beam of natural sunlight. A laser, as Goldfinger so eloquently put it in 1964, is ‘an extraordinary light not to be found in nature’.What, you might ask, is the difference?
Light, made up of packets of energy called photons, is produced when an electron drops from a high energy state to a lower energy state. The heat of the sun, the electricity flowing through a tungsten wire in an incandescent light bulb and chemical reactions are just some of the ways energy can be provided to make an electron to jump to a higher energy level. When an electron drops back to a lower energy level it releases the energy it absorbed. If the gap between the higher and lower energy levels is within a certain range of values we will perceive the energy released as light.This light can have a range of wavelengths, or colours, and shine out in all directions. It’s a little like a fountain. Water, or electrons, are constantly being pumped up higher and falling back down.
A laser is not like a fountain, it is more like a coin drop game in an arcade. Laser is an acronym for ‘light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation’. What that means is light is used to pump electrons in a specific substance, called the lasing medium, to a higher energy level, where they get temporarily stuck. So, more and more electrons, or coins, are added to the higher level. Then there is a trigger, a photon, or one coin too many, that sends a few falling to a lower level. One coin falling can drag more with it, and one photon can trigger more photons to be released, which trigger yet more, and the light is amplified.The photons that are released, as the electrons fall, all have the same energy or wavelength because they all fall from one specific energy level to another specific energy level – like the coins falling from one shelf to the next. All the photons travel in the same direction. Lenses and mirrors can be used to focus this stream of photons into an intense, coherent beam – like columns of soldiers marching in a straight line.
Over the course of the 007 franchise lasers have developed from an interesting novelty item to being so commonplace they are practically part of the furniture. In Die Another Day, we know Graves must be a villain because his lair comes complete with an industrial laser even though he has no obvious use for one. In a deliberate homage to the scene in Goldfinger, the baddies find a use for this expensive accessory by threatening to cut off Agent Jinx’s head with its red beam.
The 007 films often exaggerate the capabilities of the lasers they include, but in some cases real-life science and technology has caught up. In 2002 lasers certainly were capable of cutting through a person’s neck (just not red ones). Fortunately, Jinx escapes and it is the henchman, Mr Kil, who gets the full force of the beam through the back of his skull and brainstem, obliterating basic functions and bringing about his rapid demise. By contrast, the biggest laser, the diamond-studded space laser, wielded by the baddest Bond villain, Blofeld in 1970’s Diamonds Are Forever, is still a little way off, technologically speaking (see chapter 007). After all, a Bond film isn’t a Bond film if it isn’t at least a little over ambitious.
Lasers are the perfect illustration of the franchise’s obsession with science and technology. They are simultaneously traditional, in that they have been part of the series almost from the very beginning, but are also cutting edge, because they can be upgraded, miniaturised and adapted to the needs of the story. Regardless of how realistic these situations really are, lasers will forever be associated with the 007 films.
This article originally appeared in Superspy Science: Science, Death, and Tech in the World of James Bond by Kathryn Harkup. Reprtinted with permission from Bloomsbury.
Excerpted from Superspy Science: Science, Death, and Tech in the World of James Bond by Kathryn Harkup, run with permission of the author, courtesy of Bloomsbury Sigma, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. © Kathryn Harkup, 2022