Fri, 2 Aug 13 at 13:12   | comment No Comments Yet

How Lasers Have Become Political


Laser Gun

Not yet, but soon

Pocket lasers are changing the world.

When I was a kid — that would be the 1970s, thank you — the Edmund Scientific catalog was what you moved up to after the Sears Christmas catalog became too childish. Tiny motors, optics, gears, one-way mirrors, solar cells, supermagnets … everything a young tinkerer might want, daydreaming about building robots and homemade pulse guns. (Edmund is still around, but don’t even bother looking them up, it’s all plastic crap now. For a flavor of the old days, click here.)

More than anything, the most tantalizing section was on lasers. They were far too expensive for me, but that’s probably for the best, because even if I’d scratched together a year’s worth of lawnmowing the lasers available back then were pathetically weak. You probably couldn’t even blacken a piece of paper, let along burn through a padlock or cut steel.

Now, however, the technology is amazing. While the sale of powerful lasers is theoretically regulated, as usual all bets are off on the internet. The most powerful, legal, handheld laser apparently comes with a warning not to point it at satellites (though serious laserheads think that’s ridiculous). Homebuilt lasers can be more than four times that powerful, enough to light all sorts of things on fire (video here).

At a more professional level, lasers have completely infiltrated the workplace. From carpenter’s levels to golfing rangefinders, weapon sights to computer printers, the humble laser diode is essential to modern life.

Yesterday I had my teeth cleaned and checked. In the next room the dentist was testing his new laser drill. He showed me the sample cuts (on an extracted tooth, not a real person!) he’d been making — smooth, clean and, on the “soft tissue” setting, self-cauterizing.

Even if the old-fashioned Edmund’s was still available, it wouldn’t be necessary. You can hack together the optics yourself. Last year I disassembled a DVD drive and extracted its diode, thinking to make my own laser pointer. No problem getting it out and rewired; unfortunately I underestimated necessary resistance in the circuit and quickly burned it out. A friend has completed a similar project, however, with his twelve-year-old.

Perhaps the most interesting use of personal lasers I’ve seen lately lately — and what inspired this post — was political. Recent protests in Egypt have turned violent, with armed clashes and shooting. The military has dispatched helicopters over the larger demonstrations — only to have at least one rebuffed by dozens of lasers wielded from the crowd:

As hundreds of thousands of protestors flooded the streets of Cairo to demand President Mohammed Morsi step down, a military chopper was called in. Dozens or hundreds of protestors scattered throughout the crowd responded by individually aiming their laser pointers at it, hoping to dazzle the sightlines of its occupants.

The copter did not crash, fortunately for those below …

Power to the people, one might say.

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