Color Me Laser

Dr Evil Laser

Lasers are pretty remarkable. We use them for everything from power point presentations to shooting them to the moon and back. You can make laser pointers so bright that you can use them to point at stars in the night sky as if you were pointing at a chart. They’re used in construction work as the world’s longest level. They’re popularized in science fiction as weapons and that’s not horribly far-fetched. The only issue is size, since lasers are already used today in etching and eye surgery.

The real-world uses of lasers are almost too many to mention. Lasers are what scans your groceries in check-out. They’re used in military target sighting. They’re used in laser printers. (duh) They’re used to create light shows, and invent new musical instruments.They’re used to read optical discs, such as CDs and DVDs. They’re used in movie projectors. They’re used in nuclear fusion and, last but not least, they are used directly as energy weapons. Yes, you heard that right, phasers here we come.

 

AkiraSo what is a laser? In the absolute simplest terms it’s really, really, really straight light. Normal photons bounce around every which way and spread out all over the place. A directed flash-light beam is only directed for so long, and only because there’s a lot of power around it. But take those photos and put them in a hall of mirrors with only one outlet and they’ll bounce, and bounce, and bounce . . . until they’re running in a line straight enough to find the way out.

Because it’s so straight the light from a laser doesn’t disperse and can go further in a straight line than your average photon. The amount of power supplied to the laser also effects how bright it is and, therefore, how far it can go. Lasers come in a variety of colors (wavelengths) and these can be used for different purposes as well. The most common color is red, because it’s the most easily produced–requiring little more than a battery and a laser diode. Green lasers, however, are favored by astronomers since the brighter color is easily distinguishable at night. Lasers also come in blue, violet, and even ultra-violet and infrared. They can, after all, be produced in any color of the rainbow–quite literally!

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But the fun doesn’t stop there. Scientists have successfully used hollow laser beams to move particles creating, in essence, a tractor beam. This remarkable achievement hasn’t been put to practical use since, so far, it can only move very small things. It can, however, move them almost eight inches, which is quite a bit for a device out of science fiction!

The largest laser in the world lives in the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, CA. When the entire thing is powered up it uses 500 terrawatts of power. To make things even more interesting the facility was used as the set for the warp core of the U.S.S Enterprise in the movie Star Trek: Into Darkness. Does this mean that lasers are also the key to interstellar flight? Probably only in Hollywood.

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So what’s next for lasers? As we continue to develop bigger, brighter, and more powerful lasers we’re going to find more new and innovative uses for light so powerful that it can cut, melt, and meld. Laser guns and laser cannons are definitely going to become more widespread, and even laser-sabers are a current, if mostly useless, reality. Lasers also continue to help us understand the nature of light and physics at its most basic form. And who knows, maybe one day they will take us to the stars.

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