Laser has revolutionised the modern world, invented on May 16th 1960 we look at the past, present and future of laser to celebrate laser’s 54th birthday.
L-R: Gort, Lighsabers, Goldfinger’s laser
Lasers shine bright in the public imagination. Largely espoused by cheesy 1970’s sci-fi and action movies the mind conjures images of lasers burning toward James Bond’s crotch as he struggles against table top shackles in Goldfinger, lightsabers swishing into action, and world ending death rays beaming from planet size space stations, or preferably shot from the cycloptic eye of a gigantic robot.
This is all well and good but it seems on-screen portrayals give the startlingly revolutionary laser a bad press. On its monumental 54th birthday it’s time for Lasik-Eyes to sing laser’s praises.
First theorised by Albert Einstein in 1917, laser is by definition “a beam of coherent monochromatic light by stimulated emission of photons from excited atoms or molecules”. The term much later coined by Gordon Gould in his 1959 not so catchily titled paper “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”.
L-R: A young Albert Einstein, Gordon Gould, A ruby laser
A year later something wonderful happened: A real, working laser. The ruby later, invented by Theordore Maiman at the Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu was a bonafide success. The ruby laser’s beam even went to the moon. In 1969 a beam was projected up to a retro reflector placed on the lunar surface by Apollo astronauts. This allowed scientists to accurately measure the distance between the earth and the moon, as well as debunking theories that Nasa’s moon landings were a hoax. Maiman’s invention was also responsible for the first ever laser eye surgery way back in 1962, in a procedure to destroy a retinal tumour.
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1962 also saw the invention of the semi-conductor laser. Cheap, compact and affordable, we use semi-conductor lasers every day from barcode scanning machines to photocopiers, CD players to the wealth of human knowledge. Yep, that’s right, semi-conductor lasers are responsible for fibre optic cables. They allow you to access almost recorded human knowledge via the internet in the click of a button, a button most likely sitting above the semi-conductor laser in your mouse.
L-R: Nasa’s retro reflector, A semi-conductor laser, Dr Arthur Schawlow
Ever wanted to see a hologram of a man smoking a pipe sitting on a hill eight miles away? Well Matt Lehman and Joseph Goodman, the brain behind of the first ever holographic movie did, and how did they do it? By combining a telescope with, yeah, you guessed it, a laser of course.
Once we’d wrangled laser to become a useful tool for industrial drilling and medical applications scientists started to have some fun. During 1970 Stanford scientist Dr Arthur Schawlow turned his efforts to creating a consumable laser in the form of jelly. Unfortunately, out-the-packet Jell-O was no good as a ‘lasing medium’ and produced no effect. After adding a dye his jelly did glow, but it was toxic and had to be left off the dessert menu. However, hot on the tails of Schawlow’s attempts the Eastman Kodak company successfully created a drinkable laser tonic in the very same year.
While Eastman Kodak were glugging down laser tonic, Nikolai Basov, V. A. Danilychev and Yu. M. Popov at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow were creating the most exciting laser breakthrough for us and our surgeons at Lasik-Eyes: The excimer laser. Employing surface ablation rather than cutting or burning the accuracy of the excimer laser is perfect for laser eye surgery and 150,000 treatments are successfully performed in the UK every year. The excimer laser is also notable because it is compliant with Moore’s law; the theory that processing power doubles every year, creating a smaller, more efficient and more practical tool in just over a year.
L-R: A shark with a frickin’ laser beam, a Tron lightcycle, Opthalmologist and physicist Theo Seiler
In recent years we’ve seen some really spectacular laser developments which push the limits of our imagination. 20 years we wouldn’t believe 3D printing a house were possible, but now laser assisted cell printing technology is being used to print organic matter. It’s not quite, to quote Dr Evil, “Sharks with frickin’ laser beams on their heads”, possibly something more astonishing. The use of Laser in 3D cell printing removes the need for a ‘scaffold’ that traditional cell printing calls for, making it possible to create far more complex and versatile cell structures than before.
Though the movies can display fantastic depictions of laser, it seems that in reality the possibilities for laser are even more remarkable. As Irnee D’Haenens told Theodore Maiman in 1960 laser is “a solution looking for a problem”, and at Lasik-Eyes we can’t wait to see which problems it will solve next.
Happy 54th Birthday laser.