Scientists Say: Laser

This is a device that produces an intense beam of light


These narrow, intense beams of light are laser beams.

Jeff Keyzer/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Laser (noun, “LAY-zer”)

This is a device that uses an electrical current to excite the atoms in a liquid, crystal or gas. The atoms contain negatively charged particles called electrons. When they are excited, the electrons move from a low energy state to a higher energy state. But they can’t stay that way very long. They drop down again to that lower energy state. In the process, they give off a blip of light.

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Narrow, focused beams of light are called lasers. They are used for things from welding and surgery to pet toys.B. Brookshire/SSP

The light given off is all the same wavelength. This means we perceive the laser as having a single color, such as green or red. And because the photons are all the same wavelength, that laser light can travel very long distances in a tight, narrow beam.

When the first laser was built in 1960, it wasn’t called a laser at all! “Laser” is an acronym — a word made by combining the starting letters or groups of letters from several words. Originally, LASER was shorthand for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” But over time, the devices have become so popular that “laser” has become its own word.

Lasers are used in everything from medicine to archeology to physics. And of course, they are in those tiny laser pointers we use to play with our pets.

In a sentence

Scientists have used lasers to create maps of an ancient Mayan city.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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