A very good blast from the past

And into the future: New, cool stuff that lasers can do

On April 11, 2009, vandals sliced through a handful of fiber-optic cables in San Jose, Calif., a high-tech hub in Silicon Valley.

Instantly, cell phones and land-based phone lines stopped ringing. Internet service crashed. Credit card machines froze. Banks locked their doors. Traffic lights blinked in disarray, snarling traffic. For a short while, no one could call 911.

an illustration of fiber optic cables
The loss of a fiber optic cable in San Jose, Calif., last year highlighted how crucial lasers have become in our lives. Henrick5000/iStock
The reason for the communications breakdown is that most of the information we send and receive, from text messages to Google searches, travels through fiber-optic cables. And the messages racing through these cables are encoded by lasers. When the cables were cut, so were all forms of communication that are delivered by laser beam.

“Cutting off the lasers was equivalent to having a disaster in that part of the world,” says Thomas Baer, an expert in laser science from Stanford University in California. “That’s how much we depend upon lasers for communicating with one another these days.”

Lasers used in telecommunications blink on and off at blindingly fast speeds of some 10-12 seconds, or one millionth of one millionth of a second. These pulses create digital codes, sort of like Morse code. The messages are then beamed through fiber-optic cables and carried across classrooms, neighborhoods and oceans. Eventually the messages make their way to our cell phones, televisions and computer screens.

You might be most familiar with laser beams from your teacher’s laser pointer and from Star Wars light sabers. Lasers are remarkable because they are the brightest source of light on Earth, they produce the purest form of color possible, and they can be focused down to the tiniest spot possible. These qualities make them useful for a seemingly endless list of applications.

Now, as scientists this year mark the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser, it’s clear that lasers have touched and transformed nearly every aspect of our lives.

DVDs contain digital messages that are written by lasers, and those messages are decoded by lasers inside of DVD players. A laser at the grocery store checkout line reads the bar code on your box of cereal. Lasers are used to weld and shape metal. For instance, every major automobile part, from air bags to cloth seats, brakes, clutch and engine is manufactured with the help of lasers. Lasers are used in delicate eye surgeries to improve vision, and they can measure the distance from Earth to the Moon to within a couple of inches. About half the gross domestic product (GDP), the total income of the United States, depends on lasers to manufacture key parts or deliver information, says Baer.

But for all of these practical uses, scientists who are exploring the future applications of lasers — from harnessing the power of the sun for carbon-free energy to altering weather patterns — say that the future of lasers is only getting brighter, and more intense. The next generation of lasers is going to be 10 to 100 times more powerful than present-day lasers.

Light Amplification

Like many scientific discoveries, that of the laser resulted from decades of step-by-step progress. In the early 1950s, during World War II, several teams of scientists were racing to make the first laser. The U.S. military hoped to create a “death ray” that could shoot down missiles. Through trial and error and experimentation with different types of materials, Theodore Maiman at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., succeeded in building the first laser in 1960 using a powerful flash bulb wrapped around a short ruby rod about as long as your finger. When the flash bulb fired, it excited atoms in the ruby. Mirrors on the ends of the rod reflected light through the ruby crystal. When some of the light leaked through one of the mirrors, it exited as an intense burst of red light. The first laser was born.

“When these guys invented this, they had a certain application in mind,” says David Fritz, an expert in X-ray physics at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, at Stanford University. “But certainly they didn’t imagine what it would evolve into.”

The word “laser” stands for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation,” or LASER. In other words, a laser is an intense or “amplified” pulse of light. This pulse results when atoms are stimulated, or excited, by light but then fall down into a lower energy level and give off energy. Atoms can remain in an excited state only for about one-millionth of a second. When atoms return to their usual, non-excited states, they produce photons, which are the basic units of light.

Lasers have unique properties that make them so useful. Ordinary light, such as sunlight, consists of many different colors. In contrast, laser light consists of just one pure color. Light travels in wavelengths with peaks and valleys, just like the waves of the ocean. But while the light waves from sunlight or a flashlight or light bulb scatter in different directions, the wavelengths of a laser flow in perfect formation, sort of like the rows in a marching band. Because the waves of laser light move together so precisely, the light beams can be focused into a tiny area, even much smaller than a pinhead. These qualities create the sharp, powerful beam of light that we recognize as a laser.

Lasers for fusion

As long as lasers have existed, scientists have envisioned harnessing their power to create a fusion reaction that could someday produce an almost limitless stream of carbon-free energy. Scientists plan to soon fire up the most powerful lasers in existence to work toward that goal. The National Ignition Facility, part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., houses a 10-story building that spans the length of three football fields. Inside of that building sit 192 of the world’s largest lasers.

When all of the laser beams are activated, they will generate about 2 million joules of energy, which is about the amount of energy contained in a stick of dynamite. That pulse of energy will be delivered to a small pellet of hydrogen ice. The resulting reaction produces “fusion,” a process that occurs when two heavy hydrogen atoms collide, or fuse, into one helium atom. The explosion is very fast and powerful. Imagine the power of an exploding stick of dynamite. Dynamite can blow up mountains. This fusion reaction happens about a million times faster than a stick of dynamite explodes. And while a stick of dynamite is about the size of a large breadstick, the energy of these lasers will be focused, or concentrated, onto a target that is about as wide as a human hair. “The laser in this case acts as a powerful hammer that drives this reaction,” says Baer.

The speed and concentration of this reaction, Baer estimates, will make it about a trillion times more powerful than the explosion of a stick of dynamite.

This fusion reaction is similar to what powers the sun and other stars. It will release a burst of energy so powerful that it’s comparable to making a miniature star on Earth. And scientists believe the fusion reaction could someday be used to produce carbon-free energy.

“No one knows if fusion energy is going to work,” says Baer. “But it is an important area of research, and it allows us to understand new forms of matter in ways we just haven’t been able to access before.”

Lasers for brain research

Lasers are also helping researchers understand what makes the tiniest brains tick. Fruit flies possess brains the size of a grain of salt, yet they can taste and smell, see and walk. These brains can even learn — not unlike the human brain.

Fruit fly brains are complex enough to provide insights into the workings of the human brain, and they are just the right size for scientists to study using lasers. With laser beams precisely pinpointing areas of the flies’ brains, scientists can map individual brain cells and study these cells in action, tracing the flow of information through a fly’s brain.

For instance, it’s possible to learn what happens when flies process information — like when a fly sees and smells a watermelon on a picnic table and makes the decision to land on the watermelon or to pester the picnic guests. And it’s possible to observe how the fly’s brain tells its limbs whether to walk, fly or jump. In other words, scientists can study the patterns of brain waves, or neural activity, inside the flies’ brains.

“We’re looking at this right at the neural level, so we’re reading the actual thoughts of these fruit flies,” says Baer.

Fruit flies are being used as models to study human brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Scientists hope that learning about the brain circuitry of the flies can help in understanding what causes these diseases and someday to develop cures.

Lasers for rain

Lasers may even play a role in improving weather forecasting and one day in triggering rainfall.

As far back as the 1930s, during a time known as the Dust Bowl when North America was stricken by drought, people have hoped to control weather patterns and create rain.

Current attempts at rainmaking involve “cloud seeding,” using rockets to scatter substances into the atmosphere. These tiny particles provide surfaces, or nuclei, on which water can condense and around which clouds can form. But the process is not very efficient, and there are concerns over the potential toxic effects of these particles in the air, says Jérôme Kasparian, an optical physicist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

a photo of two scientists shooting a laser into a cloud chamber
Scientists Yannick Petit and Jérôme Kasparian first tried out their laser in a cloud chamber to see whether water-based clouds could form. Daniel Giry/Saga Photos
So Kasparian and his colleagues came up with an alternative. They discovered that lasers can produce charges, or ions, in the atmosphere that act as cloud nuclei. The team recently fired a powerful laser through a cloud chamber the size of a small box. To the researchers’ delight, clouds formed before their very eyes. The clouds were small: just 20 to 30 centimeters in diameter, about the length of two pencils end to end, across the cloud chamber.

“The key point is it works — we shot the laser and saw the clouds forming,” says Kasparian.

To test the experiment outside, Kasparian and his team launched a high-powered laser into the sky. Then they fired a second laser. The laser allowed them to see how much light gets scattered back to the ground by water droplets. When it was really humid out, the scientists were able to trigger formation of clouds in the atmosphere.

The experiment is not yet ready for practical applications, says Kasparian. But soon, the work could be used to improve local weather forecasting, he says. By shooting lasers into the atmosphere and analyzing the size of rain droplets and how quickly droplets are growing, meteorologists could gain a better understanding of the way certain air masses behave. Through “customized” forecasts it could soon be possible to know whether it’s going to rain over a sports stadium during a major event, for instance.

“Having very detailed characterization of the atmosphere can feed this kind of forecast,” says Kasparian.

Lasers for biochemistry

This fall, scientists at the SLAC National Accelerator Lab are doing some of the first experiments on the world’s first X-ray laser, which was unveiled in September 2009. Since the wavelength of X-rays is similar to the distance between atoms, this laser can take snapshots of very small stuff, such as, for example, the bonds between atoms in proteins. Proteins are strings of molecules that fold into complex structures and perform lots of services, such as breaking down the food we eat and using it to build muscles. In an upcoming experiment, researchers plan to use the X-ray lasers to study how proteins change shape as one chemical bond is broken and another is formed.

The story of lasers and its many applications illustrates the value of basic research, says Fritz. When the laser was invented, “no one could have envisioned how much of an impact it would have on society.”

More Stories from Science News Explores on Physics