*originally printed in Red Shtick Magazine – February, 2010
For hundreds of thousands of years, primates pointed at things. It all started with the finger.
Over time, pointing techniques improved: toes, chins, noses, and even the occasional thrust crotch were employed to express interest and intent.
Primates evolved into Homo erectus, capable of walking upright and pointing at things while on the move. While mobile pointing had its advantages, our hominid ancestors were still limited to pointing at things with their body parts.
Homo habilis was the first of our ancestors to point at things with other things. The first tool used by early man was not a stick used for digging or smashing. The first tool ever conceived was actually a stick used to point at other sticks to indicate that such sticks could be useful for digging or smashing. Without this early mastery of the “pointer,” mankind might still be digging and smashing with its bare hands.
When our ancestors began to think very deeply about what they were pointing at, why they were pointing at it, and how pointing might be perceived by that which was being pointed at, they became Homo sapiens. We are Homo sapiens, and just like our ancestors, we love to point at stuff.
Modern humans still use the finger and the stick to point, but over time we’ve developed the resources to point to things higher and farther away. Early in history, we began manufacturing really straight sticks to point at stuff with a high degree of accuracy. Later, telescoping pointers were created to make long-distance pointing more portable.
The theoretical pinnacle of pointing progress was always imagined as a portable, easy-to-use device that would point at great distances, would be highly visible, and could also be used to entertain and confound house cats. The application of this theory would come in the form of the laser pointer, but first, we had to invent the laser.
A laser is essentially an emitter of light, much like a candle, a flashlight, and that big, crazy, yellow circle in the sky that keeps waking me up every morning. Unlike other emitters of light, a laser emits monochromatic, coherent, directional light. That is to say, lasers emit light that is of a single color or wavelength. These wavelengths are in phase, and they all agree that they should travel together. Most light consists of many wavelengths and phases, none of which have any desire to hang out together for very long.
Laser is actually an acronym that stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Since visible light is only one form of electromagnetic radiation, the laser has many cousins, including the maser, uvaser, and xaser, emitting microwaves, ultraviolet, and X-ray radiation, respectively.
The taser is not a cousin of the laser, nor is the phaser, though the phaser can be used in conjunction with lasers to protect Starfleet from Borg attacks. The blazer is also unrelated to the laser. However, blazers can protect against laser and phaser weaponry, which is why the Borg dress code was changed from “exposed bionics” to “business casual.”
Albert Einstein established the theoretical foundations for the laser pointer in 1917 in his paper “On the Quantum Theory of Radiation,” which was about as difficult to understand as it sounds like it would be. For over 40 years after Einstein’s publication, physicists babbled and scribbled about short waves, stimulated emissions, optical pumping, and other remarkably nerdy sexual innuendo in the attempt to sound like they knew what Einstein was talking about.
Finally, in 1960, Theodore Maiman demonstrated a functional laser pointer. This was a great achievement for pure science, but since Maiman’s laser was massive and could only point in the direction it was built to point in, it failed to advance the cause of pointing. Fortunately, the new laser technology was found to have other uses.
Lasers can direct energy with precision that is unachievable by any other means. Intensely powerful lasers can be used to cut, weld, and mark materials from steel to plastics. Lasers are also used in delicate surgical procedures, including operations on the human eye. While having a laser pointed into your eyeball sounds like a bad idea, considering that the alternative is a scalpel, it’s actually become quite popular.
The laser has also become ubiquitous in the consumer market. A laser scanned the barcode on the DVD player you just bought. Inside that DVD player is another laser that will read your Battlestar Galactica DVD so you can watch humans and Cylons blast each other with lasers. Not surprisingly, there is also a laser in the color laser printer you bought so you could print out those inappropriately Photoshopped images of Cylon models six and eight.
Of course, a great deal of laser technology was initially developed for military purposes. Laser navigation and targeting have made military operations more accurate and effective, and have dramatically reduced collateral damage from bombs and missile attacks. Sadly, though, military laser technology has not developed to the point where soldiers can easily blast clean, smoking holes in each other with beams of light.
Though military lasers have a long way to go to catch up to science fiction, the military was the first to bring the laser back to its developmental roots: pointing. Though a laser cannot blast a clean, smoking hole in an enemy, lasers are commonly used to point to the spot where a bullet will blast a less immaculate, though wholly as effective, hole. Einstein would be proud.
Laser technology is now 50 years old. It’s taken us half a century to realize the potential of the laser, but today, inexpensive, handheld laser pointers are everywhere. Modern human beings can point to anything with the touch of a button. Within just a few generations, index fingers will become vestigial appendages.
So what’s next for lasers? We’ve already seen Val Kilmer reprogram an assassination laser to fill an unscrupulous professor’s house with popcorn. Dr. Evil finally got his sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads. What else is left?
[…] Blinded with Science – Lasers: Pointing to the Future […]