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The Laser — for good or evil?

The laser is one of man's most incredible and spectacular inventions. It produces a beam of light billions of times more intense than radiation from the surface of the sun. Used properly, the laser has an amazing potential for good — for the benefit of mankind. But the laser also has an awesome, mind-boggling potential for war and destruction. What will be man's decision? Will we use the laser for good or for evil?

Man was created with a remarkable ability to think, reason, and invent. Whether we consider a "simple" invention like the wheel or the most complex and sophisticated computer, man has a marvelous and unmatched capacity to see a problem, analyze it, and develop a solution.

Man has been given a truly unique creative capacity which can be used for the benefit of all. But this creative ability can also be channeled into heinously destructive channels.


Enter the Laser

The laser, a modern invention, is a good case in point. The basic principles of the laser were developed back in 1958 as an extension of the maser, a form of microwave amplifier used in communications.

The laser is actually a device for producing an incredibly intense beam of light by stimulating atoms to emit a certain wavelength. Ordinary "white" light is made of many "colors," or wavelengths, but laser light is made of a narrow beam of single-wavelength light where all the waves are in step. The result is that one can very accurately control this powerful, intense beam and make it do some fantastic things.

Probably the most obvious use is in cutting holes, welding, and drilling. Lasers can quickly cut through almost anything. For example, in just one second, a laser can cut through a one-inch-thick steel sheet. Lasers are excellent for "spot welding," where in some cases, precision-controlled pulses of three thousandths of a second are used.

Pulsed lasers are used to score thin film electronic circuits with an accuracy and smoothness unobtainable by other means. Some pulsed lasers are so powerful that their output could be compared to squeezing Niagara Falls through a squirt gun in a fraction of a second!

Lasers have been produced which have an intensity one hundred billion billion times greater than the light from the surface of the sun.


Laser Communication

The laser also has great potential in communications. By using "light pipes" and "integrated optics," lasers can vastly increase the number of conversations or "information channels" that can be transmitted. Their capacity is stupendous.

Americans make some 10 million interstate telephone calls every day. But just a single laser could simultaneously handle 100 million conversations in its beam. Since the wavelength of laser light is some 10,000 times shorter than the shortest wavelength of an electronic device, the amount of information that can be carried by a laser signal is 10,000 times greater. To put it another way, that single beam could handle all radio, television, and telephone signals in the world at the same time.

One of the greatest hopes is that the laser can be used for generating power from controlled nuclear fusion. Many scientists believe the laser holds the key to the fusion process. If successful, man would have a virtually unlimited source of power at his command.

Lasers are also used for delicate alignments. The giant 747 jumbo jet was built using the unerring beam of a laser as a form of transit to meet the demanding tolerances of wing and control surfaces.


Then there's holography, which uses a laser to recreate 3-D pictures of an object that are "optically indistinguishable" from the real thing. Even 360 degree holograms are now available where you can actually see a three-dimensional image just as though you were walking around it in a complete, 360-degree circle.

Lasers are also used for determining distance. Range-finding lasers have measured the distance to the moon to within one foot. That's like measuring the distance from the White House to the Washington Monument to within a thousandth of an inch.

One of the most dramatic uses of the laser is in surgery and even in the treatment of eye maladies, where detached or bleeding retinas can be salvaged by "spot welding," using highly accurate pulses from a laser.

Yes, the laser can be used for the benefit of mankind. It can be employed in communication, in drilling and cutting, for research, and even for delicate operations on the human eye. The laser does have a tremendous potential for good.

But the laser also can be used as a terrible and nightmarish weapon of destruction. Will man use the laser only for peaceful purposes for the benefit of mankind? Or will the laser, like other inventions, be used for evil, war, and destruction?


The Lesson of History

When you look back at the history of how man has used his inventions, one fact stands out. It's not a particularly pleasant fact, but it's true! Man has invariably used his inventions for war and destruction.

The Swedish chemist and inventor, Alfred Nobel, is best known for initiating the prestigious Nobel Prize. But in 1867 he produced his greatest invention: dynamite. Nobel knew that such explosives could be used for many peaceful purposes, but he also hoped that the incredible destructiveness of dynamite would bring an end to war. Nobel's hope was short lived, however, because history shows that as soon as dynamite became available, man began to use it for war and destruction. Of course, one can always say dynamite is an exception and there are lots of other inventions that aren't used in a destructive way. But the axiom is this: If an invention can be used for war and destruction, it probably will be.


The Saga of the Airplane

Take the case of the airplane. Before the turn of the century, powered flight was unknown to man. Then, on December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first sustained, controlled flight of a heavier-than-air craft. The flight was 12 seconds long and covered about 120 feet. Man had learned to fly.

Yet within five years, the airplane, which had started out as a practical challenge to man's ingenuity and creative genius, quickly became a military tool. By World War I, bombs and torpedoes weighing hundreds of pounds were being delivered by airplane.

War, or more politely, "defense," became the mother of invention, providing the major impetus for new aerodynamic discoveries. Emphasis was on the superlative: faster, farther, higher, longer, stronger. And deadlier.

By the mid-fifties the huge and awesome B-52 was ready for combat. And today, supersonic fighters and bombers are commonplace. The recently "captured" Russian MIG-25 is reputed to fly at three times the speed of sound!

The development of the airplane is an incredible story of technological revolution. Wilbur and Orville Wright would be dumbfounded at the astounding changes that have occurred since their epoch-making flight a short 74 years ago.

But the point is this: The airplane is a prime example of how man has invariably used his inventions and his creative genius for destruction and warfare.