Lasers, Great and Small

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PHOTO: LOIS HECHT

As children, we fantasize about lasers that could blast a spaceship into smithereens. As adults, drinking gin and tonic outdoors on a summer evening, we’d settle for a much smaller laser to vaporize mosquitoes.

Jeff Hecht [left] is just the man to tell you how either one would work. He was putting the finishing touches on this month’s ”Ray Guns Get Real,” about the U.S. military’s program to create a massive solid-state laser, when some interesting news came out of Washington state: Researchers there had successfully tested a ”mosquito flashlight,” designed to kill the insects before they can snack on you. A team of astrophysicists formerly with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, including Lowell Wood, a protégé of Edward Teller’s, had managed to build a laser accurate enough to fry mosquitoes in midflight.

Hecht was delighted. The veteran technology correspondent has been writing about lasers, optoelectronics, and solid-state physics since 1974 for such publications as Laser Focus World, New Scientist, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In fact, he had come up with this same mosquito-killing scheme himself and submitted the idea in the form of a short science-fiction story to the journal Nature. The story, called ”Directed Energy: More Than a Flash in the Pan,” was published in 2006—a full year before Wood suggested his mosquito zapper.

The idea is destined to become more than a sci-fi figment. Bill Gates recently announced he would put the considerable weight of his charitable foundation behind the project, with the goal of eradicating malaria.

”Is it really possible that I came up with such a wild and crazy idea before Lowell Wood—the master of wild and crazy ideas?” Hecht asks. The Pentagon’s research effort into laser ”death rays” is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, but without delivering anything capable of torching a tank or melting a missile. So perhaps it’s fitting that the first casualties of the laser death ray should be mosquitoes. ”The way the funding for the military lasers is going,” Hecht says, ”I think the mosquito death ray just might make it into production first.”

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