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Santiago Miguel Olaizola Izquierdo, Ph.D. in Engineering, University of Navarra, Spain

The laser 50 years later

Thu, 27 May 2010 08:47:40 +0000 Published in El Diario Vasco (Basque Country)

The more movie buffs among the readers will remember the scene: James Bond, Agent 007, is tied hand and foot to a gold table by the evil Goldfinger. The laser, colored red, is activated and approaches at a ridiculously slow speed towards James volatilizing the golden metal while the evil one boasts about his diabolical plan. "Do you expect him to talk, Goldinger?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect him to die." The year was 1964 and one of the iconic moments in the immense saga of the agent on Her Gracious Majesty's service had been filmed. Just four years earlier, the first laser had been successfully launched by Theodore Harold Maiman on May 16, 1960 at Hughes Laboratories in California. Maiman was the great champion of a scientific degree program , starring the best research laboratories of the time: the experimental demonstration of a source of light generated by a hitherto unobserved effect, stimulated radiation, which had been theoretically enunciated by Albert Einstein in 1916.

The possibilities of the new invention seemed spectacular: the generation of powerful, highly directed and focused pulses of light. This is perhaps why in the early years, the 1960s and 1970s, the great applications of lasers were imagined by the cultural sector of science fiction: laser beams in the Starship Enterprise (Star Trek), 'heat beams' in War of the Worlds and a laser sword in Star Wars, to give a few examples. But the first practical applications were slow in coming.

Some defined the laser as an invention in search of an application. Apart from science fiction and more fundamental science, the applications of the laser for society were not clear at the time of its birth. Compare, for example, the almost immediate impact of the telephone (remote communication), antibiotics (curing diseases) or GPS (localization). But what is the purpose of source of intense and directed light?

Today we have the answer. Although generally no one leave to the corner store to ask for 'half a kilo of lasers', the current impact of the invention is enormous. Describing each of the applications is a huge task that I do not want to undertake here. It is only intended to highlight some of the more direct applications so that the reader can know and evaluate the importance of their impact:

Optical communications. In conjunction with fiber optics, a single laser is capable of connecting about a million phone calls or thousands of Internet connections thousands of kilometers apart. In fact, the Internet would not be possible without the high bandwidth offered by lasers.

Entertainment: On October 1, 1982 the first compact discs
(CD) were introduced on the market. They represented a giant step forward in quality and reliability for music consumption. The CD is an optical reader that uses a semiconductor laser as source light. Subsequently the technology has been updated and the CD has given way to the DVD and then to the BD. Today there is a laser in every optical reader and therefore in every console.
Commerce (barcode readers in supermarkets, security holograms on cards credit .

Medicine (eye operations, scalpel, biomedical imaging).

Industry (high power precision laser cutting, nanostructuring).

For each application there is a different laser that can range in size from a few micrometers (thousandth of a millimeter) to occupy an entire industrial building, with power ranging from 1 milliwatt to a petawatt (billion billion watts). Today, research is still being carried out on smaller lasers, with shorter pulses and higher power. New applications are being developed every year and their turnover is growing year by year, even in times of crisis. At final, the invention is in good health. This is why academic community is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser. The invention is doing very well with age.