A little more than 50 years after Nikolay Basov and others were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work developing the direct precursor of the laser, the maser, laser technology continues to have an almost unlimited number of applications.
Without lasers, so much of what we’ve grown accustomed to in the past 50 years wouldn’t be possible. From the accidental cat toy to end all cat toys to the invention of LiDAR, to the inauguration of a whole new field of astronomy, lasers are indispensable tools in every area of our lives.
While it might feel like an eye-rolling example of this extraordinary technology, taking a look back at commerce before barcodes and after barcodes tells us otherwise.
Before barcodes, inventories had to be recorded manually or in a non-standardized way across industries and even within the same warehouse.
The idea of a universal means of identifying an item isn’t new, but until the development of laser barcode readers, there was no way to process these codes automatically.
The laser made that possible, and was as revolutionary to commercial logistics as the interstate highway system or the railroads.
Laser range-finding technology itself is a remarkable advance, but one of its most remarkable applications is in LiDAR, a technology that is essentially RADAR except with light.
The applications of LiDAR are numerous and have given us everything from the laser rangefinder you can find in your local hardware store to recording the distance to the Moon, thanks to the reflective mirrors astronauts left on the Moon when they traveled there in 1971.
What’s more, LiDAR from orbiting satellites is responsible for most of the high-resolution maps we use today and are significantly more precise than anything that came before it.
How can you move around a single molecule, or even a single atom?
Obviously, no physical tool could do the job, but thanks to laser technology, individual molecules can be manipulated and turned, and single atoms can be isolated and trapped.
This kind of precision opens the door to all kinds of nano-technology, from chemistry and medicine to engineering and physics.
Sometimes, you need a scalpel instead of a hacksaw, and then sometimes you need a laser scalpel.
Traditional scalpels are incredibly sharp at the macro level.
However, at the cellular level, there is still a considerable amount of damage to the surrounding tissue that may be okay for some surgeries, but become a danger when working on organs like the brain, where an unintended incision can have drastic consequences for the patient.
With a laser scalpel, more delicate operations can be performed than would be possible otherwise.
Metal cutting has been an important driver of innovation since metal was first used by humans millennia ago.
Lasers have increased the precision of these cuts considerably and have become an industry standard way of cutting complex shapes and pieces from metal sheets in a way that grinders and other mechanical cutters can’t easily match.
Welding has been a crucial industrial technique for centuries, but only in the 20th century did welding go beyond the hammering of molten metal pieces into a single shape.
With the advent of laser-welding, precise, controlled joints could be made with different metals that were physically impossible before and was instrumental in developing automated assembly lines that have revolutionized manufacturing around the world.
The introduction of fiber optic cables built the Internet we have today.
The rapid transmission of information that lasers provide through fiber optic cables allows for extremely fast download and upload speeds, which anyone alive during the dial-up era of the Internet can appreciate, and makes streaming content possible.
Considering how this alone is disrupting entire industries is evidence enough of the kind of power lasers can have.
CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray Discs have increased the single unit storage capacity by orders of magnitude since the first Compact Disc was introduced in the 1970s.
Modeled on old gramophones and vinyl records, the optical disc provides much of the mass storage we use in computers today due to its low cost, higher capacities, and long-term reliability.
Before 3D scanners, modeling a physical object for study, testing, or other practical purposes was expensive and limited to those who had the skill to do so, or money enough to pay someone who could.
With 3D Scanners, which use lasers to take the dimensions of a scanned object and turn them into digital representations, a physical object can be scanned and sent to a scanner to reproduce the exact item anywhere in the world in minutes.
This technology is only just beginning to take off, but is set to revolutionize manufacturing around the world.
The shutter speeds of many cameras have advanced to the point where the fastest phenomena were slowed down enough to become visible.
However, the real advance in this technology came when laser pulses are used to flash illuminate the subject in rapid sequence, creating a strobing effect that can appear to stop the subject entirely at every frame of the shot.
This technique leads to much higher resolution imaging of an incredibly fast moving object than otherwise possible.
Discovery of Gravitational Waves
In 2015, LIGO announced that it had been able to identify and record the gravitational waves of a collision between two black holes light years away from Earth.
Long theorized, up until 2016, it had been impossible to detect these waves in the fabric of space-time because gravity isn’t all that strong—after all, even a fly can generate enough energy to overcome the force of gravity with the beating of its wings.
By using lasers shot over long distances, physicists were able to detect these waves as the passed by Earth and began a new era of Astronomy.