Lasers and Antilasers

As I continue to characterize the filters on the telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory, I have run across an interesting news item.  I have an issue with the article though not with the science itself so I thought I’d share it here.  This article presents the “antilaser”.  However before jumping into the article I wanted to discuss lasers themselves because I find them to be an excellent example of science in everyday life.

Quantum mechanics (don’t close the page yet, I’m not going into quantum here!) is the weirdest area of science that exists.  By far.  People can do the math, solve the equations,and do quantum but anybody that thinks that quantum theory makes sense doesn’t understand what it is saying.  Niels Bohr said it best, “Anyone who has not been shocked by quantum theory has not understood it”.  Yet out of this weirdness and confusion comes the theoretical foundations of one of the most important devices in todays society.  The laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).  Just think about how often you use it.  Its in CD and DVD players, the scanner at the grocery store, computers, laser pointers and scopes, medical tools, industrial laser cutters, Pink Floyd laser light shows at planetariums, and on and on.  All of this from an area of science that is far weirder than science fiction.  I could pick almost any part of quantum and tell you what it says and you would think I was insane (I won’t do this because I promised I wouldn’t, but if you want an example start with a Google search of the double slit experiment).  It is so obviously wrong!  Except that it seems to be right!

I will admit that I am not ok with quantum.  My mind does not want to accept what it says.  But that is fine.  As a scientist (and skeptic for that matter),  it is my job to follow the evidence regardless of what I might want to believe.  The evidence for quantum is incredibly strong.  Maybe one day something new will come along that explains the universe better than quantum can but until then quantum is the best that we have (and to be honest, its pretty darn good).  I will use the predictive power of quantum in my work it needed and I will “believe” in quantum because it has shown that it works.  But inside, as a person, quantum is just too weird.  Though as one of my undergrad professors told me, “Who are you to tell nature how it should behave!”  And that is the point.  Quantum works.  If it is wrong then science will correct it.  (I have to write something about the self-correcting nature of science soon!)

Why did I just go into all of that when this is supposed to be a news item?!  Because lasers present a great opportunity to make a very important point.  Science is not about some people sitting in a lab doing random things that make sense to no one else.  Science is the structure that modern society is built on (in developed countries at any rate), which makes it important for people to understand it!  To understand science is to understand the world, in more than one way.  End of my point!

News item!  Science News writes “Behold, The Antilaser”.  A team of scientists at Yale have conceptualized a device that they call a coherent perfect absorber.  Instead of emitting coherent light as a laser does it absorbs coherent light that enters it.  (Light waves are coherent when they are in phase with one another.  As an analogy if  2 water waves could be placed side by side they would be coherent if the highest and lowest points of each wave always lined up with each other.)  This absorption is accomplished by replacing the laser’s gain medium (the part of the device that amplifies the light) with a material that absorbs light.  The “antilaser” is still at the concept stage as it has not yet been built, though the article indicates that building an antilaser is now underway.  Even once complete the antilaser is not set to revolutionize the modern world in quite the way that the laser did but there are some interesting applications.

As the article discusses, this device could be used like a switch in advanced computers.  Current computers send electrons through series of transistors and other electronic components to accomplish their tasks.  Communication via light could allow a computer to function much faster, and the antilaser could be a useful component in such a computer.  It is an interesting development but not a final result yet.  I’d be interested to hear of the technical difficulties that arises in the construction of the antilaser; they will exist.

Now my issue with the article.  It is a small issue but I think it is important.  The article quotes Yale physicist A. Douglas Stone as saying, “By just tinkering with the phases of the beams, magically it turns ‘black’ in this narrow wavelength range”.  Don’t say “magically”!  One of the problems blocking the public’s knowledge of science is this idea that science is too difficult so might as well think of it as magic; just treat it like something that can’t be understood.  This is difficult enough to overcome without scientists confirming it in people’s minds.  Science is not magic!  It does not resemble magic.  Sure there are moments when you stop and say “Holy crap, what in the world just happened!”  Or in the case of I.I. Rabi “Who ordered that?” but you never stop and say “Huh, just be magic.”  In magic you are allowing yourself to be willing fooled.  In science you are seeking answers.

In short, lasers rock, science rules, antilasers are coming, and science is NOT MAGIC!!


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