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THE MANIC MANIAC- Sci-Fi Give Birth to Reality
Phasers, blasters and ray guns say fact relies on fiction
By Joe Crosby
December 05, 2008
Buck Rodgers of the 25th Century.
There's a long-held and popular belief (including the Manic Maniac's) that the best science-fiction is born of science fact; that real-world scientific innovation and discovery is manifest in sci-fi's re-imagining of our existence. While this certainly still holds true--or at least, a strong case for it can be made--what if it was the other way around? What if science fact was informed by science fiction? To cite specifically, what if the Star Trek phaser was the first iteration of hand-held laser pistols used by the near future's military?
Lasers: Science Fact
In the name of living long and prospering, the U.S. military has recently deployed Zeus, a "directed-energy weapon" that intends to detonate roadside bombs and other unforeseen war-zone hazards from the safe distance of a few hundred meters. To do this, it emits a laser beam from the back of the Humvee from which it is perched, a practice currently performed by RPGs, or rocket-propelled grenades. But RPGs are imprecise and costly. If the test run works as well as predicted, the military can expect at least a dozen more just like it. Ray guns used to snuff out bombs.
It doesn't stop there. Raytheon, the large defense contractor, is looking to replace its mortar-heavy anti-artillery solution with its Laser Area Defense System. LADS, as its known, uses a laser beam to destroy incoming rockets and shells. While mortar rounds are typically overloaded by a monsoon of incoming fire, Raytheon recently told The Economist that with consistent electricity, LADS serves as "an infinite magazine." Ray guns used to blast airborne threats.
But those are defensive laser-beam initiatives, the most popular and immediate of many. More intriguing is Boeing's chemical laser, the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL). Built in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force, the ATL is mounted on an airplane and can "neutralize" ground targets from miles away. The Economist reports that ATL's publicly (though apprehensively) discussed solutions are disabling vehicles (tires) and communications (telephone lines) from the air. However, John Pike, ATL expert and director of military think-tank GlobalSecurity.org, says that its ultimate function is "to kill enemy combatants." Ray guns used to kill humans.
And even more practically, Reuters reported, as early as 2007, on the "active denial system," a focused beam of invisible light that heats humans’ skin to cause them to scatter, aimed at first to "control mob violence or enemies in such places as Afghanistan or Iraq." Ray guns use to quell social unrest.
Lasers: Science Fiction
Lasers and ray guns have become a staple in science fiction. Trekkies have long adored the phaser, and Han Solo insisted to Luke that "hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid." All the while that kid was using a light saber, anyhow. Buck Rogers' ray gun predates Star Wars' blaster and Gene Rodenberry's phaser. And Flash Gordon's ray gun became a popular toy purchase by the 1950s. Even the ATL had a predecessor when sci-comedy Real Genius turned a house into a suburban bag of microwave popcorn.
But before all of that, we had H.G. Wells, "the man who invented tomorrow," and his The War of the Worlds. This is the second (consecutive) time the Manic Maniac has been forced to mention Wells, and for two disparate reasons (the first being genetic manipulation, and to say nothing of his foresight on time travel, nuclear bombs and more). Wells said of the Martians' "heat-ray" that, "It was sweeping round swiftly and steadily, this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable sword of heat." Wells said that ... in 1898. That was 19 years before Einstein's On Quantum Theory of Radiation hypothesized some form of laser by harnessing electromagnetic radiation. And it was a staggering 62 years before Theodore Maiman showcased the first functioning laser (which was more or less just a harmless, and useless, beam of light).
Fiction Begets Fact
To be sure, lasers have existed in many forms for years---the grocery store scanner, laser pointers, copy machines, industrial refinery, you name it. But it's only recently that lasers have been discussed as weapons. The first hint was when Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program conceived of using lasers from space. But lasers, or (beg my pardon) directed-energy weapons, have been more aggressively pursued over the last decade, culminating with November's unveiling of Zeus.
New York Times science blogger John Tierney points out that "among futurists purporting to be writing non-fiction, ray-gun technology always seemed to be just around the corner without ever arriving." That's because the techno-scientific reality said that the power needed to produce these high-energy laser beams was so much and so big that it couldn't be mobilized, thus precluding any roving directed-energy weapons from being mounted to, say, a Humvee or an airplane or, eventually, a belt holster. Yet somehow, it can be.
It's easy to assume that researchers were merely extrapolating upon previous inventions, and that laser weaponry is simply the logical next step. But the ideation began somewhere. And just maybe, a generation of scientists who have now grown up with a library and film-vault full of ray guns--from Wells' heat-ray to Han Solo's blaster--saw the reality of lasers, as Maiman had invented, but imagined the future of lasers, as Buck Rogers held in his hand. Or, better said, maybe Wells and Philip Francis Nolan (Buck Rogers) made actual laser weaponry possible just as much as Maiman did, simply by conceiving of it.
Is it possible that laser weaponry, without the prescience of science-fiction writers, might not have been as popular a goal as it has been--or even a goal at all? And, more importantly, of arguably the greatest potential scientific inventions still yet to be--time travel, teleportation, warp speed, et al--how many have already been predicted and were so long before there was a foundation for them in science? How much is left that humans are capable of in the reality of science and technology that wasn't "fictionalized" first?
Think about that when The Day the Earth Stood Still opens next week, and next year, when we once again see the phaser-wielding Star Fleet. All of a sudden, these sci-fi elements and wacky 22nd century contraptions seem all the more linked to today's existence. Just as good science-fiction should be.