Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Set Phasers to Stun

Dr. Theodore Maiman passed away on May 5 of this year. I learned of his passing from an article I discovered while reading an online news site. Dr. Maiman’s name was, perhaps, not widely known and certainly could not be called a household word.

But his invention is one that we all see in use at sometime during the week, and the same invention actually struck fear in the hearts of many a few decades ago. Dr. Maiman was credited with developing the first operable laser, the same sort of device found in every CD player and many once believed would be harnessed as a kind of “death ray.”

Dr. Maiman built his laser back in 1960 with a pink ruby rod as a medium for focusing light. He worked for Hughes Research at the time. By 1962, Dr. Maiman had started his own laser company with backing from Union Carbide Corporation.

Which brings me to the reason why Dr. Maiman’s work is important to me. My father worked for Union Carbide pretty much all his adult life. By the early 60’s, Dad was celebrating his tenth anniversary with the company and he happened to be working for Carbide’s Linde division, which produced oxygen and other gasses as well as synthetic rubies.

Dad was employed in a small plant filled with ovens, powder delivery systems and annealers that manufactured Linde star sapphires and ruby rods. Most of the sapphires went to exquisite jewelry pieces and many of the rubies were used in lasers of one kind or another.

It is possible that Dad may have met Dr. Maiman along the way. I remember him talking about a very intelligent engineer who came through the plant at one time. The details of that memory are fuzzy but I recall Dad saying the gentleman headed up a division that was developing lasers.

At any rate, I will never forget an open house held at the plant when I was a young boy. I was in awe as I watched powdered crystals drop in super hot ovens, turn to liquid and grow into what was called a “boule.” Later, these boules were hardened, then cut into whatever shape was desired.

But what held my fascination even more was the laser Union Carbide had set up near the end of the tour to show how one of their products could be used. I was small then, so my proportions may be off, but I felt like that laser was big enough to fill an average sized room.

When the operator turned the machine on, it whined like a turbine as it powered up. What happened next was nothing short of amazing.

Light sped through the ruby rod producing a barely perceptible beam that was concentrated in the center of a one inch thick steel plate. Beyond the plate were two balloons – a black one inside of a white one.

Almost immediately, the steel plate began to glow red hot at the point where it met the laser beam. Soon, chunks of glowing steel fell to the ground.

In an instant, the beam finished cutting through the plate and a loud pop could be heard as the operator shut down the laser. The pop was the black balloon bursting inside of the white one. The white balloon remained in tact as if nothing had happened.

My twelve year old jaw must have hit the ground. I could scarcely breathe. It was the best show I had ever seen up to that point in my life. I could not help but recount what I had just seen. The same single beam of light that cut right through solid steel went harmlessly past a white balloon only to burst a black one.

I didn’t want the tour to be over. I know I must have made Dad take me to the laser at least half a dozen times that day. Each time I was just as thrilled to watch the awesome power and selective gentleness of that red beam.

Lasers are much smaller today. They can fit into a store’s scanner to ring up the price of food items and, with the aid of a computer, track inventory and trigger purchasing points. We’ve used them to measure the distance from the earth to the moon, accurate to less than an inch. They can repair eyes and perform other medical miracles. They can be used as pointers in presentations and to produce annoying dots on people’s foreheads courtesy of sophomoric humorists. I even have a green one I can use to point out stars and other objects in the night sky.

But one thing they have never become is anything close to a death ray. Dr. Maiman predicted as much. He said he did not think it likely the laser could ever be developed as a weapon despite the fears of his time.

In a name recognition competition, he may not be able to hold his own with the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, Louis Pasteur or Ron Popeill, but as far as a meaningful contribution to society with far reaching applications, Dr. Theodore Maiman has to be a top vote getter.