Frickin’ Laser Beams

Francine Prose said in her novel Goldengrove that, “People see everything through the lens of their obsessions.” Case in point – a conversation I had a while ago with a six year old:

Me: Why are some of your ponies behind the toilet?
6: They live there.
Me: Kind of a gross place to live, isn’t it?
6: They’re in jail.
Me: Oh, so they’re trapped there?
6: No, they want to live there but they’re in jail.
Me: Wow, that’s actually kind of deep. Why are these ponies smushed into that bar of soap?
6: They’re married.

Note that all of this was told me with a tone of “Well, I think it’s pretty obvious why they’re there, but if I MUST explain it to you…”

I overheard a similar encounter between a physicist and a non-physicist on the topic of APS’s Laser Fest, a year-long celebration of the laser:

Physicist: Lasers are responsible for so many technologies. They’re probably the greatest, or at least the most prevalent invention of the last century. They’re in, like, everything.
Non-Physicist: Like what?
Physicist: Bar code scanners.

While not said with the same tone that the 6-year old took, the physicist did seem to expect the non scientist to get excited about bar code scanners. Granted, they are great, but I don’t think this example really captures the amazingness of lasers. Even many of the other laser applications that we see in our everyday lives (and hence use as examples when discussing them), like CD and DVD players, they seem to fall short in conveying the excitement that many physicists and physics enthusiasts have for lasers.

Physicists not only get to learn about laser applications, they often get to bask in the basic concept of focusing light into a beam, and a chance to contemplate the great potential that this invention has. The ideas have time to sink in. The seeds of wonder and awe have time to germinate and grow, until those feelings are built-in to our through process and we can’t remember what it was like not to adore lasers. To know that lasers can cut through steel becomes even more amazing when you understand how they do it.

So I must wonder: Can I, as a scientist and a writer, ever hope to convey to the general public, the deep thrill that I feel for things I have had so much time to ponder? Can I, in the space of one blog post, light a fire of curiosity beneath my readers?

And just as I start to doubt my capabilities, I hit up the Laser Fest home page and scroll through the Innovations section, or look at all the awesome (seriously, awesome) stories in the news archive, and my faith is refilled. Treating serious psychiatric disorders? Removing body fat without surgery? Hopes for renewable energy? Etching a trade mark into individual Corn Flakes? Laser-powered space robots? Uncovering alien life? Controlling memories? A cure for blindness? LASER PONIES? It’s all possible because of lasers!

And once again I feel that perhaps there is a chance of bringing my readers into this world of wonder and awe, because the evidence speaks for itself. Now do you see? NOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHY THE PONIES LIVE BEHIND THE TOILET?

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