Lasers, Death Rays, and the Long, Strange Quest for the Ultimate Weapon

  • By Jeff Hecht
  • Prometheus Books
  • 303 pp.
  • Reviewed by Paul D. Pearlstein
  • February 26, 2019

An entertaining account of man's endless desire to harness the power of light.

Lasers, Death Rays, and the Long, Strange Quest for the Ultimate Weapon

An ultimate weapon has been the age-old dream of combative sapiens. Stones, clubs, spears, swords, fire, guns, and nukes are only a start. Our earliest stories describe gods with remarkable powers. The omnipotent Hebrew god used incredible powers to guide his flock. The Greek god Zeus stood at the top of Mt. Olympus, flinging lightning bolts at his enemies.

Even Archimedes got into the weapons business, designing mirrors that focused sunlight to burn the Roman ships invading the Syracuse harbor. The scheme failed, but his idea encouraged interest in using powerful light as a weapon.

Lasers, Death Rays, and the Long, Strange Quest for the Ultimate Weapon describes the effort and treasure spent to try to develop the illusive light-wave weapon. That “death ray” has not yet been created, but the invention of the laser stimulated a flurry of activity to harness this new light force.

Author Jeff Hecht attributes the invention of the laser to Theodore Maiman in 1960. However, it was Gordon Gould who first used the term LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and claimed patent rights for it in 1959. Thirty years of ugly litigation between competing claims finally ended in 1988. After almost going bankrupt, and near exhaustion, Gould did win his patent case, ultimately earning “patent royalties in the tens of millions of dollars” as a result of his persistence.

Hecht is a science journalist with a longstanding interest in lasers. In his initial chapters, he explains the complicated science involving quantum mechanics, Einstein’s theories of light, radio waves, and cutting-edge engineering. Once light waves could be sufficiently strengthened, the laser beam began its development.

Next, the threshold problem was how to create a strong and controllable laser weapon device or system. As Archimedes realized, making light powerful enough to do serious harm was difficult and remains so. Once enough power is created, the device must also be mobile and reliable for both offensive and defensive use. Of course, cost is always a factor. Any new weapon will be in competition with existing and future ones.

Not surprisingly, the military has spent billions trying to develop laser weapons. The new devices must be powerful enough to destroy an enemy but compact and mobile enough to be used in battle. To be of value, the system must work on the ground, from a naval platform, in the sky, and in outer space. Since the Reagan “Star Wars” era, many thought the laser could be used to neutralize attacking missiles.

Billions of dollars later, that problem still requires much work.

The book describes many of the scientists, military personnel, politicians, and entrepreneurs who have worked and are still working to develop the laser as a weapon. The author sets out interesting facts about the backgrounds and personalities of those involved — up to 10 or more per chapter. Individuals are often re-introduced in different chapters as if certain other chapters were originally written to stand alone. This diversion is a bit disjointed, but it provides relief for the non-scientist reader.

The myriad academic, military, and commercial organizations involved with laser development are identified. And an alphabet soup of laser-related acronyms — NDRC, ARPA, TRG, DEFENDER, GLIPAR, SEASIDE, MIRAEL, HALO, BATHIALD, etc. — is woven through the text to keep readers on their toes. But Hecht lightens the science-lesson load by also describing some of the frauds, scandals, and internecine fighting within the laser community.

The author devotes individual chapters to the successes and failures of the different laser-delivery systems: missiles, outer space, airborne, marine, and the army battlefield. Although failures prevail, the laser is still viewed by the military as magic, just needing more work — and a few billion more dollars.

The incredibly successful development of laser technology in the commercial realm is not ignored here, either. Laser printers, barcode readers, the measuring of distances, fiber optics, surgical procedures, and the cellphone are just a few of the applications spotlighted. (One of the most promising exotic applications is the proposed use of laser beams to clean up the clusters of flotsam and jetsam left orbiting in outer space.)   

While Jeff Hecht’s mixture of data, gossip, and scandal is not the easiest read, his popular-science book is nevertheless informative, provocative, and quite entertaining.

Paul D. Pearlstein endures the agony of writing in order to be published. He is a retired lawyer, an active musician, docent, and geezer auditor at UDC.

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