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The laser: The Solution to Many Problems

Like most people, for many years I remained frightened of the laser, perceiving it as a deadly device capable of enormous destruction. I recall a scene in a James Bond movie, Goldfinger, in which Bond, who was tied to a table, was nearly sliced in half by a laser beam. Since then, other films and television shows have fuelled my fear of the laser by showing mad scientists who wanted to take over the world threatening to use huge laser devices to wipe out towns and strategic defence areas. Although the laser does have tremendous potential for destruction, my unreasonable fear of the laser is fading. In recent years, scientists have found that the laser has a wide variety of applications, making it one of the most important inventions in the last quarter of a century for improving our quality of life.

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One important field in which the laser has many applications is communications. Scientists have found that the laser beam can transmit human voices; as a result, telephone companies are now using laser light signals to transmit telephone calls through extremely small cables that are capable of carrying many more transmissions than the standard telephone cables. An additional advantage is that these systems using the laser light signals will also be able to transmit video telephone conversations in the future.

Another, perhaps less known field in which lasers are helping improve the quality of life is metrology, which is the science of measurement. The extremely straight, narrow laser can be used to align parts of a structure being built; it can also position the parts on an assembly line precisely. The laser beam has also been used to measure remote distances, for example, the precise distance from the Earth to the Moon. And finally, the laser can be used to measure the drifts of the Earth’s plates. This measurement, along with other data, can help in the prediction of earthquakes.

Probably the most vital application of the laser is in the field of medicine. Lasers have been devised that cut razor sharp; in fact, scientists have developed a laser knife that doctors can use for surgery. These knives are now used for some general surgery because they cut sharply and because the beam seals off blood vessels that it severs, thus reducing blood loss considerably. The laser has also been used in eye surgery to spot-weld detached retinas to the back of the eye. A less significant but more curious use of the laser in medicine is to remove tattoos. Whereas before tattoos were virtually impossible to remove without considerable difficulty and pain, now they can be removed relatively painlessly.

When Dr. Theodore H. Mainan got the first laser to work in July of 1960, what uses it would have were unknown; in fact, he called it a multimillion dollar “solution in search of a problem.” As we have seen,, the use of the laser is numerous. It is being used in the fields of medicine, communications and metrology, as we have seen. But I have just touched down upon some of the applications of the laser; there are many, many more, not to mention in the areas of defence and space travel. What should be apparent by now is that there are many problems the laser is helping to solve and that the laser, if wisely used, can be a life-saving device.

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