"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 16 January 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Set for Stun


[Government warning: (1) according to the surgeon general]


The last time we were paying

attention in science class,

circa 1978, our teacher had

called in sick, the lights were

dimmed, the class nimrod was

winning hearts and minds by

simulating the sounds of bowel

evacuation using only his palm

and eye socket, and the mood was

anything but subdued. Our lesson

that day would be provided via

our then-favorite and

all-too-rare medium, the

educational filmstrip, and while

lifestyle ignorance and a

lifelong enthusiasm for

narcotics has erased much of the

little we learned so long ago,

to this day we still recollect

the two most crucial data points

from that day's syllabus. The

subject: lasers. And the acronym

from which this potential weapon

of mass interplanetary

destruction got its name: Light

Amplification by Stimulated

Emission of Radiation.


Of course, Star Trek was years

ahead of our substitute teacher

in promoting the virtues of the

laser, as embodied in the

phaser, even if Gene Roddenberry

wasn't precisely clear on the

idea. It took another decade

before George Lucas turned Star

Trek into Star Wars, and

introduced the light saber.

Unmistakably a laser. The fact

that it seemed to emanate from

something that looked an awful

lot like a flashlight hardly

diluted its scientific purity,

and while it may have helped

disqualify it from classroom

screenings, it did nothing to

curtail our collective

extracurricular fascination with

powerful beams that obliterate

heads, Panamanian taxis,

starship cruisers, and small

planets - but mainly heads.


[women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risks of birth defects.]


Which brings us right back to

the future. New Science reports

that a San Diego researcher

recently developed a working

example of the "phaser"

technology of Captain Kirk's

fictitious time. The prototype

uses a laser beam to ionize a

channel of air through which a

hefty bolt of electricity is

shot. If you need to be told

what that'll do to its target,

well, you haven't been paying

much attention, have you? While

we'd never impugn the drawing

power - the veritable tractor

beam - of Marina Sirtis'

cleavage or Patrick Stewart's

prime directive, we suspect

Trekker conventions may have

just gotten a lot more



While lasers and phasers have

long been a staple of science

fiction, they're also a matter

of science fact. In today's

allegedly hyperrealistic

shoot-'em-up thrillers, the

laser sight is a potent icon of

imminent destruction. And though

our chronically high-tech armed

services are undoubtedly giving

Hollywood producers a lot of

silly ideas, it's clear that the

laser has made real, if mundane,

inroads into our daily lives.

After all, where in God's name

would we be without the CD,

CD-ROM, DVD, and the laser disc?

Why, everyone except Steve

Albini and his apocryphal four

friends knows that digital sound

is so much better than its

analog predecessor that the

human ear itself is beggared by

its own biological limitations.

(But it's reassuring to know

that a dog can certainly hear

the difference.)


[(2) consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate heavy machinery, and may cause health problems.]


Really, it's the realm of

biology where lasers have been

used to excess, to the enviable

postmodern point where their

usefulness may actually cancel

itself out. Consider, if you

will, the rise of the laser

printer and its "letter quality"

of, say, 600 dpi. That kind of

copycentralism has turned Joe

and Jane Sixgig into desktop

publishers in their own right.

But with each

community-empowering newsletter

the Sixgig family churns out,

Joe and Jane move closer to the

day they both need corrective

surgery for Carpal Tunnel

Syndrome - through the magic of

the laser! That's not comedy,

and it barely qualifies as

irony. Instead, it is what it

is: progress.


Laser printers and scalpels are

just a beginning. If human

civilization is a kind of

pyramid, a tower of Babel we've

built to reach the gods, we're

confident that at its very peak,

there's an office supply

catalog. Imagine for a moment

the spectacular level of comfort

and excess necessary before a

society can successfully market

white boards, electric pencil

sharpeners, and laser pointers.

In fact, the real mark of

populist consumerism - the real

evidence that we've taken lasers

home and into our hearts - is

that they've fallen into the

nefarious hands of teenagers and

other no-accounts.


[well yeah, that is what we thought.]


Last summer, the redoubtable

Gallagher brothers of Oasis beat

the piss out of a young fan who

amused himself by shining a

laser pointer in their eyes

during a concert. And a few

weeks ago, Marilyn Manson walked

off a Florida stage when someone

in the audience kept shining one

on his forehead. Perhaps a

victim of his own

Hollywood-inspired myopia, Mr.

Manson said he feared an

assassin was targeting him with

a laser sight. He certainly has

the right kind of enemies, but

we prefer to think it was

someone more noxious than that.

Someone like George Zimmer,

armed with nothing more than an

Infiniter 300.


So you still think pure science

is a load of bunk, with no

application in the "real world"?

Ah, but the true measure of how

far we've come in the past 20

years is right there in front of

your face. This weekend, in

every medium-size Middle

American city, the fruit of our

powerful scientific community is

waiting to be plucked from the

vine. Saturday at the Civic

Center, it's the pulse-pounding

pleasure, the bruising beauty of

Laser Nirvana. Now that's real



courtesy of the E. L. Skinner