back to article Dude, where's my laser?

Monday is upon us, and while the UK is basking in a bank holiday that seems much the same as any other day, your hardworking vultures have another story to tell via our regular Who, Me? column. Today's tale, from a reader the Regomiser has elected to call "Ron", takes us back to the 1970s, and Ron's carefree days at university …

  1. low_resolution_foxxes Bronze badge

    Working hypothesis: aliens.

    1. status203

      It's always aliens!

      1. BrownishMonstr Bronze badge

        Except when it’s 5G, or WiFi

        1. PerlyKing Silver badge
          1. Pete B

            It's always DNS.

            1. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge

              Except when it’s 5G, or WiFi

              Or infinite loops ...

      2. Rameses Niblick the Third Kerplunk Kerplunk Whoops Where's My Thribble? Silver badge
        Alien

        It's always aliens!

        Remember that time we used up a whole bog roll in a day? You thought that was aliens as well.

        1. macjules Silver badge

          A whole roll? You must be very rich.

          1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge
            Alien

            Are you sure someone wasn't nicking them to trade for something else?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              The roll was called up yonder.

          2. Glen 1 Silver badge

            "A whole roll? You must be very rich."

            Is TPing someones house now a symbol of ostentatious wealth?

            It *is* cold outside...

        2. Charlie van Becelaere
          Alien

          It's always aliens!

          Remember that time we used up a whole bog roll in a day? You thought that was aliens as well.

          The aliens use it to clean their probes, natch.

        3. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Well, some of us got the reference...

  2. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
    Mushroom

    ACME Corporation

    Where DARPA try to flog off inventions the military don't buy

    1. earl grey Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: ACME Corporation

      And everyone knows that ACME only sells to Wiley Coyote and the darn things never work right.

      1. Sanguma Bronze badge

        Re: ACME Corporation

        Which is why wiser heads know it as Acne corp.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: ACME Corporation

        "[...] and the darn things never work right."

        There is a difference between a user's expectations - and the deterministic behaviour of the Laws of Physics. Always expect the unexpected.

      3. Claptrap314 Silver badge

        Re: ACME Corporation

        As demonstrated in the court of law, the device works perfectly when used as directed.

      4. William Towle
        Facepalm

        Re: ACME Corporation

        They did have "quality is our #1 dream" as a motto(*). That really should have given the game away!

        ...Unfortunately for Morrisons, "more than our job" reminds me of that every time I see it used...

        (* according to https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/ACME_Catalog.html?id=aXJQAAAAMAAJ at least, I don't recall it from elsewhere)

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not unbelievable

    Having worked a little with this kind of stuff, the explanation makes a lot of sense.

    Laser rangefinders exist, but the beam divergence is big enough to deal with things like wavy air over deserts. However,to make holes in metal you require almost zero beam divergence. It's entirely believable that someone used to working with long range lasers would forget this important point and the difference it makes.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not unbelievable

      You mean, an expert scientist in optics would forget about a basic physics law?

      Sorry, this story is completely unbelievable.

      The 70s were still early stage development for lasers. It would not be dumb army grunts working on it, it would be a swarm of the best minds of the time. And doing damage to a steel plate miles away? That kind of power was barely SF stuff at the time.

      Chuckle-inducing, just like the one with a Navy ship ordering a lighthouse to change course.

      1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

        Re: Not unbelievable

        Where was it implied that it was 'dumb grunts' working on the project?

        1. veti Silver badge

          Re: Not unbelievable

          As soon as someone suggested "maybe they didn't think about it" as a plausible explanation.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Not unbelievable

            OK, true story.

            The company I was working for wanted to develop a carbon dioxide laser. They acquired a very expensive laser physicist after they asked him, at interview, how big it would be, and he sketched out about 15cm by 2.5 square.

            He and his assistants retired into a lab into which nobody much was admitted.

            Eventually the great day of the demo came. There was the laser tube. And there were the carbon dioxide tanks, the water cooling system and the high voltage generators, which certainly would not have fitted into the space available in the fighting vehicle.

            The Managing Director asked if all this stuff was necessary and was told it was. He said "If I'd known I'd never have agreed to this. You didn't tell me it needed all this stuff."

            "You didn't ask."

            Quite simply, the people who don't believe it have obviously never worked with PhDs. In my experience few of them think very much around their core subject. After all, the core subject is difficult.

            Before I retired I had one inform me absolutely straight faced that our application would probably run faster on 32 bits than 64 because fewer memory accesses would be needed. Well, on the not exactly state of the art military computer he had used on his last job that would have been true. But he wasn't sufficiently interested in anything outside the job to notice what had happened to server design since he graduated two decades before.

            1. anothercynic Silver badge

              Re: Not unbelievable

              Sounds all too familiar, I'm afraid to say...

      2. lglethal Silver badge
        Go

        Re: Not unbelievable

        Oh not so unbelievable, I've known some very intelligent people, that could do amazing things in the lab, but who had a bit of a blind spot for what we would call real world conditions.

        "The design works perfectly! Of course we can do the test out in the field outside. What do you mean we should test it before the boss comes down to have a look. It works perfectly i tell you!"

        1. Trollslayer Silver badge

          Re: Not unbelievable

          At a semiconductor company I was employed as a characterisation engineer and ended up sorting out the more unusual/people issues.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Not unbelievable

            A customer wanted to keep their many branch financial PCs running continuously - as a daily reboot across the WAN was considered unnecessary.

            Asked if the PCs' dense main memory was going to be ECC - the specialist supplier said "No - why?".

            A tame guru in the bowels of our IT company confirmed my suspicion that the effect of cosmic ray corruptions over time could be significant. The customer decided that they would reboot the PCs every day to minimise the risk.

        2. Chris G Silver badge

          Re: Not unbelievable

          A good friend of mine has a brain the size of a planet and does some very sciency stuff for a government, he often misses the mundane in pursuit of the arcane.

          I think it is because the bleedin' obvious is so obvious its ignored right to the point where it buggers something up.

          1. Evil_Goblin

            Re: Not unbelievable

            "A good friend of mine has a brain the size of a planet and does some very sciency stuff for a government, he often misses the mundane in pursuit of the arcane.

            I think it is because the bleedin' obvious is so obvious its ignored right to the point where it buggers something up."

            It's also invariably because the bleeding obvious isn't interesting enough to be considered, that's left for the applications team afterwards :)

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Not unbelievable

          Not unbelievable at all.

          I once worked near an electronics genius - let's call him Brian - who was working on some hush-hush hardware involving high levels of electricity (700-800kV or thereabouts) and was often to be found wielding a soldering iron and muttering to himself as he beavered away in the corner office.

          One day he came back from a meeting, switched on his trusty old Antex and prepared to do battle with another misbehaving circuit board. The Boss walked in and asked him something so Brian put the soldering iron on the workbench while they talked, and Brian moved along the bench a bit to show the Boss something; the Boss went away again and Brian got back to the task previously in hand... literally.

          Brian picked up the soldering iron and then sat there for 5-10 seconds wondering why it was hot and watching little curls of smoke rising from his palm before remembering that it was hot because he had switched it on...

          Absolute genius with electronics, absolute muppet with much of the rest of the world!

          1. Martin-73 Silver badge

            Re: Not unbelievable

            I think the thing with such people as Brian is that their brain is so... relentless.. that it will go into single threaded mode to solve a problem. The thread that says 'that soldering iron is hot' isn't running... or is at least backgrounded.

            Witness the (probably apocryphal) story of Newton boiling his watch while holding an egg for 5 minutes. The stereotype of the 'absent minded professor' is there for a reason.

      3. Timbo

        Re: Not unbelievable

        "The 70s were still early stage development for lasers."

        I'm sorry but James Bond (and his manly bits) nearly copped it in 1964 at the hand of Auric Goldfinger and his laser...and in 1971 when Blofeld used a space laser to blackmail governments...and in 1974 Scaramanger had a working laser that could destroy small planes...

        The above "historical documentaries" are available to view on the BBC at various times, so they must be TRUE.

        So, it's clear that US of A had some working lasers before the "70s" that (obviously) some foreign powers hacked into the computers storing the designs and the plans were then sold off to the likes of SPECTRE and SMERSH !!

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Not unbelievable

          "I'm sorry but James Bond (and his manly bits) nearly copped it in 1964 at the hand of Auric Goldfinger and his laser"

          At the time a friend's physics lecturer described that laser as "Wouldn't even tickle Pussy Galore".

          1. Suburban Inmate

            Re: Not unbelievable

            Indeed, as I recall from a making-of docu they had a chap with a cutting torch underneath the table, with no idea exactly where said manly bits were actually positioned.

          2. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
            Paris Hilton

            Re: Not unbelievable

            "Wouldn't even tickle Pussy Galore".

            She would have liked that, she was a lesbian in the original story.

          3. swm Silver badge

            Re: Not unbelievable

            At Dartmouth the physics department in the 1970's would use Baker Tower as a target for their ruby lasers. They would chip paint off of the tower from >100 yards.

        2. Strahd Ivarius Bronze badge

          Re: Not unbelievable

          СМЕРШ was involved?

          That would explain a lot...

        3. mdubash

          Re: Not unbelievable

          And I recall being shown a working laser at a school physics lesson in the mid-1960s so not so unbelieveble.

      4. John Deeb

        Re: Not unbelievable

        "expert scientist in optics would forget about a basic physics law?"

        If those scientists only has tested this indoors or perhaps only a few times outdoors in other weather conditions, the problem probably never came up. Why would it? They're optical engineers and not specialized in atmospheric science or even weather forecasting.

        Therefore the story is completely believable although possible slightly juiced up.

      5. HildyJ Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Not unbelievable

        Completely believable. DARPA asked boffins to design a mega (at the time) laser. Boffins did. DoD brass (which refers to their brains and not their balls) said "let's test it." They picked a big empty place they used to test dangerous things - White Sands. Nobody asked the boffins if this was a good idea.

        1. JimboSmith Silver badge

          Re: Not unbelievable

          Thermal bloom won't have helped.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not unbelievable

      It's entirely believable that someone used to working with long range lasers would forget this important point and the difference it makes.

      I was an MoD scientist in the early 70s. Let's just say that in the rush to get Dan Dare weapons working (on orders from those with BAs in PPE rather than BScs) a lot of things got forgotten, including what effect a high power laser would have on the atmosphere it was passing through.

      Anonymous because *cough*Official Secrets*cough*. (Don't worry, it's not Sars-CoV-2.)

      1. Zimmer
        Happy

        Re: Not unbelievable

        The testing of new weaponry in MOD circles and the effects of unlikely sources of electromagnetic disturbances can be easily spotted in the admirable BBC 'documentary'* "Round and Round Went the Great Big Wheel" ....

        *(Dad's Army)

    3. Irongut Silver badge

      Re: Not unbelievable

      But it worked for spherical chickens in a vacuum!

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not unbelievable

      Shades of HyperDrive I think....

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhSOy0ADJ5s

      start at 09:20.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acoustic_Kitty

    The rabbit hole is deep when it comes to these crazy government projects.

    1. Chloe Cresswell

      I think the best explanation of this is the episode of Citation Needed ;)

  5. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Darth Vader deflected the laser to destroy Alderaan...

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Trollface

      Ahh so Alderaan shot first. You all saw it, right? Right?

      1. Marketing Hack Silver badge
        Go

        Greedo was from Alderaan!! That explains SOOOOOO much now!!

  6. Detective Emil

    A problem that astronomers … have only recently solved

    The military too, it appears. The story says it's a 150kW laser, but there's nothing about the range. Judging by the haziness of the very short video of the illuminated target drone, it's quite a long way from the ship.

  7. LDS Silver badge
    Alert

    Well, they made some progress, eventually....

    Beware, drone owners!

    https://news.usni.org/2020/05/22/video-uss-portland-fires-laser-weapon-downs-drone-in-first-at-sea-test

    1. Strahd Ivarius Bronze badge

      Re: Well, they made some progress, eventually....

      Knowing the way tests are performed by the US military, it likely went like this:

      - the drone position was known beforehand

      - the drone was flying on a steady course at a constant velocity

      - the drone was targeted for 1 hour or more by the laser

      - then the drone drowned

      - no test was performed beside the first one, to ensure a 100% success rate

      1. DJO Silver badge

        Re: Well, they made some progress, eventually....

        You forgot to include that the drone was painted in the optimum colour for absorption of the laser used.

        Not Chrome plated or covered in tiny ablative corner reflectors which is what'll happen if DEWs enter service.

  8. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

    "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

    I'm not convinced it's an option today either. Adaptive optics work to improve the definitiion of incoming signals but signal power is still lost. They don't "unscatter" the original signal, they correct what remains of the signal at the receiver.

    And if a laser beam has been bent up into the sky by the atmospheric conditions, there's not much you can do at the source to counteract that. You could aim it downwards but the earth is probably there...

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

      "You could aim it downwards but the earth is probably there..."

      Not if you've got a big enough laser!!!

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

        Not if you've got a big enough laser!!!

        So the solution would also involve bigger sharks and bigger boats? Seems reasonable.

        1. eldakka Silver badge

          Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

          Would that be the Mark 85 laser?

      2. slimshady76
        Mushroom

        Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

        It'd be something like the Death Start shooting itself, right?

        1. Dave 32
          Mushroom

          Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

          "It'd be something like the Death Start shooting itself, right?"

          Hush! You're not supposed to be talking about the Death Shart. Oh, wait, I misread that. Never mind.

    2. DropBear
      Trollface

      Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

      Oh come on, don't be silly - no need for that. You just need to rifle the laser...

      1. bpfh Silver badge

        Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

        And hold it sideways

        1. keith_w Bronze badge

          Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

          and if you have 2 or more, don't cross the beams.

      2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Re: "Of course, in the '70s, active correction of the beam was not an option."

        Well, circular polarisation could conceivably help with beam divergence, if atmospheric conditions meant that the beam diverges more in one specific direction.

        It probably wouldn't help though, to be fair.

  9. Tinslave_the_Barelegged

    "Ever pondered the meaning of a project, only to find the truth was stranger then fiction?"

    No, but I have worked forlornly on projects that we thought was for the greater good only to find that the real reason was the bonuses in one or two pockets.

  10. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    "it did end up spending a winter at the South Pole."

    Doubtless the sonar atmosphere sensing system was used to facilitate further deployment of the laser system to cut an ancient flying saucer out of the Antarctic ice. All very plausible, except that how do you keep the beam centered on the ice when the shark is shivering like that?

    Doubtless there was another set of scientists there, deploying their Pentagon-funded shark mind-control implants to keep the shark focused on what the laser was doing.

    1. Kernel

      Re: "it did end up spending a winter at the South Pole."

      "All very plausible, except that how do you keep the beam centered on the ice when the shark is shivering like that?"

      By ordering sufficient quantities of 'Overall, thermal (water resistant), sharks for the use of' before you take delivery of the sharks.

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
        Linux

        Re: "it did end up spending a winter at the South Pole."

        I guess "penguins with frikkin laser beams..." doesn't quite have the same ring to it somehow

  11. MOH

    If they did think at the time the beam was going to melt the steel plate, were they not worried about where it might have actually ended up?

    Like maybe, London? https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-23930675

    (And they tried to cover it up by blaming it on a poor building)

    1. Toni the terrible
      Headmaster

      See curvature of the earth, would have missed London (not that i will)

  12. Rich 11 Silver badge

    But where had the beam gone?

    Dude, where's my beam?

  13. WhiteDragon43
    IT Angle

    Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser

    Surprised no one has mentioned COIL - in my younger days it was in my mind to build one, but a copper chloride laser was more feasible - managed only to do a nitrogen in air version.

    https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/abl

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_oxygen_iodine_laser

    http://laserkids.sourceforge.net/eng_cvl.html

    http://technology.niagarac.on.ca/people/mcsele/lasers/LasersN2.htm

    Still a bit away from Death Star ability - now I just want to zap the bleeding pigeon pests

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser

      "[...] now I just want to zap the bleeding pigeon pests"

      Are pigeons as unintelligent as they appear? I work on the assumption that any unwanted garden intruder can be conditioned into a Pavlovian response without actually hurting them physically. Doesn't work with the pigeons. No wonder that I occasionally have to bury the remains of one gutted by a neighbour's cat.

      The cat has been somewhat conditioned using advice from a friend. "You have to run at them shouting - such that they believe you really would kill them". It now quickly scrabbles over the fence if I appear on the patio. Interestingly - when it encounters me in the street it behaves as if I might be persuaded to provide kitty treats.

      1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser

        My cat used to follow me to the supermarket, then follow me home, thereup I would open a tin of cat food and feed him. I came to believe he clearly thought we were hunting. After all, we went "prowling", came home, and ate.

  14. Aladdin Sane Silver badge
    Coat

    But the Death Star was blown up by proton torpedoes fired from an Incom T-65B X-Wing starfighter.

    Mine's the one with the technical manual in the pocket.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Would this have helped with landing aircraft?

    If it was looking at wind speed and direction in the lower 500m of the atmosphere, would it have been useful for landing aircraft on aircraft carriers? Some advanced warning of nasty crosswinds could help.

    Of course, they could just have told Ron that, rather than the laser story. But lasers are much more fun.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    They always seem to pick easy targets.

    I want to see somebody try one of these laser weapons on a nice shiny target instead of one painted a dark colour.

    Even better coat the target drone in a retroreflector type surface. I'm sure it would stand out nicely to the targeting radar. Please try it and show us.

    Cue the arguments that "If that worked they wouldn't build laser weapons." from people who haven't seen how gas lasers work.

    1. phuzz Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: They always seem to pick easy targets.

      Ah, that's the plan you see!

      The US convince everyone they have anti-aircraft lasers, their enemies develop aircraft covered with retro-reflectors, and then the US shoot them down using laser guided munitions!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: They always seem to pick easy targets.

        "[...] , and then the US shoot them down using laser guided munitions!"

        Sounds like a Brer Rabbit tactic.

      2. F111F
        Black Helicopters

        It's Been Done...

        https://theaviationgeekclub.com/that-time-an-f-15e-shot-down-an-iraqi-mi-24-attack-helicopter-with-a-2000lb-laser-guided-bomb/

        Icon: because helicopters...

        1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

          Re: It's Been Done...

          And I thought tank plinking was overkill

  17. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    "Yes, it had indeed activated. But where had the beam gone?"

    That's the introductory McGuffin in one of Asimov's novels. Impenatratium beam accidently passes through the test equipment, through the wall, across the city, through a passerby and transports him into the future, along with lots of small slightly tapered cylindrical bits of building and passing pigeons.

  18. Andrew Alan McKenzie

    Laser scintillometers

    Some of my colleagues now use laser scintillometers to make precise measurements of evaporation over landscapes. These scintillometers are essentially measuring how much the atmosphere is dispersing the beam and giving precise analysis of the turbulence, wind speed etc, so maybe the OP's work actually had some benefit in the long term!

  19. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Dispersion, not deflection

    Light paths are reversible. If you can see the target from the firing point, there is a "straight" path from the firing point to the target and you can find it with a weapons sight. It seems much more likely to me that the atmospheric conditions were simply spreading the beam out, so it was a modest circle rather than a pin-point when it arrived.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Dispersion, not deflection

      While dispersion is definitely a thing, so is deflection (better called refraction). The classic example is a mirage, like when the road ahead seems to be reflecting some distant object, but the road is dry and non-reflective - the temperature difference in the layers of air actually bends light going through it.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Dispersion, not deflection

        "better called refraction"

        What molecular or quantum forces cause a beam of light to refract? It seems a simple question - is there a simple answer? Presumably they are stronger forces than gravity's deflection of light?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Dispersion, not deflection

          Judging by the Wikipedia article on refraction (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refraction), it has to do with the wave properties of light and its interaction with matter, causing the light to slow down. I'm a little fuzzy on the exact cause, but (being a glasses wearer) I'm quite familiar with the effects.

        2. greenup

          Re: Dispersion, not deflection

          When light goes from a denser medium (cool air) to a less dense one (hot air), the beam changes direction "away from the normal (90-degree) of the transition(from one material to the other)", in some way proportional to the difference in densities.

          In physics, you often have to do diagrams showing light going from air (less dense) into a lens(more dense), then back into air (less dense). There is a particular edge-case where if the angles are tiny enough, there is "total internal reflection" and effectively the light just bounces. This is what is happening with mirages and presumably this laser; the angle of the laser (in the cool [dense] air) to the target was way less than 1 degree to the ground, and it effectively bounced off of some hot air [less dense] coming off the ground between it and the target.

          Pretty bad description, but generally the tiny change in density of the air due to waves of heat near the ground changes the direction of the light.

          Also, the heat might just disperse the laser beam.

          Here's a youtube vid that shows a road reflecting people somewhat like a mirror, and distortion in the air: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYhIKRd-yBM

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