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Margaret Harris: January 2010 Archives

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Light show at Photonics West

By Margaret Harris

The last time I saw a laser light show, I was six years old. Judging from last night’s “Cirque du Laisaire” event at the Photonics West conference (sponsored by the professional optics society, SPIE), the technology has moved on considerably since then.

Unfortunately, this photo doesn’t really do it justice. Lasers are hard to photograph at the best of times, and on this occasion I think my camera had been drinking too many of the event’s signature drink: the “Laser Martini”.

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Fancy a laser martini?

This violently blue concoction is made from (so the barmaid informed me) vodka, blue curacao, white cranberry juice and triple sec, with a twist of lemon. And, since another part of the evening’s entertainment was a clip from the James Bond film Goldfinger (you know, the bit where the villain tries to cut Agent 007 in half with a giant laser), it was of course served shaken, not stirred.

The highlight of the evening was the laser magic show, in which a magician called Latimer appeared to pick up a laser beam and spin it around his head. The trick didn’t get much applause, but there’s a reason for that; as the man next to me commented, “Right now, 400 physicists in this room are too busy trying to work out how the hell he did that.” You can watch a version of the show here”.

50 years of the laser

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View of the Moscone convention centre and San Francisco Bay

By Margaret Harris

Fifty years ago, lasers were “a solution looking for a problem”. Today there seems to be no limit to their reach. There are lasers in space and lasers underground; lasers in the lab, factory, hospital and office; lasers that could scarcely singe a fly and lasers that cut through metal as if it were butter. Scientists use lasers in precision measurements of systems that range from atoms to planets. Medical doctors use them to perform delicate surgery. Nearly everyone uses them to listen to music or read other kinds of data. For astronomers, lasers can be a tool for making an artificial star in the sky; for fusion physicists, they may someday be the key to creating a very different kind of artificial star, this time down here on Earth.

Oh, and they look cool, too.

By Margaret Harris

Congratulations to Dr Cristina Lazzeroni of Birmingham University for winning Physics World’s 2009 Quiz of the year, which — as per tradition — looked back on a year of celebrations, retractions, notable discoveries and quotable personalities in the world of physics.

In addition to the everlasting glory of victory, Dr Lazzeroni will also receive a cheque for £50, which I suspect will just about cover a slap-up dinner in the UK’s second-largest city.

If you missed out on the quiz this year, it’s partly my fault: I got caught up in the end-of-the-year rush and forgot to get it posted online. I’ll try to rectify that soon, but please be advised that the prize itself is now closed to new entries.

If you’ve already tried the quiz, you can check your answers below: