A bright, shining neutral light

The Nation, Regional - Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Although the development of laser research was stimulated by American military considerations, its peaceful non-military applications have vastly benefited mankind and taught us that science and technology are morally neutral, said Prof Nicolaas Bloembergen, a Nobel Prize winner for Physics.

Bloembergen said that while the laser beam-based Star Wars project initiated by then-US president Ronald Reagan in 1981 failed to materialise due to difficulties harnessing laser technology on such a scale, civil applications of laser have made possible global communications through optical fibres, enabling the world economy to thrive, increasing the dialogue of ideas and decreasing the danger of war.

"Now we have optical fibre everywhere," said Bloembergen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for his contributions to the development of laser spectroscopy.

He added that one optical fibre line linking Thailand and Europe can facilitate 200 million telephone conversations. "People can communicate at length anywhere," he said.

Bloembergen was speaking yesterday at Chulalongkorn University as part of an ongoing event organised by the International Peace Foundation called "Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace", which is bringing 20 Nobel laureates from different disciplines to speak and exchange views in Thailand.

Because laser beams can be focused to a diameter of less than one micron, surgeons can take advantage of previously impossible degrees of accuracy, as even the thinnest and sharpest surgical knife is 10 microns in width. The average human hair is 30 microns across and a laser can make a hole through it, he said, adding that laser surgery has allowed for the reattachment of loose retinas.

On the less constructive side, the Dutch-born Harvard professor added, shoulder-mounted rocket propelled grenades with laser aiming devices have been used by terrorists and guerrillas to attack aircraft.

It is also possible to use lasers to blind soldiers in combat. Although controversial, Bloembergen argued that the tactic is less destructive than a volley of machine gun bullets.

"It is fortunate that lasers are not weapons of mass destruction," he said, adding that the future deployment of any Star Wars-like laser-based ballistic missile defence system by the US would present severe political problems as it would undermine the basic concepts in international arms control.

The 83-year-old physicist later told The Nation that he wondered whether such an invention would make for a safer world, saying that two decades of research and billions of US dollars spent has not brought it even close to reality.

While insisting that science and technology are neutral, Bloembergen said, "I don't say we should clone human beings, but there are other steps before that [such as] replacing human organs."

Pravit Rojanaphruk

The Nation