Timothy Johnson is the author of the sci-fi/horror novel Carrier from Permuted Press. Nothing frightens him more than the future, so he writes about it in hopes that he is wrong. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and his dog. Carrier is his first novel.
In my last guest post, I discussed five inaccuracies that persist in science fiction. As it turned out, some details of my claims, most notably my invoking Star Trek as a violator of laser physics, prompted a healthy discussion. It would seem using the words “Star Trek” and “lasers” in the same sentence is a cardinal mistake, as anyone even remotely familiar with the universe will tell you they harness the power of phasers, not lasers (duh).
It would be easy to quibble about the semantics here, but let’s look at how the two technologies compare, and then, just for fun and because I like to get passionate fan bases riled up, let’s look at the blasters in Star Wars.
On a fundamental level, lasers are simply amplified light, but they exhibit some special properties that distinguish them from, say, the cold glow of the fluorescent tube over your head or the IKEA lamp in the corner. Most notable is a laser’s coherent emission, which refers to the constant phase difference and wavelength of the emitted light that allow it to be focused on a specific area. It also means the beam area remains relatively constant over large distances.
In other words, the light is emitted in such a way that it will only illuminate a small point rather than the typical broad illumination of a thermal light source, such as a flashlight.
Lasers serve many conventional applications today, but with enough power, they could be used as weaponry. Lasers transmit energy, and just as a magnifying glass can focus the sun’s rays to ignite a piece of paper or burn an insect, the energy from a high-powered laser could damage a target.
Currently, such a laser remains out of reach, but various military authorities continue to investigate their feasibility. Recently, however, the U.S. Navy declared its Laser Weapon System mounted aboard the USS Ponce ready for defensive use against drones.
Moving forward, remember one thing about lasers: they’re made of light.
As a fictional technology, the foundations of phasers in physics are a bit shaky, but in concept, phasers would share some physical attributes with lasers. Just for starters, both lasers and phasers are considered directed-energy weapons. Where they differ, however, is in the type of energy they transfer.
Phaser originally stood for PHoton mASER. A photon is a particle (which lasers also emit) with mass, although it is extremely small, and a maser emits microwaves instead of light, although in practice it can emit wavelengths other than microwaves as well.
The abbreviation has since been amended to “Phased Energy Rectification,” terminology that doesn’t differentiate it all that much from a laser, since lasers harness a similar rectifying process.
Lasers and phasers are starting to sound pretty similar, but where phasers distinguish themselves is in the fiction. Phasers make use of a fictional subatomic particle and a fictional superconducting crystal, which rectifies the beam.
There is further deviation within the Star Trek fiction, too. Since phasers are a directed-energy weapon, a continuous beam that travels at the speed of light would seem more accurate to what we know about physics. Traditionally, Star Trek has depicted phasers as a beam, but they travel much slower than the speed of light, which in a ship-to-ship or combatant-to-combatant battle as typically portrayed should be effectively instantaneous.
J.J. Abrams’ reboot seems to have amended phasers even further. While the Enterprise is portrayed as firing phasers in beam form, they hardly reach the speed of light. Hand-held phasers appear to fire bolts of energy, which is a physical inaccuracy considering what we know about directed-energy weaponry. Otherwise, Abrams’ Star Trek films bring the fiction into reasonably accurate territory, and it could be argued the liberties are taken for dramatic effect.
Moving forward, remember, depending on which fictional account you buy into, we’re talking about photons, microwaves, and beams.
I’m not claiming lasers and phasers are the same, but they have a lot in common. As such, a phaser would probably exhibit many of the same physical properties as a laser, and it’s reasonable to consider them both under the same principles of a directed-energy weapon.
That said, within the Star Trek fiction, it’s important to remember that lasers and phasers are completely different technologies. In fact, in an episode of The Next Generation, Picard and Riker scoff about lasers as an obsolete weapon technology that wouldn’t even tickle the Enterprise’s navigation shields.
Lasers go further back in the fiction, though, even appearing as conventional weaponry in the original series. Within the fiction of Star Trek, however, there’s a clear delineation of the technologies, and that’s absolutely relevant.
Now, let’s get super weird and bring the Star Wars people in here. Star Wars differentiates blasters from lasers, and like Star Trek, the Star Wars fiction declares that its blasters are superior to traditional laser weaponry. Models vary, some firing compressed particle beams, some firing plasma (which is a whole other can of worms), but generally, the blasters in Star Wars fire bolts of energy, versus beams (the Death Star notwithstanding).
A couple of things here are inaccurate. First, “compressed particle beam” is somewhat of an oxymoron. Second, particle beams typically travel at near-light speeds. Now, think about any firefight in a Star Wars film. Those blaster shots move far too slowly, and they are depicted as projectiles instead of beams.
It’s all about posterity
For much of science fiction, I believe we can postulate about the future by looking back or at current events and technologies. While phasers and blasters may be unique technologies within fictional universes, I believe science fiction shouldn’t jump to lean on fabricated devices if it doesn’t need to. That is why I claimed the inaccuracies related to lasers. Phasers and blasters may distinguish themselves from lasers, but they find their physical roots there.
Since lasers exist, we can analyze their behavior and speculate about their nature. By observing lasers, which seem to be very similar to these fictional weapons, we could make reasonable claims about how phasers and blasters might behave if they existed in reality.
All of this reflects back to my original claim that these inaccuracies are needless and a more factual depiction could be awesome. Imagine an energy-based weapon that creates a beam that is invisible to the naked eye (technical note: unless it passes through something that scatters it, such as dust) except for its instantaneous, devastating effects. There are no projectiles to conveniently dodge, and it vaporizes any matter that is caught in its path.
Would any weapon be more terrifying?