Lasers are such a fundamental piece of technology today that we hardly notice them. So cheap that they can be given away as toys and so versatile that they make everything from DVD players to corneal surgery a reality, lasers are one of the building blocks of the modern world. Yet lasers were once the exclusive province of physicists, laboring over expansive and expensive experimental setups that seemed more the stuff of science fiction than workhouse tool of communications and so many other fields. The laser has been wildly successful, and the story of its development is an intriguing tale of observation, perseverance, and the importance of keeping good notes.
Lasers are optical amplifiers, optical oscillators, and in a way, the most sophisticated light source ever invented. Not only are lasers extremely useful, but they are also champions of magnitude: While different laser types cover the electromagnetic spectrum from radiation (<10 nm) over the visible spectrum to far infrared light (699 μm), their individual output band can be as narrow as a few µHz. Their high temporal and spatial coherence lets them cover hundreds of meters in a tight beam of lowest divergence as a perfectly sinusoidal, electromagnetic wave. Some lasers reach peak power outputs of several exawatts, while their beams can be focused down to the smallest spot sizes in the hundreds and even tens of nanometers. Laser is the acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission Of Radiation, which suggests that it makes use of a phenomenon called stimulated emission, but well, how exactly do they do that? It’s time to look the laser in the eye (Disclaimer: don’t!).