50 years ago, the laser beam was born...

... and we mark this scientific achievement with 50 reasons to celebrate


1. The first working laser was built by Theodore Maiman and "fired" at Hughes Research Laboratories, Malibu, California on 16 May 1960.

2. Einstein set the theoretical foundations for the laser more then 30 years earlier in his 1917 paper, The Quantum Theory of Radiation.

3. Putting it very, very simply, you bounce light energy between mirrors at both ends of a tube. One of them is translucent, allowing a beam to pass through.

4. They have featured in hundreds of films, the most famous being the cutting beam heading for James Bond's crotch in Goldfinger; it has spawned imitations from Austin Powers to The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy.

5. No need to fear the dentist; beams can remove rot painlessly. Or you could just floss more.

6. The laser printer familiar to anyone who works in an office was invented in 1969 by Xerox, but wasn't commercially available until 1979. Oh, and it took up a whole room.

7. Four years later, LaserDisc – a sort of oversized DVD – marked the first time lasers were used for recording films or music. It never really caught on.

8. The name stands for: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.

9. One in five British people who get tattoos later regret them. Many turn to laser surgery.

10. They gave us "bloodless" surgery: heat from the beam cuts and cauterises at the same time.

11. The first everyday commercial use of lasers was in supermarket barcode scanners in 1974.

12. But they aren't just for boring stuff. Pink Floyd and The Who pioneered laser light shows. Now no self-respecting band goes on tour without them.

13. On the downside, when you get zapped by a speed cameras, it is a laser that clocks you by bouncing off your car.

14. Laser pointers – loved by lecturers the world over – cost hundreds when they first appeared in shops in the 1980s; now you can pick one up for 50p.

15. Unfortunately, that means hooligans can afford them: in 2008, South Korean goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae was hit in the eye while playing Saudi Arabia in a World Cup qualifier.

16. Who first invented the term "laser" was the subject of a 28-year patent lawsuit between physicist Gordon Gould and Bell Laboratories.

17. The glowing light sabres used in Star Wars were inspired by laser technology. They are "the most popular film weapon of all time", according to a survey by Twentieth Century Fox.

18. Lidar – using lasers to measure far-off objects – is more accurate than radar. Lucky really, because the ash cloud is back again.

19. Powerful as they were, lasers were dismissed by scientists at first as a "solution looking for a problem".

20. Nevertheless, Apollo 11 astronauts used one to measure the distance from the Earth to the Moon, give or take a finger's width.

21. Using lasers you can get sequencing information about DNA from a single molecule.

22. The first laser eye treatment on a human was done in 1987 by American physician Dr Marguerite McDonald, who described it as being "like a Buck Rogers ray gun".

23. The world's first laser-guided bomb, in 1967, went by the catchy name Bolt-117.

24. Laser measuring is accurate to more than a nanometre (that's a billionth of a metre).

25. In 2004, about 733 million diode lasers, used in DVD and CD players were sold, estimated to be worth about $3.2bn.

26. Lasers now feature on just about every DIY tool.

27. They are used to milk cows. No, really. They can scan the underside of a cow to locate the udders for robot milking machines.

28. Alexei Tolstoy's 1926 sci- fi novel The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin features the first literary use of a "laser-like" device.

29. Fashion has been revolutionised by programmed lasers to cut thousands of garments.

30. They take seconds to scan fingerprints so a computer can check against a huge database.

31. The Q-switch Laser hair remover was first put on the market in 1968. It was withdrawn three years amid concern about safety checks.

32. In 1982, the compact disc player came into people's homes and revolutionised music.

33. The strength of early lasers was measured in Gillettes: as in how many safety razor blades a beam could punch through.

34. Fibre optics for phones, cable TV and internet work via laser-generated pulses of light.

35. The mystery of how sharks swim so fast was solved using curtains of lasers which they swam through.

36. Laser tag – people shooting each with ray guns for fun – was developed as a non-lethal training tool for the US army in the 1970s.

37. A laser beam can be hotter than the surface of the sun.

38. Yet they can be used to cool atoms when combined with a magnetic field.

39. The first toy to use a weak laser beam was marketed in 1979 as the Star Trek "phaser" gun.

40. Lasers are categorised from 1 – 4: level 4 can result in permanent blindness and burning.

41. Scientists are testing the use of beams to draw lightning strikes away from airports and power plants.

42. Jean-Michel Jarre's laser harp was the ONLY cool thing about his massive concert in London's Royal Docks in 1988.

43. Tests on what could be the first fusion power source – using 192 laser beams – will be concluded in California this summer.

44. Laser thermometers can measure the temperature of a surface without touching it.

45. A laser ray gun powerful and light enough for use on a battlefield is being tested by the US army and navy.

46. They can reduce acne scars and subcutaneous fat.

47. They will even keep a cat amused, with flickering beams housed in pet toys.

48. We can manipulate objects as small as atoms using focused laser beams.

49. Early studies suggest that broken bones heal faster with laser therapy.

50. A tiny beam can be powerful enough to etch a serial number on a diamond, the hardest natural substance known to man.

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