Thursday, 11 December 2014

Science fiction weapons can be strangely mundane

This is what laser weapons ought to look like
(Image credit: NASA)
I enjoy reading science fiction (or watching a sci fi movie) as much as the next nerd, and it's fascinating to speculate on the similarities and differences between the science and technology in the fictional world and reality.

In some areas we have gone far beyond the imagination of the fiction writers; in others we haven't come close. One obvious area that we've lagged pretty far behind is in lasers, phasers, blasters or whatever you want to call them. I think one of the most interesting aspects of the Battlestar Galactica reboot is that once they'd established the technology of space flight, almost every other bit of technology from fridges and phones to weaponry was pretty much late 20th century standard. So any shooting was done with old fashioned bullets. And it's certainly the way things have been in the real world - until now.

The US has been experimenting with laser weapons on ships for some while, but they've now come up with a demo video of their most impressive toy to date. Ships make ideal platforms for lasers. They're big enough to deal with the large-scale equipment needed to power up a major laser, and ships are infamously bad places to fire weapons with recoil (this is why rockets were developed as weapons in the West), from which lasers are wonderfully free.

So here you go: fill your boots with the sight of a genuine laser weapon in action, doing suitably destructive (and pinpoint targeted) stuff. The only disappointment is, if course, it doesn't really look like it's a laser in action. If there's one thing Hollywood has taught us, it's that when you fire a laser you see a bright, coruscating beam in the air. But here the operator presses a button on his video-game like console and instantly the hit happens with nothing visible or audible in between.

It's not likely to be the future of warfare on a large scale, at least for some considerable time, as these things are extremely expensive and quite possibly a little temperamental right now. But this a reality. To quote the US Navy Office of Information 'Laser weapon capability is now allowing operation aboard ships at sea.' Which I think, in English, means 'We are ready to use this for real.'

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