Right in your own backyard

As a general rule, I don’t trust my neighbors. I don’t trust anyone around me, because you never know what sort of trouble they’re involved in or what’s going through their head, how they’re trying to get you. And then I find out at nature.com today that here at the University of Michigan–somewhere very near to where I’m sitting right now–lurks, “The most intense laser in the Universe.”

I’m no physicist (some people will attest that I did exceptionally poorly in that field), but with a title like that, I had to check it out. Apparently, however intense the laser is, it is not powerful. Katharine Sanderson reports that the laser (HERCULES) is capable of delivering a mere 20 joules onto a point 1.3 micrometers in diameter for a whopping 30 femtoseconds. What does this mean? No one knows: 20 joules is apparently not very much power; a micrometer is one millionth of a meter; femtoseconds is a buzz word made popular in the 1970s, along with other words like “phallogocentric” (Sanderson, however, says a 30 femtoseconds = (1/10^15) seconds). This adds up to 2 x 10^22 watts per square-centimeter, or “20 billion trillion watts per square centimeter,” according to the UM story.

I know you share my worry: that because of HERCULES we’re going to see a repeat of the laser-pointer fad of nearly a decade ago. Now kids are going to run to the store to get their own HERCULESes so they can point at the Teach or blackboard, partaking in the Most Intense Tomfoolery in the Universe. Sure, they’re expensive now, but in a few years they’ll be a dime-a-dozen. What are scientists going to do with this new laser? According to Sanderson,

Such intense laser light is uncharted territory. The electrons in any material hit by the beam are accelerated to the point that they are almost travelling at the speed of light, transporting those electrons out of the classical world and into relativistic, quantum, territory. Theoretically it could be possible to make the electrons travel so quickly that their mass increases.

Ha! Whatever. And right under my nose.