Day 19: ZAP! I Just Shot You With My Portable Directed-Energy Weapon

originally published January 19, 2012

A little death and mayhem seems appropriate on this day of Wikipedian darkness. My muse site is down in protest, condemning the (not my) government’s support of a bill that outlaws juggling (or something – I didn’t really read the whole article). But alas their protest doesn’t cover their mobile app, so my day off is canceled.

Today we look at the notion of a directed-energy weapon. This could mean anything from a magnifying glass ideally positioned for an ant apocalypse, up to a hypothetical space station firing upon the peaceful planet of Alderaan. Most weapons in this category are fictional, but I think we all can agree that they’re more interesting in theory than conventional weapons, which just hurl stuff at people (or at other stuff).

If you’re the type who believes everything they read (and really, it’s so much easier that way), the first use of a directed-energy weapon dates back to Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and inventor. According to the legend, Archimedes used mirrors to direct sunlight toward invading Roman ships, setting them on fire. Mythbusters tried this trick three times, achieving zero success. Still, the sun was, like, five times closer to the Earth back then.

NOTE: where science fails, I make stuff up. It’s just easier that way.

In 1935 the British Air Ministry approached Robert Watson-Watt (yes, the descendent of James Watt who invented both the steam engine and the even-better steam engine) and asked him if it would be possible to invent a ‘Death Ray’. Watson-Watt, who missed a great opportunity to spend the next few years in the lab wearing a shiny silver suit, hiding behind counters and yelling, “Bzapp! Bzapp!” at his co-workers, said no. But the bit of research he did to come up with that ‘no’ was the foundation of his invention of radar. So chalk one up for the death ray.

Around World War II the rumors of a theoretical weapon that could disable vehicles (and other mechanical gadgetry) spread throughout England. It never came to pass, however, unless you count On-Star’s remote disabling capability, which could in theory be used as a weapon.

“Hi there! This is Debbie from On-Star! Please relax, and allow the toxic gas to enter your lungs; help has been dispatched to your location in order to dispose of your body!”

The Nazis were working on their own little toys. They developed an electron accelerator called the Rheotron (not to be confused with the Rheatron, which was an actress on the all-robot version of Cheers). The idea was to pre-ionize the ignition of aircraft, allowing them to shoot down planes without actually shooting down planes.

Development continued in the form of sonic weaponry and high-power microwaves, a form of which were used in the Iraq War to disable Iraqi electronic systems, including radar, computers, and X-Boxes.

The operational advantages of directed-energy weapons are obvious: lasers travel at the speed of light, making them tricky to outrun. If you’ve got a solid power source, you shouldn’t run out of ammunition. With the right atmospheric conditions, your range would be outstanding. The technology involved means there won’t be any recoil. Also, you will look and feel like a total Buck Rogers bad-ass.

Laser weapons, tragically, don’t exist as we have come to know them in the Star worlds, both of Trek and Wars. That said, they do have lasers that can be used to generate a brief high-energy pulse in order to blast the crap out of a target. I’m not going to get into all the science-y stuff about how weaponized lasers work, except to mention that the paragraph that describes them refers to both ‘a series of orifices’ and a ‘resonating cavity’. Hot.

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to expand your series of orifices with an elongated resonating cavity.”

Some lasers are used as non-lethal weapons, known as ‘Dazzlers’, which are intended to temporarily blind or distract your enemy, or ‘BeDazzlers’, which are used to impress your enemy with your smart denim shirt.

The electrolaser, which works like a long-distance taser gun, is probably the closest thing we have to a StarWarsian laser weapon. High-energy radio-frequency weapons are way cooler. In 2007 the US Army showed off a new weapon which, when mounted on a Humvee and aimed at bad guys 500 yards away, can make the skin temperature feel like about 130 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s 54 Celsius).

Microwave guns, which would be a handy way to make popcorn from across the room, are being developed also. The Active Denial System screams “NO!” at one’s enemy by using a milimeter wave source that heats up the water in a person’s skin, causing crazy pain. This has apparently been used for riot control, though no one’s quite sure if it can cause eyeballs to explode. Bofors HPM Blackout is a high-powered microwave weapon that can kill off your electronics and bake your potato, but won’t harm humans in any way. I want one of these for my neighbor’s tacky Christmas displays.

I mean, it’s festive and all, but the hum from the generators makes it sound like my yard is inside the Tron computer.

Sonic weapons, or ultrasonic weapons can do a lot more damage than simply deafening the enemy. You can mess with their heart, their lung tissue, their muscle contraction and even their central nervous system. These things are a lot of fun.

Particle beam weapons haven’t been proven to be practical yet, but plasma beam weapons are out there. Note that we’re talking about ‘plasma’, the excited state of matter featuring atomic electrons and nuclei, not ‘plasma’ the stuff Hawkeye Pierce is always ordering another unit of. That stuff won’t destroy anything, it’ll just get messy.

Now THAT……….. was a stupid joke. Sorry.

Non-lethal electromagnetic weapons do exist, but their side-effects are causing some controversy – they include difficulty breathing, vertigo, nausea, and an unhealthy appreciation for According to Jim. Apparently – and this point is unfortunately left unexplored in this article – cruise ships have used sonic weapons to ward off pirates. Youtube has no footage of this yet, but I’ll keep checking. For science.

Directed-energy weapons have a long way to go before we’re all carrying blasters in holsters around our waists and practicing not crossing the streams. They are bulky and energy-consuming, unsophisticated and unreliable, and not quite ready for the awesome sci-fi future of warfare they will bring. Maybe the development of chemical lasers, satellite-based weaponry, and superhuman bunnies will help to further the technology.

I vote for the bunnies – even if it doesn’t further our knowledge of directed-energy weapons, we’d still have superhuman bunnies.

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