The ray gun, a weapon which uses some form of directed energy to blast a target, has long been a staple of futuristic (or historic in the case of Star Wars) science fiction. It’s what inspires average people, out of the blue, to point a finger at other people and make “pew, pew!” noises. And why not? After all, to some geeks, bullets just aren’t cool enough. So how do they work?
First of all I’ll talk about the MASER (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. It’s similar to what the Japanese tried to develop in WWII. Japan, Germany, and the United States had the choice of developing a fission weapon or a death ray. The US and Germany both opted for fission. Japan went for the death ray. They lost. And the rest, as they say, is history. The concept is, quite simply, a focused beam of microwave radiation. It’s the same radiation used in a microwave oven (as if some other sort of radiation would be used in a microwave oven). Masers were first described in 1952. The first one was built in 1953. It resulted in a Nobel Prize being handed out, but not the fame of other energy beams.
In 1960 came the optical maser, or LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). When most people think of energy beams, they think of lasers. Lasers have a lot of practical purposes, including medicine, communications, manufacturing, optical data storage and retrieval, security systems, image projection, firearm aiming, and messing around with dogs, cats, and penguins. A laser consists of two mirrors and a “gain medium”. One of the mirrors is partially transparent. Photons bounce back and forth repeatedly through the medium, amplifying the energy, which leaks through the partially transparent mirror as a beam of light. While weapons-grade lasers are often massive and require immense power sources, more portable versions have been made which prove the concept as a portable weapon.
Then there’s the phaser. It’s a staple of the Star Trek universe. The phaser is supposed to have replaced the laser because the laser was outdated. It’s not even supposed to be able to penetrate the shields of a star ship (even though light seems to pass through easily and lasers are light). But the question here isn’t how stupidly the science on such a wonderful show gets botched. The question is how phasers can be reproduced in the real world.
Let’s look what the phaser is. One might think that it either “phases” or causes something else to “phase”. However, in the original ST: TOS canon, the PHASER was a PHoton mASER. In other words, it’s a laser. Then later, it was changed to a PHASed Energy Rectification. Let’s think about this. It’s phased (meaning “synchronized”) energy (meaning … uh … “energy”) rectification (meaning “directed”). In other words, it’s a freaking laser! But lasers don’t “stun”. And they’re sooo 22nd century. Only the Amish use lasers in the 23rd century and beyond.
So Star Trek writers came up with the “Nadion” particle. Those evil boy puppies don’t make my task easy. I could pretend to be a Star Trek writer and give you a bunch of bull crap about how the nadion particle was discovered in 1932 by little-known physicist Edwin Q. Nadion (1842-1774) when he was looking for a cure for rabies. But instead, I will take on the completely insane task of trying to justify the nadion particle in the real world. Hopefully, I won’t end up in a mental institution by the time I’m done.
Okay, here’s my little stab in the dark. A phaser seems to act like a laser, but it doesn’t use the light energy that lasers use. That does not mean it doesn’t use photons. The electromagnetic spectrum is rather vast. Microwaves and radio waves are toward the lower frequencies, and x-rays and gamma rays are toward the higher frequencies. Visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet, which lasers use, are but a narrow sliver in the middle of the spectrum. Each has its own unique properties. I will go out on a limb and say that nadion particles are photons outside of the visible range (thus making it no longer a “laser”). Interactions with particles in the air make the beams visible. Don’t even think about asking me the frequency range. Doing so would make me want to smack you as hard as I would a Star Trek writer who promotes the idea of phasers using nadion particles!
Next up is the electric rifle, the kind of weapon used by the classic sci-fi novel character Tom Swift. This is a device which was thought up even before the maser. But so far, the closest thing in the real world is the TASER (which stands for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle). The Taser is pointed at the intended target, and then after announcing a warning to surrounding bystanders (such as “Pikachuuuuu!!!”), the trigger is pulled, metal barbs attached to metal wires shoot into the intended victim, and a high-voltage charge shoots into the poor sap causing the muscles to seize up and immobilizing the would-be attacker. There’s a reason for the wires and barbs. In order for an electrical bolt to shoot out at a target, either the target’s electrical charge must be changed to be opposite of the electrical source or some kind of conductor must carry the charge. The inspiration for the electric rifle is lightning. Scientists don’t completely know what causes lightning. Some think it’s cosmic x-rays which set it off, justified by experiments in which x-rays were detected from generated lightning. But if the detected x-rays are coming off of the lightning bolt, then they must be an effect and not a cause. “So electric rifles are still only theoretical?” Tom speculated. I’m afraid so, Tommy Boy. I’m afraid so.
Then there are the general ionized plasma weapons. This is in the realm of Star Wars blasters. The fourth state of matter, plasma is similar to gas in that it takes the shape of whatever container contains it. But its ionized nature allows it to be shaped by magnetic fields, even into a beam or bolts. These are the glowing blasts that fly all over the interior of the Death Star any time armed Rebels happen to show up uninvited. While plasma blasters are rather short-range weapons, they are, nonetheless, highly effective.
Then there are cannons which use pure sound. Metallica’s got nothin’ on these! Imagine a concentrated blast of sound so loud and intense that it can actually destroy things! (And no, I’m not talking about destroying ear drums and mental sanity by blasting Yoko Ono.) But can it actually be directed directly into a beam for maximum results? While one could try to aim speakers into parabolic reflectors, a better method already exists. Inventor Woody Norris has developed a speaker which can send sound in a directional pattern not unlike a laser. His method in ingenious. It’s based on two physical characteristics of sound. The first is that the higher the frequency (pitch or tone), the more directional it becomes. The second is that when two sound waves interfere with each other, the difference in the frequencies becomes a discernible tone. So instead of playing middle A (220 Hz, or 220 vibrations per second), two notes are produced. One is 200,000 Hz and the other is 200,220 Hz. The high frequencies are not audible to humans, but make the sound completely directional. The difference is audible as middle A, but is only heard by those in its path. Enough volume at 8 cycles per second, and one can simulate an earthquake!
So the science behind energy weapons is sound. And in some cases, the technology may be around the corner. Most geeks will rejoice at that fact. But not me as much. I prefer a method of attack that no one will see coming. If you point your finger at me, then before you can yell, “Pew, pew,” I … will crush your head! Crush, crush!!