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  • Lasers leap from the lab to the comics

Photonics Spectra
May 2010
Lynn Savage, Features Editor,

When Ted Maiman fired up the first working laser in May 1960, it marked the beginning of a golden age of scientific research and technological innovation that continues today. See “A Trip Through the Light Fantastic,” p. 58, and “On the Shoulders of Giants,” p. 70.

However, despite all of the advances brought about by and for lasers, there were other reasons to be excited 50 years ago. The world was in the midst of the atomic age and at the beginning of the space age – with all of the accompanying hope and terror. After news of the laser broke out from the labs and into the national spotlight, it was only a matter of time before the more gee-whiz aspects filtered down to the youngsters.

Superman already had a plethora of vision-based powers that electrified kids in the ’40s and ’50s. Although he did not possess them when he was originally conceived by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel in the late ’30s, the Man of Steel eventually picked up telescopic and microscopic vision, the ability to project heat rays from his eyes and the capacity to see a deep range of wavelengths, from infrared to ultraviolet.

Surprisingly, “laser vision” was not added to the panoply of Superman’s optical powers after Maiman’s breakthrough, but the laser did apparently inspire another giant of the comics industry.

Cyclops of the X-MEN. Art by Jack Kirby. Images courtesy of Marvel Comics.

In the early 1960s, Stan Lee and a dynamic bullpen of artists including Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck were making Marvel Comics a force to be reckoned with. After a string of hits (and only a couple of misses), Lee and Kirby introduced the X-Men in 1963 – a group of angst-ridden teenage mutants holed up in a boarding school.

One of the main members of the colorful group was a serious young man named Scott “Slim” Summers, whose crime-fighting moniker was “Cyclops.” He earned the nickname not because of an actual facial deformity but because his costume featured a visor that spanned both eyes. Cyclops’ power manifested through his eyes, much as Superman’s ocular abilities, but rather mainly created a concussive force.

Cyclops’ eye blasts appeared as straight crimson lines of various widths, controlled by the mechanically operated visor he wore at all times. What tied the character to the laser, though, was the fact that the visor’s lens was made of ruby quartz; what breaks the spell, perhaps, is that Lee wrote it so that the ruby was the only thing that stopped the optical energy. Summers/Cyclops wore the device at all times because he could not shut the power off. The visor, with its ruby lens, gave him control over his power.

The Living Laser. Art by Don Heck.

The tweaking – or outright mangling – of physics was, and is, common in superheroic tales, which insist on a suspension of disbelief by the reader, but Lee did better a few years later, in 1966, with the introduction of the “Living Laser.”

With this villainous character, Lee and artist Don Heck drew from a somewhat more realistic technical stance. The Living Laser got his start as a research scientist named Arthur Parks, who worked on developing lasers as offensive weapons. Parks ultimately created miniature, wrist-mounted, high-power lasers but turned to crime because of bad anger-management issues.

After decades of appearances and a parade of writers, both Cyclops and the Living Laser had their powers altered, in part to rectify misunderstandings of real physics (Cyclops’ eyebeams can’t be optical!), in part to make the characters even more fantastical. But, as with all of their superpowered brethren, Cyclops and the Living Laser provide gentle introductions to the extraordinary nature of real-life science.

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