Lynn Savage, Features Editor, email@example.com
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.