TechSci Column: Lasers and sharks


Jackie Peterson, B&W Staff

Before I delve into the real tech news of the week, I felt everyone should know that sharks are attacking the Internet. Google’s trans-pacific fiber-optic cables have actually been targeted by the undersea predators since they were built in 1985. No one really knows the reason behind these attacks, but one theory attributes them to magnetic fields. Sharks can sense these fields and use them to hunt, and though the cables’ fields should be contained, it seems as though the sharks are sensing them nonetheless. Recently, there have been videos released of sharks attacking the cables, and shark teeth have been found embedded in them. Thus, has Google lined them with a Kevlar-like material to help shark-proof our precious Internet.

The only feasible segue between this and the rest of my content is sharks with lasers, which don’t really exist in real life but are actually sold as action figures over at ThinkGeek. It’s called “Shark With Frickin’ Laser Pointer,” and it’s only $12.99. You’re welcome.

You may not want to point that shark with a frickin’ laser pointer anywhere, though, because a man was just arrested at Tampa International Airport for pointing a laser pointer at four airplanes and a helicopter. The man, a 24-year-old Tampa resident, was charged with “misuse of a laser lighting device,” which is apparently a third-degree felony. According to deputies, his actions were meant as a prank, but the chief pilot of Tampa’s police air unit is having none of it.

“For the most part, it’s just people going out having fun,” he told The Verge, “But they don’t realize the consequences of (a pilot) being lased. It’s like a flashbulb going off in your face.” Apparently, it can take up to 15 minutes to get full vision back — a good reason to get upset about pranksters.

Lasers aren’t all bad, though. They’re being used in plenty of wonderful ways, one being to detect blood glucose levels without the traditional finger prick. A team at Princeton has developed a mid-infrared laser that can measure blood glucose levels without drawing any blood. The design works by pointing the laser at the user’s palm and measuring the dermal interstitial fluid rather than blood, which is almost as accurate. Right now, the machine is at 84 percent accuracy, or 4 percent above the required minimum, but the team is still working to improve it.

Cancer is also getting a new treatment thanks to lasers. The procedure, called Neuroblate, uses a laser a couple of millimeters wide to heat tumors until the cells die. The laser is pointed directly at the tumor, and the doctor has control over it the whole time. This surgery, while a bit lengthy at 10 hours, is less physically taxing and has a shorter recovery time than traditional surgery. Right now, it’s only being used for those who have already had surgery once before, but hopefully it will come into the limelight soon.

Lasers can do more than help our health, however. They have also helped scientists discover the buried remains of a “super henge” near the Stonehenge monument. The underground ruins are over 4,900 feet in circumference — about 14 times larger than the original monument. The new super henge has a large amount of new features, including over 50 10-foot pillars that may still be deep underground, 17 ritual monuments, massive prehistoric pits that may have been dug along “astronomic lines,” and a “long barrow” — a large wooden building used as a mortuary for bodies after something called “defleshing,” which sounds terrifying. The complex appears to have been built and modified over a period of around 11,000 years, but questions about its purpose are still being raised.

Laser mapping may be a trend in the coming years, as NASA is planning to point a laser-based device toward Earth tin order to map its forests in 3D. This isn’t just because everything needs to be in 3D these days — it should help to determine the amount of carbon our forests contain. GEDI, or “Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation,” will use lidar tech, referring to lasers and light, to send pulses to Earth’s surface and back, measuring the distance — and ultimately reporting the topography of the Earth. Researchers hope to use GEDI’s measurements to learn about land use and habitat diversity, as well as carbon measurements. The project is expected to launch in 2018.

Lasers seem to have a permanent and vital place in today’s society — even on a shark figurine’s head.

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