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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Question: What happens when laser pistols are everywhere?

The question is actually more complicated than the title suggests.  It reads as follows:
In a science fiction world where guns can be made of deadly lasers, pew pew pew, that you'd have to move at the speed of light to avoid, would there be a need for guns? I mean, if you got mad at someone and whipped out your laser gun, they could be dead before they heard the gun go off, sonic boom style. So... why guns?
I take as the underlying assumption here that such guns use realistic laser technology and not the sort of thing we see in science fiction from practically everything written in the 30s, 40s, and 50s to Star Wars to even the absolutely gorgeous trailer for the film adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas.  In other words, lasers that likely make less noise than contemporary guns, have
beams that shoot at the speed of light (or close to it), and so on.

Real laser weapons would actually present a lot of challenges for humankind.  Here I must express minor disagreement with Kathlyn Hawley about the impacts of such technology.  Laser technology would be limited by a number of factors, the most important of which are:  1) power supply, and 2) beam strength.  It is unlikely, for example, that we will have developed a power source capable of making beam weapons with the strength to blast through ship hulls and so on.  People certainly wouldn't be a problem, but I find it hard to believe that we will have solved the power gap in the next 100 years (though I could be wrong).

From that perspective alone, we likely won't use beam weapons.  They will cost too much money and take up too much space and power.  It's easier to detonate a bunch of modified explosives against the hull of an enemy ship or over enemy personal than it is to charge and maintain lasers with the same general effect.

The same will likely remain true for hand held weaponry, such as rifles and pistols.  In a far future setting, it's possible we could make the weapons light enough to warrant using as assault weapons, but even then, you're dealing with a weapon that will run out of charge mighty fast.  Even if you loaded up a mechanically augmented soldier (in a kind of exoskeleton), you'd have encumbered that soldier with a power supply that could be just as dangerous as the weapon itself.  There's a reason why we still don't load up soldiers with excessive amounts of protective gear:  they become slow and easy targets.  Tanks and other kinds of vehicles serve the function of massive fire power, yet here we run into the same problem as before:  where do you put the power supply and is it worth it when you can solve the problem with modified nuclear shells that leave no radiation behind (we'll probably figure out how to suck the radiation out or neutralize it, thus making nuclear warfare a standard model).

For me, lasers are just another of those science fiction concepts that you either accept or reject.  Like FTL.  Like millions of species of aliens that look vaguely human.  Like so many tropes of the genre that violate all manner of scientific "rules."  Because if we're going to be realistic about future weaponry, I doubt lasers are going to be useful for much more than stopping other weapons from doing their job.  We might see lasers used to take down planes, but since combat ships in space will have considerable amounts of shielding to combat radiation, I don't see these as being applicable except to take down missiles and other explosive devices.  We should be more concerned about the kinds of weapons we already have.  Future advances will make such things more deadly and easier to use.  And that will make for an interesting future.

Now it's your turn.  What do you think?  Do you disagree with me or Kathryn?  If so, why?  The comments are yours!

(Question suggested by Kathlyn Hawley on Google+.)

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