Book Review: Lasers, Death Rays, and the Long Strange Quest for the Ultimate Weapon

Author Jeff Hecht and I are long-time acquaintances and distant colleagues whose paths intersect at various points relative to the time covered by the book.

As a reviewer of this book, with one of the longest titles I have read at 12 words, I offer the required disclosures.

First, author Jeff Hecht and I are long-time acquaintances and distant colleagues whose paths intersect at various points relative to the time covered by the book. We first met when I was employed by American Optical Corporation in a then-novel intrapreneurship to create a commercial laser business within and with the full technical support of the company's Research Division, whose laser activity Jeff writes about extensively in the first half of this book.

Secondly, Bill Shiner, another long-time associate and friend with a repeating presence in this book, served as Applications Manager at AO’s Laser Products Group, and reported to me. Later, we were neighbors with interrelated businesses—he at Laser, Inc. and me at Ferranti Electric.

Thirdly, I was later involved in another intrapreneurship at Avco Everett Research Laboratory. As a staff member there, I was acquainted with and a next-door neighbor to the infamous Thumper, which is referred to in a key early part of the book.

And finally, Jeff and I both are still contributing editors to Laser Focus World.

With the above, possibly in some minds perceived conflicts, allow me to say this book is a very readable, extensively documented history of what some would say in retrospect was an upsetting period in the security history of the United States of America. To quote the book's PR, "This is a well-tale about the evolution of technology and the reaches of human ambitions (emphasis mine)." In the latter case, I write with some inside knowledge, as I am quite familiar with many of the individuals, from Nobel Laureates to politicians to scientists and engineers that populate the early pages. For this is a book that, while strong on laser technology, is even stronger on the impact of personalities with all their foibles.

I’m not sure if Jeff purposely set out to feature analysis of each of the key players, but as he works the technology timeline, he certainly does, in many instances with typical Hechtarian dry humor. Because of this, the first half of the book is a fast and entertaining read, even I suspect to the nontechnical readers.

You can't help but be pulling for the laser developers, as they tried to live up to promoters' hype. You may laugh at it now, but it was deadly serious in the old days and Jeff proves it with an inexhaustible 34 pages of references. As the old James Thurber and Casey Stengel gag line goes, "You could look it up."

Finally, in the early days of promoting industrial laser material processing, I used to rant and rave anytime a lazy journalist headlined a story "Death Ray Benefits Mankind"—even to the point of threatening legal action. And I always had to correct overwrought hosts introducing me at conferences with the same trite phrase. We were trying to build a global market and did not need this downbeat image.

Jeff Hecht, Lasers, Death Rays, and the Long Strange Quest for the Ultimate Weapon, Prometheus Books, 308 pages, ISBN 9781633884601; Hardcover $25.00, Ebook $11.99; prometheusbooks.com.

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