From Laser Art to Laserium

The folks at Science Friday included me today in a story about the ways in which the laser migrated from scientists’ labs to art galleries and planetariums. If you liked the show, here’s more of the story…

This advertisement, published just a few years after the first optical lasers were demonstrated, asked the question: “Where does the laser go from here?”

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One of the places it went was the artist’s studio and the art gallery. For example, In Washington, DC, artist Rockne Krebs started experimenting in 1967 with lasers and produced several innovative installations.

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Krebs in his 1968 piece Sculpture Minus Object. (© Estate of Rockne Krebs/Licensed by VAGA, New York)

Another part of this story was the career of physicist Elsa Garmire. Trained at Harvard and then MIT in the 1960s, Garmire was a pioneer in laser research.

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Garmire in her lab, c. 1970.

In the late 1960s, while doing a postdoc at Caltech, Garmire began to experiment with using lasers to make art. Initially, she created “lasergrams” – photographs made by shining laser beams through various diffraction media. Here’s one example from 1969.

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One of Garmire’s “Lasergrams”

Garmire also explored a variation on photographing manipulated laser images via live shows using a HeNe laser and rotating diffraction wheels and then filming the changing shapes and colors. This sowed the seeds for what eventually became Laserium.

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Filming a laser show in Garmire’s lab, likely 1970 or 1971.

Before she returned to a very successful full-time career in scientific research, Garmire’s experimental live laser shows caught the attention of Ivan Dryer, a Los Angeles-based film maker.

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Ivan Dryer, c. 1975.

Dryer soon realized that filming Garmire’s laser images was aesthetically inferior to seeing the intensity and purity of their colors in person. In the fall of 1970, he arranged for a live and – to his eyes – captivating demonstration of Garmire’s system, accompanied by classical music, for staff at the Griffith Observatory. The observatory management, however, was less enchanted with what they saw as entertainment, not education. Disappointed but still motivated, Dryer and Garmire co-founded a company in February 1971 called Laser Images Inc.. Riffing on the popularity of planetarium shows, they called their product “Laserium.”

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The idea eventually took off. Laserium finally debuted at Griffith Observatory in November 1973, running on four consecutive Mondays, three times a day.  Advertisements said “Be Prepared.” Despite later stereotypes of Laserium, the first shows had no music by Pink Floyd. The run was a success and shows at Griffith continued for 28 years.

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By 1977, Dryer’s growing team of live laser performers were putting on shows in more than 15 cities in the U.S. and abroad and Laserium was a registered trademark. Laserium was based around a standard system, using a low power krypton laser split by a prism into four colored beams.

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1973 test of krypton laser system in Garmire’s Caltech lab.

The details of the system are preserved in the patent application Dryer and two colleagues filed in July 1975 for a “laser light image generator” that can create a “plurality of light images in different colors from a single laser light.”

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Laserium had a broad appeal – stoners, geeks, and planetarium junkies all turned out to see shows. Its popularity was no doubt enhanced by the relative novelty of lasers for the general public in the mid-1970s. The 1977 film Star Wars added to people’s interest in all things laser-y.

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Laserium, in Marvel’s The Amazing Spider Man, 1977

Just as planetarium shows have helped popularize astronomy, Laserium can be seen as a public display of laser technology, its roots traceable back to 19th century displays of electricity and electrical effects by people like Michael Faraday and Nikola Tesla.

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Nikola Tesla giving an electrical demonstration; from Scientific American, 1892.

Laserium was not without its aesthetic admirers. One art writer, for example, referred to experiments with laser projection as the “seeds of what will become the high, universally acclaimed visual art of the future.” Given Laserium’s penchant for attracting attendees whose appreciation of choreographed laser light was chemically enhanced, “high” visual art takes on another meaning as well.

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After peaking in the late 1970s when some 70 people worked for the company, Laserium slowly faded in popularity. Often lampooned as the preferred entertainment of pot heads and LSD trippers, we can also see Laserium as the somewhat disreputable cousin of the venerable planetarium show. Nonetheless, by 2002, more than 20 million people around the world had seen a Laserium show – its run at Griffith lasted some 28 years – and its idiosyncratic blend of music and spectacle had become part of popular culture.

Laserium’s story tells us that we can no longer think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as an “anti-science” or “anti-technology” period. A more nuanced reading shows that engineers, artists, and the general public in general sought and found alternative forms of science and technology. Laserium was a colorful off-shoot of this search for a different, groovier, science.

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Project Moneyshot?

Yesterday – the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering spaceflight – Russian billionaire Yuri Milner made international headlines with his announcement of an initial $100 million investment called the Breakthrough Starshot.

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Milner joined by host of scientific celebrities including Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, and Ann Druyan

Starshot’s proposed plan would unfold like this: sometime, decades hence, a rocket ship would deliver a thousand or more craft, each about the size of deck of cards, into space. This swarm of spacecraft would unfurl tiny solar sails. Then, a giant laser array on Earth would send beams of intense coherent light, accelerating the fleet up to about 20% the speed of light.

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Assuming accurate navigation, in about 20 years, the space swarm would arrive at Alpha Centauri, some 4.37 light years from us. The craft would hurtle past the star system, beaming information and pictures back to Earth. Estimated total cost? Somewhere between $5-10 billion.

Russian billionaire? Check. Giant laser? Check. Someone get Ian Fleming’s estate on the phone…

Milner fits perfectly into the category of historical actors I have called visioneers: he possesses an expansive view of how his technological projects could alter the future; he has a scientific background; and he has the means and skill to promote and publicize his ideas, taking them to a wide audience. And – unlike the people I wrote about in my book – Milner has the added benefit of gazillions of dollars to fuel his dream.

When I read about Breakthrough Starshot in The New York Times this morning, more than anything I was drawn to the comments (yes, I read them). Other than those people who wrote to say the whole idea was stupid – a not terribly helpful critique – many remarks fell into two main categories.

Group One said (paraphrasing): “This is an awesome idea. It will inspire people to study science. Humanity needs big ideas. We’re a curious species. We should, nay, we need to do this. Ad astra!!”

Group Two wasn’t so boosterish: “We have real problems here and now. This money could be better spent right here in our communities. Moreover, isn’t this just part of the larger plan of the rich and powerful seeking ways off this rock when everything heads south? Tax these people now!”

More than anything, people’s reactions reminded me of public debates in the mid-1970s about the future possibilities of building large-scale settlements that would float freely out in space. Associated most closely with the visioneering ideas of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, the idea of space colonies provoked a very similar response four decades ago.

A good sense of this polarization can be found in the pages of a book that appeared in 1977. Edited by Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, Space Colonies presented a myriad array of opinions and responses from experts, pundits, and ordinary citizens about O’Neill’s proposed off-world habitats.

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Cover of Brand’s 1977 book

About four out of five correspondents who wrote to Brand viewed the idea of space colonies favorably. Some imagined space settlements as an extension of the groovy “back to land” lifestyle that was popular in the 1970s. (This was ironic given that space settlements would be hugely intensive in terms of resources and capital and require Apollo-like management to succeed.) More sadly, a few people expressed fatalism and even a sense of desperation about the future need for settlements in space: “Whatever I can do,” said one, “may help my beautiful daughter to slip away from this failing civilization here on Earth.”

But space colonies also provoked outrage among some readers. Spending such huge amounts of money to circumvent the planet’s limits struck one reader as “well thought out, rational, very alluring” and also “quite mad.” It appeared as technological fix taken to its logical extreme. For these people, the idea of space settlements violated British economist E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” philosophy and his ideals of small-scale appropriate technology. Others detected signs of a massive new federal program and the military-industrial complex at work – “the same old technological whiz-bang and dreary imperialism,” one person said.

An illustration in Brand’s book captured readers’ split opinions. One page showed an artist’s colorful rendition of a spherical space settlement. The facing page presented a 19th century photograph of a Native American couple who appeared to be gazing at it – the text added above the man’s head said, “Goodbye. Good luck.” The woman’s reaction? “Good riddance.”

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I still believe visioneers as a species are essential components to a healthy technological or innovation ecosystem. But, since my book appeared in 2013, I’ve attenuated my enthusiasm. Specifically, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of many of the individuals who fit the category I described. This is, in part, because so many of them – Milner, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, et al. – are white males with Silicon Valley connections and an Ivy League pedigree. Where are the women and people of color? And what’s with the space obsession?

I’m old enough to remember watching the final Apollo missions on television. Part of me loves the idea of spacecraft speeding off to another star system. But another part of me has to agree with those who suggested less-than-radical things like fixing the water supply in Flint or repairing America’s infrastructure. Sure, it’s not as glitzy-sexy as spacecraft and giant lasers. But we should want expansive visions of technological possibilities both here and propelling us out to the stars. That’s a future I’d love to see. Even if it does have a giant laser in it.