The Stun Guns of Sci-Fi Are More Science, Less Fiction

'Star Trek' and 'Ghosbusters' both feature sci-fi energy weapons, but could they be real? 

Every summer, movie buffs can usually count on a sci-fi fantasy action sequence with a stun gun shooting everything from electrical bolts to lasers — never bullets.

This summer hasn’t disappointed on that front. In June, there were giant laser-guns in Independence Day: Resurgence and now in Ghostbusters, we see our heroes firing corkscrewish “proton streams,” derived from their iconic “proton packs.” In Star Trek Beyond the crew of the starship Enterprise continues to brandish their tried-and-true-but-sophisticated sci-fi ray gun, the “phaser.” Regardless of whether these weapons are set to stun, blast aliens, or wrangle ghosts, the question is this: Are zap-guns plausible?

Disclaimer time: Obviously, both the “phaser” of Star Trek and the “proton packs” of Ghostbusters are not specifically depicted as lasers in their respective fictional realities. A phaser is supposedly a “phased energy weapon,” but it was only named that so Star Trek could get away with it doing things lasers can’t. (Plus, the original crew of the Enterprise in “The Cage,” did in fact use “laser pistols.”)

Spock firing a "laser" in the original 'Star Trek' pilot. (Note: His eyes are closed! Good move, Spock!)

The “positron colliders” and “proton wands” of every iteration of Ghostbusters are supposedly designed to change the nature of the negative and positive protons and electrons in order to capture ghosts. Since capturing ghosts is impossible — ghosts are not real — what we’re interested in here is how both of these weapons actually work.) Phasers and proton streams both emit heat, are colorful, and can light things on fire and blow things up. But do we have anything like them in the real world?

One thing is for sure: The blasters and ray-guns of science fiction definitely pre-date real lasers. In 1898, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds saw its Martians wielding “heat-rays.” Starting with his first print appearance in Philip Francis Nowlan’s 1928 novella, Armageddon 2419 A.D, Anthony “Buck” Rogers fired variations of an “atomic pistol.” Conceived as a weapon that reduced its targets back down to their basic atoms (an “atomizer”), Buck’s fictional space-pistol saw many iterations, but the most famous was probably the 1935 version wielded in the popular black-and-white serials starring Buster Crabbe. That atomizer leapt into mainstream pop culture and became an icon when it was featured on the sleeve of the Foo Fighter’s self-titled album in 1995.

Still, most of these weapons were considered to be strictly in the domain of silly science fiction, to the point of being widely considered absurd.

That is, until around the end of the 1950s when the laser was invented. The invention of the laser is contested; at Bell Laboratories in 1957, physicists Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow developed various applications for an “an optical maser,” which was essentially technology that could focus microwave signals using visible light. At roughly the same time, however, a graduate student in physics presented a doctoral thesis for a device he called a “laser.” For 28 years, a lawsuit broiled between the scientists and the doctoral student, Gordan Gould. And while it’s still not clear whether Gould independently came up with the idea of lasers of Townes and Schawlow or blatantly stole an idea, the laser has cemented itself as not just a scientific miracle but a sci-fi mainstay.

The term “laser” is a rough acronym of “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” Crudely, a laser is the result of using lenses and application of energy, to focus light into a laser beam, or blast. Back in the days of Townes, Schawlow, and Gould, this definition almost exclusively applied to visible light. Today, though, “infrared” (non-visible) lasers are lumped together with visible lasers because it’s all light whether it’s visible or not.

It’s on this particular point where science fiction’s versions of “lasers” and real lasers find divergence. In nearly all versions of Star Trek, phasers fire a stream of energy which resembles a laser beam, though in the newer films these are visualized as “bolts or “pulses.” (Think of the blaster fire from Star Wars.) Various types of real-life lasers are in fact, capable of reproducing the visual effect we see in something like Star Trek, but would those colorful beams or bolts do any damage?

Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) using a laser rifle on the 1979 'Buck Rogers in the 25th Century'

“Most high-powered lasers actually aren’t visible,” Robert Waltmire, President of Laser Experts told Inverse. “These effects you see of high-powered lasers, red and blue and green — there’s no such thing. The high-powered lasers are in the infrared spectrum.” As Waltmire explained, the issue of a visible laser-energy weapon is directly related to wavelength: A longer wavelength holds more energy, and the further one gets on that wavelength, the less visible the light becomes.

There’s something eerily mystical and beautiful about this fact, as science has shown that the most powerful sci-fi lasers will be invisible. And that’s because lasers are derived from light, which of course, occurs, naturally. Waltmire pointed out that it is of course possible to have visible lasers that “burn things,” but that the wattage (energy) is usually low.

A quick Google-search will yield all sorts of results of these kinds of balloon-popping low-wattage lasers. You can even find folks who have fashioned their homemade lasers to look like phasers from Star Trek. But if we’re searching for laser weapons that look like the ones in science fiction movies, then we want to be able to see that beam or bolt, even if it’s not practical. For that, Inverse reached out to Drake Anthony, YouTube-famous as “styropyro” a homegrown laser-hobbyist and bonafide Internet sensation.

“I’ll be straight-up with you, I’ve seen no movies in my lifetime,” Anthony told Inverse. “I’ve seen no Star Trek, no Star Wars, so could you give me a description of the weapon you’re talking about?” The fact that Drake Anthony wasn’t inspired to fashion his impressive bespoke lasers because of science fiction lends him an amazing amount of credibility to his passion: He just likes these things because they are cool. After giving him a loose idea of what the Ghostbusters and various Kirk and Spock are up to with their energy weapons (something portable with decent range and an ability to knock things over, stun people, and/or blow things up), Anthony weighed in:

“It comes down to heating and energy storage,” he explained, “We’re limited by the amount of electrical energy we can store in a small device. If you’re talking about shooting people down with a laser, you’re going to have to have a battery that can store a lot of [electrical] energy.”

The range of a laser though isn’t exclusively about power though, in talking about Anthony’s Laser Bazooka, he mentioned that it had “bad optics, and that if the focusing lenses were “corrected” it could have a lot more range, meaning, at least in terms of how far the laser could “shoot,” power isn’t a huge issue. “A well-corrected 200-Watt laser can cut metal,” Anthony said, “My laser bazooka has great energy, but the beam is crap.” We can only assume Kirk’s hand-held phaser is an awesomely fine-tuned lense, which is why its beam always finds its mark. Accordingly, Anthony has helped to identify the three primary real-world challenges in creating portable visible laser weapons:

  • energy input
  • optics of the beam
  • HEAT

In all of Drake Anthony’s videos you can clearly see him wearing both protective eyewear and gloves. “Those heat issues can get pretty severe,” he said. This holds true in both real and reel life. In Star Trek, phasers are always depicted as being cool-to-the-touch after use, a fact that seems impossible with electrically-powered lasers. But what if these sorts of weapons weren’t reliant on electricity for power? What if the lasers derived their power from another source, like nuclear energy? Accordingly, the Ghostbusters are indeed using backpacks which seem to contain nuclear reactors which in turn, power their weapons. At this point, the tools of the Ghostbusters seem more realistic than anything Kirk, Spock, or Picard would use on Star Trek, at least in the energy efficiency and output departments.

Fake cover of OMNI featuring a proton pack from the original 'Ghostbusters'

“You don’t necessarily need electricity,” Anthony said, “You could use nuclear batteries like in some of our older spacecrafts or … you could use an actual radioactive substance to power a laser.” The danger here of course is obvious: If the user of such a laser weapon were exposed to tons of radiation, there are extremely dangerous side effects. In the original Ghostbusters, when Egon switches on Ray’s nuclear-powered proton pack, he backs away comically in fear of the radiation emanating off of it. But, in theory, if the nuclear power unit were in a protective casing, like lead, the user would be relatively protected from side-effects. So, a laser-gun hooked up to a nuclear backpack - like in Ghostbusters - doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. Score one for the Ghostbusters!

Still, both Holtzman in the new Ghostbusters and Ray Stanz in the original occasionally wear protective goggles, even though the other ‘Busters don’t. Initial storyboards for the original movie even had the Ghostbusters in helmets, but really, all of them should be wearing something! Ray tells Egon not to “look directly into the trap, in the first movie, implying, like laser technology, all of this stuff can do damage to your eyes.

“It’s a blinding device,” Drake Anthony told Inverse, “You could take a laser that’s just a fraction of the wattage of some of my strongest ones, and still use it to blind someone.” Assuming the technology that Captain Kirk uses with a phaser is similar to a laser, how could people fire such weapons and not be blinded? The easiest answer is that they couldn’t. If these beams of energy were lasers, the Ghostbusters and members of Star Fleet would be blind instantly.

As pointed out by Robert Waltmire, there is absolutely no reason for these high-powered types of lasers to be visible, so, if the new Bryan Fuller in 2017’s Star Trek wanted to be super-realistic, it’s phasers would be undramatically invisible. Still, even infrared lasers could cause a burn in the eye’s cornea, so some kind of eye protection would still be needed. Could all the Ghostbusters or everyone in the 23rd century be wearing contact lenses that shield them from the blind-effects of their ray guns?

Phasers being fired by two guys while wearing visors in 'Star Trek VI." HOWEVER, these guys had the visors to protect their identities, not their eyes.

“If these [theoretical] contact lenses were filtering out lasers, say blue lasers, you wouldn’t be seeing blue,” Anthony said. This means that there is some scientific viability to the advanced contact lenses the Ghostbusters wear to protect them from lasers bouncing around and damaging their eyes. But could that actually happen? “It’s possible, I guess,” Anthony said, “though, I’ve never heard of that before.”

Kirk and Spock fire phasers in a 2013 'Star Trek" videogame

Another common feature of laser-like weapons in sci-fi is the accompanying sound with the firing of the weapon, the telltale pew-pew or zap we’re all familiar with. “Believe it or not,” Robert Waltmire told Inverse, “If you mess around with these things … you can get all sorts of different tones … but the beam itself, you wouldn’t hear much … but if the beam is hitting something, YEAH. You’d hear that.”

The portable weapons on Star Trek exist in a far-flung future, the blasters of Star Wars occur in a distant past, while the Ghostbusters are rocking their energy blasts contemporarily. How far away are we, in reality from not just the homemade lasers that Drake Anthony creates, but the kind that could zap an intruder, like in Star Trek. 20 years? 30?

Picard and Riker blow up this guy in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' 

“It’s possible and very probable,” Waltmire told Inverse, “The first industrial lasers for fifty-foot cabinets…now they’re down to two-by-two squares. That exists now…so for a portable hand-held one that you’re talking about? I’d say you’re looking at about 5 or 10 years, actually.

With these kinds of projections, it’s probably a good idea to start predicting that the next series of popular programs featuring zaps from ray-guns won’t be in science fiction, but instead, real-life documentaries.

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