Drinking and Lasing

Scientists make lasers out of drinks for fun

Drinking and Lasing
Ad from 1969 issue of Scientific American. "Omit gin" section describes lasing of quinine water. [Courtesy: Stephen Wilk]
By | Posted April 4, 2010
Posted in: Physical Science Blog

Most laser scientists will probably tell you that drinking and lasing don’t mix. They would be wrong. Technically, you could mix yourself up a gin and tonic and make a laser from it! A couple of physicists at the National Bureau of Standards did something like that back in the 1970s in Boulder, Colorado. Optical engineer Steve Wilk featured their experiment last year in an article on edible lasers. The scientists got vodka, rum and gin to lase at a wavelength of 396 microns –which is invisible to the human eye.

They did it by pumping the alcohol with light from a carbon dioxide laser – a technology now widely used in “laser facelifts” –  and published a short note on their experiment in IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics.

“I’d heard stories about ‘gin and tonic’ lasers for years, but couldn’t find out anything definite about it,” says Wilk. He finally discovered that the gin and tonic laser legend arose out of a Kodak ad page of odd scientific discoveries in a 1969 issue of Scientific American, which revealed that “a certain well known brand of quinine water” could lase. Wilk even tracked down the researcher, who insisted it was not a serious experiment and refused to associate his name with it.

Take the gin from the guys in Boulder and the tonic from the Scientific American ad and voila, it’s a freaking gin and tonic laser!

So would my G&T make a good laser? Not particularly, according to the careful research published in IEEE. The gin laser was about a hundred times weaker than your average laser pointer. As the authors noted, “there are better uses of ethyl alcohol.”

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