Dangerous to those who profit from the way things are

research * the future * culture

Science can be lame, too.

Since writing more SF, I pay more attention to science. Doing so allows me to examine global conflict and development from another angle, one more intimately connected to reason and research than strained appeals ethics that we are all only presumed to share. My interest in and appreciation for the field consequently makes me twice as baffled and frustrated when I hear about utter wastes of time, effort, and resources like the Anti-Mosquito Laser.

Now, astrophysicist Jordin Kare from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wood, Myhrvold, and other experts have developed a handheld laser that can locate individual mosquitoes and kill them one by one. The developers hope that the technology might be used to create a laser barrier around a house or village that could kill or blind the insects. Alternatively, flying drones equipped with anti-mosquito lasers could track the insects with radar and then sweep the sky with the laser.

The researchers are tuning the strength of the laser so that it kills mosquitoes without harming other insects or, especially, people. The system can even distinguish between males and females by the frequency of their wing movements, which may be important since only females spread the parasite.

Now, I’m all for lasers. I’m married to Death Ray, after all. But this? This is a waste. Bednets cost ten dollars a pop, kill mosquitos, and don’t require regular tech support. Lasers do. Lasers are delicate. They’re made of crystals and mirrors. They don’t like flying around in UAV’s. Why? Because even a tiny fracture can ruin a crystal’s ability to lase. Even a small misalignment of the mirrors can change the laser’s strength. If you want to set up these machines in remote locations, provide technical training — provide an education — to the end user. This alone will do more for ending the spread of disease than any expensive single-use device ever can. 

The science behind this is cool. Distinguishing wing movements? Protecting whole villages? Awesome. Wasting time and money on a single-use device which will require constant, specialized maintenance in an area which might almost never receive it? Not.

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  1. Wollff

     /  March 16, 2009

    DARPA will jump at that idea. Just substitute “missile” for “mosquito”, leave out the malaria parts and there is a whole world of applications…

    • True, but I’m not sure how well that would actually work. (If your target acquisition algorithm is even a little bit flawed, or the missile itself suddenly deviates from the expected path, you could be shooting down passenger jets in no time.) This is my issue with truck lasers, too: they’re hot, unstable, and inefficient in combat environments, especially against guerillas or insurgents. About the only thing that turret-style lasers are good for is cutting big swaths in crowds, and that’s just not how war is prosecuted, any longer.

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, Tor.com, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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