We’re so used to lasers that it’s easy to forget that the word is an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” As its name explains, lasing is all about powerful light beams made of photons with tightly controlled energies. It’s easy to forget too that the laser’s invention changed the modern world, particularly in the case of tiny semiconductor laser diodes like those in your DVD drives.
Now Japanese scientists have invented the equivalent semiconductor device but for sounds. These are devices for making very controlled vibrations, making vibrations with tightly controlled energies–which physicists call phonons. This of course means that a laser-like device for sound is called a phaser. And Mr. Spock has nothing to do with it.
Phasers have existed for a while, but the Japanese breakthrough is to use similar sorts of semiconductor technology to make a nanoscopic “drum” which they then “beat” using bursts of electricity. It oscillates in an extremely controlled way at 170 kilohertz (eight and a half times higher in frequency than your weak human ears can detect, though we can’t speak for Spock’s pointy Vulcan ears).
The device is in its very early infancy, but ultimately it will be able to generate incredibly controlled bursts of sound–which could replace timing oscillators in computer circuitry, or even be used as a more advanced form of ultrasound scanning tool. Which means it may have all sorts of medical and engineering applications, and is thus perhaps more akin to Doctor Who‘s Sonic Screwdriver than any weapon wielded by Captain Kirk.
It’s particularly exciting because the most innovative uses of phasers are unlikely to emerge immediately, in the same way the laser’s inventors couldn’t have predicted a DVD, drone-killing lasers, or arty laser rainbows.