What's a laser? Don't ask.

The concept behind the development of the laser was proposed by Albert Einstein in his 1917 paper Zur Quantentheorie der Strahlung (On the Quantum Theory of Radiation). Over the next four decades, teams of scientists in Europe and North America pursued the concept, producing remarkable developments. In 1958, Bell Labs researchers Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow filed a patent application for the laser.

The first practical laser was produced two years later. The thing was, nobody knew what to do with it. It was referred to as "a solution looking for a problem." One early attempt at finding a use for the concentrated light beam showed up in Goldfinger, an early 007 motion picture. Secret agent James Bond (played by the inimitable Sean Connery) was nearly sliced in half--a truly cringeworthy scene--by a crude laser. Nice try, but not much of a market there.

Laser stands for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." The...

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