'Star Wars' Laser Kills Mosquitoes

Physicists have created a laser weapon that targets mosquitoes. It is hoped that by finding an effective weapon against mosquitoes, the incidence of malaria could be reduced. Today, malaria kills about one million people every year around the world.

"We'd be delighted if we destabilize the human-mosquito balance of power," says Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist who once worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the birthplace of some of the deadliest weapons known to man. More recently he worked on the mosquito laser, built from parts bought on eBay.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the device is the brainchild of Lowell Wood, an astrophysicist who worked with Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb. Teller was also the architect of the original plan to use lasers to shield America from the rain of Soviet nuclear arms. This plan became known as the "Star Wars" project.

Dr. Wood suggested that the laser shield idea could be used to zap mosquitoes.

"Demonstrating the technology recently, Dr. Kare, Mr. Myhrvold and other researchers stood below a small shelf mounted on the wall about 10 feet off the ground. On the shelf were five Maglite flashlights, a zoom lens from a 35mm camera, and the laser itself -- a little black box with an assortment of small lenses and mirrors. On the floor below sat a Dell personal computer that is the laser's brain."

Across the room, the glass box of mosquitoes is ready. The computer signals each "hit" with a gunshot sound.

Here's how it works: first, to locate individual mosquitoes, the flashlights shine into the tank from across the room. Each mosquito creates its own silhouette on reflective material behind it. The zoom lens picks up the shadows and feeds the data to the computer, which controls the laser and fires it at the bug.

Even better, the laser target only female mosquitoes; it uses the rate at which the wings beat to differentiate male from female.

This is a very cool idea, but I'd hesitate to credit it to Dr. Wood. Instead, consider science fiction author David Brin, who wrote about a laser-based bee zapper in his 1990 book Earth:

At least the bee zapper was working. For years their hives had been under siege by Africanized swarms, seeking to take over as they had everywhere else in the area... But a few weeks ago Claire had found a net reference by a fellow in Egypt, who'd discovered that the African strain beat their wings faster than the tame European variety. Burrowing into archaic TwenCen military technology, he had adapted sensor-scanning designs from an old defunct project called "Star Wars..." Like a glittering scarecrow, the cruciform laser system watched over her squat hives. When she had first turned it on, the surrounding fields had come startlingly alight with hundreds of tiny, flaming embers... (Read more about Brin's bee zapper)

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission of Technovelgy.com)

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Bill Christensen catalogues the inventions, technology and ideas of science fiction writers at his website, Technovelgy. He is a contributor to Live Science.