When rocket scientists shoot lasers at mosquitoes, does it mean they're bored and inhumane? No, it means that they can build lasers using parts bought off eBay... all in the name of battling malaria.
It's certainly sad to imagine that the over-the-top, highly touted Star Wars space defense system of the 1980's--also dubbed as the Strategic Defense Initiative by Ronald Regan himself--has been reduced to mere bug smashing (or, in this case, bug disintegration). But that is exactly what is going on in a Seattle lab led by astrophysicist Lowell Wood: using lasers to zap mosquitoes. His efforts aren't malicious, at least not on a public level even though he probably wouldn't think twice about smashing one biting his neck. Dr. Wood previously worked with Edward Teller, the notorious father of the hydrogen bomb and the mastermind behind the Cold War's now-defunct Star Wars plan.
Now reborn as a "bug killer," the laser system came at the request of former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold who now runs Intellectual Ventures LLC. According to Myhrvold, Bill Gates approached him for help in exploring ways to combat malaria. Thus, in a brainstorming session, Dr. Wood suggested using lasers to zap the plagued bugs. Once all parties agreed, Dr. Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist who once worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and another Star Wars scientist jumped on board. An entomologist with a PhD in mosquito behavior and other experts joined the team as well, and eventually the new team killed their first mosquito in early 2008 using a hand-held laser built from parts bought on eBay.
"We like to think back then we made some contribution to the ending of the Cold War with the Star Wars program," Dr. Kare told the Wall Street Journal. "Now we're just trying to make a dent in a war that's actually gone on a lot longer and claimed a lot more lives."
Apparently no mosquitoes have come into harm save for a few initial sacrifices... yet. The current experiments consist of a harmless beam that only pinpoints the insects from a contraption 100 feet away. Eventually the scientists want to see houses or villages barricaded in a laser net that would either blind or kill the mosquitoes. In fact, they even envision drone aircraft equipped with laser turrets that will shoot down the pesky bugs from above with "death dealing protons."
But the problem the scientists currently face is just how strong to make the laser. After all, mosquitoes aren't the only inhabitants in the air: there are butterflies, bees, parachuting humans and other useful bugs. Needless to say, shooting down a flock of seagulls (birds or the 80's synth band) would probably be a bad thing. And even though the scientists haven't figured out the right dosage of power, the laser can actually determine whether the mosquito is male or female. This is crucial, as it is the female mosquito that sucks the blood and transmits malaria; the male simply consumes sugary plant nectar, thus has a free ticket to live. How does the laser determine the sex? Males and females have different wing beats.
In a controlled environment, however, one without butterflies and other bugs, mosquitoes experience a death yanked straight out of science fiction movies: the laser strikes, the insect bursts into flame, and then crashes down to the surface in a smoldering heap. Honestly, in some ways, that sounds like poetic justice, especially after a night out in the forest with no bug repellant. "We'd be delighted if we destabilize the human-mosquito balance of power," said Dr. Kare.
Does that sound inhumane? If so, just remember that most US cities spray pesticides in the evening air every summer to reduce the mosquito count. Just imagine the benefit lasers could offer if mounted on the back of those trucks instead of chemical sprayers. Then again, with the U.S. Army mounting lasers on tanks capable of destroying other tanks, these mosquito killers could very well be secret weapons of Homeland Security dressed up as bug zappers. After all, these Weapons of Mosquito Destruction stem from the original Star Wars program meant to defend America against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.