This weekend, I happened to catch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids on television. I probably saw this movie dozens of times when I was a kid, but this was the first time as an adult. It’s a fun, lighthearted romp of a Disney movie, great for kids, and so on and so forth. However, I started thinking about Dr. Szalinski’s little invention in realistic terms, and I must say I was quickly horrified at the implications. Horrified, I tell you.
It is a Death Ray
Essentially, Szalinski’s ‘shrink ray’ collapses the empty space in atoms, meaning they will take up less space. Okay, fine – assuming you can do this, that seems to have some uses. Let us not pretend, however, that any living thing undergoing this process would live through it. Just because you remove the space doesn’t mean you remove the mass – the kids would have the exact same number of particles and, therefore, act upon and be acted upon gravitationally the exact same way. The difference, however, is that they would lose surface area and volume. Do you know how many different things in your body rely upon surface area and volume to function? Your lungs and circulatory system, even assuming they could still function, would not have sufficient area to perform respiration effectively – your body would still have every bit as many cells to feed with oxygen, but lungs so small and arteries so tiny that it would be impossible to feed it all. The kids would have suffocated, too heavy to move (your muscles couldn’t function, either), as impossibly dense specks on the attic floor. Szalinsky probably would have broken his dustpan on their tiny corpses.
What About Non-Living Matter?
Okay, so what if we just don’t shoot people with the thing. Szalinski points out that he intends it to be used to save room in space vehicles, make denser fuels that burn longer, and so on. Seems like a good idea, right? WRONG.
I’m not a physicist, right, but I do know a couple things. I know, for instance, that the reason atoms are mostly ’empty space’ (though that term is a bit misleading) is because atoms have massive amounts of electrical energy filling them – wave/particles called electrons, zooming around, causing massive amounts of charge. Now, we all know what happens if you split the nucleus of an atom – huge amounts of energy is released in the form of an atomic reaction. Now, what makes us think that if you collapse the energy of the electrons in upon itself, there won’t also be a massive burst of energy released? Granted, the nucleus contains its energy in a much smaller space, but basic physics and chemistry insists that electrons have the exact same amount of energy contained in their orbitals, it’s just more spread out. So, if you eliminate or somehow collapse that energy, where does it all go? In a giant goddamned explosion, that’s where. An explosion that would destroy the object you’re shrinking and probably all other objects for miles. BOOOM.
What Happens When the Military Gets its Mitts on This?
Fine, let’s assume that Szalinski manages to invent his machine without killing his family or blowing up his town. Do we want to live in a world where shrink rays are mounted on tanks or airplanes? Have you thought about how destructive that could be? A plane (or satellite!) could shrink a bridge, a damn, a nuclear power plant and cause untold mayhem and destruction with no possible means of defense. Commandos could arrive in secure locations via mail and expand into a killing team within defensive perimeters. Bombs would be every bit as effective miniaturized (probably – I think the same masses of chemicals reacting with each other would retain the same properties, regardless of their change in density. I easily could be wrong about that, though. Thoughts, chemists?), but they would be almost impossible to detect. Bodies could be hidden with little chance of them ever being found. The idea of ‘disappearing somebody’ would be disturbingly real. We could find ourselves entering a nightmarish future where nobody is safe at any time and there is nothing – nothing – anyone could do about it.
All because of some schmuck with an attic full of electronics and too much free time. Thanks, Wayne Szalinski. Thanks a lot.
Lasers are cool. Face it. Look deep in your heart; accept it as truth. Ever since you and I and everybody else saw Star Wars, we’ve wanted lasers. Not for dinky science experiments or for pointless, boring crap like ‘communication’ or ‘entertainment’. We’ve wanted laser to incinerate our enemies, dammit! We want ray guns!
Well, we’re getting closer. As of 2009, lasers hit battlefield strength. Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t mean raygun-toting stormtroopers anytime soon. That laser they’re talking about has to ride around on a truck. It eats HUGE amounts of energy, it costs as much as a fighter jet (hell, probably more), and if you use it wrong, it probably melts/blows up/lights on fire or all three at once.
And all this just to shoot at mortars.
The inherent problem with lasers/energy weapons is that they don’t really do anything substantially better than we can do already with conventional guns. War is the most utilitarian of all laboratories–a guy with a shovel can kill just like a guy with a $10,000 weapon can kill. If you’re spending that money, it better damned well let you kill $10,000 better than the guy with the shovel/hunk of rock/pointy stick he found on the side of the road. For a laser to be useful, it needs to fill a niche that other military tools don’t or can’t.
For that reason, I find it rather doubtful we’ll be seeing man-portable laser rifles anytime soon. Regular rifles shoot just fine, actually, and until some aspect of military engagements change to force the usage of lasers, they won’t be used. If the AK-47 ain’t broke, don’t fix it (though, this just in, they are). This is the same as the trouble with giant robots, which I’ve discussed before.
So, what would a laser be better at than a gun? Well, a laser causes damage by generating heat, though it can take a
second or two for it to transmit that heat. Kinetic Energy weapons deliver all their force at once, pretty much, while a laser builds up. The good news is that the laser could likely keep the focus on a very precise spot for a comparatively long time. How is this useful? Well, it would be useful in the same way that the military seems to think–anti-materiel, or, in English, for blowing up/destroying stuff rather than people. Think about it: you can, with virtually unerring accuracy, place all the power of your weapon on a single rivet of the enemy tank/ship/plane/gun. If you’ve got troops trained well enough, they could make junkyards of enemy fleets or convoys in a matter of seconds–pretty cool–and with relatively little loss of life (yay, prisoners!). It’s got a use, certainly.
As for ray guns, they might show up, but they aren’t going to be lasers. Perhaps some kind of plasma thrower or radiation sprayer, maybe (but, again, they need to beat out good old-fashioned firearms to make it worth it). That, however, isn’t the direction the military is currently heading for their small arms–don’t think lasers so much as high-tech grenade launchers and ultra- lightweight machine guns.
So, yeah, no lasers for blasting rebel scum. Sorry guys. On the bright side, though, don’t be so disappointed–the blasters of Star Wars were really just plasma weapons, anyway. Those we might still build…someday. If we were really, really mad.