Physics: Principles and Problems Physics: Principles and Problems


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For use with Chapter 28
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Problems with Laser Pointers
Posted February 8, 1999

It wasn't long ago that lasers were only seen as ray guns in science fiction movies or in high-tech industrial laboratories. Today, lasers are manufactured to be very small and inexpensive, such as the ones found in CD players. One of the most common uses of lasers are in small handheld laser pointers.

These laser pointers project a red laser dot as far as 1500 feet and cost as little as $20. They come in very handy for business professionals and educators who give presentations. Some pet stores even sell them to pet owners as toys. Cats love to chase the red dot across the room.

However, laser pointers can also be abused, leading to very annoying--and even dangerous--situations. Teenagers and pre-teens buy the pointers and use them to cause mischief in classrooms, sporting events and movie theaters. The users project the laser dot onto a movie screen, a presenter's body, or onto a hockey rink or basketball court in an attempt to distract players.

Unfortunately, the abuse of laser pointers does more than just annoy audiences and presenters. It can also be very dangerous. The red dots projected from these pointers are indistinguishable from that of laser sightings used on some firearms. Police officers have been "spotted" and have reacted as if they were about to be shot. Drivers can also be temporarily blinded by pointers, causing them to lose control of their cars. Although no one has been seriously hurt in these situations, this can lead to potentially fatal consequences.

In addition, laser pointers can damage a person's eyes. The FDA has announced that looking directly into the beam of a laser pointer can be even more damaging than looking directly at the sun. Because lasers are super intense and concentrated beams of light, they can burn the retina if aimed into the eye.

Cities across the United States have passed or are considering laws that ban the use and sale of laser pointers to minors. Certain stadiums in the country have already banned their use during sporting events. Some schools have banned student use of laser pointers completely on school grounds, similar to existing bans on cellular phones and pagers. Penalties range from confiscation of the pointer and parental notification to fines and jail sentences.

Use the Internet to search for magazine and newspaper articles about legislation to ban laser pointers. How do legislators plan to control their use?



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