Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to shine our Friday spotlight on Jeff Hecht, a freelance science and technology journalist for magazines, and author of nonfiction books and short science fiction stories.
Jeff writes nonfiction for magazines including New Scientist, Laser Focus World, Nature, IEEE Spectrum, and Optics & Photonics News. He has written several books on both the technology and history of lasers and fiber optics. He first covered laser weapons in the 1970s, when they were so big and complex that one wag said the only conceivable military use of one laser built into an airplane was “to drop it on the enemy.” His latest book, Lasers, Death Rays, and the Long, Strange Quest for the Ultimate Weapon covers adventures from the times of Archimedes and Nikola Tesla to the present day, when industrial lasers are being modified to zap drones and insurgent rockets.
My first question for you, Jeff – Where can people find your work? (Besides Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester –though they should totally check here first!):
Lasers, Death Rays, published by Prometheus Books, is available from Annie’s Book Stop right here in Worcester, and other fine bookstores. My nonfiction is available online in Laser Focus World, IEEE Spectrum, Optics & Photonics News, New Scientist, Nature, and other magazines. My short fiction has appeared in Nature Futures (accessible through Nature.com), Analog, and anthologies such as Extreme Planets and the NESFA Press book Conspiracy!
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you write? What can readers expect from Lasers, Death Rays?
Lasers, Death Rays, describes our infatuation with the idea of directed energy, from the lightning bolts of the ancient gods to Nikola Tesla and modern military engineers. The concert inspired great enthusiasm, and some interesting scams, but even after the invention of the laser, the reality fell far short of expectations throughout the twentieth century. Only in the past decade has the giggle factor been overcome, and only for a few “easy” targets.
What kind of research went into writing this book? What is your favorite research story? What cool facts and findings didn’t make it into the book, but you loved discovering?
I spent a lot of time digging into old archives of death ray research, as well as talking with old-timers who built giant lasers in the 1960s and 1970s. I had a fascinating interview with the Air Force’s third female four-star general, Ellen Pawlikowski, who as a colonel ran the Airborne Laser Laboratory, and saw both the energy and enthusiasm of the researchers and the limits of the technology. The most interesting surprise came from digging into a report that an MIT professor who was an expert on high-voltage engineering wrote on Tesla’s death-ray proposals after his death in 1943, and managed to be very diplomatic in saying that they were useless. His name was John Trump, and one can only wish that some of his skills had rubbed off on his nephew Donald.
What was the inspiration for Lasers, Death Rays? What were the steps you took to bring it from initial inspiration to the finished book?
I was inspired by the tremendous advances in solid-state laser technology over the last decade or two that took high-energy lasers from the level of vacuum-tube computers to the level of personal computers. We’re still a long way from Star Trek phasers, but the giggle factor is gone for laser artillery to shoot down drones or insurgent missiles
What character did you love or hate the most while writing? And why?
Gordon Gould, the overage grad student who filed a patent on the laser and in early 1959 went to DARPA with his boss to apply for a $300,000 grant to try to build a laser. He so excited DARPA that they gave him a million dollars. But they also classified the project, and wouldn’t give Gould a clearance because he had been a communist.
What is your favorite part of being a writer? Of the whole writing and publishing process? What do you think has been your greatest lesson in the journey thus far?
My favorite part about writing about the history of technology is learning what happened, making sense of it, and explaining it to readers. This means talking with interesting people who did interesting things, and putting together the pieces of what they know to understand the big picture. That often reveals surprising links and connections. The high-energy solid-state laser technology being developed to defend against rockets and drones relies on making lasers in optical fibers, a technology invented in Southbridge, Massachusetts at the old American Optical Company in 1961. It wasn’t ready then, but during the millennial technology bubble new technology made higher powers possible. The company that drove those high-energy fiber lasers is IPG Photonics, founded in 1990 in Moscow but now based in Oxford, Massachusetts.
Thanks very much for taking the time to answer our questions, Jeff! We look forward to seeing you on Sunday, June 9th from 1 – 3 PM at Annie’s. I’m sure you have some more very interesting information to give us about Lasers, etc.