Wednesday, October 28, 2009

When is a laser not a laser?

I just happened to catch the weather person on the 11 o'clock news refer to an approaching cold front as "straight as a laser." Normally I'd let something like this slide, but for some reason it penetrated my tired brain.

I just happened to catch the weather person on the 11 o'clock news refer to an approaching cold front as "straight as a laser." Normally I'd let something like this slide, but for some reason it penetrated my tired brain.

"Why," I asked my wife, "Do people use the term laser when they mean laser beam?" During the baseball season I heard "like a laser" used countless times to describe a thrown high fast ball or a line drive to left field. Again meaning a laser beam not a laser.

For the record, officially and correctly, a laser is a device that generates coherent bundles of photons that are focused into a high energy density spot that can produce a physical change in a material. Simple definition. The laser is a device that that produces a beam of light, and it's this beam of light that is straight and bright.

So, no more straight as a laser folks, it's straight as a laser beam.

Having said this I'll move onto criticism raised by Martien van Dijk (ILS Editorial Advisor). It's not turbine blade drilling, it's laser drilling of turbine blades, he reminded me in a recent e-mail response to a query about the process, of which he is an expert. His exact comment was, "English is not my native tongue but in Dutch we can't say 'turbine blade drilling.' We would say, 'drilling of turbine blades.' Turbine blade drilling would be correct if the process was named turbine blade, but we can say laser drilling, although I would say drilling of airfoils."

I sheepishly accepted Martien's grammar lesson acknowledging my error, but completely forgetting to correct him on the process, which is actually laser beam drilling of turbine blade holes.

ILS is read in more than 130 countries around the world, mostly in English, but also in Simplified Chinese and Japanese (Kanji, Katakana, and Hiragana). By not paying strict attention to the incorrect usage of terms we, ourselves, are promulgating the problem worldwide. Imagine an engineer in China scratching his head as he tries to puzzle out turbine blade drilling, or whatever it translates into simplified Chinese.

To begin with, the word laser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. When I first started working with this device we were referring to it as an optical maser (shows you how old I am--actually I was a child prodigy). In fact, when I wrote a thesis on this technology as a postgraduate it was the first time I used laser as a term. Recently while researching for a patent litigation I found terms used in the 1960s like--to laser or lasering a material--so already it was being used as a verb instead of its proper use (according to Webster) as a noun. Even today when I see this usage I cringe as it is not one that I accept as correct.

If we accept the correct definition of the word then the laser is always the device that is producing light radiation (the laser beam). And carrying this one step further technically this radiation, since it is produced in a manmade device will spread forever (diverge) as it, now the laser beam by definition, radiates unless we intercept it with an optical element that will cause it to focus (usually converging) to a usable spot size for laser beam processing.

It's these last three words that pose my conundrum. Many times when I am writing or lecturing I will use the laser beam term correctly, but more often I, like others, revert to shorthand and substitute laser. Thus, laser drilling of turbine blades. I know it's incorrect and when I edit articles submitted to ILS I try to use the correct terminology, but find that I accede to the author's usage and use laser instead of laser beam.

I can think of two acquaintances who would not hesitate to take me to task on this, one a former co-worker who as a scientist was super critical of my marketing use of terms like beam delivery (instead of beam generation), the other a former editorial colleague who would not hesitate to quote the New York Times style manual of the terms as gospel. As I write and edit I've got these guys perched on my shoulders reading every word I produce. Both don't hesitate to box my ears when I get it wrong. So with proverbial cauliflower ears I slog my way through texts, mixing terms, all in the spirit of writing to readers' levels. My premise--it is common usage today, although technically wrong to call a laser beam a laser.

Is it legitimate for an editor to seek protection for error under the guise of "common usage?" And this is what I have been wrestling with for the past few days. I'll be honest with you, after 24 years of editing and more than that writing I have yet to hear from anyone about improper use of the term laser when laser beam is intended. So I suppose this blog will open the floodgates of comments from those more grammatically correct than me.

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