How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 642

How do lasers work?
Lasers use systems with excess energy to amplify light. These systems, typically atoms or atom-like structures in solids, are in excited states—they have more than their minimum amounts of energy. An excited system can get rid of its excess energy in many different ways, but certain systems tend to emit the excess energy as photons—particles of light. While an excited system will emit a photon spontaneously if you wait long enough, it can also duplicate a passing photon if that passing photon has the proper characteristics. Most importantly, the excited system must be naturally capable of emitting the passing photon spontaneously—the passing photon's wavelength and travel path must be such that the excited system is able to duplicate it.

This duplication effect makes it possible to amplify light. When a single photon passes by a number of identical excited systems, those systems may duplicate the photon many times so that many identical photons emerge. This phenomenon is the basis for laser amplifiers. When one of the photons emitted spontaneously by the excited systems is deliberately sent back and forth through those systems with the help of mirrors, the laser amplifier becomes a laser oscillator—it both initiates and amplifies the light. The light that ultimately emerges from the laser oscillator or amplifier differs from normal light because the laser light consists of many identical photons. They all have identical wavelengths (colors) and follow identical paths through space. They also exhibit dramatic wave effects, particularly interference.


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