From Hollywood North Report:
Projectile Weapons vs. Directed Energy Weapons
By Dr. Kevin Grazier, BSG Science Advisor
September 11th 2005
Click on the link to read the full article. Some excerpts:
When HNR asked what my first topic would be, it was a no-brainer -- primarily because it stems from a question that friends have asked me numerous times since I started work on the show. In fact, I've even been confronted with the topic at a convention by a fan who said (paraphrased), "I have a bone to pick with you guys...":
"Why do you guys use bullets instead of lasers? That's so...boring!"
So, let's start the TECH BLOG off with a BANG, and take aim at that question.
I would argue from the onset that projectile weapons (bullets) are no less interesting than directed energy weapons, simply because of how poorly directed energy weapons have traditionally been portrayed in science fiction. For the Galactica miniseries, Executive Producers Ron Moore and David Eick made the decision to use projectile weapons, bullets, instead of LASERS. Because I was not associated with Galactica until it became a series, I don't know why they made the choice. Had I been asked, though, I would have said that this was a good call.
Directed energy weapons, of which LASERs are a subset, have rarely been depicted accurately in either TV or movies. Let's use the original Battlestar Galactica as both a good and bad example of how accurately directed energy weapons have been portrayed on TV and cinema.
When we speak of directed energy weapons, the energy being directed is in the form of electromagnetic radiation, or EM radiation (visible light, microwaves, radio waves, and X-rays are a few of the forms). In a vacuum electromagnetic radiation is the fastest thing in the Universe -- it travels at 186,000 miles per second (or 300,000 kilometers per second), and represents a sort of universal "speed limit". Nothing that has mass or carries information can travel faster. The speed of EM radiation in air, glass, water, or other media is a bit slower, but very fast nevertheless.
Therefore, when an energy beam is fired, it would seem to "connect" from weapon to target as soon as activated, then instantly disconnect when turned off. It's exactly like a LASER pointer, as soon as the button is pressed, the LASER light appears on the wall -- or the viewscreen, the ceiling, the family cat... What you would NOT see is the traditional "bolt" of energy -- appearing much like a solid tracer round -- from the weapon as we saw from all the spacecraft in the original Galactica (Star Wars, Stargate, and Farscape all also bad examples here). Even with the phasers of Star Trek, which are realistically depicted as continuous energy beams, the viewer can still see "front" of the beam radiate to the target at a finite speed, and the terminus of the beam propagate in a similar fashion. A very good example of how directed energy weapons are depicted realistically, at least from this standpoint, can be seen in Babylon 5, in particular the Shadow Vessels.
Then again, all of this presupposes you could see the beam at all! In order to see anything, light emitted by, or reflected from, that object has to interact with a sensor (i.e. your eye). Since a directed energy beam is, well, directed it is not visible unless it is shot directly into your eye. That is, of course, unless there is a medium to scatter the beam, like dust or smoke particles and/or water droplets in air. So rock bands use LASERS at concerts because they know full-well that the hall will be filled with tobacco (or other vegetable matter) smoke to scatter the beam and make it visible. If you've attended a Laserium, or other LASER light show -- often held in planetaria or other venues which do not allow smoking--the beam is much harder to see, except where it reflects off the ceiling.
....There is an irony here. People who have asked me why the current Galactica uses bullets instead of LASERs seem to feel that LASERs seem more...lethal. Interestingly enough, while Battlestar Galactica has gone retro and uses projectile weaponry instead of directed energy, the United States military has been in the news of late (see this link as well) for taking the opposite approach -- using directed energy weapons as nonlethal alternatives to bullets in Iraq. The Active Denial System, part of Project Sheriff, is slated for use in area denial and crowd control in the very near future.