Putting the "Science" in "Science Fiction" - Thor
Humanity has been fascinated with the awe-inspiring power of lightning since its earliest days, a fact that is clearly illustrated by the Norse peoples having a deity specifically dedicated to lightning and thunder. The modernized version of this character, Marvel's Thor, is an important and powerful member of the Avengers team of super heroes. Although it has been over a century since humans learned to harness electricity the sheer power and spectacle of lightning is still fascinating. The various incarnations of Thor are not the only examples of this continuing fascination with lightning however. Weapons that fire lightning bolts appear throughout science fiction in a variety of forms, including Unreal Tournament's Shock Rifle, the Matrix series' Lightning Rifle, and the Tesla Troopers of the Red Alert series. Despite the huge strides scientists have made in controlling electricity in the last century the true mastery of lightning is still beyond our reach. However research continues into harnessing the power of lightning and using it to smite enemies like the mythological gods of the past. There are a number of difficulties inherent in using electricity as a weapon, but researchers have discovered a multitude of ways around these problems.
The main problem with using electricity as a weapon is the fact that passing electricity from one point to another requires the use of a conductor. This problem is easily solved when there is no requirement for range, and the creation of electrical weapons for use in hand to hand combat is fairly straightforward. These devices work by passing an electrical current through a pair of electrodes, powered by a battery or other power source that is stored in the handle or carried by the user. When both electrodes make contact with a target the electrical charge flows into it, causing pain or incapacitation. Examples of this technology range from the early cattle prods of the 1940's to the sophisticated stun guns carried by modern police forces and some more paranoid civilians. These weapons are generally used to incapacitate people without killing or seriously injuring them, although accidental deaths do sometimes occur. Some works of science fiction opt for a more lethal approach by attaching the conductors to the metal striking surface of a weapon, such as an axe, sword, or mace, in order to electrify the blade itself. These weapons are also known as shock weapons, and are described as operating at a much higher voltage than current non-lethal models, combining the dangers of electrocution with the damage caused by a standard melee weapon. These weapons, both real and fictional, are very effective when used but rely on their wielder getting within arms reach of their target. There are many possible reasons why getting that close on the battlefield or in a riot situation would be dangerous, and so other options with a much longer range are being developed.
Research into how to extend the range of electrical weapons has gone on for a long time, and has resulted in the well known Taser. A Taser works by using compressed gas to fire a pair of electrodes encased in small metal darts. These darts have thin wires that trail back to the main body of the Taser, and are connected to an internal battery that provides the energy for the weapon's operation. When the two darts hit a target together they complete an electric circuit, causing an electric shock that incapacitates the target. The electric shock delivered by a Taser does not stun the subject due to pain, as some people think, and works by interrupting the ability of the target's brain to control their body. This means that when a Taser is used on a person they will be incapacitated, no matter what their pain tolerance may be. The nature of how Tazers work also shows that they are not the simple brute force weapons that some people see them as, and are sophisticated devices designed to incapacitate people with a minimum of physical pain and trauma. Tasers can have a lethal effect on their targets, especially those who are under the effects of certain drugs or have pre-existing heart conditions. Although accidental deaths do occur Tasers inflict far less damage on the target than many other weapons, such as conventional firearms and police batons, and this is the main reason they have been so widely adopted. Despite their usefulness and effectiveness the Taser has two main flaws. The first and most glaring is that Tasers have a very limited range, with even the most powerful police version firing only 35 feet. The second major flaw with Tasers is that reloading them is a difficult and time consuming process that cannot be performed while the weapon is in use, combined with each Taser cartridge storing only one shot. Although this is not a severe limitation in situations where there is a single target this minor problem becomes a severe drawback when a Taser wielder is faced with multiple assailants. These shortcomings prevent Taser use from being as safe as conventional firearms for the wielder, as they must move to very close range and are left helpless while reloading. In order to counteract these flaws researchers are working on more advanced versions of the Taser, such as the Extended Range Electronic Projectile (or XREP). This system is fired out of a standard 12 gauge shotgun and consists of a large fin-stabilized dart containing a battery and pronged head that conducts the electric charge into the target. This system allows a Taser dart to be delivered at a longer range and permits fast reloading, hopefully providing an eventual replacement for lethal firearms when it comes to law-enforcement and maybe even seeing use on the battlefield.
Although the Taser system allows people to use electricity as a weapon it is still not quite the handheld lightning that is often attributed to ancient gods, as they rely on conductive darts and wiring to let the electricity flow. The U.S. army is working on a system to avoid those requirements however, with a device they call a Laser Induced Plasma Channel. This prototype weapon works by using a fairly low powered laser beam to create a trail of plasma between the device and the target. The laser causes the air to become charged, creating a lightning bolt out of thin air. The laser is also used as the aiming device, as the plasma charged air is a better conductor than the air around it and lightning follows the path of least electrical resistance. This system is so far reported to be most effective against large conductive targets that are sitting on a non-conductive surface, which describes modern armoured vehicles perfectly. The LIPC also has promise in destroying improvised explosive devices and other booby traps like the ones commonly used by insurgents and terrorists. The prototypes of this system work and now the main focus of research is on making the system rugged enough to survive combat use. If successful this system ignores the limitations of all other electrical weapons created so far, though it does use tremendous amounts of power and is certainly not a non-lethal weapon like the common Taser.
Humanity has been enthralled and awed by the power and majesty of lightning since its earliest days of looking up at the sky and it seems like now the dream of actually harnessing not just electricity, but true lightning, is within our grasp. Although the military uses are obvious such technology will open up new avenues of research in the electronics fields and will hopefully allow a new generation of non-lethal weapons to be created, helping to protect people rather than harm them.
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