Mandelson and the laser

This morning’s Observer column.

Lasers are … a critical part of our technological infrastructure, yet no one involved in the research that led to them had any inkling of what their investigations would produce. The original idea goes back to a paper Albert Einstein published in 1917 on “The Quantum Theory of Radiation” about the absorption, spontaneous emission and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. For 40 years, stimulated emission was of absorbing interest to quantum physicists, but of little interest to anyone else – certainly to nobody in government.

Which brings us to Lord Mandelson, now in charge of all government funding of universities and academic research. He has no personal experience of research in science or technology, but, like many people whose minds are unclouded by knowledge, has strong views on these matters.

LATER: BoingBoing picked up the column (thanks, Cory) and among the comments there was a link to an interesting article which reminds us that when the first working laser was reported in 1960, it was described as “a solution looking for a problem.”