While lasers have come to be part of our everyday lives, in the 1960’s they were a new and exciting technology. One scientist studying that technology was physicist Dr. Elsa Garmire.
Garmire earned her bachelor’s degree at Harvard and her PhD at MIT before going to CalTech as a senior research fellow. She focused on optics, or the physics of light. She was asked to participate in an event called Expo 70 which combined art and technology, and from there she came up with the idea to experiment with ways to use the lasers in her lab at CalTech.
Garmire told Science Friday that the light had a characteristic called “coherence. And that means that it sparkles.” She began experimenting with different transparent materials to create patterns with the light, creating “wispy” images with the different laser colors.
A filmmaker saw her work, and wanted to create a film project before realizing that it wasn’t the right media to capture the real beauty of the laser light. So he paired with Garmire to create Laserium, a live light show performed at planetariums across the country. The shows were immensely popular and ran for decades, though Garmire stepped away to continue her research.
After spending 20 years at the University of Southern California, where she was the director of the Center for Laser Studies, Garmire went to Dartmouth in 1995. She was dean of the Thayer School of Engineering for two years. Now she serves as the Junkins Professor of Engineering.
In 1989 Garmire was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and she is a fellow in the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the American Physical Society, and the Optical Society of America. She served as president of the Optical Society in 1993, and in 1994 she was given the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award.
Garmire is still creating laser light shows, and now that lasers have become cheap and accessible to most households she encourages people to make their own shows at home. She says you only need a red and green laser pointer and some “diffracting materials” or clear plastic with patterns in them to make your own laser art performance.
Written by Mary Ratliff