Thursday, April 09, 2009
Mosquito death ray
The Wall Street Journal reports: [edited]
A quarter-century ago, American rocket scientists proposed the 'Star Wars' defence system to knock Soviet missiles from the skies with laser beams. Some of the same scientists are now aiming their lasers at another airborne threat: the mosquito.
The scientists' real target is malaria, which is caused by a parasite transmitted when certain mosquitoes bite people. Ended in the U.S. decades ago, malaria remains a major global public-health threat, killing about 1 million people annually.
The mosquito laser is the brainchild of Lowell Wood, an astrophysicist who worked with Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and architect of the original plan to use lasers to shield America from the rain of Soviet nuclear arms.
They face one big challenge: deciding how strong to make the weapon. The laser has to be weak enough to not harm humans and smart enough to avoid hitting useful bugs. "You could kill billions of mosquitoes a night, and you could do so without harming butterflies," says Mr. Myhrvold.
Not only can the laser target a mosquito, it can also tell a male from a female based on wing-beat. That's a crucial distinction, since only females feed on blood and thus transmit disease. Males in the wild eat sugary plant nectar.
"If you really were a purist, you could only kill the females, not the males," Mr. Myhrvold says. But since they're mosquitoes, he says, he'll probably "just slay them all".