I met myself in a dream, And I just wanna tell you, everything was alright. Hey, now, baby, I’m beginning to see the light. —Lou Reed

Laser Engineering at New York’s FIGMENT Arts Festival.
Image: Guerilla Science / Sherry Hochbaum

My first time in a high power laser laboratory was disorienting to say the least. To gain entry, I had to suit up in clean room garb, put protective blue paper booties over my shoes, and don unwieldy safety goggles. As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, outside the entrance was a flashing red light signaling that inside there was a dangerous laser that could blind or even burn.

I walked in and saw a long row of large steel tables covered with metal sculptures holding small, delicate lenses and mirrors. It was hard to hear anything over the sound of industrial air filters and a line of large refrigerators cycling water through the lasers to keep them cool. What disoriented me the most was that the lasers themselves seemed to be missing. It felt like a hoax. There were no bright lines of concentrated color cutting through the air, no “pew, pew” sounds. These lasers were like ninjas, silent and concealed.

The lasers were, in fact, powered on and hovering inches above the tables, bouncing off of mirrors and dancing through curved glass. They happened to be infrared lasers, shining at a wavelength just beyond the rainbow of what the human eye can perceive.

Fast forward a decade, and here I am at the FIGMENT arts festival in New York playing with lasers and wearing giant curlers in my hair, trying to trigger a sound clip from Lou Reed’s song “Beginning to See The Light” by hitting a target just right. The lasers I work with now are low power, visible, and with a purpose that is sheer fun. I use a card table and dollar store make-up mirrors to align them. My dream is to give everyone the chance to connect with their inner laser engineer.