Oct 302016

I’ve always liked the phasers of Star Trek more than the blasters/turbolasers of Star Wars. Ship to ship: phasers are computer controlled and seem to always hit the target (even if they don’t necessarily damage the target), while turbolasers are manually targeted and can’t seem to hit a damn thing. Same with hand-held weapons… phasers are zero time of flight weapons that non-professional soldiers can wield accurately, while blasters seem to travel slower than bullets and the biggest, most expensive and advanced military out there has troops so poorly trained that they can’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn.

But there’s one area where blasters are better than phasers: total energy usage per shot. If you get shot with a blaster, it’s like getting shot with a firearm. *Perhaps* an extra powerful firearm… a 12-gauge filled with buckshot, perhaps, but still roughly equivalent  to a conventional gun. But phasers have a top setting that will *vaporize* a human. That’s not just overkill, that’s an *insane* level of overkill. It’s like using a TOW anti-tank missile to target an individual.

And this is one of the things that Star Trek got wrong. Not that it’s necessarily impossible for a weapon the size of a keychain to vaporize a human, but that the process of vaporizing the human wouldn’t utterly trash the surroundings. Face it: you’re converting, oh, 180 pounds of water to steam, and converting the calcium in the bones, the metal and plastic in his clothes, tools, weapons, etc. into plasma. And if the target is also holding a phaser, you’re converting *that* into vapor, which means that its battery (or whatever the power source is) is going to explode.

Phaser-vaporizing someone on board a spaceship is going to be a disaster, because by converting 180 pounds of water into steam, you’re increasing the *volume* by a factor of around 1,000. Imagine if the room the target was in suddenly found itself loaded with 1,000 more people. The pressure will blow the hull apart. While a blaster will simply poke a hole in the target, maybe burning their clothes.

Star Trek always made the result of someone getting vaporized pretty… well, sterile. Zap, bright light, gone. But it wouldn’t be like that. If you want to know what someone getting phasered at full power would look like, YouTube provides. Behold the phenomenon of the “Arc Flash,” where enough electrical energy can be dumped into a human to convert said human into a steam explosion. Obviously, this might be considered slightly grisly, so gather the kids around (occurs at 1:14; you can adjust settings to .25 speed to watch the guy go from “normal” to “Hey, he’s a glowing blob, just like in Star Trek” to “Where’d he go?” in three frames):

It’s kinda unclear just what the hell happened here, but it sure looks like the guy was converted into mostly a cloud and a bit of a spray. In any event, there’s no missing the fact that something really quite energetic happened to the guy. The captain of the Klingon scout vessel vaporizes one of his crew on the bridge, they’re going to be scrubbing it down for *days,* assuming that the steam and overpressure doesn’t kill everyone else on the bridge.

In  the later Star Trek series, the “vaporize” setting seemed to fall out of fashion. More often than not energy weapons were used as “simple blasters” of roughly firearm-power. And that’s all you need. Firearms are as powerful as they are because that’s Good Enough. You don’t *need* a weapon that essentially turns the target into a suicide bomber.

It might be interesting to actually show accurate phasering on some future Star Trek movie or episode. In one scene, out heroes board a wrecked space station. They go in a room where someone was shot with a phaser set to Blaster Mode: the doctor rushes over, applies hand to carotid artery, looks up sadly and says “He’s dead.” Then they go to the next room, where someone was vaporized. All the furniture is smashed up against the walls; the floor, ceiling, walls, furniture are all covered in gore. Blood sprayed everywhere, teeth embedded in the ceiling, small bits of burnt, semi-burnt and unburnt eviscera scattered about, bits dripping from the ceiling. Doc stands there in the door, slack jawed; Ensign Redshirt looks in and promptly doubles over and upchucks the Tribble Surprise he had for lunch. Captain Hero looks looks in, turns a shade of green and asks “So, Doc, who was it?”

Doc looks at Captain Hero like he’s a freakin’ mo-ron and replies with something like “How the hell would I know?”



 Posted by at 5:55 pm
  • Robbie

    Yeah this is why I think energy weapons are silly. If firearms are Good Enough, why replace them? Don’t try to fix what ain’t broken.

    • Scottlowther

      I can see theoretical advantages. Zero time of flight and no gravity drop. No windage. Depending on the battery or power plant, potentially a bagrillion shots between recharges. Recharging done by plugging into the wall, a solar panel or just filling up the water bottle for the built in fusion reactor. But given that a ray gun can be screwed up with a bit of smoke fog or dust, and undoubtedly requires fabulously clean optics, I have doubts about ray guns ever replacing good old lead pellets.

      • Robbie

        Yeah in the case of Star Wars it just doesn’t make sense to me. Blasters do about the same amount of damage as a firearm… so why did they replace their firearms with something that gives away the shooter’s position with a brightly glowing bolt, and is about as accurate as a smoothbore musket?

        • William Magoffin

          I’ve seen this question asked a few times, my theory is that the armor the Stormtroopers wear actually protect them from bullets, shrapnel, and some concussive effects meaning normal firearms, grenades, and small artillery either won’t stop them or will be far from lethal. (and if you can put such armor on a person imagine what you could put on a battledroid or a vehicle). As a result everyone uses blasters because they will penetrate body armor even though they seem far less capable than firearms.

          • Scottlowther

            Actually, “Star Wars: Rebels” has had a pretty good explanation as to why Stormtrooper armor doesn’t stop blaster shots: because the armor sucks. One of the characters is an old Clone Trooper who still wears bits and pieces of his “Gen One” armor, and he never ceases to point out that *that* armor actually works. So, it seems that the Old Republic was willing to shell out for top quality… the best troops, given lifelong nonstop training, equipped with presumably expensive armor that would actually protect them. Replaced by the Empire that ditched the clones in favor of cheap conscripts given minimal training (clearly no time wasted on marksmanship) and armor that’s little more than a uniform.

            Another character wears Mandalorian armor (like the Fetts), and she took a blaster shot to the noggin. All that did was ring her bell a bit.

          • Adam

            I would imagine that the Empire did this to save money in the post war years in order to better sustain itself and to divert funds to building Death Stars and Star Destroyers (which were bigger and more complex than Clone Wars era Star Destroyers). Also, I think the Empire did this to adopt a USSR-style war doctrine in order to basically drown its enemies with overwhelming numbers. Keep in mind the real-world zeitgeist of the original trilogy vs. the real-world zeitgeist of the prequel trilogy.

          • Robbie

            Yeah, that explanation works. In Honor Harrington their powered exoskeletons are so tough that it requires plasma weapons to defeat, but they are not the main infantry arm because they are so destructive, as in literally setting objects alight from just the passage of the plasma bolt.

          • Robbie

            Yeah, that explanation works. In Honor Harrington their powered armor is so tough that it requires plasma weapons to defeat. But not every soldier wears powered armor because a single suit costs as much as a main battle tank today, so plasma guns aren’t the primary infantry arm.

        • Scottlowther

          Why replace firearms? One potential explanation… in any of the movies or canonical series, have we *ever* seen anybody reload? For all we know, Hans Mauser broomhandle blaster might have a thousand-shot capacity.

        • Uxi

          Stormtroopers are plenty accurate (against Jawas and the Rebels on the Tantive IV). It’s just the Heroes who were protected by Plot Immunity.

          • Scottlowther

            I argue that the Tantive demonstrates accuracy. Two ships… one big, the other *enormous,* just a few miles apart. Flying parallel trajectories, basically the same speed, no jinking in evidence. And even though they are firing weapons claimed to be lasers, most of their shots *miss* *entirely.*


            How the frak could you *miss*?

          • Uxi

            They were overtaking and trying to board. Those are probably the equivalent of “ack ack” and perhaps intended to graze and disable.

          • publiusr

            This gets into my theory that technology in SW is more stagnant than in Trek.


            They discovered hyperspace too early. In trek, improving warp-factors over time gives you a stream of other tech advances. This causes you to bump into nearby star systems–having to treat/fight with them, and so on.

            Stumble into hyperspace tech, you surround everyone–take over the galaxy as humanoids seem to have done in SW. So The Klingons are hemmed in. Everything gets consumerized, made rugged, and–over a lot of time–dumbed down.

            The result? In the prequels you see droids handling turbo-laser looking things that had shells. It is how an old pirate might dumb something down to what he is used to. I can see droids pulling plows, the droid tech is so old. It just didn’t occur to anyone to say–build a combine.

            That was the distant past.

          • Robbie

            Well to be fair they are trying to disable the Tantive IV, and eventually they do score a direct hit on the engine section forcing a reactor shutdown.

      • Robbie

        Heh, this is one of the reasons I love Honor Harrington. Their small arms are essentially coilguns that accelerate 3 to 5mm darts up to 2,000 meters per second. One particular type of gun called a Tribarrel can literally saw through steel bulkheads.

      • Robbie

        They also have plasma guns in Honor Harrington, but they’re used sparingly because they’re so destructive, as in literally setting objects and people alight from just the passage of the bolt.

      • Brianna

        Don’t forget no recoil. A lot of learning to shoot a firearm well is training yourself to deal with recoil (don’t flinch in advance ’cause it screws up your aim; hold the gun such that recovery from recoil will be quick and automatic, etc.)

        • Scottlowther

          Ahem: at least in the original trilogy, blasters tended to have a substantial kick. At the very least, they seemed to have the sort of recoil one might expect from a firearm shooting blanks. Odd, that. Phasers, though, seem pretty much recoil-free. *Real* beam weapons will have recoil based on their method of beam generation… some poor slob firing the peroxide-iodine-fluorine backpack laser will have to deal with whatever thrust is generated by the exhaust.

      • Paul451

        But given that a ray gun can be screwed up with a bit of smoke fog or dust, and undoubtedly requires fabulously clean optics …

        Remember, “phasers”, not “lasers”. The assumption is that they are a fundamentally different kind of “phased energy” weapon from our friendly neighbourhood light-emitter.

        (But even a regular old laser, if it’s capable of vaporising a human body within a few seconds, it ain’t gonna be bothered by dust or fog.)

        phasers are zero time of flight weapons
        Zero time of flight

        Characters dodge phaser fire after it’s emitted. In some shots, the phaser beam travels a few feet per frame (so 70-odd feet-per-second). Of course, they’re wildly inconsistent with the effects.

        Re: Phaser steam syndrome.

        The effects shot with phasers set to go-away, or Klingon/Romulan disrupters, is usually that you get shot, freeze in place for a beat while glowing, then sort of dissolve into nothingness. The dissolving happens long after the shot itself ends. That’s distinctly different than vaporising, even allowing for TV squeamishness. It’s more like being infected with something that consumes you from within.

        • publiusr

          Like strangelets

      • Robbie

        I can definitely see energy weapons serving in a support role. Such as in Aliens the Colonial Marines have a plasma gun that’s able to penetrate the flank armor of a main battle tank at a distance of 1,000 meters. But the gun is the size of a shoulder-fired missile launcher and combined with its backpack generator weighs a whopping 33 pounds.

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    • Cambias

      There’s a symbolic element: guns are a potent metaphor for power and violence. A gun is Serious Business and getting shot with one is Serious Business. Ray-guns (phasers, blasters, etc.) are a way to have guns without them being Serious Business. You get shot, but it was just on “stun” so you’re okay.

  • Doug Pirahna

    I don’t think he was vaporized, just set on fire. If you look at the video right after the flash and fireball you see a fireball over top of the open door that reduces in size, I think that’s the worker running away from the scene.

    We’ve talked about these types of injuries at work as part of our safety program and they’re usually not instantly fatal if you’re not electrocuted. Typically you’ll live for a little while but the injuries are usually fatal in short order, mostly from internal and external burn damage.

  • ed

    Since the walls AREN’T coated with Bit’s-O-People I’d suggest the phaser works other than by transferring energy. Maybe turns things into dark matter?

    • Scottlowther

      An interesting idea, but also one *hell* of a retcon. And hard to reconcile with a “stun” and “generic blow-a-smokin-hole-in-em” settings. But a weapon that *does* convert matter to dark matter (I suspect there’s some serious physics problems there… conservation of… something…) seems like not only pretty snazzy but also pretty terrifying. What are the limits? Does a single Dark Phaser shot convert X kilograms? In which case there might often be chunks left over (I suspect a ten-pound limit would be more than satisfactory for anti personnel duty). Or is it stopped at certain boundaries… catalysing the conversion through a density like water, but stops when it gets to dirt-density and air-density? If it did *that,* if you shot some schmoe standing in a field, it wouldn’t convert the whole planet, but it would convert him, the grass he’s standing on, the rest of the grass in the field, the trees at the edge of the field, the stream in the forest, the river the stream flows into, the ocean connected to the river…

      • publiusr

        Mirror matter isn’t supposed to interact with anything at all, save gravity, which we seem to “share.” If not subspace, it might be all the reaction is shunted into mirror matter in a type of cascade.

        Not that enough mirror matter cannot have a reaction

        Then there Is this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strangelet#Dangers

        So, it isn’t that the tiny phaser itself has enough power to actually vaporize someone–it just gets a process started that consumes the target on its own, somehow.


  • se jones

    Handwavium: phaser somehow “dissolves” matter right down to the sub-sub-sub atomic level thus releasing a flood of neutrinos that just pass through everything. I guess. Or something.

    Harder to rationalize is my beloved “Invaders” going up in smoke. I guess if these things can master interstellar travel and stuff, it’s no big deal.


    • Scottlowther

      The phaser set to “vaporize” is actually a hand-held transporter that converts the target to energy and then disperses the transporter beam over a ten-kilometer diameter sphere…

      • Robbie

        Mike Wong at stardestroyer.net actually did come up with an explanation that the phasers convert matter into neutrinos. The explanation in The Next Generation Technical Manual is that phasers shift the matter out of our continuum, but as Mike says that should also cause matter and energy to in equal amounts to come from this other continuum, so you would still have a devastating explosion.

        • se jones

          Well, we gots about 65 x 10^9 / cm^2 neutrino flux right here right now. But, every once in a while one *will* interact with matter which is why we know a little about them (sorry, background info for readers in Rio Linda).

          Now I gotta calculate how much neutrino flux you’d get by converting 180 lbs of mass to 100% neutrinos right next to ya. Would that flux kill ya or ruin your day or be insignificant or what? Man, this gets into some complex stuff but fast, I could get (more) brain damage. Maybe I’ll just sent this question to xkcd “What if” and let Munroe work on it.

          • Scottlowther

            xkcd did in fact tackle that, just with a supernova. IIRC, the neutrino flux itself was deadly at a surprising distance. I’d just do some scaling off of that.

          • Robbie

            So a 180 pound person exploding into neutrinos still qualifies as a Very Bad Thing?

          • Scottlowther

            Certainly for the schmuck who got turned into neutrinos.

            But, screw it. it’s 1 AM, time for some math. Start here:


            ” During this collapse, a neutron star is formed of about one solar mass (roughly 2×10^33 g) containing about 10^57 neutrons. Each neutron will emit a neutrino when it is formed with an average energy of between 5 and 15 MeV”

            “If all emitted neutrinos have an energy of 5 MeV, the neutrino radiation dose from a SN at a distance of 1 pc is about 1.4×10^-3 micro Sv and, for 15 MeV neutrinos, the dose will be 1.6X10^-4 micro Sv. ”

            So, a proton getting smooshed with an electron to form a neutron spits out one neutrino. 2×10^33 grams of such neutrons will kill you at 2.3 AU, according to Munro (https://what-if.xkcd.com/73/). So if we go by that, the ratio of 2×10^33 grams to 180 lbs – i.e. 81,818 grams is the difference in neutrino flux… a factor of 2.44×10^28. So if I remember my inverse square laws correctly (it now being 1:15 AM), then the same “neutrino brightness” would be found at 2.3 AU x (1/2.44×10^28)^.5 = 0.0022 meters. In other words… nada. No risk. But that’s assuming that the phaser works by turning the subject into solid neutronium, which would result in an Earth-shattering kaboom.

            If somehow all mass was converted to neutrinos, you’d have a lot more neutrinos. Assume neutrinos at an average of 10 MeV (1.6022e-12 joules); E=MC^2 for 81,818 grams says 7.35344e+18 joules. So that means 180 pounds converts into 4.589e30 neutrinos. Compared to the supernova, that’s a ratio of 2.179e26 times less neutrino flux. So… then the same “neutrino brightness” would be found at 2.3 AU x (1/2.179×10^26)^.5 = 0.0023 meters.

            It’s now 1:45 AM. It’s very possible I made a math error. But if not, it looks like converting someone to *pure* neutrinos is a dandy way to make them vanish while not killing everyone else in the room.

      • se jones

        G damn it, I should’a known. I was so distracted that semester by some hot redhead named Debbie. I’m lucky I graduated.

      • publiusr

        I think the heat/whath-ave you is shunted into subspace, whatever that is.
        Klingon’s wouldn’t seem to bother with something so tidy, so I imagine disruptors still could make a mess.

  • Robbie

    Star Wars has its own magical vaporizing scene in A New Hope in the Death Star detention center when Leia blasts the grate to the trash compactor. The bolt vaporizes about 390 kilograms of iron. In real life that much metal instantly turning into steam would have killed everyone in the detention center.

    • Scottlowther

      I always assumed the blaster just blew the grate apart. Given that the Stormtrooper armor is as useful as a layer of vac-formed 0.020″ styrene, I imagine things like that grate were simply made out of stamped tin sheet.

      • publiusr

        May not have even been metal at all–some plasti-steel whatsit that burned fast.

  • Robbie

    This one of the things I love about the Alien franchise. The Colonial Marines Technical Manual does talk in depth about energy weapons, but they’re mainly in a support role, such as the plasma gun which is the size of a shoulder-fired missile launcher. The primary infantry weapon is still the good old slugthrower.

  • Robbie

    This is one of the realistic aspects I love about the Alien franchise. We don’t see it in the movies but The Colonial Marines Technical Manual talks about a portable plasma gun that’s the size of a shoulder-fired missile launcher and is powered by a backpack homopolar generator. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/66823764d10eb11d20838b0abf049856a62cc0d26d095f3d3164147b454ff124.jpg

  • That guy in the video lived. I’m not sure what the puddle was since urine would have likely conducted a lethal amount of the charge.


  • random_observer_2011

    Followed a link from “Isegoria”.
    The best SF weapon I can remember in this vein was in the “TimeWars” series of novels in the late 1980s, by one “Simon Hawke”.
    One of the personal weapons available was the “warp grenade”. It was a nuclear hand grenade that delivered a precise detonation determined by user input on a dial, more or less. All excess blast, heat, pressure, radiation, whatever was channeled to empty space in another galaxy via an “Einstein-Rosen Bridge” generated by the grenade on demand. [I assume that’s the same thing as a wormhole].
    As described, the weapon could be used as effectively to nuke an entire city or a corner of a room, and damage nothing but the target area.
    The best overkill weapon ever “designed”.