Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Posts Tagged ‘media

New laser pointer restrictions for Australians.

with 5 comments

Stupid politicians – and even stupider tabloid press – are not a good combination.

To let me set the background or context for this post, here are some relevant press articles:

The NSW government is considering a ban on laser pointers after six planes had to alter their flight paths into Sydney after being targeted in a “cluster attack” on Friday.

NSW Police Minister David Campbell on Sunday said he was now considering a ban on the laser pointers.

“There are some penalties that police can impose now, but we’re looking to make these items a prohibited weapon in certain circumstances which would lead to substantial fines and possible jail terms,” he told Macquarie Radio.

There already exist laws under the Civil Aviation Safety Act posing severe penalties for prejudicing the safe operation of an aircraft, or interfering with an aircraft. If people commit such acts, then absolutely, by all means, throw the book at them.

But what about our civil liberties? Kitchen knives, for example, are a useful, important tool, which can be misused by some antisocial idiot who wants to do the wrong thing. So, do we prohibit all kitchen knives? No – we find those using them for the criminal purposes and though the book at them.

“Western Australia only announced in the last couple of weeks that they were going to make it a prohibited weapon, Victoria has already done that,” Peter Gibson said.

Not even the [over the top] Victorian legislation applies to all laser pointers. I mean – all laser pointers? Come on. Next it will be high-intensity keyring LED lights for finding your keyhole in the dark banned.,23599,23505696-2,00.html

ONE of the first people to be prosecuted in Australia for shining a laser at an aircraft has been sent to jail.

Lanfranco Baldetti, 23, of Adelaide, was sentenced to two years and three months’ jail today after pleading guilty to prejudicing the safe operation of an aircraft.

Obviously the existing legislation is sufficient to prosecute – and hopefully to ultimately deter, if combined with better enforcement – this antisocial behaviour.

Australian Federal Police, ASIO and other government agencies plan to meet in Canberra today to work out a strategy to tackle the problem of laser attacks on passenger jets.

The meeting will be urged to ban the sale of the high-powered lasers, The Australian reports today.

Under penalties introduced last year, perpetrators are liable to up to two years’ jail and fines of up to $30,000.

The New South Wales Government has announced that it is banning laser pointers after a spate incidents involving aeroplanes.

The new laws mean that the lasers will be illegal without a prohibited weapons permit.

“I cannot underestimate the potential, the catastrophic consequences if a plane is brought down by one of these fools, these idiots,” he said.

Come on – “if a plane is bought down”? I agree that this antisocial behaviour in unacceptable, but you’re misrepresenting real risk as an excuse for draconian legislation.

NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione says making it illegal to carry lasers will help police crack down on the improper use of the devices.

It’s already completely possible, within the letter of the existing law, for authorities to “crack down on improper use of the devices”, whether it’s assulting a person with it, or interfering with the operation of an aircraft. The laws already exist to police these antisocial behaviours – and rightly so.

The Government says people like astronomers will be allowed to have lasers if they apply for a permit.

Well, that’s somewhat promising, I guess. But how much bureaucracy, red tape, restrictions and fees will be applied? If enforcement is left to average police officers frisking people, how do they determine who is a student, lecturer, or amateur astronomer, and who isn’t, reasonably and effectively?

THE importation of high-powered laser pointers, similar to those used to target passenger planes landing at Sydney Airport, will be banned by the Federal Government.

Since there’s nobody manufacturing those things in this country, a ban on importation indirectly means a total ban, doesn’t it? That’s not fair at all!

Mr Debus said the Government would ban the import of high-powered lasers by classifying them as a dangerous weapon.

“The Government will introduce a new regime to restrict certain laser items which could operate in the same way as the existing controls on firearms and weapons. Recent attacks on pilots have highlighted the seriousness of the problem. ”

Mr Debus said exemptions were available for legitimate uses for lasers, such as surveying, astronomy, mining and construction.

We’ll see how well that goes, if enforcement of such laws is left to every beat cop on the street, instead of being left to the likes of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, or similar state-level organisations, tasked with policing the complex and subtle issues associated with laser safety or any other form of health physics.

NSW Police Minister David Campbell said he supports the ban and was stunned to hear the attacks had not let up despite the publicity.

The antisocial behaviour which you’re clearly not policing effectively will obviously increase if you saturate it with media publicity, and the media publicity demonstrates that you’re not able to police it effectively, you idiot.

A plan to ban laser pointers in New South Wales has been labelled as nothing more than a stunt after Premier Morris Iemma admitted pet owners would have an excuse for possessing one.

Possession of high-powered laser pointers will be illegal in NSW without a prohibited weapons permit, and laser pointers of all strengths will be banned in public without a reasonable explanation.

But Mr Iemma told the ABC an excuse could be using the pointer to entertain a pet cat.

“A pet would be a reasonable excuse but having a pet in the house and using it for the pet and then aiming at a pilot would not be,” he said.

Well, there’s all of Iemma’s credibility gone.

Captain Mike Glynn from the Australian and International Pilots Association says a nationwide ban on laser pointers is the next logical step.

“We’ve had a couple of our pilots who’ve actually had harm done to their eyes when these lasers have been shone in their eyes,” he said.

What a bunch of baloney. This guy is a twit, he’s just BAN BAN BAN, and incapable of seeing the bigger picture.

AMATEUR astronomers, teachers and surveyors will have to justify carrying lasers under new bans aimed at avoiding “mass murder” if aircraft are targeted.

The Premier, Morris Iemma, warned that all high-powered lasers would soon be classified as prohibited weapons and carrying any kind of laser – even harmless classroom pointers – without a good reason could result in two years’ jail or a $5000 fine.

Critics said the new laws were impractical and accused the Government of failing to back its tough talk with resources for enforcement.

Mr Iemma said banning hand-held lasers would “stop the potential for mass murder”.

“I cannot underestimate the … catastrophic consequences if a plane is brought down by one of these fools, these idiots, these reckless individuals who want to use these high-powered hand-held lasers and think it’s a joke.”

Previously police needed to prove a laser had been used improperly in order to prosecute. Under the new laws they would be able to frisk people for lasers and ask why they carried them.

The laws will affect professions such as teachers, surveyors and astronomers. If questioned by police, they must prove they need a laser pointer or face two years’ jail. Anyone who carries a high-powered laser faces 14 years in jail.

Unbelievable, isn’t it?

Catching the culprits can be expensive: late last year, police used two helicopters as well as ground officers in a fruitless search for a laser in Bondi.

The Federal Government recently banned the importation of high-powered lasers.

The president of the Australian Optical Society, Professor Hans Bachor, said the blanket ban was an overreaction. “You can’t point [low-powered lasers] at any aircraft over a distance – the effect wouldn’t be big enough,” he said.

The laws could create a headache for police and the public, he said.

Too right it’s a headache for police – more laws designed to satiate the demands of those who follow the tabloid media, and more laws that cannot be effectively enforced on top of existing law that cannot be enforced.

The Opposition’s police spokesman, Mike Gallacher, described the announcement as a media stunt. Only enforcement would determine how effective the new laws would be, yet the Government was not offering police any extra money.

Outlawing a legal object would also be difficult, he said.

“I suspect it will be much like most of the State Government’s quick-fix, media-driven solutions aimed at grabbing a headline rather than fixing a problem.”

Too right!

But the acting president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, Mike Glynn, welcomed the ban, saying the problem had become serious over the past two years. “It’s not an overreaction – there’s real potential to cause a problem.”

Bob Lipscombe, the deputy president of the NSW Teachers Federation, said enforcement of the new bans should focus on people who posed a threat. “We don’t think teachers would pose a threat,” he said.

John O’Byrne, from the Astronomical Society of Australia, hoped police would be reasonable. “Our understanding is that the intent is clearly not to inhibit legitimate use of lasers.”

Now, this next report is certainly my favourite.

Australian scientists have attacked the federal government ban on importing high-powered laser pointers as using a “sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

And vision experts say people using the lasers to distract pilots would have to be good shots to make the beam temporarily blind the pilot.

Professor Hans Bachor, president of the Australian Optical Society, says the ban is an overreaction and researchers may be left to deal with the bureaucracy if it proceeds.

He urges the government to consult with scientists over the issue.

“It’s like banning the kitchen knife because we have people using the knives incorrectly,” says Bachor, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Quantum-Atom Optics.

Dr John Greenhill, at the University of Tasmania‘s School of Maths and Physics, says a ban could affect amateur astronomers who use laser pointers to help align telescopes and in delivering public talks.

He says lasers of about 3-4 milliwatts are used to point out stars in the night sky.

But Greenhill says more powerful pointers are illegal and questions “how putting a ban on something that is already illegal can help”.

“The dangers of high-powered lasers have been recognised for quite a while,” he says.

“[The ban] is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. There must be better ways of solving the problem.”

A home affairs spokesperson says the government is yet to determine the classes of laser pointers to be banned, but adds that they will be subject to restrictions similar to those for guns and other weapons, with exemptions available for legitimate use.

Bachor says scientists would be concerned if lasers were put on an equal footing with guns as a weapon and a large bureaucracy for their use was created.

Professor Michael Collins, at Queensland University of Technology‘s School of Optometry, says pilots face minimal danger from the lasers.

“You’d have to be a pretty good shot to get [the laser beam] directly into the pilot’s eyes,” he says.

“And the distance the pilots are from the source gives a great deal of protection.”

But he says pilots landing at night would be scanning for visual cues and may be attracted to a flash of light.

They could be temporarily blinded by the laser beams if they looked at them, in the same way that a flash on a camera can cause problems.

The intensity of the light will determine how long pilots take to recovery, he says. But that it “can take up to minutes”.

Neryla Jolly, an orthoptics researcher at the University of Sydney, agrees.

“A dazzle can take 2-3 minutes to recover, which is vital when you’re flying,” she says.

But because of the distance the laser beam travels, Jolly says it is unlikely to do any physical damage to the pilot’s eye.

There are legitimate reasons for pointing lasers into the night sky, says Professor Warrick Couch at Swinburne University‘s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing.

He says research astronomers often do this to create artificial stars and so correct for air turbulence.

But he says such lasers are already only used under clearance from aviation authorities and any ban is unlikely to affect research astronomy.

While Bachor is concerned that scientists may face red tape if they want to buy lasers for legitimate research, he says the wider community should have restricted access.

“The first move should be to somehow limit the free purchase of lasers if [the buyers] have no professional use for them,” he says.

He says it is possible to buy green lasers more than 20 milliwatts in power over the internet.

The issue of people pointing lasers at planes is not new.

Peter Gibson of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, is reported as saying there are cases almost daily.

Last year the ABC reported that the federal government passed new laws providing for up to two years’ jail and fines of A$30,000 for directing mini-laser lights toward planes.

Police will have powers to frisk people they suspect of carrying lasers and those without reason to have them – such as educators, architects or astronomers – will be fined up to $5000.

NSW Premier Morris Iemma said today the Government would ban the most powerful laser pointers and make it a summary offence to carry any laser pointer without a lawful reason.

Class three and four laser pointers will be declared prohibited weapons and carrying them could attract a maximum penalty of 14 years’ jail, he said.

There are already [fairly strict] restrictions on laser pointers in most states of Australia. In fact, so strict as to be utterly stupid, in my opinion.

In New South Wales, laser pointers, defined as hand-held battery operated laser products that produce a single beam of radiation, cannot be sold unless they comply with the requirements for a Class 1 or Class 2 laser product in the Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 2211.1 :1997
That is, any laser pointer with a Class IIIR or Class IIIb laser is illegal in NSW already, and has been for some time.

(Note that the “safety classes” for laser devices are pretty uniformly standardised throughout the world.)

In Victoria the existing law states that a “hand-held, battery operated laser pointer” emitting a laser beam with an accessible emission limit of greater than one milliwatt is considered a prohibited weapon.

[So too, according to the Victorian legislation on prohibited weapons, is a “cat of nine tails” with knotted lashes a prohibited weapon. I’m sure you can still go to a sex shop and buy something like that, though.]

The Class II category, if I recall correctly, corresponds to an accessible emission limit of 1 mW, for a continuous laser at at a visible wavelength. Therefore, the existing Victoria and NSW legislation, introducing restrictions over 1 mW, are pretty much exactly the same.

Any laser product with an accessible emission level greater than the accessible emission limit of a Class 3B (Restricted) laser product as defined by the accessible emission limit given in AS/NZS 2211.1:1997 – that is, all Class 3B (not Class 3R) and Class IV lasers – is already legally controlled on a federal level – under the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Regulations 1999. That includes all the extra-high power output laser pointers with emission power levels of many tens or hundreds of milliwatts, such as those sold by places like Wicked Lasers.

Such laser devices are not banned – but they are subject to many restrictions regarding licencing and regulation so as to provide for the safe use of potentially dangerous devices, and rightly so, too.

The point is, though, that these laws are nothing new. There are multiple different layers of existing legislation that should stop bogan idiots misusing laser pointers with power outputs of tens or hundreds of milliwatts – but it does not stop them.

Introducing new laws means absolutely nothing, and does absolutely nothing if the laws cannot or will not be enforced. This is especially clear when the current laws should be stopping the problem, but are not.

I completely support seeing Class IIIb laser pointers regulated under the existing ARPANS legislation, with police acting to enforce against obvious public misuse, assuming that ARPANS licencing requirements for Class IIIb laser pointers are not overly restrictive, financially prohibitive or demanding of individual citizens who use such lasers for astronomy.

I possess [illegally…] such a laser pointer. [10 mW 532 nm Nd:YAG SHG] The main thing that I use it for [responsibly] is as a teaching tool when performing astronomical observation in a dark-sky environment with a group of people. These laser pointers are fantastically useful for this purpose.

Now, you will never find a suitable dark-sky environment for serious astronomy in suburbia. If anybody is pointing a bright laser beam into the night sky in the suburbs, then there’s a high likelyhood that stupid antisocial behaviour is involved, and the police should check it out.

But how much danger does a laser pointer with a power output of say 5-10 mW [10 mW is amply sufficient as a pointer for dark-sky astronomy, and 5 mW is marginally OK, too] actually present to a person, especially in an aircraft at any realistic altitude?

The key thing to consider here is the divergence of the laser beam – what optical energy flux (i.e. power density) could actually be entering a person’s eye, and for what length of time?

Here’s a primer on the relevant (freshman level) physics – perhaps the politicians would do well to take note.

The physics says that these aircraft “attacks” are not, opthalmologically speaking, especially dangerous.

But wait, there’s more…

Channel 10 traffic reporter Vic Larusso has tonight become the latest victim of a laser attack – his right eye hit by a high-powered green beam as his helicopter returned to Bankstown Airport.

“It was blurry for about 10 seconds just a bit sore, like when you rub your eye and it’s red,” Mr Larusso, who also does the traffic on commercial radio, told tonight.

What a load of rubbish. Could or would any ophthalmologist confirm such symptoms as the expected result of such an exposure? I doubt it.

“I looked down into [the laser].”

Mr Larusso, who was flying over Church Street in Parramatta at the time, said his main concern was for the pilot, who he told to look ahead.
“If your pilot got shone in both eyes, I don’t want to think what the result could be.”

Mr Larusso was also concerned by the location of the attack, noting that it could easily have affected pilots carrying children into Westmead Hospital.

“I don’t know how people can get their kicks out of this,” he said.
Mr Larusso said he would see how his eye felt in the morning and may go to a doctor if it had not improved.

But here’s the kicker:

April 23, 2008
POLICE say bright lights from an art installation are to blame after Sydney traffic reporter Vic Larusso feared he and his helicopter pilot were the victims of a laser attack.

Larusso, who works for Network 10 and commercial radio, told The Sydney Morning Herald online the pair were flying over Church Street, in Parramatta in Sydney’s west, this evening when he was struck in the right eye by a green laser beam…

But police said they believed the light did not come from a laser but from a council art installation in the Parramatta CBD.

Good going, media dilettantes.

We’re going to see this problem a lot – when anybody sees any bright colored light source at night… Oh no, it’s criminal lasers!

Written by Luke Weston

April 24, 2008 at 7:56 am

Newspapers reporting “radiation leak” – that may or may not actually exist.

with 4 comments

Some anti-nuclear folks here in Australia have quickly jumped on to this recent media report.

AN investigation is underway into a radiation leak at a Department of Defence site, a department statement issued tonight said.

“A minor contamination involving the chemical beryllium was reported on 2 November 2007 at the Defence National Storage and Distribution Centre, at Moorebank in New South Wales,” the statement said.

“It is believed the contamination occurred as a result of packaging of damaged equipment items returning from the Middle East.”

Everyone at the site was evacuated and firefighters were called in to assess the hazard.

Hazardous materials experts detected “two low-level positive indicators for the presence of beryllium”.

The area was declared safe on November 6.

“Occupational health and safety briefings have been provided to the small number of staff that may have been exposed and counselling is available on request.

“Those personnel exposed to the site will undergo thorough on-site medical testing.

“An investigation is currently underway to determine the immediate and follow-on action required to prevent a reoccurrence.”

It was not immediately clear why defence waited six days to issue the statement.


Now – my question is how exactly the mainstream media can get from “A minor contamination involving the chemical beryllium” to a “radiation leak”.

Essentially all Beryllium in nature consists of the stable isotope Beryllium-9 – Beryllium, in general, is not radioactive, unless a sample of radioactive 10Be, for example, which has been produced in a particle accelerator or reactor, is being considered. Of all the the other isotopes, only Beryllium-7 and Beryllium-10, with half-lives of 53.2 days and 1.51 million years respectively, have long enough half-lives to be of radiological significance – the half-lives of all other isotopes are extremely short, anywhere from 13.8 seconds for Be-11 down to 92.6 keV for Be-6 (The “lifetimes” of such extremely unstable nuclear states, which are only of academic interest to experimental physicists, are usually expressed in terms of a decay width, with units of energy – to convert to units of time, t = h-bar / E, where h-bar is the reduced Planck constant, which gives us, in this case, something of the order of 10^-21 seconds.)

Beryllium is a toxic metal – with the potential to cause severe health impacts if it is inhaled. As it is a stable, solid material with a very low atomic number, Beryllium is very useful as a neutron moderator – and as a neutron reflector. It has found applications in nuclear weapons technology for this reason, as well as nuclear reactors and similar technologies, occasionally. As a very lightweight, thermally stable metal, it is also extensively used in high-performance components for rocket engines, gyroscopes, satellites and missiles – clearly, it is not unheard of to find Beryllium metal components in military technologies.

10Be is a naturally occuring, cosmogenic radionuclide, and is one of the more common radioactive isotopes, along with 14C, produced in the atmosphere by cosmic ray spallation of oxygen and nitrogen. Cosmogenic 10Be accumulates at the soil surface, where its relatively long half-life of 1.51 million years permits a long residence time before it decays.
Studies of 10Be and its daughter products have been used to examine soil erosion, soil formation from regolith, the development of lateritic soils, as well as variations in solar activity and the age of ice cores.

However, radioactive 10Be or 7Be are not employed in any technological, industrial or practical applications, and these radionuclides are not manufactured, except for very small scale use in experimental physics, perhaps, or in biochemistry, where 7Be has been used as a biochemical tracer.

There was significant media attention and controversy earlier this year, after Tritium contamination was found at a workshop used for the repair of electronic instruments, where numerous devices such as compasses or gunsights containing Tritium light sources were handled, at an Australian Army barracks.

However, I find it hard to believe that any journalist could get Tritium confused with Beryllium, without willingly making stuff up. It should be noted that the phrase quoted from the official Department of Defence media release does not make any mention of radioactivity at all.

The other thing I considered is that we could be dealing with a neutron source, containing beryllium mixed with a alpha-emitting radioactive isotope, such as 241Am – although, in this case, it is not the beryllium that is radioactive, such sources are always sealed sources, and I can’t think of why they’d be used by the defence force in the Middle East – possibly in moisture gauges for civil engineering?

I await more information on this issue – hopefully I will be able to find the DOD’s media release. Until then, I’m strongly inclined to believe that this is little more than a badly written, unscruplous piece of journalism design to incite further hysteria about nuclear technologies and keep people scared of radioactivity, for the sake of someone’s political agendas.


Beryllium optics and mirrors are commonly encountered in high-performance optical systems, particularly operating in the infra red spectrum – Thermal cameras, FLIR systems, Space Telescopes, and IR-sensing devices for military applications are amongst the largest applications of such optical components. Optical systems operating in the IR spectrum often use Thorium Fluoride as a coating material on the optical components.

I can confirm that the PAVETACK FLIR pod used on the F-4 and F-111 fighters, as well as the FLIR system used on the F-18, uses beryllium optics, and that the aperture windows on these systems have a Thorium(IV) Fluoride coating. Whilst it is only a tiny bit of Thorium, presumably the material can be released if the aperture window is broken, and this has been known to occur, for example, as a result of bird strikes on the aircraft’s FLIR pod.

It is possible that a damaged FLIR head, or Mirror Control Assembly from the PAVETACK, could be contaminated with Thorium – and toxic Beryllium too – but clearly this is of very minimal risk, and not of any risk to people, aside from people who are handling it.

In that regard, I wouldn’t consider it any different to handling Thorium-containing welding rods, which are routinely used and are available to the public, or the use of camera optics with Thorium oxide in the glass – again, these are a common item in public circles.

I cannot confirm that this was the actual material involved in this incident that is being reported, but it sounds like the most plausible explanation to me – and even in the event that a thorium fluoride coated optical component was involved, it’s a far cry from a “radiation leak” – do we cry “radiation leak” in the press every time somebody uses a TIG welding rod, or drops an old camera lens? I think not.

Written by Luke Weston

November 8, 2007 at 3:55 pm