That’s the classic exchange between British Secret Service agent James Bond and archvillain Auric Goldfinger as a laser beam begins to inch up the gold-plated table on which Bond is bound, threatening his private parts. And it was in that iconic scene in the 1964 film, “Goldfinger,” that audiences first learned about lasers.
Theodore Maiman had constructed the first laser in 1960 based on theories devised by Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow, both of whom would go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics. A laser is a device that emits tiny bundles of energy called photons that have the properties of waves as well as the properties of a normal particle. The photons emitted by a laser have the same wavelength and travel together in a coherent fashion producing a narrow beam that can be focussed on one spot. This is achieved by applying energy to a gas or solid, forcing electrons around the nucleus of its component atoms to jump to a higher energy level. When these electrons return to their previous state, they “radiate” the energy they had absorbed as photons. These can then be absorbed by other atoms in which an electron has already been boosted to a higher energy level. The absorbed photon is reemitted, but not before causing the electron in the energized atom to return to its ground state, radiating a photon. As a result, two photons now exist where previously there was one. As a result, there has been "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. The acronym for this process is of course “LASER.”
The power of a laser beam is determined by the difference in the energy levels of the “lasing” material so that different materials produce laser beams with different power levels. Maiman used a ruby crystal and his laser would not have had anything close to the power needed to melt metal. The movie therefore took a leap into the future with Goldfinger’s laser burning through metal. Since real lasers with that sort of power were not available in 1964, how did they pull off the scene in which the metal was clearly seen as melting? No, it wasn’t through any sort of computer wizardry, because that technology was not available either. But welding torches certainly were around.
Goldfinger’s golden altar on which Bond had been secured, was ready to be sacrificed, was constructed of two pieces of metal that had been soldered together. A welder with an oxy-acetylene torch was hidden under the table and used the intense heat of the torch to melt the solder and vapourize it creating the illusion that the laser was burning through the metal. Sean Connery was actually nervous about the scene because he could feel the heat approaching his privates, but as we know, all came off well. Bond tricked Goldfinger into shutting off the device by claiming that he had some knowledge about “Operation Grand Slam” that Goldfinger and his Mafia confreres were planning. Fleming wrote Goldfinger in 1959, before there was any publicity about lasers. That’s why in the novel, Bond is threatened with a circular saw, not a laser. By 1964 the word about lasers was out and hence the famous scene.
In the film, the laser would make a second appearance in the film when it was used to cut through the thick door of the vault in Fort Knox where the major part of the U.S. gold supply was kept. Goldfinger’s plan was to explode a device that dispersed radioactive material (a “dirty” bomb) inside the vault so as to make the gold radioactive and unusable. This would boost the value of his own cache of gold. He planned to eliminate the soldiers guarding the fort with a nerve gas dispersed from a low flying airplane piloted by “Pussy Galore.” When she had originally met bond and introduced herself by name, Bond uttered another classic line, “I must be dreaming.” Bond unleashes his personal charm on Ms. Galore, convinces her to exchange the cylinders of nerve gas for a harmless material and manages to foil the plot.
The existence of a nerve gas that could have been used in such a fashion was not fiction. These substances had been developed by the Germans during the Second World War, something of which Fleming was obviously aware. In the novel of Goldfinger he actually names the gas as “GB” which was the Allies code name for sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent. “G” for German, and “B” for the second series developed. “Nerve gases” are actually liquids that vapourize readily and block the action of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase that degrades the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The result is overstimulation of the nervous system by acetylcholine leading to loss of control of respiratory muscles and asphyxiation. A combination of atropine and pralidoxime act as antidote. Atropine blocks receptors for acetylcholine and pralidoxime displaces the nerve gas from acetylcholinesterase.
In the film version, a fictional “Delta-9” gas is used, perhaps not wanting to call attention to the existence of a real material. Although the gas is not used in the Fort Know caper, Goldfinger uses it to kill his Mafia partners, a scene that German actor Gert Frobe was not comfortable with because he thought the “gassing” would disturb Jewish audiences. Interestingly, since Frobe had briefly been a member of the Nazi party, “Goldfinger” was banned in Israel before it was discovered that he had actually hidden Jews from the Nazis.
When Theodore Maiman built the first laser he had no application in mind. Indeed, he himself quipped that “A laser is a solution seeking a problem.” By the time he passed away in 2007, numerous problems had been solved with the use of lasers. Various wavelength lasers are used in eye surgery, hair removal, printers, bar code scanners, communication equipment, weaponry, light shows and yes, cutting metal just like in Goldfinger. The prop that introduced the laser to audiences around the world has probably long been dismantled, but Maiman’s original is stored in a safe deposit box in a bank in Vancouver. The box is labeled “Maiman’s laser,” to which one could add in parentheses, “inspired the iconic scene in Goldfinger.”