Have You Had LASIK Surgery? Be Grateful to a Turkey.

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 26 2013 12:28 PM

Have You Had LASIK Surgery? Be Grateful to a Turkey.

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Thanksgiving turkeys: not just for eatin'

Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

There are a lot of great options for repurposing Thanksgiving leftovers. You can make sandwiches, casseroles, or turkey carcass gumbo. But you’ll have to get pretty creative to top the time an IBM scientist used his leftovers to perfect LASIK surgery.

It all started back in 1981. Scientists at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center were experimenting with a method of sight correction that involved shooting lasers at the human eye. Specifically, the researchers were trying to hone their light scalpels so that they could cut away layers of the eye without destroying nearby tissue. Obviously, if unwieldy laser burns are your concern, you need a suitable surface on which to practice—something similar to the fragile tissues of an eyeball.

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“We talked about delicate tissue, like butterfly wings and goldfish tails,” said one of the researchers, James Wynne, in a press release. “We could have used something from our cafeteria, but we thought that chopped meat such as hamburger would have too rough a surface to yield easily interpreted results.”

Alas, Thanksgiving arrived before the researchers could settle on a suitable test subject. All the scientists went home to their families for the holiday, likely enduring many rote jokes from the in-laws about the wisdom of shooting laser beams into human eyes. (We can assume these were at least preferable to all the questions about lightsabers. It must have been tough being a scientist working with lasers in the early ‘80s.)

But it was sometime during this annual feast that Wynne’s fellow researcher Rangaswamy “Sri” Srinivasan reportedly had his epiphany: Perhaps a turkey bone with a little cartilage would be just the right consistency for the laser test. Srinivasan bogarted the carcass before anyone could so much as fight over the wishbone and took it back to the lab the following day. Srinivasan and his colleagues then bombarded the bird with a series of 10-nanosecond pulses of light from an experimental ArF excimer laser. Analysis revealed that the laser performed admirably, damaging none of the surrounding turkey tissue and green-lighting future experiments. (Tests performed with a competing laser showed “burned, charred tissue.” Ouch.) 

The team then ratcheted up their tests to see how the laser would perform on human tissue, an aorta harvested from a cadaver, and eventually filed a patent for the new laser that could do the work of scalpel. Over the next 20 years, Srinivasan, Wynne, and another colleague, Samuel Blum, would perfect the technology and provide more than 30 million people with better laser-corrected eyesight.

Srinivasan, Wynne, and Blum were honored for their work earlier this year with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. This Thanksgiving, Wynne is still working with IBM on new ArF excimer laser technology for burn victims—and likely fielding questions about lightsabers from a whole new generation of Star Wars fans.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.