This question is entirely for my own peace of mind. In the setting that I'm building, I wanted the Lightning Gun to be the only viable energy weapon in the setting, it suited the aesthetic of the setting and appealed to my love of weired-science. This inability to deploy other forms of energy weapon is justified through the presence of a real cosmic aether.

The Aether scattered/diffuses coherent beams that attempt to pass through it, and there is no way to circumvent this effect, at current point in the setting's history.

I've already deviated quite a bit from real world physics and could easily hand wave things as "causes I said so" and to some extent I'm going to have to do that.

Which is why the question is entirely for my peace of mind.

What are the differences between...

  • The electrical current that creates a lightning bolt.
  • Laser.
  • A charged particle beam.

In layman terms if at all possible.


closed as off-topic by Mołot, SRM, Youstay Igo, Aify, Azuaron Feb 21 '17 at 19:33

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about worldbuilding, within the scope defined in the help center." – Mołot, SRM, Youstay Igo, Aify, Azuaron
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ In my opinion, this question belongs to physics stackexchange. $\endgroup$ – Yashas Feb 21 '17 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ Trismegistus, if your question was "is my cosmic aether enough to disable the other two?" or something like that, I'd agree it's a WB question, but delete everything before "What are the differences..." and you can see @YashasSamaga is right -- this is just a Physics SE question. $\endgroup$ – SRM Feb 21 '17 at 15:56
  • $\begingroup$ @YashasSamaga I disagree. This site is an amalgamation of a hundred different sciences - hence the tags for physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, engineering, anthropology, and the like - that can be applied to building a fictional world. They may need help with a physics aspect of their world, but that doesn't mean they aren't making a world based on answers to this question. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Feb 21 '17 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ In general, if you're looking for a specific answer about real life physics (as this question appears to), then its better to put the question on Physics.SE. However, if you need to weave in fiction (such as if the "real cosmic aether" needed to be factored in when describing the laser's effects), WorldBuilding is a better place. WorldBuilding is also better if you're asking more open ended questions which would get insta-closed on the other sites. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Feb 21 '17 at 16:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A lightling bolt is what happens to a charged particle beam in an atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Feb 21 '17 at 18:05

Lightning Bolt

A lightning bolt is a stream of hot plasma (atoms that have been stripped of their electrons), generated by a huge difference in electrical charge between a cloud and the earth. When the difference in charge becomes strong enough, it creates a channel of plasma through the air to even the charge.

So it's a path of electricity jumping through the air. It moves at between 220,000 mph and 220,000,000 mph.


Laser is actually an acronym, which originally stood for Light Amplified by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. It consists of a stream of photons - fundamental particles of light - at the same wavelength or energy level, all forced to travel together in the same direction and with the same phase. A laser always and only travels at the speed of light, by definition.

Particle Beam

A particle beam would consist of atomic or subatomic particles, like neutrons, protons, or electrons, accelerated by magnetic fields to incredible speeds before being released at a target. "Incredible speeds" in this case means about 3 meters per second slower than the speed of light. These particles can never actually reach the speed of light, because they have mass; but the particle accelerator can get them extremely close.

  • $\begingroup$ They all are fundamental different beasts. The only thing in common is they can deliver a lot of energy and weapons are, by definition, devices delivering a lot of energy in a small time fraction. $\endgroup$ – jean Feb 21 '17 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ The difference in speed between the three technologies is mechanically interesting. I know I've read a few books where a godlike AI prevented explosives/gunpowder weapons because they exceeded an arbitrary "safety limit" for energetic discharge. I wonder if the Cosmic Aether might react to speeds approaching C in a way that makes lower velocities more useful...but we are also reinventing light itself at that point. $\endgroup$ – MikeKozar Feb 21 '17 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ Important to note that in lightning, neither the electrons nor the plasma is actually moving any significant distance, the charges are conveyed by displacement. A multiple pendulum is often used to illustrate this. The "channel of plasma" description is accurate, but "stream" is not. And "it moves" is very unclear, what does "it" refer to? The plasma? The path formed by the plasma? The net charge? $\endgroup$ – Ben Voigt Feb 21 '17 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ What's the difference between a lightning bolt and an electron based particle beam? Both are moving electrical charges? $\endgroup$ – Shane Feb 21 '17 at 19:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Shane A lightning bolt is more like a "fissure" in a electrical field than a traveling beam. Every electron moves just a little out of the way, making a huge charge travel forward without necessarily moving themselves that much. In a remote comparison, it's somewhat of the difference between AC and DC. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Feb 21 '17 at 20:13

Some unintended consequences with your premise

EDIT: To satisfy the pedants...

A lightning is an electrical current of high voltage, high current and very short duration. It is the same as if you had touched your enemies with a cut-off live electrical wire for a few milliseconds.

Maser, laser, x-ray or gamma rays are beams of particles called photons, i.e. the same stuff that light is made of.

Particle beams are just what it says on the box: a beam of particles. Aside from the above mentioned photons there are no particle beans — be they electrons, protons, neutrons, or alpha-particles — that can make it through the atmosphere because they interact too much with air. So even without your hand-waving, these are not feasible as weapons anyway.

The practical difference between these — in the normal case — is that light (i.e. laser) makes it through the atmosphere easily while the others do not. The other particle beams are attenuated by air and the lightning is unpredictable and very short ranged.

There is also a problem with your premise: if you are going with "cosmic aether" to make laser impossible in that it disperses the laser beam, then you have created a world where people in this world can never see the stars, the moon(s) or even their local star. The sky will be milky white the whole time, and you have no line of sight anywhere because you will be in what appears like a fog around you. If your laser light will be dispersed before it impacts a target, so will all other light as well, because laser light and normal light are exactly the same, with the only difference being that laser is narrow-banded and coherent.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Could you edit this to address their question, What's the practical difference between a Lightning Bolt,a Laser and a Charged particle beam? $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Feb 21 '17 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ How coherent is the light that we see with? I had assumed that there were levels of light coherence/focus, and that the level of focus in a laser far exceed that of ambient light; thus creating a threshold for the aether-effect,one well below that of visible light. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Feb 21 '17 at 20:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus Look, if you have make it so that you cannot even get a tight, narrow beam of light go straight without scattering, then no other light will either $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Feb 21 '17 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ Have you hared of reactive materials. I've seen it applied primarily to armor,with the idea being that the material will flex until it's struck then it goes ridged. That's how I was seeing the aether, it lets diffused light through but will go ridged if a beam tried to pass. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Feb 26 '17 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus Do not overthink this. If you strain too hard to come up with explanations then that shows to the reader and detracts from the story. Just hand-wave it with that the other kinds of weapons were simply not invented. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Feb 26 '17 at 18:59

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.