We don't see scientists portrayed as heroes very often in pop culture these days. Usually, scientists are the ones who unleash something terrible onto the world. But when photographer Robert Shults visited the Texas Petawatt Laser, one of the world's most powerful lasers, he was determined to capture the heroism of science.

At the Texas Petawatt Laser, a team of scientists use an incredibly powerful laser to do everything from create high-energy protons for use in cancer therapies to recreating the light intensity of such environments as the center of a star or the area close to a black hole.


Shults shadowed scientists working with the laser for nine months, and came up with this striking series of black-and-white images, shot on film, that conjure a noir sensibility that recalls 1950s adventure movies. Shults has raised over $23,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to fund a book of these photos.

So why did he choose to depict these real-life science heroes as B-movie heroes? Shults tells io9:

Apart from certain technical concerns (such widely-fluctuating ambient light levels, potential damage to digital sensors by the laser, and the presence within the lab of several wavelengths outside the visible spectrum) which suggested the use of high-speed monochromatic film, I am keenly interested in the intersection of fictional and documentary uses of photography. At its core, photography is a subtractive art form, wherein the bulk of the world is consciously excluded from the frame. So, while the subject in front of the lens may be depicted accurately by default, the relationships implied by such selective exclusion frequently belong to realm of narrative fiction. Using the visual conventions of a purely fictional genre to report on this story will, I hope, prompt viewers to generate their own imaginative scenarios, especially when specialized knowledge of the technical tasks being performed is lacking.

To find out more about Shults' work and what the photos reveal, check out the amazing article over in Smithsonian Magazine. Some of our favorite photos are below, reproduced with Shults' permission, but you can see more at the Smithsonian site, plus on Shults' own website and Flickr page.