Posts Tagged ‘Science Future’

EP387: Perspective


By Jake Kerr
Read by Julian Bane

Discuss on our forums. 

 

PERSPECTIVE
By Jake Kerr
 

The worst part about picking my son up from the police station was the walk to get there. I hadn’t been outside in years, but it was still the same–the drab gray of the smog-stained overcast sky, the decaying concrete, the stench of gasoline, urine, and who knew what else. But thanks to Jeffrey there was a new assault to my senses–black molecular paint permanently defacing an already wretched city.With every step I could see his work–his “tags” as the police called them. They were all different, and there was no rhyme or reason as to what he would vandalize–the sides of buildings, street surfaces, retailer kiosks, even windows. The randomness made catching my son a difficult task for the police, but catch him they did, and now I had to walk these vile streets to bring him home.

I paid the bail, followed the directions to processing, and waited for my son. The policewoman there was polite and offered me a seat, but I stood. I wasn’t in the mood to relax, and Jeffrey needed to see how angry I was. So I waited, arms behind my back, staring at the door that led inside.

His head hung low as he walked out. He glanced up at me and then lowered his head again. “Hi, Pop,” he mumbled. I didn’t move. He walked over and added in a whisper, “I’m really sorry.”

“You lied to me.” I grabbed his right hand and pulled it up between us. “These black stains aren’t paint, Jeffrey. That is your _skin_. It was the price to pay for your job, you said. I’m painting ships with a new kind of paint, you said. You made the stains sound like a worthy sacrifice.” I tossed his hand down.

“Pop, please. Let’s talk about this at home.” He looked around the room, shifting from one foot to the other.

“Yes, we will discuss this at home.” I turned and walked out the door. He followed. I walked the streets again, Jeffrey shuffling behind me. I focused on the concrete at my feet, unable to bear looking at his work. My hands were clenched tight enough to turn my knuckles white, so I shoved them in my pockets.
(Continue Reading…)

EP386: Finished


By Robert Reed
Read by Joel Nisbet

Discuss on our forums. 

 

Finished
by Robert Reed 

What did I plan?  Very little, in truth.  An evening walk accompanied by the scent of flowers and dampened earth, the lingering heat of the day taken as a reassurance, ancient and holy.  I was genuinely happy, as usual.  Like a hundred other contented walkers, I wandered through the linear woods, past lovers’ groves and pocket-sized sanctuaries and ornamental ponds jammed full of golden orfes and platinum lungfish.  When I felt as if I should be tired, I sat on a hard steel bench to rest.  People smiled as they passed, or they didn’t smile.  But I showed everyone a wide grin, and sometimes I offered a pleasant word, and one or two of the strangers paused long enough to begin a brief conversation.

One man—a rather old man, and I remember little else—asked, “And how are you today?”

Ignoring the implication, I said, “Fine.”

I observed, “It’s a very pleasant evening.”

“Very pleasant,” he agreed.

My bench was near a busy avenue, and sometimes I would study one of the sleek little cars rushing past.

“The end of a wonderful day,” he continued.

I looked again at his soft face, committing none of it to memory.  But I kept smiling, and with a tone that was nothing but polite, I remarked, “The sun’s setting earlier now.  Isn’t it?”

The banal recognition of a season’s progression—that was my only intent.  But the face colored, and then with a stiff, easy anger, the man said, “What does it matter to you?  It’s always the same day, after all.”

Hardly.  Yet I said nothing. (Continue Reading…)

Science Future: Aggrandize Aptitude


This time on Science Future: Various stepping-stones to human augmentation.

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction have upon each other.

Aggrandize Aptitude

Last month we were treated to a story about human performance. EP318: The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey was about a human with incredible abilities surrounded by transhumans with mediocre abilities. It took place in a world where humans regularly modified their bodies beyond what we consider to be the human normal but focused on one human who hadn’t and might not and yet still had the chance to exceed all of them.

Yet the story was cheating in asense for the protagonist already had a capability that far exceeded that of the standard human template. So much so that he was under constant surveillance for the possibility of actual augmentation. The stealthiest augmentation for one competing in sports today is drugs. In the future, the definition of drugs might be expanded beyond simple chemical concoctions. Rohit Talwar, the founder of Fast Future Research, gave a talk at Intelligence Squared’s If conference about the possibility of digital drugs via direct manipulation of brain chemistry using transcranial magnetic stimulation. One could only assume this kind of manipulation would be extremely hard to detect. No chemical traces and nothing invasive or even ingested. Except that in The Prize our protagonist had his doppelgänger, which was an atomic scale simulation of himself. This copy could easily have been used as both a training and surveillance device.

It is hard to believe the precision needed to copy someone down to the atomic level could be easily done via external sensors and implants would obviously not be allowed for competitive reasons but they likely used a more advanced version of this system. Researchers led by the California Institute of Technology have created a series of microchips that can quickly and inexpensively assess immune function of a human from one single cell harvested from their body. With a device like that, occasionally sampling the body for a drop of blood and building a clone that could forecast the physical changes one might undergo after eating cake seems almost feasible.

The Gift focused more on the possibility of human enhancement. Changing a the body to give one abilities that they could never hope to achieve within a human genetic code. Two of the enhancements referenced were increasing intelligence and empathy. The brain is a complicated organ in charge of many things that we don’t understand and the idea of enhancing seems far off. Repairing it, less so. There is promising research in the field of cybernetics that helps repair brain damage. Created by Theodore Berger and his team at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and researchers at Wake Forest University, a neural prosthesis is able to restore  a rat’s ability to form long-term memories after they had been pharmacologically blocked. This is the first step to augmenting something like intelligence and empathy.

But what if dramatic enhancement was not really what someone like Michito was looking for? Well a discovery by Columbia University Medical Center researchers may lead to a better understanding how to fundamentally change the human body in subtle ways. They have shown that not all traits passed on to offspring without the use of DNA but instead naturally occurring viral agents called viRNAs which modify the creature’s RNA. RNA acts like DNA’s messenger in the body, relaying the code. So if the RNA is modified, then the DNA of the being is effectively bypassed. This kinda of science could be harnessed to create a slightly faster person or creating large-scale immunity against difference diseases.

Obviously research into human augmentation continues, be through a biological, technological, or chemical means. Stories like The Prize Beyond Gold will continue to give us reasons to achieve new and different levels of augmentation. Afterall, most of us will never be Michito but we could possibly be better than him.

There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do – the result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier. – Benjamin Franklin

Science Future: Insuring Intelligence


Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction has upon each other.

Insuring Intelligence

The human race is the smartest life form on the plant Earth. To some that statement is simple fact and to others it sounds incredibly arrogant. Yet no one can deny the progress we’ve made scientifically in the last few centuries and with breakthrough technologies emerging quicker and quicker, very few claim to know where we are going.

However I claim to know where we should go and that place is outer space. So much of our science fiction draws upon the possibilities of what we could find beyond our own atmosphere. For example in Escape Pod 309: The Insurance Agent a significant portion of humanity had come to believe that intelligence beings come from somewhere other than Earth to embody the influential members of the human race such as Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Jean D’arc, Elvis, and Madonna.

Whatever you might personally believe about this theory the possibility of extraterrestrial life is not completely unprovable. For example, astronomers have discovered a quasar which is producing water which as we known is one of the major requirements for life as we know it. The quasar has in fact produced 140 trillion times more water than all that could be collected from the Earth. Of course this quasar is an estimated 12 billion light years away (about 30 billion trillion miles, not that means anything to the average person) so it is unlikely we will ever reach it without inventing or discovering some kind of faster than light travel, which is impossible according to our current understanding of physics. Or is it?

Scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research have released findings showing neutrinos, subatomic particles that make up an atom, that move faster than the speed of light. Their findings are now being rigorously studied for possible faults since it would begin a re-write of some of the fundamental theories of physics. Yet another example of how science slowly and methodically changes its view points in order to build a better understanding the universe. The human race, however, is not typically so methodic.

I can't speak to the paper's scientific merits, but it's really cool how on page 10 you can see that their reference GPS beacon is sensitive enough to pick up continential drift under the detector (interrupted halfway through by an earthquake).

In The Insurance Agent, it is explained that the Alien Theory of Spiritual Beings, as it is called, is a concept that goes in and out of vogue. This is understandable when you compare this to the conclusions found by scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Their studies show that if only ten percent of a population holds an unshakable belief, that said belief will end up being adopted by the majority of society. Even more interestingly, these beliefs, once they reach the critical ten percent threshold, tend to spread quickly. The best examples being the overthrowing of decade long dictatorships. Fundamentally most people don’t like to hold an unpopular opinion except, as a popular meme tells us, for haters, who have to hate.

Science fiction I think is an imperfect example of an unshakable belief. For years we have continued to write science fiction about space exploration and with each passing year, we understand and find more and more about the sky above us. The ideas put forth by our stories and their adoption by readers could be the ten percent needed to inspire the next young scientist to test if Lady Gaga is really an alien or not.

It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen. – Muhammad Ali

Science Future: Egregious Energy


Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction has upon each other.

Egregious Energy

Power. Electricity. Energy. It has fueled the technological evolution of humankind for years. We harness it, generate it, and distribute it in a multitude of ways. We use magnetic, photovoltaic and piezoelectric materials to harness generated power, chemicals and minerals to store and distribute, and technology to convert it back into useful force, like television and space travel.

© Copyright Keith Evans and licensed Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Escape Pod 303 Leech Run by Scott W. Baker, we were presented with an idea of how humanity might further control energy: Leeching it directly into our own bodies. Obviously this is a fantastical idea. Or is it? A research paper at the University of Massachusetts Medical School released back in June talks about a protein found in human eye, that when implanted into fruit flies, allows them to sense the magnetic fields, similar to migrating birds. Humans produce these proteins, suggesting that, as a race, we may already have or will develop some sort of conscious magnetic sense. From there is it only a few genetic steps (admittedly long ones) to allowing us to directly control, or leech, energy from the environment around us. This could lead to problems.

After all technology is likely to continue to grow in fast spurts. Researchers at MIT have been analyzing ways to predict which technologies might grow quickly. Similar to how computer processing units have scaled over the last few decades, knowing how quickly some other type of technology might improve could have vast repercussions both for investors as well as society. Regardless of what technology is developed, it will need to be powered in some fashion.

That is why battery research is still ongoing. Researchers at Imperial College London, the Swedish Institute of Composites, and Volvo are developing materials that can both act as the lightweight structural frame for vehicles as well as act as batteries to help power those vehicles. The applications for this type of discovery would be near limitless. Spaceships whose electrical systems are the walls themselves come to mind. The lighter a space craft, the easier it is to get into (and more importantly out of) a gravity well like a planet.

The problem is, if humanity develops power leeching abilities like in Scott Baker’s story, it is easy to see why such people could be seen as threats. In environments where technology is the only thing keeping us alive, a person who could simply leech all the power away from that technology would have tremendous control. In Leech Run, the captain of the space craft is very careful to keep his leech passengers away from electronic parts of the ship, and fears for his life when one of them escapes.

Copyright ladyada, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)The answer, it would seem, would be some way to possible neutralize their leeching abilities. Perhaps the future version of this technology: vascular turbines. Vascular turbines are similar to hydroelectric generators being developed at the University of Bern and the Bern University of Applied Sciences except they are small enough to be implantable inside the human cardiovascular system. The intent is to power devices like pacemakers without batteries but instead use the flow of a person’s own blood to generate the power needed. An improved inject-able version might be given to human power leeches as a way to force them to make use of their powers on the turbines, rather than other technology around them.

Science fiction, of course, is not a perfect predictor. Humans may never become power leeches in the same sense of the ones we found in Leech Run but as a race we’ll continue to leech and use power to fuel our future technologies. Science fiction will, in turn, continue to think up uses for all this power that improving technologies are helping us to harvest.

The higher your energy level, the more efficient your body. The more efficient your body, the better you feel and the more you will use your talent to produce outstanding results. – Tony Robbins

Science Future: Alternate Actual


Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction have upon each other.

Alternate Actual

Possibilities sometimes dazzle us. Possibility is what makes gambling so exciting (or excruciatingly painful). We think of the future as a sea of possibilities and the past as a list of choices with possibilities discarded. Only, in the realm of science fiction, the past does not have to be so stagnant. In science fiction we have two words: alternate realities.

Photo of a hologram from MIT's Hologram Gallery

The idea of alternative realities is a common theme  in science fiction. The act of writing fiction, is in some ways, creating an alternative to reality, but are alternate realities truly science fiction? The answer may lie in black holes. Not that black holes are gateways to other universes but in the study of black holes. Theoretical studies on the quantum properties of black holes over the last thirty years have led to proposal that the reality we perceive is nothing but a hologram of another. The proposal works on the theory that information (used in the loosest definition of the word) related to the surrounding physics of an area can be stored on the surface area of a black hole, rather than inside it, and that the resulting three dimensional reality that surrounds it is in fact a projection of this two dimensional information. Black holes have been used in science fiction to create alternate realities before, such as in Tom the Universe by Larry Hodges.

It is a hard concept to wrap your mind around, which is why it has taken thirty years for scientist to even propose it. That and the slow advances of science as it iterates and recurses upon itself to better improve our understanding of the universe we can directly perceive. For example science has declared a change in the fundamental constants used in physics. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has announced revised numbers, leading to the electromagnetic force has growing a little stronger, gravity becoming a little weaker, and the size of the smallest “quantum” of energy is now being known a little better. But only a little. The changes were small, of course, but will no doubt lead to changes in the complex equations used to model the universe, throwing physicists into a frenzy. I doubt they would be frazzled worse if they met their own evil twin with appropriately alternative hair and/or clothing styles.

xkcd: 683: Science Montage

Evil twins originate from anti-matter universes, of course, so we know that they’ll weight just as much as you do, according to the scientists at Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics. They measured the mass of an antiproton to the best of their capability and they have announced that matter-antimatter symmetry has now been confirmed, meaning that the mass of a proton and antiproton is the same. This doesn’t explain how you might one day find a ’76 Goldwater Dime such as the one John Medaille wrote about but we can rest assured that if an alternate universe existed made purely out of anti-matter, it would not different too much on the scales.

Alternate realities will continue to remain a common device used in science fiction mostly to explore the idea of having not spilled coffee on yourself during that last date as well as exploring other aspects of the human condition. Science isn’t close to any particular breakthroughs regarding where your evil twin is hiding but in the mean time scientists will do their best to find them for you.

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. – Albert Einstein

Science Future: Harking Hugos


Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Harking Hugos

Each year the Noble Prizes are given out to people who have achieved great things in their life. They is given out to people who have furthered the advancement of the fields of science and the humanities and represent great personal achievements for both the recipients and society. Like science, science fiction has its own award called the Hugo Awards, given yearly to the best science fiction stories. As regular listeners may know, Escape Pod has a tradition of presenting the short stories nominated for the Hugo Awards and keeping in theme with the celebration of the Hugo Awards, Science Future is going to present scientific breakthroughs that relate to the Hugo nominated short stories and novellas presented here on Escape Pod.

Artificial Intelligence is something science fiction has dreamed about since the first computer was built. The story Want of a Nail By Mary Robinette Kowal introduces us to an artificial intelligence that lives as a guardian of the memories of a human family traveling the stars. This artificial intelligence acts the family’s historian, both selecting and storing important events for the family to remember. Modern computers couldn’t hope to perform such a complex task, at least not without a major breakthrough, which it may have created at the University of Exeter. Researchers have created a processor which copies how the human brain processes information. The human brain doesn’t differentiate between processing and collecting information like current computer processors and but this new one  uses phase-changing materials that allows it to both process and store data at the same time.

It is not certain, however, that we’ll ever create a true artificial being but science fiction has presented us with other options for our electronic creations such as implanting them in their own bodies. In the story Plus or Minus By James Patrick Kelly deep space explorers have augmentations which allow them to communicate with simple thought alone. Today we are limited to using external devices such as cellphones to communicate with people beyond the range of our physical presence but the University of Michigan has taken steps to fix that with the BioBolt. The BioBolt is a minimally invasive brain implant which is placed on the skull and is connected to a small film of microcircuits that rests on the brain and listens to neurons. Since the entire device is under the skin with nothing sticking out, the chances of infection are greatly reduced. In order to communicate it uses the electrical field produced by skin to transmit to any other device touching the skin, creating a simple way for the brain to be listened to without wires sticking out of the skin.

An entirely new and wondrous place will open up to us the day we can think at each other and be heard. This world will be full of exciting possibilities like direct knowledge transference, language-less communication, and body hacking! Oh wait, we already have that last one. A joint effort by the University of Tokyo, Japan, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories have created the PossessedHand project which has produced a device which lets someone hijack another person’s hand movements. It does this by directly lightly shocking the muscles in the arm allowing people to program a sequence of specific finger movements. The device doesn’t work perfectly yet it does successfully control the fingers of another human being, which is hauntingly familiar to one of Hugo nominees, The Things by By Peter Watts. In The Things creatures find it easy to control the bodies of the humans they find but like the controllers of the PossessedHand project, they can not fathom their prey’s minds.

The creatures in The Things embodied the idea of self-preservation not by fight or flight but with breeding. The ability to breed is also one of the main themes of the story Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn. In Amaryllis a woman is born to a society where food is strictly rationed and therefore the act of breeding is also tightly controlled. The ability to give birth to a child is something perhaps too undervalued in the modern day except by doctors at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Hospital in Sweden. There doctors are preparing to attempt to complete the first successful transplant of a human womb. Among the subjects under review include a fifty six year old woman who is donating her womb to her twenty five year old daughter.

The miracles and breakthroughs envisioned and brought to us by science  and science fiction all deserve our appreciation regardless of any awards given. Congratulations to all the Hugo Award nominees.

Literature that keeps employing new linguistic and formal modes of expression to draft a panorama of society as a whole while at the same time exposing it, tearing the masks from its face – for me that would be deserving of an award. – Elfriede Jelinek

Science Future: Maintaining Memory


Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Maintaining Memory

One could say that in reading and listening to science fiction we are, in a way, remembering the future. The future we remember from these stories is often wrong and full of holes, just like our memory of the past. Memory is a fickle thing, as anybody who has lost their keys or forgotten their homework, can attest to. In science fiction, memory is often even more unreliable. Take some of our recent stories here at Escape Pod. In EP284: On a Clear Day You Can See All the Way to Conspiracy by Desmond Warzel and EP292: In The Water by Katherine Mankiller memory is something that is easily modified and manipulated.

Thankfully that isn’t the case, right? Yes and no.

Recent studies into computer aided training have yielded mixed results when it comes to expanding the mental capabilities. The study focused on a popular theory that taxing a person’s working memory can lead to an increase in mental capacity. Basically if you’re forced to hold more numbers or words in your head while performing calculations with them, you’ll find it easier to hold that many, if not more, thoughts later. The results were mixed. Some of the participants showed marked increase working memory and some showed little to none at all. What was found was that there was a significant correlation between how much the participants enjoyed the training, with the people who enjoyed it the most showing the most improvement.

This is great news, except that we can’t always trust what we remember. A study, published in The Journal of Consumer Research, shows that visual advertisements, such as happy scenes involving prominent product placement, actually trick our brains into forming memories. We believe we’ve actually experienced what we see. A study managed to convince a group of students that they had eaten a particular brand of popcorn and remember enjoying it when they were asked about it later.

A group of pyramidal cell axons in the brain.

Thankfully this stuff isn’t really mind control it is just creating new, if false, memories. Like hacking the brain except the individual has ultimate control over how the memory forms. We haven’t figured out how to really control this process but scientists are making strides in understanding how the brain makes a memory. For example nueroscientists in University of California, Berkeley, have figured out how heightened emotion, like fear, helps us to remember events. It seems that in fearful states, the amygdala, the part of our brains that controls emotion, talks the hippocampus, a relay hub for memory, into generating new neurons. These new neurons are fresh and ready for imprinting with your most recent experiences which how you remember that last near collision with a fellow driver but can never remember what year Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia. Next time try studying while listening to Psuedopod!

Understanding how we create memory will help us lead to actual memory creation, not unlike what happens in EP288: Future Perfect by LaShawn M. Wanak or keep our memories after everything around us changes, like in EP287: A Taste of Time by Abby Goldsmith. Movies like Inception and Total Recall will be that much closer to reality. With it I expect we’ll see more tales that touch upon the implications behind memory altering technologies and Stories speculating on what it means to have your memory altered, willingly, or unwillingly.

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” – Aeschylus

Science Future: Searching Space


Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Searching Space

NASA (CC BY 2.0)Space. The future will grant us access to what is beyond that big blue sky we see surrounding that bright thing that hounds us out of bed every morning. Space and science fiction have become so intertwined that even the mention of it will sometimes push a fantasy novel into the science fiction genre. Science fiction even has sub-genres specifically devoted to space based stories: Space Opera and Space Westerns.

We, as a race, are still taking our first steps into space; sending people out into space and peering out into the sky. We know there is a universe out there full of stars, planets, nebulae, and maybe even something called dark mater or dark energy but really, those are all just names. Our actual knowledge about those celestial objects is still very small and the only way we’re going to really find out is to send something out there to get a really good look at it.

The bad news is, it may be getting harder to go out there to see them. The common theory, up until two years ago, was that the universe was expanding but that the expansion was slowing. That there was a big bang and everything was moving away from that bang but, eventually, the universe would slow, stop, and then begin to collapse in on itself, perhaps leading to another big bang. That has all been thrown into confusion thanks to two independent teams of researchers who measured the distances of nearby galaxies using the light from Cepheids and supernoevae. They determined that the universe is currently expanding at about the rate of the width of the United States of America per minute, which compared to our last accurate calculation is actually faster. The expansion of the universe isn’t slowing, it is speeding up.

NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)That means if we, as a species, are going to go out there, we’re going to need to hit some pretty fast-moving targets but before we do that, we need to figure out where those targets are. That’s where the Kepler Spacecraft comes into play. The Kepler Spacecraft, named after the famous 17th Century astrologer Johannes Kepler, was shot into space two years ago with a simple mission, start surveying worlds and figure out how many possible habitable planets might be out there. Kepler has been sending back data and, based upon the first four months of Kepler’s searching, there appears to be about 2 billion “Earth Analog” planets out there. Earth Analogs are planted that are roughly similar to earth in size and position within their own part of the universe, giving them some of the best chances of holding life similar to our own. Sadly this is considerably less than what researchers were predicting but those same researchers are still hopeful because Kepler hasn’t completed its survey yet, which means more data to devour!

Hot White Dwarf Shines in Young Star Cluster NGC 1818 (Public Domain via Hubble)And there is plenty of data out there to find. A professor at University of Washington has proposed using ground and space based telescopes to search near white dwarf stars for habitable planets. White dwarf stars are small, dense, cool stars, in the final stage of their life and these aspects might make it easier to spot planets near them. Their relatively low brightness might allow ground telescopes to identify a planet moving between the dwarf star and our telescopes with more ease when compared to brighter stars like our Sol. Another theory put forth is that these cool stars will provide exactly the right heat to a close orbiting planet to allow the planet to have liquid water, which scientists feel provide a huge indication of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. There are about 20,000 “nearby” white dwarf stars that could be observed from ground telescopes quickly and efficiently. So plenty out there for us to look at.

Our first steps into space are slow and shaky but with each day, each probe, and each theory, we are learning more and more about the universe waiting for us. It may not be full of Klingons, Vorlons, or Sith, but with 2 billion possibly habitable planets  out there, stories about what new and interesting beings we will find among the stars will never be in short supply.

Science Future: Portable Power


Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Portable Power

Mobile and ubiquitous computing is one of the hot spots of commercial research and it has been slowly invading our science fiction for years. Almost every one can refer to at least one person, if not themselves, who carries the internet around in their pocket and nearly every space faring race seems to have easy access to huge databases of information just by saying or thinking the word “Computer”.  Today, most lunch-break trivia arguments can be settled, if not very quickly, before the bill has arrived. That is until the battery runs out. Even to the most casual user of digital devices, occasionally having to disconnect ourselves from our external memory and constant updates, to let our little glowing boxes recharge, causes anguish.

Batteries by Tomblois (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)What would help alleviate this pain and suffering? Maybe if it didn’t take so long to recharge a battery. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found a way to use nanomaterials to recreate battery cathodes at a nano-scale that can charge up to 100 times faster than current commercial batteries but still power your netbook just fine. It helps explain why we never really see our protagonists pulling out their hyperspace coms and cursing that they forgot to leave it on the charger over night.

You still need to get power from somewhere, however, and some scientists at MIT have delved into biotechnology and developed an artificial leaf that will absorb a gallon of water and bright sunlight and produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing country for an entire day. The leaf works by simulating a form of photosynthesis, where in it breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen and then uses those two elements to produce electricity. Imagine spaceships sailing through the solar system covered in artificial leaves that not only power our ships but also camouflage them in case they fly through a space forest.

If you’re not big into the flora fashion, Doctors at GeorgeTech have created one of the first commercially viable nanogenerators. That is to say they’ve created a flexible chip about the a quarter of the size of a stamp that generates electricity through simple movement. It does this by taking advantage of a nanowire property known as piezoelectric, or the ability to generate electrical fields when mechanically strained. Research suggests that five of these chips can output the same amount of power as a AA battery. Combined with the batteries above, this means that joggers and outdoor enthusiasts never have to worry about being disconnected from the internet ever again! Not a lot science fiction authors saw that one coming.
Bzzt

So does this mean that the lack of plugs, chargers, and batteries in our science fiction has been author oversight or author foresight? Science fiction likes it technological gadgets from laser rifles to portable shield generators to omni-tools but rarely do we see a person of the future angry over forgetting to charge their light sword. Ubiquitous energy seems to be the theme of the future and it’s fiction. But the issue of power has many reprocussions. Science is bringing us a future of full of miniaturized safe energy to help power our increasingly mobile lifestyles in a decreasingly large world. This might lead to stories that focus on the dehumanization, re-humanization, or even digitalization of human society. Either way power will always be an important part of science fiction even if most of science fiction chooses to ignore it.