11.15.07

Sci Fi plot elements

Posted in at 20:40 by RjZ

I do enjoy watching and reading reading sci-fi now and again, but, as impressed as I am by the futuristic and clever ideas that writers create, I am also frequently disappointed by the lack of touch with reality they often are. Don’t they realize that technically educated geeks dominate their audiences?

During the recent Colorado Photonics Industry Association’s (CPIA) annual meeting students from local universities participated in a poster session and department chairs discussed photonics related progress in their universities. A sci-fi writer running low on ideas need go no further.

One poster was on cloaking. Cloaking’s already a popular sci-fi element and it was hard not to wonder, looking at the student’s paper, if he wasn’t talking pseudo science. The fact is that there are already small objects, meta-materials, that have a negative index of refraction making light bend around them in such a way that the light never even registers they were there. A meta-material is a material whose characteristics are not based upon its chemical properties, but rather on its structure. It’s like textured vegetable protein. You can make the stuff into almost anything, even though chemically, it’s still just soy.

Another poster discussed cancer cell detection between a Fabry-Perot interferometer. A Fabry-Perot interferometer is simply two semi-reflective plates parallel to each other. As the light bounces between them on its way in and then out of them, it makes special patterns. Through incredibly tedious and impressive mathematics, these students were able to describe how the patterns look when you pass certain kinds of healthy cells between the plates compared to decidedly similar cancer cells. I can see futuristic doctors testing your health by making you walk between two plates of glass.

There were solar cells made of organic plastics and bio-sensors made of chemically, microscopically, tethered RNA. The students were very impressive, indeed, but the really mind-bending stuff came later. In 2001 the Nobel prize for Physics was awarded to Colorado University faculty for their work on Bose-Einstein Condensates, BEC. BECs are a state of matter that is so cold, that even their tiniest internal vibrations begin to cease. In doing so, unfortunately for them, the attempt to break a law of quantum mechanics which says we can only know so well just exactly, I mean really exactly, where something is. To make up for their offense, the otherwise unnoticeable wave-function of these atoms spreads out and becomes measurable. If all the atoms cool off together, their wave-functions match up, or become coherent.

Coherence is exactly what is special about lasers and so these new BECs are really atom-lasers. Coherent streams of particles all acting like laser beams. They’re actually the exact opposite of laser-beams though, because where beams interact with matter to bounce around, for example off of mirrors, or be focused by lenses, these atom beams interact with light. They bounce off of walls of light and are focused by fields of light, all the while, completely unaffected by matter.

I am not even sure where sci-fi authors are going to go with this stuff, but these fascinating features of nature aren’t the stuff of science fiction, they’re happening, in the real world, at local Colorado universities. Looks like that latest sci-fi novel we’re reading is already behind the times!

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