Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nifty Gadgets 1

I like gadgets.  I have for as long as I can remember.  I can't recall if it was my love for gadgets that prompted me to become a science fiction fan or if learning about science fiction underscored my enjoyment of learning about technology.  
I love technology.  When I was a kid, before I became a science fiction fan, my favorite books to read were history books, specifically those that focused on how the devices we made changed our history.  Orville and Wilbur's biplane, the trireme, the trebuchet, even the water distribution system of the Roman Empire (it automatically rationed water during times of drought by its very design), all of these technological advances fascinated me.  Part of our very nature as human beings is our tool making.  It is an expression of our who we are as a species as much as our digestive system, our manner of locomotion.  It is an expression of our intelligence that allowed our species to survive and ultimately to thrive.  
Other animals have been shown to make and use tools.  The beaver has his dam, which he uses to change the environment to increase his chances of survival.  Chimpanzees have been shown to use things like twigs, cleaned of their leaves, which they use to fish termites out of their nests for a tasty treat.  So I can't say that tool using is exclusively a human talent.  There is one thing about our tools that I can say when I compare them to those of other species: 
Ours are cooler.  
From the standpoint of writing a science fiction story, a description of the tools people are using and how they are using them is the fastest way of putting a reader into the world your trying to create.  The best example I can think of was one line from a Robert Heinlein story: "The door dilated."  This one sentence creates a very different atmosphere than, "the door opened."  
Here are three examples of technology to change how we live in a big way.  As with most new forms of technology, the degree to which they can change our lives is limited by they ways we can imagine using them.  
Nanotube Radio
It's the ultimate in portability.  Less than a micron long and ten nanometers wide (10,000 times thinner than a human hair), the Zettl Research Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley has created a radio from a single carbon nanotube.  You can click on the link to see electron microscope images of the radio and listen to sound files of songs played using it.  
Carbon nanotubes, or 'buckytubes,' are a form of carbon with a cylindrical nanostructure.  They in a class of structures called 'fullerenes,' which include 'buckyballs' or carbon nano-spheres, which are found naturally in the soot that is produced from burning candles.  
The strength and flexibility of these carbon based structures have made them candidates for all sorts of potential uses.  I will bring more examples to you in future blogs.  In the nanotube radio, the carbon nanotube implements all the components of a normal radio: antenna, tuner, amplifier and demodulator.  The nanotube radio replaces the electrical vibrations used in standard radios with mechanical vibrations of the nanotube's carbon matrix.  
The nanotube radio can be used in any device where radio signals are used today.  Imagine a radio controlled submarine, but one which is small enough to swim through your bloodstream and be directed toward individual cells in your body.  Even smaller cellphones.  Improved hearing aids and implants that could allow people to hear better and more clearly.  For a sample of music played through this tiny radio, or see electronic microscope photos of the device you can go to Zettl Group's Supplemental Material's page.  
Flying Cars
I may be dating myself, but I used to love the Jetsons when I was a kid.  The opening sequence, where George Jetson is flying through his city of glass towers in his flying car (which folded up into a suitcase when he got to work) was a classic.  I don't think anything says 'the future has arrived' more to my generation than the idea of owning your own flying car.  
We may not have reached George Jetson's flying saucer model, but a company called Terrafugia has created the first commercial vehicle that can both fly through the air and drive on the road.  
The Transition, as the vehicle is called, is more of a street legal airplane than a true flying car in the Jetson vein.  The company's website refers to it as a 'roadable aircraft.'  While it might not fold into a briefcase at the end of one's trip, it takes only 15 seconds for the wings to fold up or down, allowing someone to drive to the airport, take-off, land someplace else, and then drive away without any additional parts or retooling.  The Transition is being tested right now, with plans for the first customer delivery (at about $200,000 each) to take place in 2011.  
"Found Energy"
Finding new energy sources is a major concern these days.  Most of the push toward alternative forms of energy (meaning non-carbon based) are familiar to us.  Wind power, solar, geothermal, nuclear, tidal are all being considered and developed, each with its own advantages as well as their own problems and limitations.  There is another source of energy that I became aware of fairly recently, and that is energy generated by our very daily activity of getting up and moving around.  
I first heard the term "Found Energy" in a Japanese documentary about projects being built in Japan to make use of energy found in the vibrations of movement,  by people and vehicles, that is abundant in any large city.  A more recent term for collecting this ambient energy and making use of it is 'Piezoelectric Energy Harvesting.'  
The piezoelectric effect is old technology.  The discovery that certain types of crystals produce an electrical charge when mechanical stress is applied has been used for years in stereo speakers and cigarette lighters.  What is relatively new is applying this process toward the creation of usable energy.  By putting piezoelectric plates down on a sidewalk, for example, one could create energy through the footsteps of the pedestrians walking down the street.  A dance club in the Netherlands, Club WATT in Rotterdam, for example, has 10 percent of its power provided by the dancers partying on their dance floors.  And the Goshiki Zakura Big Bridge on Tokyo's Expressway has a portion of the power running its lights supplied by the cars driving over it.  The military is studying the use of Zinc Oxide (ZnO) nanogenerators, such as the one being developed by Doctors Z.L. Wang and X.D. Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology, pictured above.  Zinc Oxide, another piezoelectric material, would be used to power the growing number of electronic devices our soldiers carry on to the battlefield.  If sewn into clothing any sort of movement would generate energy that could be used to recharge targeting lasers, laptop computers or cell phones.  
I think the concept of 'found energy' is a neat one.  It is small technology, mostly reworking of previously known techniques, with some upgrades to the materials used, but it is clever and stands firmly in the realm of things I think we should be doing.  From a writer's standpoint, it provides one of those 'little touches' one could add to create the realization in the reader that they have entered a place removed from the one we are used to. 
News & Current Projects
The story I've been working on, under the working title of 'The Long Ride,' is fast becoming a novelette.  Rather than try to force into a short story size, I've decided to write it out as it wants to be written and take it from there.  I may find the short story in that, or I may discover it was meant to be a longer form all along.  We'll see what happens.  
I sent my story, "The Hollow Man," off to another publisher.  There are a couple of other stories, "Prometheus 2.0," and "Forms of Worship," that will be sent off to different publishers this week as well.  


Blogger slcard said...

Cool stuff!

And good luck with the submissions!

May 17, 2010 at 4:51 PM  
Blogger D. said...

"The door dilated." I love that. I gather it was a circular door.

May 21, 2010 at 6:54 PM  
Blogger Erick Melton said...

"The door dilated," is from "Beyond This Horizon," Heinlein's second published novel. I've actually not read the novel itself, but I've seen the line quoted in writing books as an example of implicit exposition. The novel is also noteworthy in that it contains the first description of a waterbed.

May 22, 2010 at 12:28 AM  

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