Science Fiction

(See also Superheroes)

Throughout our lives, the things we've read about in comics and science fiction books have continued to become reality - so muh so that I feel the topic could almost be re-named Science Prediction! On this page I'd like to present a few of these advances, and then look at some of the problems that had to be overcome to make them possible.

Space Travel: This is one area that has been a very popular field, with visits to the Moon, other planets, and even other galaxies often the basis of a good yarn. Many of these stories involved meeting "alien" beings, and either conquering them or helping them overcome some impending catastrophe of their own. Sometimes, we were visited by these beings, who would try to take over our planet, always of course defeating them and sending them on their way.
Since then, we have visited the moon; sent explaratory (but as yet unmanned) craft to other planets in our solar system and beyond; and sent "messages" into space that other beings may recognize as coming from another intelligent life-form.
Sending a rocket to the moon seems pretty straightforward: Create an engine with enough thrust to push around 20 tonnes of metal up about 400,000 Km.
But then, it also needs to carry about 20 times its own weight in fuel, and to constantly adjust its direction for the best angle of approach. Then, it must be able to either divert around the moon or, if we want it to deploy tools once it arrives, it must choose an area suitable to land, and lower the equipment to the surface without damage.
Obviously, if there are to be humans on board, we have a whole new set of challenges. Air, food, water and communication with Control must be guaranteed for the entire round trip, and an equally safe place and conditions for the return landing and recovery of the crew.

Flight: Closer to home, we've all read about people who lived in an age where personal travel was achieved by means of jet-pacs, small, rocket packs that were strapped to the body and allowed the wearer to fly like birds. Jetpack in use Picture of Volocopter
This is now becoming a reality, with jet-packs being successfully trialled in several countries. At the Great Pacific Airshow recently, jetpacks allowed the pilots to fly for 10 minutes at a time. A bit more work needed yet, but it's coming!
Meanwhile, the Volocopter, an electric air taxi has had its urban flight debut in Stuttgart. It is the precursor to all-electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOLs) aircraft intended for use as air taxi services in urban areas. It uses technology developed for drones, with 18 motors and nine battery packs. At present, it has a top speed of about 100 km/h (62 mph) and a range of roughly 27 km (16 miles). Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter, claims it is safe and quiet, and is fast approaching the mass production stage

Undersea Exploration: Exploring the bottom of the oceans is dangerous, tedious, and difficult. In the past there were two options: a manned submersible, or an unmanned craft tethered to a ship on the surface via a long umbilical cord. There's a high safety risk with the first option, while tethered craft require expensive ships to remain idle on the surface. Now, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) are taking over for tasks like oil and gas exploration, searching for sunken ships and aircraft, and mapping underwater features. auv Some of these machines operate completely autonomously, without any kind of human intervention. Boeing has built the Echo Seeker, a 32-foot-long autonomous submarine that can remain submerged for up to three days at a time. At a typical speed of 6Km per hour, it can travel over 400km without recharging. It can fit inside a standard 40-foot shipping container, allowing it to be moved quickly and safely around the world.

Space,Time, Matter and All That Stuff: Back in 1979, Douglas Adams wrote about a super-computer he called "Deep Thought". that was given the task of finding the meaning of life. It worked on the problem for thousands of years and came back with a solution: 42!
But now, scientists are disputing this result (tic) and are spending endless hours and incredible amounts of money trying to find the real answer. They have discovered many things that probably were not included in Deep Thought's algorithm. They have shown that

  • All the objects we see or experience are composed of atoms
  • Atoms consist of a nucleus and one or more orbiting electrons
  • The nucleus of an atom consists of protons and neutrons
  • Protons and neutrons consist of quarks
  • Both quarks and electrons are elementary - that is, can not be broken down further - but watch this space!

At the other end of the spectrum, methods have been found to "look at" objects not only in our galaxy, but in the vast reaches of space beyond previously known galaxies. Black holes, many times larger than any star, and which constantly swallow stars and sometimes even galaxies, were once thought to be the ultimate in size and power. But now, quasars have been found, and these dwarf even these! They are of the order of a billion times as bright as the Sun. There is not much known about quasars at present, but one theory is that they are the result of a massive black hole at the centre of their own galaxy. And, on another scale, you may have read stories about "micro-submarines" entering the human body, and travelling through arteries and other "channels" to repair damaged organs etc. We have not reached this stage yet, but we have tiny vehicles (yes, they are vehicles) that can be guided through these channels and provide images of their surroundings. This information can then be used to correct the problems found.
We once marvelled at the fact that we could be shown clear images of microscopic objects like molecules and atoms. atom With sub-atomic objects, as well as their size, a major problem is to find and isolate candidates for study when they are not only in a constant state of motion, but in many cases decay after a very short time; most subatomic particles are not stable, with protons being an exception. In recent days sub-atomic particles like quasars, photons, neutrons and several others have been able to be examined, by observing their behaviour in pre-set conditions, bringing ever closer the full understanding of what really constitutes matter. Freezing some of these to almost absolute zero, thus stopping their motion, has allowed some images to be obtained. But a problem still being addressed is, in simple terms, the fact that when light is applied to a particle to obtain an image, its motion is re-started.

Computers & Electronics: ZX81 computer We once talked in terms of bytes and kilobytes, in some cases megabytes of memory. My first computer had a memory size of 16Kb - one 64th of a Megabyte! Computing and electronic technology has seen immense and regular developments over the years. The Internet is probably one of the most recognized of these, but technological advances have made the original Internet network seem like a string-telephone system in comparison.
Google has the largest amount of storage in the world. Its data centers use around 260 million watts of power, enough to power 200,000 homes, and hold over 10 million terabytes of data (a terabyte is 1000 gigabytes; a gigabyte is 1000 megabytes, so this is about 10,000,000,000,000 megabytes).

Travel: Planes, trains and automobiles have all undergone incredible changes in the past. Remenber when we saw the first automatic cars? No more riding the clutch, grating gears, kangaroo-hop starts! Then, our cars learned to tell us if we were speeding, or approaching a "red-light camera" or school zone, or if we had wandered out of our lane on the freeway. But just when we thought we had reached the ultimate in ease of use and safety, we are introduced to driverless technology - not only in cars, but in trains,and even aircraft!
We still have a human backup, in case the computer's battery goes flat, or a rat chews through a cable or something, thank goodness! The world’s carmakers had predicted fully autonomous vehicles would be in showrooms by 2020 or soon after, but one-by-one the big brands have pushed back their forecasts as they encounter problems during testing. While it is relatively easy for cars to work autonomously in freeway situations, the technology struggles in city and suburban driving, where it needs to detect pedestrians, cyclists, traffic signals, and women-drivers (oops, sorry, ma'am!) as well as navigating around unusual driving behaviour such as a double-parked car, debris, or a garbage truck.

Health & Medicine We have learned to replace damaged limbs and organs with prosthetic, transplanted or home-grown ones, and found cures for many previously untreatable conditions and diseases.
In earlier days, severed limbs were often replaced with wooden prostheses, which returned only a little of the limb's functionality. Today, the prosthetics can allow full movement and control of the limb, with feedback that lets the user "feel" contact with objects and control their grip or positioning.
Other prosthetics problems that needed to be considered were changes in the size, shape and condition of the part to which the prosthesis is attached, and the type of activity that the wearer is likely to undertake - walking, running, jumping, throwing, lifting etc.
Body organs and parts that can now be replaced include hearts, heart valves, pancreas, lungs, and several others. Some of these can currently only be replaced with one from another human, either deceased or living; others may be from animals such as pigs or monkeys, and others may be manufactured or grown from the recipient's own body tissue. A major problem has always been the recipient's body rejecting the "foreign" material, but this can now often be controlled with the use of immunosuppressants. The brain is a super-special item that has never been replaced - but again, watch this space, as they say...
Smallpox is claimed to have been totally eradicated, and other programs are well under way to eradicate poliomyelitis, yaws, malaria, measles, mumps and rubella. Eradication of diseases becomes much more difficult when they can be re-introduced to humans by infection from other animals and insects.

There have been immense break-throughs in all of these areas, and many others. But there still remain problems to which we need early solutions. Some of these are

  • Food shortage. There are millions of people in the world today, both children and adults, who go for days on end without any food whatsoever! Sometimes this is due to over-population, which may possibly be relieved by education and proper birth-control methods. Other causes are natural events - droughts, floods, wind-events, fires, earthquakes etc.; and man-made events - war, environmental destruction, opression etc.
  • Water scarcity. As global warming continues more areas are losing vegetation, and consequently their ability to provide fresh water.
  • Pollution. As we have become more industrialised, our creation of pollutants in the air, the oceans, and in the soil has increased tremendously. Recently, much more attention has been focussed on reducing this, but there is still a long way to go!
  • Mental illness. Not only must we learn to "fix" the problem, but we still have a long way to go in assisting and controlling those with this affliction, and ensuring their safety and the safety of others.
  • Large-scale disasters such as floods, earthquakes, fires. We must improve our ability to cope with these events, and learn to co-operate globally where needed.
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