As I have not exactly been shy about pointing out (Buy my book! Buy my book!), I write science fiction novels as well as science fact.
As a science fiction writer, I have the luxury of equipping my characters with futuristic gadgets that don’t exist yet, but might some day. Now New Scientist magazine has dug out its crystal ball and come up with its own list of such gadgets: 10 things that are science fiction now, but might be in common use within 30 years.
Heading the list is super vision. In 2006 engineers at Cambridge Consultants unveiled the Prism 200, a briefcase-sized system which used ultrawide-band radar to detect people on the other side of a wall…but only if they were moving. For stationery people, you’ll want the device built at the Technical University of Munich, which, by using a particular range of radio frequencies that pass right through skin and bone but are partially reflected by the fatty layer surrounding muscles, can detect a beating heart or breathing through a closed door.
Super vision could be important if invisibility cloaks become a reality. Just recently, we’ve discovered that “metamaterials,” made of electronic components that interact with and control light, can be used to steer electromagnetic radiation around an object. A working cloak for microwaves was unveiled in 2006, and last year California researchers constructed a material that can bend visible light backwards. Not only that, scientists in Hong Kong have figured out (in theory, at least) how to render objects invisible at a distance. In 30 years, that childhood rhyme may become reality: “Yesterday upon the stair I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. Oh, how I wish he’d go away!”
Third on the New Scientist list is “hands-free healing,” in the form a portable device now under development that can be cuffed onto an injured limb. It uses ultrasound to detect internal injuries such as torn arteries (by spotting the flow of blood), then focuses much more powerful beams of ultrasound onto the injured tissue to cook it (oh, all right, “cauterize” it), sealing the tear.
Fourth on the list: walking up walls. Unless you can arrange to get bitten by a radioactive spider, this poses a difficult challenge, since you have to come up with a substance that sticks powerfully enough to walls to support a person’s weight, yet can be easily peeled away to allow movement.
For inspiration, researchers have turned to geckos, wall-walking lizards whose feet are covered with millions of microscopic hairs. Because the hairs are so tiny, each of them is attracted to the wall through van der Waals forces, which attract (and repel) individual molecules. Pile up enough of these tiny attractions, and you can do something useful with them.
In 2003, a University of Manchester researcher created a material similarly covered with hairs (made from a synthetic substance called kapton). One square centimeter of it, pressed hard against a wall, can support a kilogram of weight. Further development of the idea in Italy has produced gloves that can support around 10 kilograms each.
Better keep your walls clean, though–dirt compromises the stickiness. (Geckos’ feet are self-cleaning, which is something I did not know until today.)
Fifth on the New Scientist list is a new source of power for gadgets: you. An Atlanta researcher last year created a fabric, from zinc-oxide nanowires grown on strands of Kevlar, that generates a tiny current whenever it is bent or squeezed. By coating each fiber with metal, they were able to harvest that current.
Meanwhile, at Stanford they’ve come up with a heart-powered electricity generator that could be used to power gadgets inside the body, such as pacemakers. And a Texas scientist has come up with a fuel cell that could be implanted in an artery and use glucose in the blood as fuel.
Number six on the list is…
Oh, wait, I’m out of space. Well, then.
In the grand tradition of science fiction serials…tune in next week for the exciting conclusion to Ten Sci-Fi Gadgets That May Soon Be Real!
Now if only I had some catchy theme music…