Miraculous technologies

This month’s Scientific American magazine has a story on 7 Radical Energy Solutions.  The link is here although you need a subscription to access the full article.  The 7 solutions are 1) Fusion-triggered fission – using lasers to trigger  fusion in small pellets to produce neutrons to ignite fission; advantage being that a chain reaction is not necessary so nuclear waste can be used as fuel. 2) Solar gasoline – converting solar energy directly into a carbon-based liquid fuel. 3) Quantum photovoltaics – use quantum dots to increase efficiency of solar cells by trapping hot electrons that are lost with existing technology. 4) Heat engines – generate power by capturing waste heat using shape-memory alloys. 5) Shock-wave auto engine – a new internal combustion engine that uses shock waves to propel a turbine. 6) Magnetic air conditioners – make a fridge with no moving parts by using special magnets to replace the refrigerant and  pumps. 7)  Clean coal – use an ionic liquid to pull CO2 out of coal plant exhaust;  the CO2 would then have to be sequestered underground. See here for descriptions of  projects funded by the US Department of Energy.

The article made me think of technology we use today that seems miraculous.  The first thing that comes to mind is the airplane.  People had dreamed of flight for centuries if not millenia but it wasn’t until technology matured enough that the dream was realized in 1903 by the Wright brothers.  The mobile phone was just a science fiction dream to me when I was child.  The refrigerator has always seemed miraculous to me.  Even after thermodynamics and the heat cycle was understood, it is still amazing that actual substances that could act as refrigerants were discovered.  I find  bullet proof glass kind of astounding.  All of our electronic technology is based on silicon, which is made from sand.   Water itself is kind of magical.  The fact that it is so abundant and takes on three phases in a human accessible range of temperatures is astonishing (or maybe not – cf. Anthropic Principle).    I could go on and on.  As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  At any moment, there could be a technological breakthrough that changes history.

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2 thoughts on “Miraculous technologies

  1. Hi Carson,
    there was probably a critical instant in history after when technology seemed miraculous to anybody: when the whole scientific knowledge became so large that a single man could not grasp it fully. As soon as this is true, there’s at least one thing that is bound to sound miraculous to anyone because you cannot make completely sense of it by mentally putting it into pieces and building it up again.

    I heard once that Poincaré was the last man to know everything about the maths of his time. That’s like a century ago and this concerns only maths… Thus, there must be something miraculous to any scientist. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that so many mathematicians and physicists started working on the brain that looks definitely miraculous.

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  2. Things can seem miraculous in two ways. One is being completely mysterious because you don’t understand it as you infer above. But the other way is because you do understand how it works but marvel that such a solution exists in our world. It’s like solving an NP complete problem. The answer will be obvious when you see it but finding the solution may be extremely difficult. That was more what I was getting at. We know that a battery with the energy density of gasoline will change the world and we even know kind of what to look for but finding the exact solution that will scale has been difficult and in my definition will be “miraculous” if it is found.

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