As a science fiction writer, I love it when I come across something that science does not have a handle on yet. It's like a red rag to a bull (even though the Mythbusters showed that the colour doesn’t matter, but anyway you get the point).
I was reading recently about magnetics and how the various magnetic effects can be used. Everyone will be familiar with the maglevs, and the use of magnetic levitation in superfast trains like the Japanese bullet trains.
The sort of magnetic fields that we could generate routinely if we could crack the holy grail of the high-temperature superconductor would really transform the modern world.
At the moment the record for high-temperature superconductors is held by a terribly exotic sounding compound called Mercury Thallium Barium Calcium Copper Oxide (try saying that without taking a breath!). This is a superconductor at the chilly temperature of -135 degrees Celsius (or -211 degrees Fahrenheit), not quite room temperature yet (although given the snowy photos of England, John, maybe it is :)).
What amazes me is that given all the advances in quantum and particle physics and chemistry, and the incredible software modelling now available to test chemistry at the molecular level – scientists can actual build things out of atoms in the laboratory now – there is NO theory that explains how high temperature superconductors work!
To me, this is an incredible opportunity. As Michio Kaku said ‘There is a Noble Prize waiting for the person who figures this out.’
If we can routinely create these high strength magnetic fields, then all sorts of things become possible. Ultra high efficient electricity transport and super-fast computers are just the start.
There is the Meissner effect, where magnets levitate above a superconductor. This could revolutionise transport, and lead to all sorts applications – like using a fraction of the energy it takes now just to move around any sort of object in any sort of application.
Then there are the weird effects of paramagnets and diamagnets – materials that only acquire their magnetic properties in the presence of an external magnetic field. Paramagnetic materials are attracted (includes elements such as: Aluminium, Barium, Calcium, Magnesium, Oxygen, Platnum, Sodium, Strontium, Technetium, Titanium, Uranium).
Diamagnets are repelled! Hey presto. Levitation. These materials include Bismuth, Carbon, Copper, Lead, Mercury, Silver and Water (Bismuth is the strongest diamagnet).
And what sort of things have Carbon and Water? Us! Scientists have already levitated frogs in laboratory experiments with no ill effects (see photo). Living things can levitate in a magnetic field of 15 Teslas (30,000 times Earths).
My SF brain immediately had high strength magnetic fields used on spacecraft to buffer the pilots and crew against the massive acceleration required. I’ve used this in my current work in progress – The Embrace – where an altered human is about to return to Earth after a lifetime on a colonial world (where he has lost most of his essential humanity as ambassador to the telepathic Kellaf).
And talking about areas that lack theories. How about a Theory of Consciousness? I very much doubt any sort of AI will get anywhere without it. Perhaps this missing theory might prove AI is impossible – like proving that integers greater than two can be written as the sum of two prime numbers (this is impossible to prove using arithmetic).
So anyone out there know what we don’t know? What other unknown theories of science are out there?