Friday, January 15, 2010

Unknown Science and Other Wonders

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?


Rowena Cory Daniells said...


You must be looking for Unobtainium, you know from Avatar!

Brendan said...

Just what we want to make our sky elevators feasable(although the materials sciences is getting pretty close even without superconductors)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

My son has been obsessed with this levitation effect thing for years. Older son. The writer... Also, taking biology on his way to med school, he keeps mumbling about levitating rats. (Is scared.)

Things science doesn't get -- creative brains. No, seriously. I've been reading a lot about ... well, us... lately and we're apparently weird and very scary. Also, essential to the human race's survival.

I've been interested since I read somewhere that Phillip K. Dick had a diagnosed mental illness BECAUSE he wrote so much. Those of you who know me may guess why.

More rational response once I have some tea in me!

C Kelsey said...

Given my conversations with Speaker, and my experience in my job, I've taken to what I call the "full-featured 3D simulation brain" as explanation for creative peoples weirdness. After all, the best writers are creating fully function people in strange worlds that patently are *not* the writers themselves. Kind of like how actors are crazy because they spend a large portion of their lives being someone *other than* themselves. ;)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. What a cop out that name was!

I think the writers were unable to get a better idea - hence Unobtanium.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brenden. I think from memory there was something like the equivalent of the X prize for materials for the space elevator.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. If you wake up leviating about your bed, don't be alarmed! Its not the return of the Evil One - its just your son having made a technical breakthrough!

There is so much about sentience and the human brain that is not known. Creativity is one of those tantalising things that should point the way to a major understanding - if we could grasp it.

Hey - my parents (totally black and white - Dad was a cop) pretty much thought I was flawed.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. The imagination is a very under-rated muscle in our minds. Einstein always maintained that imagination was more important than intelligence. Funny how its usually ignored.

C Kelsey said...


Actually the thing that surprises me is that imagination is rarely ignored, it's simply misunderstood. How many teachers have you known who have said "use your imagination" and then been rather critical when it goes in a direction other than intended?

Chris McMahon said...

Chris - LOL. That is so right.

matapam said...

Oh. Please. Tell me they didn't actually call something Unobtainium? That's been a joke in SF for so long!

I like the membrane theory and dark matter and dark energy. Speaking of Handwavium. I use them all, but i just know my tech will sound as silly as EE Doc Smith's in a decade or two.

Mike said...

Um -- minor nit. The shinkansen (bullet trains) in Japan are not maglev. They're basic trains, running on rails. Now, they do a daily check and alignment of the rails, the stops are limited, and the engine is designed for high-speed, but it's not maglev. There's a maglev in China that hits a little over 400 KPH (kilometers per hour) during the run, though, if you want to ride a maglev.

John Lambshead said...

Gravity is the great unknown in physics, and the reason why quantum mechanics can't be reconciled with relativity.

Molecular biology is by no means cut and dried.