Time for T in my Sci-Fi themed A-to-Z Challenge!
The grandfather of the T.A.R.D.I.S. and the DeLorean!
Is it possible?
More about time travel:
The grandfather of the T.A.R.D.I.S. and the DeLorean!
More about time travel:
Solar sails are in the news! The Planetary Society’s Lightsail 1 was deployed last year, and now there are plans to get Lightsail 2 out into space.
There was also the recent announcement of Breakthrough Starshot – a project by Yuri Milner and Stephen Hawking. This project aims to build tiny crafts with large sails and use earth-based lasers to accelerate them to 20% of the speed of light!
The earliest sci-fi reference to solar sailing was in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, which came out just after James Maxwell showed that light has momentum and can exert pressure on objects. From the Earth to the Moon is also notable for its detailed description of astronauts attempting to get to the moon – a century before the Apollo program.
The idea of a solar sail is to harness the momentum of photons by deploying a light, flexible, reflective sail to capture light from the sun. A ship propelled by sunlight alone would accelerate slowly, but would also move without spending any fuel. This means that solar sailing craft are cheap, and can operate for very long times.
That’s why the recent announcement by Hawking has such great potential – all of the needed technology exists now, and the project wouldn’t cost that much. If it goes through, we might just see some footage from another solar system within the next 20 years!
More about solar sails:
The word robot first entered English in 1921, thanks to a play called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek. It premiered in Prague, and was later shown in New York. The story takes place in a factory that makes synthetic people out of organic matter – so today, we might call these robots cyborgs, clones, or perhaps replicants. This was the first story of robots rebelling against their human masters, leading to a trope that would persist through sci-fi for ages.
Of course, I can’t talk about robots without mentioning good old Asimov. Thanks to him, we have words like robotics and roboticist. Even if you’ve never read a single story by Issac Asimov, you probably know that he gave sci-fi the Three Laws of Robotics, and that he defined many sci-fi tropes involving robots and artificial intelligence. If you’ve ever read or watched any story with a robot wondering if it is truly alive, that story was either adapted from or heavily influenced by Asimov’s writing.
Not yet – at least nobody thinks so. One problem is that nobody really agrees on what consciousness or self-awareness truly mean. Alan Turing proposed a famous test that sidesteps the question – he said that if a machine could make you think it was human, then we might as well consider it self-aware. The Turing Test is used by many groups trying to build smart computers and robots, so what they’re really doing is teaching machines to trick people into believing they are human.
If there were a machine that could consistently pass itself off as human, I think many experts would decide that it was self-aware. We only have our own human definition of sentient to work with, which means that people might not even know if a robot is exhibiting sentience in some different way!
In my fiction:
Robots and androids are commonplace in the universe of Far Flung. I’ve had very human-looking androids like Aren 03 as doctors and nurses, and arachnid-like repair bots used in maintenance and emergency situations.
More about robots:
As I said in my first A-to-Z post about ansibles, quantum entanglement is often used by sci-fi authors as a way for characters to communicate instantly across space. For Q, I decided I’d take a slightly closer look at quantum entanglement.
Put simply, quantum physics says that unobserved particles exist in all possible states at the same time. As soon as you try to observe and measure a particle, however, you find it in one specific state (its wave function collapses). These states are called “spins”, even though the particles don’t actually rotate. Yeah, I know – quantum physics is weird. I can understand why Einstein wasn’t a fan.
Now, you can have particles interact, like photons fired through crystals and split into pairs of photons. These pairs are entangled – which leads to something very weird indeed. If you now measure one of those paired photons, it will “collapse” into one state, while its partner takes on a state relative to it. So if one particle is observed in a “spin-up” state, the other becomes “spin-down”. This happens instantly, no matter how much distance there is between the entangled pair.
Short answer: because it’s random. Let’s say I give you one entangled particle and take the other with me to Mars. I measure my particle when I get there, collapsing its wave function. My particle takes on a random state, and yours takes on a relative state, and that happens instantly. But it just looks like some random value to you! All I’ve managed to do is send you random information instantly.
I suppose it could let you know that I arrived on Mars and tried to call you – or that I slipped up and observed my particle too soon. You won’t know until you call me up by conventional means!
More about quantum entanglement:
More about planetary engineering:
Research by James Pollack and Carl Sagan:
Orbital mirrors appear in science-fiction as a means of focusing more sunlight and thus heat onto a planetary or satellite surface. One of the first such uses was in the story Completely Automatic, by Theodore Sturgeon in 1941. In that story, Saturn’s moon Titan had orbital mirrors deployed around it to heat it up to a habitable temperature.
Real world research on orbital mirrors has looked into ways to focus solar energy from the sun onto one area on Earth. Project Zynamya was a series of Russian experimental orbital mirrors – a project pursued with the hope of getting more energy from the sun. Unfortunately, this project didn’t work out and was abandoned in the 1990s.
Other possible uses for space mirrors include reflecting back some of the sunlight coming at Earth as a countermeasure to global climate change. The main reason this hasn’t been attempted? It would be an absolute nightmare to maintain!
Yet another avenue for this research involves the idea of focusing more light onto a patch of martian surface to heat it up. Again, this plan would have the problem of maintenance, and would also run the risk of focusing more harmful radiation onto the already hazardous surface of Mars.
There are a lot of big problems with orbital mirrors, but like any good science-fiction idea, it’s definitely worth investigating.
More about orbital mirrors:
Nanorobotics is an emerging field of technology aiming to create machines that are on the scale of a nanometre (10−9 meters); machines that can go into a patient, diagnose, and even treat problems directly. The ultimate goal, as depicted in science-fiction, is for traditional surgery to become unnecessary – after all, there’s no need to cut someone open if you can put a doctor right inside them.
In his 1956 short story The Next Tenants, Arthur C. Clarke described tiny machines at the micrometre scale – this story led to many of the concepts seen in modern depictions of nanotechnology. For Star Trek fans, the most well-known depiction of nanobots is the Borg‘s use of nanoprobes to assimilate people into their collective.
Nanobots are popular MacGuffins in sci-fi, either threatening to tear things apart at the molecular level, or working miracles like curing cancer and terminal illnesses.
Nanobots have to be small enough to get around the complex circulatory system of a human, and they have to carry their own power. They also have to carry all the tools or medicine they need to perform their tasks. The big challenge is getting all of this technology into such a small package! The most promising research seems to be that into DNA nanobots – molecule-sized robots made of the same basic materials that all living things are made of. Clinical trials are ongoing, and it may not be long before incredible breakthroughs are announced.
More about nanobots:
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