Archive for Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Some ‘Star Trek’ technology’s here

November 29, 2006

If you're an American of a certain mature vintage (as I am), you remember the original "Star Trek" television show in the '60s. Every week, our heroes Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and their crew (including the anonymous "man in the red shirt" who always managed to get himself killed) rocketed through the galaxy, exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations. The technology of "Star Trek" seemed impossibly fantastic at the time: hand-held "communicators," a teleportation device, powerful computers, a force field to surround and protect the space ship, and a cloaking device to render the Enterprise invisible to its enemies. Who could imagine such amazing feats of technology?

Fast-forward 40 years. Thanks to science, we now find many of the once unbelievable items from "Star Trek" commonplace today. Personal computers are already more powerful and more compact than what was portrayed on the deck of the Enterprise. My teenage daughter spends a large part of her day text messaging her friends on her hand-held communicator. Many of the medical devices now in use are not too different from what was imaged in the minds of science fiction writers almost a half-century ago.

However, two of the most far-out, fantastic realizations of Star Trek technology have made the headlines in recent weeks. The first is the development of a cloaking device, created at Duke University's School of Engineering. Scientists have created a cloaking device that can reroute certain wavelengths of light, forcing them around objects like water flowing around boulders in a stream. So far they are only able to do this with microwaves -- that part of the spectrum that has a longer wavelength than visible light and pops your popcorn. If our eyes "saw" microwave radiation instead of visible light, an object cloaked by the device would appear invisible to us.

These scientists will be working on the development of a cloaking device that works in the visible spectrum. To do so, they will need to tweak the materials used to deflect the light since the wavelength is smaller. Because the human eye is sensitive to a wide range of visible light, such a cloaked object may not be completely invisible to us, but would appear to be opaque. But even imperfect cloaking devices might be useful, the researchers say. Cloaks that deflect radio waves could render an object invisible to radar or improve cell phone receptions by rerouting signals around obstructions. They might also be used to protect people from penetrating and harmful radiation. Stay tuned for further developments.

The other accomplishment is the creation of a teleportation machine. No, we won't be able to be instantaneously beamed to Hawaii any time in the near future, but scientists in Germany teleported the information from one photon pair (a photon is a particle of light) to another.

Small particles, such as photons and electrons, have a property called "quantum entanglement." A pair of these particles acts in concert with each other like dancers on a dance floor, and the action of one determines the action of the other. For example if one particle spins one way, the other automatically spins the opposite way. That's how they are entangled. The weird part is that when the two particles are separated, they remain entangled. So if they are a mile apart and you change the spin of one particle, its partner will instantly, with seemingly no means of communication, change its spin to complement the former's.

Einstein called this "spooky action at a distance," which is a very accurate description and still defies explanation. So what these German scientists did was to teleport the information of two particles from one place to another, not the particles themselves. What applications will come from this remains unknown, but it is predicted that the harnessing of this technology will enable scientists to construct faster and more powerful computers. Even though Scotty won't be beaming us anywhere soon, it's still fascinating stuff, and could have real-world applications in the future.

Until next time, live long and prosper.

-- Tonganoxie dentist Grant Ritchey can be reached via e-mail at TonganoxieDental@aol.com.

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