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Wednesday, June 19, 2013
|Source: Dubai Gold & Jewellery Group|
High-tech gadgetry from the past's future
The characters in Star Trek get to wield all kinds of high-tech gadgetry. Some of these gizmos, like holodecks and transporters, are purely science fiction. What technologies have actually come to pass?
The transporter essentially dematerialised a human body at one point only to rematerialise it in the transporter bay on the ship. Somehow, it broke down atoms and molecules within the body - scattered them through the vacuum of space without losing a single one from point A to point B, then voila, that person re-emerged out of thin air. Sounds pretty cool, though impossible, right? But what if there was such a device?
The truth is, you can forget about a transporter. No one has been able to realise such a concept. But that doesn't mean some of the ideas that seemed far-fetched when the show debuted in 1966 haven't become a reality.
Transparent Aluminium (Armour)
In the fourth installment of the original Star Trek movies, Scotty traded the formula matrix for transparent aluminium - a huge engineering advancement - for sheets of plexiglass in order to build a tank to transport the two humpback whales (George and Gracie) to the Earth of their time. The claim was that you'd be able to replace 14-centimetre thick Plexiglas with 2.5-centimetre thick see-through aluminium. It may sound impossible, but there is such a thing as transparent aluminium armour or aluminium oxynitride (ALON) as it's more commonly known. ALON is a ceramic material that starts out as a powder before heat and pressure turn it into a crystalline form similar to glass. Once in the crystalline form, the material is strong enough to withstand bullets. Polishing the molded ALON strengthens the material even more. The Air Force has tested the material in hopes of replacing windows and canopies in its aircraft. Transparent aluminium armour is lighter and stronger than bulletproof glass. Less weight, stronger material - what's not to like?
Enterprise, he did so knowing it could be the last time he saw his ship. Danger was never far away. And when in distress and in need of help in a pinch, he could always count on Bones to come up with a miracle cure, Scotty to beam him up or Spock to give him some vital scientific information. He'd just whip out his communicator and place a call. Fast forward 30 years and wouldn't you know it, it seems like everyone carries a communicator. We just know them as mobile phones. Actually, the communicators in Star Trek were more like the push-to-talk, person-to-person devices first made popular by Nextel in the mid to late '90s. The Star Trek communicator had a flip antenna that when opened, activated the device. The original flip cell phones are perhaps distant cousins. Whatever the case, the creators of Star Trek were on to something because you'd be hard pressed to find many people without a cell phone these days.
Hypospray is a form of hypodermic injection of medication. A hypospray injection is forced under the skin (a subcutaneous injection) with high air pressure. The air pressure shoots the liquid vaccine deep enough into the skin that no needle is required. The real-world application is known as a jet injector. Jet injectors have been in use for many years. In fact, the technology predates Star Trek. Jet injectors were originally designed to be used in mass vaccinations. Jet injecting is safer (no needles to pass along infectious disease) and faster in administering vaccines. Similar in appearance to an automotive paint gun, jet injection systems can use a larger container for the vaccine, thus allowing medical personnel to inoculate more people quicker.
In science fiction, space ships including the Starship Enterprise snatch each other up using tractor beams. In some cases, large vessels have a tractor beam strong enough to prevent smaller vessels from escaping the gravitational force. So is this science even plausible? Yes and no. Optical tweezers are as close as you're going to get to a legitimate tractor beam on current-day Earth. Scientists have harnessed small lasers into beams capable of manipulating molecules and moving them with precision. Optical tweezers use a focused laser to trap and suspend microscopic particles in an optical trap. Scientists can use optical tweezers to trap and remove bacteria and sort cells. Optical tweezers are used primarily in studying the physical properties of DNA. While the beams used in optical tweezers aren't strong enough to dock the space shuttle to the International Space Station, it's a start in that direction.
Stun guns have been around for some time. In fact, electricity has been used for punishment and to control livestock as far back as the 1880s. But it wasn't until 1969 when a guy named Jack Cover invented the first Taser that the stun gun was most realised. The Taser fails to kill like the phaser did, yet, it packs enough of an electrical punch to render its victim disorientated, if not completely incapacitated. Unlike the phaser, the Taser and other stun guns must come in physical contact with the target in order to have any effect. Tasers take care of this by projecting two electrodes, connected by wires, which attach to the target's skin. Something more along the lines of the phaser may be in development. Applied Energetic has developed Laser Guided Energy and Laser Induced Plasma Energy technologies that are said to transmit high-voltage bursts of energy to a target. In other words, these pulses of energy would stun the target and limit collateral damage. So a true phaser may soon be a reality.
Imagine if no matter what country you visited, no matter what the culture, you could understand everything the indigenous people were saying. The characters in Star Trek relied on a small device that when spoken into, would translate the words into English. Guess what? The technology exists for us in the real world. There are devices that let you speak phrases in English and it will spit back to you the same rhetoric in a specified language. The only problem is, these devices only work for certain predetermined languages. A true universal translator like the one on the show may not be a reality, but the technology is available. Voice recognition has advanced considerably since its inception. But computers have yet to be able to learn languages. Computers would be able to theoretically gather the information much faster than a human brain, but a software programme is dependent on actual data. Someone has to take the time and expense to put it together and make it available, which is probably why these systems focus on more popular languages.
What made Geordi unique, perhaps even mysterious, was his funky eyewear. Geordi was blind, but after a surgical operation and aided through the use of a device called VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement), Geordi could see throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. Though it may sound far-fetched, in reality, similar technology exists that may someday bring sight back to the blind. In 2005, a team of scientists from Stanford University successfully implanted a small chip behind the retina of blind rats that enabled them to pass a vision recognition test. The science behind the implants, or bionic eyes as they're commonly referred to, works much the way Geordi's VISOR did. The patient receives the implants behind the retina, then wears a pair of glasses fitted with a video camera. Light enters the camera and is processed through a small wireless computer, which then broadcasts it as infrared LED images on the inside of the glasses. Those images are reflected back into the retina chips to stimulate photodiodes. The photodiodes replicate the lost retinal cells then change light into electrical signals which in turn send nerve pulses to the brain. What it all means is that in theory, a person with 20/400 sight (blind), due to the loss of retinal cells from retinitis pigmentosa, can obtain 20/80 sight. It's not good enough to pass the driving test (normal vision is considered 20/20) but it's good enough to read billboards and go about your day without the aid of a seeing-eye dog.
One of the more useful instruments available to Star Trek personnel, variations of the tricorder (medical, engineering or scientific) were used to measure everything from oxygen levels to detecting diseases. Often times the tricorder gave an initial analysis of the new environment. So, what's the real-world tie-in? Nasa employs a handheld device called LOCAD, which measures for unwanted microorganisms such as E. coli, fungi and salmonella onboard the International Space Station. Beyond that, two handheld medical devices may soon help doctors examine blood flow and check for cancer, diabetes or bacterial infection. Scientists at Loughborough University in England use photoplethysmography technology in a handheld device that can monitor the functions of the heart. Meanwhile, researchers at Harvard Medical School have developed a small device that utilises similar technology found in MRI machines that non-invasively inspect the body. Using nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, this device would be sensitive enough to measure samples of as few as 10 possible infectious bacteria. This kind of sensitivity (800 times more sensitive than sensing equipment currently used in medical labs) could revolutionise the way doctors diagnose disease.
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