Q:As for this week’s IOTBS episode - can I add Stanisław Lem to the list? He predicted many things we all know – like the Internet, e-books and audiobooks, device resembling Kindle (he named it ‘opton’. There’s also ‘lectan’ for audiobooks), USB flash drive (Lem named it ‘trion’), nanotechnology (he wrote about ‘smartdust’ in his novel ‘The Invincible’), military robots like drones and (unfortunately) terrorism – not a science prediction though. Anyway, I loved the video. Great topic!
Q:Most science fiction writers (myself included) would tell you that science fiction isn't about predicting the future. We write about the future to show people how things could be different so that we can affect their impressions of the present. Isaac Asimov didn't write about robots because he really believed that by the 21st century we'd have AI servants; he wrote about robots because they were a social commentary on racism. And in truth, *that* message inspires scientists (myself included).
It’s nice to get an “insider’s” perspective on science fiction inspiring science, that perhaps it’s not the other way around, at least not all the time. Although I still think those ideas must extend a root to some deep, careful knowledge of science in order for the seed to fully blossom and bring the adjacent possible into being.
(continued from here)
Q:So, I just have a comment about your Science Fiction as Science Fact, and I just want to preface it with the fact that I loved the video, etc. When you relate the idea that the early science fiction writers were so accurate at predicting the future was there any thought given to the duration before the prediction becomes accurate? Could the fact that the change in technologies, with more things being plausible be something to look into?
(question is about this week’s video, in case you are confused)
I accept that we certainly have a little bias of time separation when it comes to older science fiction and sci-fi predictions. For instance, when it comes to the works of H.G. Wells, we have had a lot more time to see things come to fruition than say, someone more recent, like William Gibson.
My knee-jerk hypothesis would be that our pace of realizing sci-fi technologies is increasing along with the pace of innovation itself, but I am not sure that’s actually true. Many of the predictions of the early- and mid-20th century sci-fi authors were realized within a couple decades of their writing (like Wells and tanks/airborne warfare, Clarke and geostationary satellites, Asimov with robotic Mars explorers). On the other hand, some took a lot longer (Twain’s internet, Wells’ genetic engineering).
Does a longer time between prediction and realization mean it’s a worse prediction? I don’t know. I don’t know how to fairly judge how long is “long” between sci-fi idea and scientific invention, and I’m not even totally certain it’s a valid question.
I mean, whether it took 20 years or 100 (it was closer to the latter), the fact that H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man devised a technology for invisibility that depended on metamaterials, something that had never even been dreamed of, is amazing on the level of flabbergastification! I mean, check out what Wells wrote about metamaterials, in 1897:
"…it was an idea… to lower the refractive index of a substance, solid or liquid, to that of air — so far as all practical purposes are concerned.”
That’s pretty much exactly how today’s metamaterials work! Sure, today’s cloaking devices don’t evanesce in the visible range of light like Wells’ did, but so what.
Something I didn’t talk about in the video (on purpose) was the extent to which the sci-fi creations act as inspiration for actual scientists. Many people have caught on to that idea in the comments, which is exactly what I hoped they would do. Scientists read and watch science fiction. They are humans who are subject to human influences. But I wonder if there’s a way to ever really know to what extent they were consciously or unconsciously driven by works of fiction.
I guess this whole answer is a long way of saying I’m not really sure. Does the duration between prediction and reality relate to the quality of prediction? How does the whole process even work?
Q:Do you know of any research being done towards recreating human hands using skin grafts, artificial bones, and artificial tendons that attach to the musculature of the forearm?
There’s lots of research being done on growing each of those tissues by themselves, but growing full arms/hands/feet/etc. is still quite far off.
See, a limb isn’t just a sum of tissues that can be assembled from parts out of, say, a stem cell toolbox. The complex organization that we see in our tissues, those many layers of musculature, ligaments, bones, and the nerves and blood vessels that feed and connect to them all, gain that organization through the process of development, your growth from an embryo to a full-on baby human (and for many years after that, too). You couldn’t just build a human on an assembly line from fully grown parts. We grow into our bodies.
To make man-made tissues, organs, or even limbs, we have to understand a lot more about developmental biology (using model organisms like mice, zebrafish, or even fruit flies), so that we know what signals the body uses to form something like a hand, or an eye, and in what order those happen on your journey from two cells to trillions. We also have to understand more about how to coax stem cells to become the many (and usually mixed) cell types that you have in your body, from blood vessels to nerve cells to skeletal muscle, and we have to learn more about how to grow cells in 3D, instead of just in petri dishes (which is waaaaay harder than it sounds), and we have to do that without accidentally making them into tumors in the process, which would be a bad thing.
Scientists have had great success growing things like blood vessels, bones, nerves, etc. but we are a long way off from a biological Skywalker hand. I don’t see a scientific reason that we couldn’t one day grow synthetic limbs, but we’ve only just begun that journey. Neuro-connected robotic prosthetics, on the other hand*? Much closer to reality.
*see what I did there?
Q:hey joe! i have a question. what would happen if you shot a gun in space? would it be the same as using a gun on earth?
Lock and load!
First off, Vsauce and MinutePhysics have you covered on a lot of the more odd aspects of that question, watch below:
I think what you probably want to know is “If I were floating in space and fired a gun, what would happen to me?”
First off, the gun would probably function normally, assuming you could pull the trigger with your space gloves (you are wearing a spacesuit, right?) and that it isn’t too cold or too hot for the gunpowder combustion reaction to ‘splode. Bullets don’t require external oxygen to fire, because the primer (the part that the hammer/firing pin strikes in order to make the powder go boom) and the gunpowder itself both contain all the oxygen they need to burn in the form of an oxidizing agent (in the gunpowder’s case, saltpeter, or potassium nitrate).
When that explosion happens, the gas is going to build up and escape out the end of the muzzle at a very high velocity. The bullet will travel out at essentially the the same velocity, since there’s no atmosphere to resist it.
Let’s say I’m space-shooting a 9mm pistol containing 124 grain ammunition (“grain” is a measure of the mass of the projectile part of the bullet). That’s equal to about 8 grams of projectile. Let’s assume 100% of my gunpowder gets converted into gas, and all of that gas and the bullet get ejected out the barrel at a velocity of 365 m/s, a pretty reasonable muzzle velocity for a 9mm pistol. The momentum of the bang is P = mv, or 2.93 kg • m/s
The law of conservation of momentum says that the total momentum of the system must add up to zero, since we started at a state of zero momentum (you were “standing still” before the gun fired). I know the total momentum of the bullet gas from above, and I know that I’d “weigh” a total of 130 kg wearing one on NASA’s Extravehicular Mobility Units:
So, solving for my velocity, we get …
… -0.023 m/s, or 2.3 cm/s backwards … not very fast, but just fast enough to out-float that space snail who I was originally firing my gun at. You do NOT want to get close to one of those guys … vicious space killers.
EDIT: This post originally said that “grains” were a measure of the gunpowder amount, which is what I have thought my whole life, and I was wrong. A cartridge’s “grain” is the mass of the projectile!
Q:Hi Joe, I have a former classmate who still refuses to acknowledge that global warming is a fact. I was wondering if you knew of any academic journal articles that blatantly point this out and would be good to show this person? Thank you so much!
Do you think academic journal articles are really going to convince your classmate? They aren’t. I could print you reams of them, and all we’d do is kill a few trees in the process.
In my experience, and the experience of people I know whose job it is to try and convince folks that science is “right” and whatever they currently believe is “wrong”, people who deny things like climate change aren’t denying it because they think they have a better scientific argument or because no one’s ever showed them the facts.
I mean, they might think that they have a better scientific argument, but that never holds up when challenged. Do they change their mind when their leaky ship of logic sinks? Rarely. Not never, but rarely.
Chances are your classmate has a deeper reason to not believe in the science. Maybe it’s rooted in politics, or religion (again, they won’t say that it’s rooted in those, but connect a few dots, and … well, yeah). These are two things that are so tightly tied to our familial and social bonds that sometimes one part of our brain will literally lie to another part, telling us to believe the equivalent of “up = down” or “2 + 2 = Thursday” so as not to put ourselves through the typhoon of neurological distress known as cognitive dissonance.
The human brain hates to hold two conflicting truths simultaneously. It’s like a neurological version of the Hatfields & McCoys when that happens – there’s a lot of chemicals flowing and someone’s bound to start shooting before too long. Changing one’s mind about a deeply values-based belief when presented with contrary evidence is like walking on hot coals, in that it takes a lot of training to get accustomed to the pain, and there might be some magic involved to actually do.
Most people never get used to it. More people should try, though.
The human brain is the most powerful analytical tool that we know of, but it’s also deeply emotional, and highly social, and it would much rather bathe itself in pleasurable reward neurotransmitters and maintain its comfy fiction than upset the psychological status quo. That’s been a recipe for conflict since we were chasing wooly mammoths.
You won’t win this battle by beating your classmate with the knowledge stick (although that might make you feel better). You have to first understand why they are afraid of acknowledging what is real, and only then can you understand them and know what knowledge they really lack. Then you’ll have a better chance of reaching them and showing them that when you embrace the Zen-like mantra of “everything is science”, then nothing hurts.
Q:Hey Joe, I've just started my senior design project (textile design) and my main inspiration was your "How Bees Can See the Invisible" video. My theme is things in nature that cannot be seen with our naked eye from those ultraviolet altered photos showing us how bees see flowers to other microscopic images. I've gotten a few ideas and sources from your blog but I was wondering if you knew of anything else I could check out if you have the time? If not then thanks for all the inspiration already!
Oh, cool! So, first off, i”m really touched that one of my science videos could inspire some real-life creative work! Secondly, I freakin’ love this idea.
There are so many! Besides the bees and butterflies you mentioned, let’s see, we’ve got birds that can sense or “see” magnetic fields (fish and other animals can do that too, more here). We’ve got the fabled mantis shrimp and its chorus of a dozen photoreceptors (although mantis shrimp vision isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be). Mantis shrimp can also see circularly polarized light, a skill they share with certain kinds of beetles, who may use it to detect friendly mates who would, to us, remain camouflaged in dense plant growth. Pit vipers can sense infrared like a slithery version of the Predator. There’s a fish with split eyes that can see above and beneath water simultaneously. Many insects have compound eyes, like flies and bees, who knows what that pixelated world looks like? Dung beetles are somehow able to track the stars for navigation, and there’s a whole host of animals with enhanced night vision, often thanks to a special tissue called tapetum lucidum. Dolphins "see" with sonar, and bats use echolocation (there are even moths with echolocation countermeasures!)
Then, of course, we have humans who can see beyond “normal vision.” There’s the still-controversial tetrachromats. Then we have aphakia and ultraviolet vision in humans, like Claude Monet. Even people with color deficiency, such as colorblindness, are seeing things in nature as they can not be seen by those of us with normal vision.
What about our space telescopes, that convert everything from radio waves to microwaves to X-rays into meaningful visual data? What about our various breeds of microscope, able to image proteins and individual atoms?
You know what my favorite part about all this is? Sure, we can’t see it with our own eyes, but for most of the electromagnetic spectrum, we are able to build eyes that can!
I know I’m missing some. Leave your favorites in the comments or reblogs!
One more thing…
Although a “year” is a semi-arbitrary label given to a random point in Earth’s orbit where the seasons recycle due to a combination of axial precession and solar orbit, it is a good excuse to ask for feedback on our videos.
What would you like to see in the coming year on It’s Okay To Be Smart? Is there anything we can do better or anything you really hate about my videos? Any subjects you’d like to see more of?