Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Has the future arrived yet?

I was reading an article in today's Chicago Tribune about two scientists who developed a roach motel type of compound for capturing and trapping nuclear waste. They developed a sulfide that traps cesium ions allowing for safe removal of radioactive cesium. Neat stuff. According to the article this new compound still needs further development as it currently uses gallium, a very expensive metallic element, but they think they can have a workable product in three or four years. This made me start thinking. What happened to all of those great scientific breakthroughs we've read about through the years that were supposed to change the world as we know it?

When I was in high school, the big scientific breakthrough of the time was superconductors. Everyone was playing around with these ceramic disks that became superconductive when placed in liquid nitrogen. You could then place a small magnet above the disk and it would float above the disk regardless of which pole was facing the superconductor. If you gave the magnet a little spin, it would spin almost indefinitely, or at least until the liquid nitrogen dissipated allowing the ceramic disk to heat up and loose its superconductive properties.

At that time the scientific community was a buzz with the future of superconductors and the promise of room temperature superconductors that would change the world as we know it. There was talk about how this breakthrough would revolutionize power transmission, allow for supper powerful computers, make electric cars a reality, and popularize maglev trains; and all this technology was only five to ten years away. Well, here it is, twenty years later and none of those things are a reality. The only places I hear about superconductors are in MRI machines and super colliders such as the ones at CERN and Fermilab.

What other amazing breakthroughs can you think of that we have yet to see? How about fuel cells that would allow you to power your laptop or cell phone for days off a small vial of alcohol? What about optical computers so powerful that today's super computers seem like something from the 1950's, or holographic storage that will allow you to store a near infinite amount of data on a tiny piece of holographic film? The reality is that most breakthroughs take years or decades before they become a reality in our everyday life. Most of the inventions that change our lives come in small evolutionary steps, rather than a big revolutionary change. We don't realize how much our lives have changed until you look back and try to remember when a portable computer weighed 20 pounds, when cell phones could only make phone calls, you listened to music on cassette players that could hold at most only two hours of low quality audio, or you needed a camera and film to take a picture and you had to wait an hour to sometimes months (depending on when you dropped off the film for processing) before seeing the photo.