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Monday, January 21, 2019 ARCHIVES  |  SEARCH  |  POST ADS  |  ADVERTISE  |  SUBSCRIBE   |  LOGIN   |  CONTACT US

Spaced out theories...

By Mike Gaunt

The classic interaction between Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is much quoted. The humour centres around Ford’s inability to explain to Arthur that there are instabilities in the fabric of space-time. Hence the expression that there are ‘disturbances in the wash of space-time’. When asked for clarification, as Arthur simply doesn’t understand the idea, Ford explains using the word ‘eddies’, to mean disturbances. Arthur’s response to the sentence ‘eddies in the space-time continuum’ is simply ‘Ah. Is he? Is he?’

It is a marvellous and wonderful concoction of sofas, planet design and a bowl of petunias (you really do need to read it) to mention but a few of the absurd juxtapositions. But science fiction it is. It is not real. Things don’t just move about, with no apparent connection to something physical. Or don’t they?

‘She who must be obeyed’ has just sent me a link to an article in a Physics publication. She is, of course, far more highly qualified and intelligent than I. The article referred to an innovation which is dubbed ‘soundbender’. I ignorantly thought of Wayne Fontana, but rapidly realised that I was on the wrong track. No, indeed, this is cutting-edge, state-of-the-art stuff. Just a couple of weeks ago in Berlin, there was a symposium to do with human computer interaction. It dealt with all manner of things to do with how people and computers relate to each other and was attended, it seems, by some very geeky people indeed.

The article describes how sound can be used to physically move objects. The notion has been known for ages, of course, as dust motes have been seen suspended in sound standing waves and for a while ultrasound has been used to shatter kidney stones. But the development described in this article is centred around the idea that very high-pitched sound can be used to ‘grab’ an object and move it, even if there is something in the way. It’s a bit like a tractor beam. It can also interact with a person and detect their movement and it can even bend the flame of a candle. Can you imagine a birthday cake’s candles waving in time to the playing of happy birthday? What fun!

There are possibilities in micro-surgery, as small surgical instruments could be moved around by ultrasound waves without damaging tissue. It is feasible that people could interact with museum artefacts in a way which allows sound to detect their motion and cause changes to the display, thus being responsive and a really great learning tool. Even now, such things as ‘acoustic tweezers’ exist, on a cellular scale, and are used in open-heart surgery to remove tiny fat particles. They are used to even manipulate the very stuff of life, DNA, and can play a part in genetic modifications.

This is modern, futuristic science. Arthur Dent would probably fail to grasp the importance of it all, but I bet the sperm whale would get it.

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