Physicists getting close to turning light into matter

We’re one step closer to having replicators in our homes. Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but physicists are on the verge of transforming light into matter. The process involves high-powered laser beams, a slab of gold, super high-speed electrons, and eventually a stream of photons. The whole apparatus can be thought of as a photon collider. Photons are essentially tiny “packets” of light, and it is hoped that a collision of two of these packets of light will produce a pair of subatomic particles — an electron and its anti-matter counterpart, the positron — particles that are far too tiny to be visible to the naked eye.

Physicists already know that the reverse process — a negatively-charged electron colliding with its positively-charged counterpart, the positron — causes the particles to wipe each other out and produce a burst of light, so the opposite reaction should, in principle, work. The process is governed by Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, from his Special Theory of Relativity, which says that energy (light) and matter are essentially the same thing. In fact, during the very, very early history of our universe — the first few fractions of a second — the universe was so hot and dense that energy was converting to matter and back again to energy very rapidly, until the universe cooled down enough for energy to finally “freeze out” into matter. The physics governing this is very simple, but it turns out to be rather difficult to create the conditions in a laboratory for this to happen. Thus, the excitement over this latest experiment to create matter from light.

It’s pretty exciting to think I may see Star Trek-like replicators in my lifetime. First thing I’m ordering when I get one? Tea, Earl Grey, hot.

Captain Kirk honored by NASA

From Trek News:

On Saturday, NASA awarded Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, William Shatner, with the Distinguished Public Service Medal, at his annual Hollywood Charity Horse Show in Los Angeles.

The award, presented to Shatner by NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator, Communications Bob Jacobs, is “the highest award bestowed by the agency to non-government personnel.” and is given “for outstanding generosity and dedication to inspiring new generations of explorers around the world, and for unwavering support for NASA and its missions of discovery.”

“William Shatner has been so generous with his time and energy in encouraging students to study science and math, and for inspiring generations of explorers, including many of the astronauts and engineers who are a part of NASA today, ” said NASA’s associate administrator for the Office of Communications David Weaver. “He’s most deserving of this prestigious award.”

Without question, Star Trek was a big influence on me and my love of all things space, so I can well believe that it — and Captain Kirk, in particular — inspired many people to pursue careers in science. Congratulations to Mr. Shatner.

Goldsmith vs Williams

When I was a kid in the 1970s–1980s, it was a golden age for movie soundtracks, particularly in science fiction / science fantasy. Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams were giants in the genre, having composed two of the most memorable sci-fi themes of all time. Goldsmith is best known for the theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which later became the theme for the television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Williams is known for many popular movie themes, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, but is arguably best known for Star Wars. The names of these composers are practically synonymous with science fiction, but these composers could hardly differ more in style.

Goldsmith’s style is grand, remote, cerebral. In my opinion, he’s most responsible for the ‘spacey’ ambiance of hard sci-fi. In this piece from Alien (1979), called “Hypersleep,” there is a vague nautical element—you get the sense of a lonely ship navigating an endless cosmos. Like much of his space-music, it is stark and beautiful. This universe is cold in its beauty—it offers wonder, but no quarter.

In “The Cloud,” a piece from ST:TMP (1979), we get a sense of the enormity of the unknown entity heading for Earth and of the secret it contains. Again, there is a nautical element, highlighted by electronic whooshes that evoke memories of earthly oceans. The music is a little brighter here—the universe of Star Trek is less harsh and hostile than that of Alien, but no less grand and mysterious.

In contrast, Williams’ style is robust, familiar, romantic. It is evocative of adventure, human relationships, and spirituality. Consider this piece from Return of the Jedi (1983), which frames the moment when Luke reveals to Leia that they are brother and sister. This piece, like most of Williams’ compositions, is suffused with warmth and emotion.

“Tales of a Jedi Knight / Learn About the Force” (Star Wars, 1977) is no less filled with awe and mystery than Goldsmith’s “The Cloud,” but it is more optimistic and tinged with a sense of adventure. Here we have the budding relationship between a master and his young apprentice. With Williams, you don’t get the sense of a harsh and hostile universe, but one in which purpose and hope are woven into the fabric of its cosmos, even while it is momentarily under the sway of a dark and oppressive force.

Though Goldsmith and Williams differ in style, they have one element in common—the sense of awe and grandeur they convey through their compositions. It’s impossible to imagine the universes of Alien, Star Trek, and Star Wars without the character and dimension of their music.

Nerve cells link up through tiny tubes

The affinity of nerve cells for exploring tiny tubes could lead to futuristic neuroscience developments:

Nerve-cell tendrils readily thread their way through tiny semiconductor tubes, researchers find, forming a crisscrossed network like vines twining toward the sun. The discovery that offshoots from nascent mouse nerve cells explore the specially designed tubes could lead to tricks for studying nervous system diseases or testing the effects of potential drugs. Such a system may even bring researchers closer to brain-computer interfaces that seamlessly integrate artificial limbs or other prosthetic devices.

The technology required to interface the brain with a computer is apparently still a long way off, but every step in the right direction counts. (Unless of course this is one more step toward a Borg future, in which case prepare to be assimilated.)