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Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Indistinguishable From Magic

Arthur C. Clarke, still alive and kicking at the age of 87, wrote those words many years ago and we're seeing it happen ever more frequently in digital information technologies. Who among us would have thought, even 20 years ago, that we'd be as close as we are now to the "magic purse" of the Arabian Nights and other fairy tales and mythology.

It's not really magic, of course, but it is as though it were magic, and those of us who deal in info tech daily sometimes conceal the wonder of it all from our consciousness. I don't know why that should be. How can we take it for granted and not feel a sense of wonder that we can carry in our pockets a magic tool that lets us call talk to anyone in the world, anywhere, anytime; that has within it space that lets us enhance the powers of our minds by storing contact and communications information that would swamp us if we tried to stick it all in our brains; that has in it the power to bring us the equivalent of the entire Library of Congress on demand?

This week, my "opinion" is that we all need to awaken to more of the magic in technology, and I'll be stepping outside information technology a bit to share some of what I have recently found to be exciting and magical scientific and technical discoveries.

Here are the science and technology-related items that have given me the best magical thrills so far in 2004.

Moths are not attracted to light

I especially like new discoveries that shake everything up and set things on their heads. This is a good one. It's true, moths (and other insects) are not attracted to light sources, they just behave in ways that lead us to that conclusion.

Moths don't find lights especially attractive, they just can't help themselves and end up near lights because lights screw up their navigation systems. Moths (and other insects) are hardwired with very likely no ability to individually learn behaviors. Their hardwiring has been developed over millions of years, and for 99.99999 percent of those millions of years the only strong light sources in the natural world moths were adapting to were the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Especially if you are flying around at night, like moths - which by the way are the primary pollinators of most trees, which is why there is often a pollen release in the middle of the night that gets to those of us with certain allergies if we sleep with the windows open - it can be difficult to find visual navigation aids. So, like sailors at sea with sextants before satellites and radar, moths take "fixes" on the moon or other celestial objects.

Such navigation by "fixed" objects works very well when the light source you are fixing on is sufficiently far enough away (such as the North Star) that for short term purposes it acts as though it is absolute and unmoving. If you try to navigate on your neighbor's porch light, your navigation will be off enough that in a very brief period of time you will find yourself haplessly spiraling in toward the light source although you have no intent of going there at all.

Pity the poor moth. Its excellent navigation system depends on an environment with only a few, apparently fixed points of light and it now lives in a world full of human - and close by - light sources. Pity the poor humans, who think that moths are "attracted to light" when in actuality, our artificial lights are just screwing up the moths' navigation. Read more

Those mysterious blobs are just whale carcasses

Not every new discovery thrills. Scientists using DNA analysis have recently concluded that the occasional appearance of "mysterious whitish blobs" on beaches over the centuries is not an indication of giants of the deep but are, instead, distorted and partially decomposed whale or fish carcasses. Darn. Read more

We'll soon be able to grow meat without the animal

Remember "Chicken Little?" Not the one about the sky falling, but the one in Frederick Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants? That Chicken Little was a slab of poultry muscle grown in vitro and fed from waste products to grow in size each day, just to be sliced down - much like a gyros slab - and cooked or processed as wanted, just as though it came from a whole chicken.

Well, it's called "in vitro meat" now, not to be confused with synthetic or artificial meat, and although it isn't yet commercially availably (some patents have been filed), it's just a matter of time. At the moment it d'esn't scale up - the quantities are too small and the nutrition process too costly. It's just a matter of time, though, and the efficiencies from not having to raise whole animals probably make it inevitable. Read more

If you're like me, it's been amusing to watch all sides of the argument about genetically modified (GM) foods, since the current manipulation using modern technology is, in the end product, indistinguishable from the end product of using the farmer-based human selection of the past couple thousand years. It'll be even more interesting and fun watching the arguments about eating meat shift around when you can order a steak that was never inside a living animal.

Humans can travel into space without governments

This is the stuff of some great science fiction, beginning with Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (there are some earlier contenders). Then came Sputnik, Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, and for a while we could fantasize about being astronauts. But there was a time, well decades of time actually, in the '80s and '90s, when it seemed like the only way humans were going to go into space was very, very slowly, with the weight of huge government beauracracies creating a bit of a drag for efforts to individually get out of Earth's gravity well. And being an astronaut began to look an awfully lot like just being a functionary, just following orders.

Then, in 1996, only eight years ago, came the Ansari X Prize, a $10M prize to the first team that:

  • Launches a piloted, privately-funded spaceship, able to carry three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles)
  • Returns safely to Earth; and then
  • Repeats the launch with the same ship within two weeks.

Guess what? It's going to happen this year, probably in September and October. It's a bit more overshadowed by the presidential race and by NASA's Mars and Saturn photos, so maybe you haven't read much about it.

The current lead contender is the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team which just gave the Ansari X Prize folks its official 60-day notice that it will make its first flight on September 29, 2004, and intends to claim the prize with its second flight on October 4, 2004 - the 47th anniversary of of the launching of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957.

How magical can you get? I can recall standing in my back yard in East Liverpool, Ohio at the age of ten-years-old and tracking Sputnik as it moved visibly among the stars. I get the same feeling thinking about private individuals getting out into space . . . finally! Read more

Remember the first hundred times you browsed the World Wide Web? In my case, a few moments of browsing was inevitably followed by exclamations like "Wow!" and "Amazing" and "This is wonderful." Consumers of information technology nowadays take it for granted. Every time you turn around, it seems like our technology is "smaller, faster, cheaper," we are treated to more leaps in storage capacities, and connectedness becomes more of a given. But those of us who work in IT or study IT get to see behind the curtains. I hope that each of you still finds moments in your work where you, or someone you work with, or someone you read about, discovers or creates something new that you can learn about in a magical moment. (And I'd love to hear from others about nifty scientific discoveries or technology applications that feel like magic when you learn of them. Thanks.)

We know that IT isn't magic, but that d'esn't mean we can't feel the magic. People just like you and I are working on new information technologies that will feel like magic when we first experience them, and then we will take them for granted. That's one of the nice things about working in a field that is experiencing such a time of rapid change and growth. Maybe the next magic will come from Berners-Lee's "Semantic Web" concept. Maybe it's already here in the form of Apple's new AirPort Express with AirTunes. All you have to do is look around, there's plenty to wonder at.

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