Friday, March 20, 2009

Science Friday: Gravitons and Buckyballs

The second hour of today’s installment of NPR’s Science Friday was chockablock with science fictional science, the cool stuff you want to hear about if you’re a reader or a writer of the genre.

Physicist Lisa Randall talked about gravity and explanations of the universe involving physical dimensions beyond what we can directly observe. Specifically, she discussed the fascinating idea that gravity’s relative weakness as a force might be explained by gravity existing primarily in a fifth dimension but leaking into our observable universe. She speculated that when they finally get the Large Hadron Collider running, it might be possible to verify the existence of a thing known as the "Kaluza-Klein mode of the graviton." This means (I think) a graviton—which is theoretical particle that transmits the force of gravity—that would be “heavier” because it has “momentum from the extra dimension.” Detection of such a weird thing would be a straightforward (in terms of particle physics) way of verifying experimentally some of these ideas that are indicated in the math but which there has been no way to study so far. Go Hadron Collider.

The next segment featured chemist Harry Kroto, the Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of buckminsterfullerene, or carbon-60, the buckyball. Readers who have read much hard sf written since, say the mid-90s, have run into buckyballs and things like carbon nanotubes again and again. Kroto said that the next big thing—the discovery that will change everything—will be when science gains an understanding of how “self-assembly” works. He said that it should be possible, for example, to dip a disc into a solution and come out with a DVD, or mix some chemicals together and end up with transistors for micro-processors. Self-assembly is the way life works, and it should one day be a thing we can achieve artificially. Think of Mars’ space elevator in Robinson’s Red Mars building itself out of carbon nanotubes, or the all-pervasive nanotechnology of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age creating everything ranging from fanciful playthings for the rich to mundane household items. During the segment’s opening, they said they’d talk about other applications for the buckyball, like “bucky paper,” but they didn’t get to that. I heard of the “paper” a couple of years ago, however, and selected it recently as the material that the soldiers’ body armor in my story Neglected Project is made of. Cool stuff. Kroto was highly entertaining during this segment and even found an opportunity to take a swipe at Creationism--funny because it somehow did not come up during the first hour of the show...which was all about Darwin.

That soccer ball-looking image is a crude representation of a buckyball.

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