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Editor’s note: In many cases, what once was science fiction has now become science fact. Science flashes by, known by only a select few. Art chases science, or, sometimes, predicts it. Sometimes, they are the same.
The Monitor asked Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Dean Peterson what in the Harry Potter series is close to fact. Here are his responses.
Monitor: What features in “Harry Potter” are not that far-fetched scientifically?
Peterson: The cloak of invisibility is being researched with some promise of hiding objects on a small scale at infrared by using advanced metamaterials that do not reflect the light waves. The success of the Stealth fighters that are essentially invisible to radar is another example that indicates invisibility is a possibility.
Levitation based on the interaction of magnetic fields is another possibility being researched. Magnetically levitated trains (MAGLEV), flywheels and static electricity repulsion are examples that have already been implemented. Flying cars are already being sold so this is no longer science fiction.
Mind reading, as exemplified by the Harry Potter sorting hat, is a possibility based on the development of Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUIDS). Magnetoencepholography using SQUIDS that can sense brain waves has already been developed.
Genetics to enhance animals/plants/health is underway with improved cattle, sheep and hogs as well as anti-cancer plants exemplified by purple tomatoes that incorporate snapdragon genes. A full understanding of DNA will aid in predicting and treating health problems. Sight restoration using microchips and photosynthesis research to produce food and oxygen while using CO2 emissions would be a great boon to mankind.
Monitor: Does the fact that some of these are possible add credibility to the books and movies?
Peterson: Certainly many things we thought were magic 10 years ago are now becoming scientific reality with many technologies which we use appearing to be miracles today. Organ transplants, Internet, cell phones and digital cameras being a few of these that have changed our lives.
So when we read about levitated broomsticks or restoring someone to life, it has credibility and there is a magician and scientist in absolutely everyone that guides our first observations such as catching a ball and singing a song.
My hope is that as a result of “Harry Potter,” American students will become more interested in careers in science and engineering as they realize that they can have fun as well as make a positive difference to the future of mankind.
Monitor: Are any of those technologies being presently worked on at the lab?
Peterson: LANL has been exploring MAGLEV, DNA, sight restoration and metamaterials as well as many other relevant areas about which I probably am not knowledgeable.
Monitor: Science has been really described as part art. Do you agree with that statement and what does it mean to you?
Peterson: Good question! Both an artist and a scientist can create something that has never been previously observed by mankind and could benefit society for thousands of years. Both careers require extraordinary innovation and stand on the shoulders of giants that have preceded them. The only difference between being a “muggle” and a career scientist/wizard is commitment and training.
Monitor: Based on developments that have come years after science fiction books have been written (“The Stand” about a deadly virus by Stephen King, anything by Isaac Asimov), it seems that science fiction many times becomes fact. Is science fiction often a precursor to science fact?
Peterson: There are numerous examples of science fiction being a precursor to science fact.
The best example is probably robots where now we have emulated spiders (explosive detector), underwater snakes, bats (COM-BAT) surveillance, ping-pong playing TOPIO) Singing HRP-4C and Robotic surgery incorporating an MRI. Other precursors would be algae as a food stock (Cities in Flight, 1957), Vision implants (Dream Master, 1966), and gyroscope seats (Dark Star Passes, 1930).
Monitor: Is science in reality way ahead of where the American public believes it is, but we just aren’t aware of the developments?
Peterson: Scientific advances are usually not linear with time but have dramatic jumps that could be based on development of a theory that underpins the technology or perhaps even something unexpected that needs to be explained. Many advances are proprietary and not publicized until they are ready to be implemented by industry, so the public would not be aware of the developments.
Monitor: What are some areas where developments are pending in which people would be surprised to learn?
Peterson: Superconducting cables, fault current limiters, transformers, motors, and energy storage devices that will increase the efficiency, reliability, and security of our electric grid as well as generate many job opportunities within a new American electric power industry.
Levitated trains (MAGLEV) that will rapidly and efficiently move people and cargo between cities reducing reliance on cars, trucks, and planes.
Carbon nanotube fibers that are 1000x the strength of steel but 20 percent of the weight saving energy in vehicles and advances in bridges.
Astronomy is an area that great advances are being made such as understanding the Galilean moons of Jupiter, Pluto, Saturn, stars(including our sun).
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) to develop fusion which is the universe energy source is probably not of general knowledge but would be a major answer to our energy and environmental problems if it is successful.
Mind controlled bionic limbs is another exciting area that is on the edge of being implemented that will be a great boon to mankind. Progress in the development of biomass based on algae and switch grass to meet our energy needs is very promising.