It seems like every day a new technology or experiment is announced that brings us one step closer to living in a science fiction film. Whether it's lasers from Star Wars or "de-extinction" from Jurassic Park, science experiments of today often seem like they could just as easily be a plot point in the next Star Trek film or an experiment from an episode of Fringe. And whether we dread it or find it exciting, science and technology continue to lead us swiftly towards living in "the future." So here are 12 science experiments that you might have thought were from science fiction but are frighteningly 100% real.
In what sounds like something straight out of Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel The Giver or Ender's Game, scientists at the University of Bath have discovered a way to create babies without the need for a female egg. Yes, you read that right. Three generations of mice have been “created” using non-egg cells fertilized by sperm. These can be any cell from the body that has been altered to fuse with the sperm’s chromosomes. Dr. Tony Perry, a molecular embryologist, explains the study saying, "Imagine that you could take skin cells and make embryos from them. This would have all kinds of utility.” The opportunity for women who no longer produce eggs and same-sex couples to be able to reproduce is certainly exciting, but also the thought of "motherless" children might not be something we are ready for quite yet.
Beetles That Can Spy On You
Maybe the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the scientists at the University of California were inspired by Hank Pym and Ant-Man’s ability to control insects when they began working on a rig that can control beetles. The rig "receives control signals from a nearby computer” and can control the insect’s movements such as hovering, turning, and taking off. What’s the purpose of this technology? The hope is to use these insects for surveillance and possibly even search-and-rescue missions in the future. Okay, beetles were terrifying enough even before they could spy on you. Have we gone too far?
Even though Star Wars' C3PO can be pretty annoying, I’ll admit that having a robot to help you out in space is pretty cool. NASA thought so too and began experimenting with robotics technology ultimately creating a “Robonaut” — a humanoid robot. While Robonaut doesn’t take the place of a human astronaut, the robot can complete "simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks” when needed to on the International Space Station. In fact, Robonaut is comprised of "nearly 50 patented and patent-pending technologies” which could ultimately be game-changers on Earth as well. Will robots like Robonaut soon take over jobs in manufacturing or even shipping? Will humanoid robots soon live amongst us like on The Jetsons? Robonaut certainly seems like a step in that direction.
Because we learned nothing from the first four Jurassic Park films, Harvard researchers have been experimenting with inserting woolly mammoth genes into elephant cells. Using CRISPR, which simplified is basically a tool that edits DNA, geneticist George Church inserted the genes for "small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color” into an elephant skin cell sample because hey, why wouldn't we all want woolly mammoths running around the Earth again? There's a process called “de-extinction” which uses frozen tissues of extinct animals and was used to bring back a Pyrenean ibex in 2003. Again, have we learned nothing from Jurassic Park? There are four films cataloging the ways bringing extinct animals back to life could be catastrophic. But alas, we humans can’t leave well enough alone, can we?
Smart Contact Lenses
When Google Glass was first released in 2013, it felt like we might actually be living in Back to the Future 2 or Minority Report. The idea that we could be moving towards all of our sci-fi and geeky dreams coming true seemed simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. But in fact, it was simply the stepping stone to what's actually terrifyingly real now -- advanced contact lenses. While these smart contact lenses can be used to permanently improve sight, scientists at the University of Michigan have building lenses that will allow the wearer to see in the dark. Sony has applied for a patent for a smart contact lens that can record video while Samsung has a patent in Korea for a lens that "projects video directly into your eyes”. Medically, these lenses can be used to diagnose glaucoma and even a version for diabetics that can monitor glucose levels. Okay, so there are pretty neat uses for these lenses, but anybody think they’re also a little too much?
Cloaking Earth Using Lasers
While some Earthlings are Fox Mulders on a quest for proof of aliens, plenty of other citizens of planet Earth would prefer to never have extraterrestrial visitors. Well, two astronomers from Columbia University have proposed the idea of using lasers to cloak Earth, preventing aliens from being able to find us. Currently, we use the transit method, which "detects tiny dips in the brightness of stars”, to discover planets. So, in order to prevent aliens from finding Earth the same way, we could in theory use lasers to fill in the “dips”. The two scientists from Columbia ran some equations and discovered that we have the technology right now to cloak ourselves from aliens. And research also suggests that there are ways to make Earth look unappealing to other life forms if they were to discover it. So basically we could throw Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak over the planet. Yeah, that's pretty neat.
Trying to figure out how to program a website is a challenge for many, but engineers at MIT have moved straight to programming DNA. From Dune to Resident Evil, genetic engineering is one of the most popular science fiction tropes. By creating a programming language, these engineers have been able to give new functions to cells. And guess what? It’s user-friendly and requires "no special knowledge of genetic engineering”. In fact, Christopher Voigt, an MIT professor of biological engineering, claims that a high schooler could access this server online, create a program, and it would produce a DNA sequence. The engineers next plan to use the technology to program bacteria, which could be used in a multitude of ways including within the human body or plants. How long until we can program bacteria to not make us sick?
Suspended animation is the stuff sci-fi dreams are made of. Seen during long-term space travel in sci-fi films like Aliens and Interstellar, is it actually possible to decrease body temperature, remove the blood from a patient, repair injuries, and then resuscitate them? Dr. Peter Rhee at the University of Arizona in Tucson has been researching suspended animation and created a technique for the procedure which includes inducing hypothermia and “swapping blood with very cold salt water”. It’s no cryogenic freezing but does still rely on cooling the body temperature down. Why would you want to do this? Suspended animation would give doctors extra time to fix injuries when there is significant blood loss. And guess what? They've been successful on pigs and are now waiting to begin human trials. Who is signing up?
We aren’t moving at warp speed with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise quite yet, but NASA has been developing ion propulsion for years and in 2013 announced they were close to equipping some of its missions with ion engines. These ion engines can accelerate to speeds up to 90,000 miles per hour, which is frankly too fast to comprehend. NASA’s Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) project complete testing of these engines for over 48,000 hours, meaning that they’re not only super fast but can also operate continuously for five and a half years! These ion engines can also "fly huge payloads deep into space with super fuel efficiency”. So while we aren’t quite at warp speed yet, we’re certainly making great strides towards reaching it. What's next? Hopefully something similar to an FTL drive from Battlestar Galactica, which would make jumping through space even easier!
The idea of having a little chip implanted into your skin that can control technology might sound too much like The Matrix or Total Recall for you, but the idea isn’t actually too foreign for most of us. We insert chips into our pets and we can use our phones to do everything from open our front door to pay for food. But there’s something about inserting a RFID implant into your skin that starts to feel a little too much like films from "the future". Yet, in 2004, the FDA approved the use of VeriChip, which after being inserted under your skin can store vital information for doctors and hospitals. The uses for these types of chips are endless. You can now get a chip inserted that allows you to open doors, track internet usage, or send funny gifs. It might seem unnecessary right now but who knows where will the technology will go from here. Is having a chip really that different from wearing an Apple Watch?
Zapping Space Debris Using LasersYou may be used to seeing laser cannons vaporizing items in space in Star Wars but are you ready to see the International Space Station blasting debris with lasers? Researchers have suggested using the Extreme Universe Space Observatory (EUSO) to detect debris and then using a Coherent Amplification Network (CAN) laser to blast it. The laser is in concept form but would be 100,000-watts with the ability to fire 10,000 pulses per second. With the amount of space debris increasing, installing a proactive way for the space station to protect itself seems smart. And the lasers could destroy debris up to 60 miles away. Scientists are still working on a version for the International Space Station but could you imagine how cool this would be?
In the future, teleporting of the "Beam me up, Scotty”-variety might be more than something we've seen on Star Trek or in Tron. According to some physicists at the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience at Delft University, they were able to teleport quantum information between items located almost 10 feet apart. Okay, so we won’t be transporting humans anytime soon, but Professor Ronald Hanson did bring up the fact that “if you believe we are nothing more than a collection of atoms strung together in a particular way, then in principle it should be possible to teleport ourselves from one place to another.” This discovery of quantum teleportation does however move us closer to "an unhackable network of quantum computers”. Quantum entanglement allows for particles great distances away from each other to be linked and is a huge step forward for physics. So maybe our great-great-great-grandchildren will be able to teleport. We can only hope.