We see so many day-to-day advancements in science, from increasingly powerful smartphones to a potential AIDS cure, that we kind of get numb to it. But somewhere out there, scientists are still reaching for stuff that's so far above and beyond that it sounds like black magic. As we speak, there are researchers who are performing such witchery as ...
5Recording Your Fantasies and Dreams
See, this is what we're talking about. Having a stranger look directly into your dreams and fantasies isn't science, that's freaking sorcery. Yes, we understand that the images you see in your mind are just electrical signals from your brain, and that theoretically somebody could capture and decode them.
But ... these are our dreams here. A magical other world where we ride dragons with Shaquille O'Neal, and the dragon speaks in the voice of our old gym coach and continually yells at us for not wearing a cup. Are you saying scientists can hook cables up to our brain and watch it happen? Or see our daydream where we win the Super Bowl and play lead guitar at the halftime show?
"Who's ready for a blistering rendition of the first six chords of 'Smoke on the Water'?"
Pretty close, yeah.
How the Hell?
It was scientists at UC Berkeley who developed a way to literally see what your brain sees, and they did it by manipulating the magic of YouTube. They showed the subjects a bunch of movie trailers with electrodes hooked up to their heads, and computers recorded their brain activity. After that, they fed the computer millions of YouTube videos and asked it to compare what it had recorded with the millions of images of cats and people falling off bikes that they were showing to it.
The computer then selected the top 100 videos that best matched what popped out of the subjects' brains, and created a kind of composite image of what it thought it saw. The result, while not exactly Blu-ray quality, is pretty striking:
Now, before you go crazy over the possibility of literally recording your dreams, we clearly have a ways to go. But this at least serves as proof of concept, that we can actually transform mental pictures into video. It's just a matter of refining the process of defining which brain activity equals "I'm somehow competing in a spelling bee wearing only a jockstrap." Then we can put that shit straight up on YouTube!
It doesn't stop there; this process of breaking down how the brain works and building machines to interpret it will open up all kinds of weirdness. For instance, a team in the Netherlands has successfully invented a system that allows the users to type just by thinking the letters -- even if the user is comatose. They discovered that by asking a vegetative patient to imagine, for instance, herself playing a game of tennis, a certain area of the brain lit up. From there it was just a matter of training the patient to associate letters on a keyboard with certain thoughts, and using a machine to detect that activity. Boom -- you're now mind-typing.
"Sir, you may want to tone down the fantasizing. Our nurses have filed a restraining order."
4Slowing Down Light to the Speed of Traffic
"The speed of light" is what's known as a universal constant -- which means it doesn't change, ever. It's literally the speed limit for the universe. The speed at which your flashlight beam illuminates the serial killer on the other side of the room is around 186,282 miles per second, which is the fastest that anything can ever go, according to the laws of physics.
So if light didn't travel that fast -- if we adjusted it to, say, 38 miles per hour -- wouldn't the whole universe collapse or something? Even if not, what would freak you out more than seeing your car outrun your own headlights?
If you slowed down light enough, the world would look like a constant acid trip.
Well, amazingly, scientists have managed to slow light down to the speed of Los Angeles traffic.
How the Hell?
It turns out that describing the universe's top speed as "the speed of light" isn't entirely accurate. Light is just the only thing fast enough to hit that wall, on account of the fact that it has no mass. So that's how fast light ordinarily travels, but light is made of particles, the same as anything else, and so theoretically it can be slowed down, or even frozen in place.
Wait, did we say "theoretically"? Because Danish physicist Lene Hau found that she could slow light to a crawl by firing a whole mess of laser beams through a dense, super-cooled chunk of sodium. In layman's terms, it's like shooting a bullet into water.
So what are the possible applications for slow light? Hau has no idea, but reminds us that the guy who invented lasers had no idea what they could be used for, either. Could they make a novelty flashlight where the light kind of oozes out like ketchup? We'd buy one of those.
"Goddammit, what kind of paper towel even cleans this up?"