#3. Viral Batteries
Genetically engineered viruses have already sent thousands of people running in fear from the beginning of this sentence, because they've been trained to react to certain words like Pavlovian dogs instead of people who can read or think.
Sit! Shake hands! Sacrifice basic civil liberties when I say "terrorism"!
Genetic engineering is the ultimate triumph of intelligence over biology. The old upgrade strategy for every living thing was "Have sex and die and hope your children do better." We've improved on that by reading the master code of life and learning to edit it. (Hopefully they don't hire the Cracked editors or we'll end up with more than one dick, no matter which gender you started as.) The results will at least eliminate the tragedy of congenital disease, but for those who don't demand that all scientific progress be tied to immediate results (aka people who understand the term "scientific progress"), genetically engineered viruses are nothing less than organic nanotech. Why go to all the bother of building machines that can rearrange atoms when we can reprogram the bastards who've been giving us colds all this time?
"According to our records, Mr. Rhinovirus, you owe us half of all sick days ever taken."
Researchers at MIT and KAIST are "Fabricating Genetically Engineered High-Power Lithium-Ion Batteries Using Multiple Virus Genes," and that's not us attempting to win the Scariest Science-Fiction-Sounding Misquote of Real Research Award, that's the title of their Science paper. Even the Umbrella Corporation never imagined genetically engineering viruses to give them armor-plating and the power of electricity, and then connecting them to the world's electronics. Because the Umbrella Corporation never does anything that works.
Yeah, we'll stick to "Inventing products that kill anyone who might ever buy them, and us," thanks.
They're improving battery function by making more sophisticated materials to efficiently suck power out of the energy juice. Single-walled carbon nanotubes can build amazing nanoscale networks, and should really have this whole article to themselves, but they don't conduct electricity. Which is why scientists have engineered viruses to grab metal atoms and bind themselves to the nanotube network.
Left: Original nanotube network. Right: Viruses eating through. Also: Tactical map of us losing the war against the cyber-virii.
One gene change convinces the viruses to grab metal, one more makes them love nanotubes, and that's all you need to build a better battery terminal.
Which they've already connected to real technology.
#2. Evolved Semiconductors
Semiconductors are the brains of every electronic device on the planet. Anyone producing a useful new one will make Tony Stark look like a steampunk fan gluing gears to his boots, but the math is extremely difficult. Which is why Dr. Bawazer and colleagues are evolving them instead.
Evolution only results in smart things. (We're actually not being sarcastic.)
They reshuffled the genes that let marine sponges build solid structures, shoved them in a bath of minerals, then decided that natural selection was for losers and used LASER SELECTION instead. The genes are sucked down a tube with a laser at the end, and only those that pass the laser can reproduce. They stole that last part from Goldfinger's experiments.
Mad Science's peer-review process is pretty brutal.
The genes only pass LASER SELECTION if they used the minerals bath to build themselves silicon- or titanium-dioxide-reflecting semiconductor shells. Those that make it are passed on to the DNA amplification stage, where only those capable of reproducing are multiplied and detected. This resulted in a population programmed to build semiconductors, including previously unknown versions.
The winners both have reflecting shells AND can reproduce, making this the second time RoboCop has been beaten in one article.
By reshuffling the selected population and repeating the experiment, further materials could be evolved. And since the laser-reflection step can be replaced with any other desired test (photoluminescence, magnetization, etc.), we could grow solutions to material problems. Because evolution can come up with crazy stuff, even when you're not firing lasers at it.
Look, I MADE SENSE AT THE TIME, OK? Nature, well ... my Mother Nature produces pretty much all of the drugs.
#1. The Heaviest Element in Existence
Every atom is defined by its atomic number, which now sounds obvious, but was the sort of breakthrough that made fireball-casting wizards look like crappy interior decorators. With the periodic table, we suddenly understood the behavior of every element in the universe. Then we found out that nature gave up at 93 because the elements were ridiculously unstable, and because nature is a wimp: two factors that don't stop humanity!
Just think of it as a huge, tiny target.
Everything above 93 is man-made and ridiculously radioactive. The most famous is plutonium, but that's only 94 -- we've gone all the way up to 118, and it's way more unstable. Anyone about to start screaming about danger and weapons, congratulations! You've just proved you don't know what you're talking about! These new super-heavy elements are so radioactive that they're no threat at all, because they only exist for fractions of a second. In fact, the Flerov Laboratory where ununoctium is produced is the exact opposite of a bomb: lots of people clustered around putting huge quantities of energy into putting radioactive atoms together.
Image via LLNL
"Wait ... wait ... there's one!"
After 33 hours of bombarding californium (98, already a man-made element) with calcium (20, accelerated by a U400 cyclotron, not good for your bones at this exact instant), a collaboration between the Russian Joint Institute for Nuclear Research and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory produced three atoms of ununoctium. Understand: A group of humans got together, built equipment and made things that don't exist.
The universe doesn't make deep-fried chocolate bars either. We have to do all the cool stuff.
Doubtless the depths of space smash a few super-heavy elements together somewhere, but in the midst of cosmic collisions so vast that they make finding a needle in a haystack look like finding a needle shoved into your eye. We did it in a building, on purpose, and the decay chains of this physical trinity taught us more about nucleon physics in a millisecond than humanity knew for hundreds of thousands of years.
We're learning more about existence by continuing where it left off.
Luke endures the opposite of science in The Cosmopolitan Experiment, and recovers with The Most Impossibly Awesome Action Movie of All Time. He also tumbles and replies to every single tweet.