Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.
What's black and white, and read all over? This week's dose of sci-tech news, silly. What is less black and white, however, IS where reality ends, and the stuff of science fiction begins. Europe to Australia in 90 minutes? Automatically-melting military technology? A material that hosts multiple universes? It's all here, it's all alt-week.
If the highlight of your long-haul is that leg-stretching trip to the bathroom, the bad news is that's a situation not likely to change any time soon. But, that doesn't mean they aren't working on it. If recently announced estimates are to be believed, the hypersonic SpaceLiner that would reduce the journey time from Europe to Australia down to just 90 minutes is about 50 years out. The ESA-supported project started in 2005, and would use a propellant based on liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The craft will likely launch vertically from a booster -- just like NASA rockets -- with up to 50 passengers onboard. Once an altitude of around 50 miles is reached, the SpaceLiner would "glide" down to its destination, reaching speeds of up to 15,000 mph while it did so. And here is the problem. Creating a design that is capable of tolerating the heat generated at such speeds, that is also consistent with the rest of its consumer requirements is quite a challenge. Still, we're content with the in-flight movie choice, and the occasional stroll down the aisle while they work on it.
If you thought the SpaceLiner sounded like a worthy project, what about "The Human Brain Project?" What might that be? Well, the lofty goal of "pulling together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations" no less. The project is actually the latest to be chosen by the European Commission to receive funding as part of its FET Flagship Initiatives program. The cerebral challenge will be headed up out of Switzerland's Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and cost an estimated 1.19 billion euros ($1.63 billion). It's hoped that the work could result in a better understanding of disease, as well as provide useful data for the advancement of robotics. Most impressive of all, with an estimated duration of 10 years, that's a fifth of the time required to develop a SpaceLiner...
This next project (is it project week or something?) is almost the anti-idea. Instead of concerning itself with understanding or creating, its goal is to destroy. DARPA is keen that its hard work doesn't fall into the wrong hands. As such its (somewhat wordy) Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program has been set up to create rugged technology, that can degrade into its surroundings when triggered. You might disagree with it, but DARPA claims that today's consumer technology "lasts nearly forever," which is clearly not what you want if you are trying to keep items away from unfriendly eyes. The research could help develop new materials that are durable enough for everyday use, but also easy to dissolve from existence. Expect a swathe of disposable tech to follow.
If you thought melting gadgets were clever, how about a multiverse-containing metamaterial? That's exactly what physicists at the University of Maryland claim they have made. We should probably back-up a little. Metamaterials contain nanostructures that manipulate light. This might not sound like much, until we understand that it has been theorised that the way in which they do so is similar to how spacetime manipulates light in general relativity. This essentially means that metamaterials can be used to mimic our spacetime, as well as many others. The physicists state that the material contains multiple universes analogous to our own, but with three, rather than four dimensions. To make the metamaterial, the team worked with cobalt nanoparticles -- which have self assembling qualities -- suspended in kerosene. When light passes through, it behaves as a dimension of time, with the cobalt structure providing the foundation for two dimensions in space. This is what is referred to as a Minkowski universe. What the Maryland researchers have done is create a substance containing many Minkowski universes. The work not only gives evidence of the potential of self-organisation in metamaterial creation, but could also have implications for the study of new types of optical devices.
Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.