Science fiction can be a powerful genre. In books like "1984," "Brave New World" and "Fahrenheit 451," we can consider the dangers we face if we put too much power in the hands of the government. These books also stress the importance of individuality and critical thinking. While the setting may be futuristic and even fantastic, the themes are relevant to how we live our lives. Don't dismiss a tale just because it has robots and rockets in it -- there may be more going on under the surface of the story.
But apart from deep social commentary, science fiction has given us other gifts: amazing inventions that we'd love to possess. Some gadgets from science fiction became reality. "Star Trek" introduced the concept of a universal translator -- a gadget capable of making communication possible across language barriers. Today, you can use a smartphone and Google Translate to have a conversation with someone else even if you don't share a common language. There are thousands of examples of real-world gadgets and inventions that were once just the stuff of dreams.
But not all gizmos and doodads from sci-fi are available at the local retail store. We're going to take a look at 10 gadgets introduced in sci-fi that we're just dying to get our hands on.
"Back to the Future 2" had a lot to live up to. The first film was a runaway success. It introduced the flux capacitor -- a component we'll visit a little bit later. It also created a market for DeLorean cars, a vehicle that by 1985 was on the road to oblivion. And while you might argue the second film lacks the charm and pacing that was present in the original movie, it did capture our imaginations with the hoverboard.
Simply put, a hoverboard is a skateboard without the wheels. It defies gravity, allowing the rider to zoom above the ground. To turn on a hoverboard, you simply lean as if you were on a normal skateboard. And as we learn in the film, hoverboards don't work on water unless you've got power.
How do they work? It beats us! The film never really attempts to explain what makes hoverboards tick. We know we'd love to own one and swoop around the office. Shortly after the film hit theaters, a myth circulated that the hoverboards in the film were real products -- they even had the Mattel logo on them. But the myth said that consumer groups and concerned parents pressured Mattel to pull hoverboards from production out of fear that the boards would cause countless injuries. In truth, there never were any working hoverboards -- all those effects came from movie magic. But we're still holding out hope that one day we'll get to glide along with Huey Lewis music blasting in the background.
For those of us who suffer from foot-in-the-mouth disease, no gadget would be handier than the neuralizer. An important gadget in the arsenal for the Men in Black, this gadget lets you zap away the memories of those who stare at the flashing red light. With the click of a button and a few soothing words, you can wipe out a memory and replace it with something else.
For the characters in "Men in Black," this device allowed human agents to meet, negotiate or combat aliens without alerting the entire Earth that we are not alone. But in the HowStuffWorks.com office, we'd probably use this in other ways. Need a little more time on that deadline? Just zap the site director and say that the assignment is due next week. Accidentally spill coffee on the general manager? A quick zap and the suggestion that one of the Stuff You Should Know guys did it and you're good to go.
Zapping people to alter memories might not be the most responsible option. Maybe it's a good thing the neuralizer doesn't really exist. But if you see a HowStuffWorks.com writer walking around wearing sunglasses, you might want to avert your eyes -- just in case.
Putting aside the legitimate argument that the "Star Wars" series is really more of a fantasy than science fiction, we come to the lightsaber. It's an elegant weapon from a more civilized age. The final part of a Jedi knight's training is the construction of his or her own personal lightsaber. The films taught us that these magical swords could cut through nearly anything and were capable of deflecting blaster fire. Plus they make that really cool voom-whoosh sound.
If you explore the expanded universe -- that includes the various novels, video games, comic books and other media that relate to Star Wars but aren't part of the official story -- you'll learn that a lightsaber consists of a handle, a power source and some crystals. The crystals give the lightsaber its color as well as other attributes. Those who use the light side of the force tend to rely on crystals they find in natural settings like caves and caverns. Dark side force users tend to use synthetic crystals, which always seem to give a lightsaber an ominous red glow.
While we don't foresee the need to put a lightsaber to any sort of combat use here at HowStuffWorks.com, we admit it would be really handy for yard work. With a couple of quick swipes, you could cut down trees, bushes and any plastic pink flamingoes that are between you and the perfectly manicured lawn.
Legend has it that Douglas Adams thought up the idea for "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" while lying in a field, recovering from drinking a bit too much during a trip through Europe. It wasn't uncommon for students and other travelers to hitch a lift now and then as they crisscrossed the continent, visiting new cities and phoning home for more money. What if, thought Adams, the same thing happened on a universal scale? He constructed a tale of a befuddled human named Arthur Dent and an alien in disguise with the vehicular moniker of Ford Prefect and the rest is history.
But how do you hitch a ride with an alien? You use an Electronic Thumb. Adams explains that there is a communications channel called the sub-ether network. The electronic thumb taps into this network and signals nearby spaceships to hitch a lift. Adams wrote multiple versions of his story and no two are exactly alike. It's not entirely clear that the thumb requires the spaceship's driver to give permission before the hitchhikers zap aboard using a matter transference beam.
It's true that for the electronic thumb to really be useful we'd need to have some aliens flying around first. But even if there aren't any bug-eyed monsters in the nearby galaxies, it would still make a lovely paperweight.
We're going back to "Back to the Future" for this one. The trilogy introduced lots of cool gadgets: time machines, flying skateboards and self-tying shoes are just a few examples. But Mr. Fusion could revolutionize everything.
It's a throwaway visual gag at the end of the first Back to the Future film -- Doc hurriedly sorts through Marty's garbage can, pulling out banana peels and beer. He feeds it into the Mr. Fusion port on the back of the time machine. The big joke is that this relatively tiny device can generate the awesome power -- 1.21 gigawatts' worth -- that the flux capacitor needs in order to make time travel possible. Throughout the entire film we've watched Marty and Doc try to harness lightning to get Marty back to 1985 and by 2015 the same power can be generated by an off-the-shelf appliance.
But imagine how different our world would be if Mr. Fusion were real. We could generate all our power needs just by feeding in some garbage. A couple of nuclear reactions later and we'd have plenty of juice to run our homes and vehicles. It solves recycling problems and energy conservation all in one fell swoop! Sure, there are lingering concerns about using a nuclear reactor in such a casual way, but without risk there's no reward, right?
Many comic book superheroes possess amazing powers. A few, like Batman or Iron Man, are relatively normal human beings who rely on their training and gadgets to get the upper hand on villains. Iron Man's suit is the Swiss Army Knife of the super gadget world. It can fly, it's impervious to most forms of damage and it features repulsor beams that can blast holes in masonry.
Throughout the history of the Iron Man appearances in comics, television shows and films there have been many versions of the armor. Some are large and bulky, resembling a tank more than anything else. Others are sleek -- one suit even had the ability to fold up into a suitcase. How Stark managed to carry around a suit like that without his back giving out remains something of a mystery.
With an Iron Man suit, casual Friday at the HowStuffWorks.com office would take on a new meaning. And it sure would be handy to step out onto our balcony and fly off to grab lunch -- there'd be no need to wait on those pesky elevators!
While the neuralizer from "Men in Black" would be handy for making folks forget the last few moments, what happens when you make a major mistake? That's when you hop into your handy-dandy time machine and risk introducing a paradox that could rip apart the very fabric of time and space in order to prevent yourself from an embarrassing situation. Sure, you might encounter a younger version of yourself or somehow set into motion a series of events that will prevent your own birth, but that's half the fun!
Time machines come in all shapes, sizes and styles. You could have a living creature that inhabits a multi-dimensional construct like the TARDIS in "Doctor Who." You might plop down on a comfy chair and manipulate dozens of levers and dials like the time machine in H.G. Wells's famous story. Or maybe you want to give that flux capacitor a real workout and zoom into time at 88 miles per hour (141.6 kilometers per hour) with the famous DeLorean from the "Back to the Future" films. No matter what your sense of personal style, there's a time machine out there for you.
Do you live in one of the worst cities for commuters? If you do, you know the frustration of having to sit in traffic that's at a standstill for what feels like hours on end. In the worst of these cities, you might spend more than 70 hours every year in traffic delays. But what if you could skip the commute entirely? That's why we want to install a "Star Trek" transporter in the HowStuffWorks.com office. We just have to invent it first.
The transporter was the device that could dematerialize you, shoot you across vast distances and reassemble you at your destination. You didn't even need two of them -- a single transporter could plop you down from a starship to a planet below and scoop you back up again once your mission was over -- or when enough guys in red shirts had shuffled off the mortal coil. A popular term for the act of being transported is "beaming."
In "Star Trek" lore, the transporter originally only moved non biological cargo. Disassembling atoms of a non-living target and putting them back together on a ship isn't as scary as the thought of having all your own atoms ripped apart and squished back together. Some famous doctors in the "Star Trek" universe took great pains to avoid having to use the transporters, preferring shuttles to dematerialization. Still, it beats an hour-long commute through gridlocked traffic!
"Star Trek" also contributed this gadget: the replicator. As you might guess from its name, the replicator can create stuff as long as it knows what that stuff is made of on a molecular level. If you have the molecular recipe for lasagna, the replicator can whip up a nice batch for you on the spot.
Could we ever build an actual working replicator? Scholars like K. Eric Drexler think it might be a possibility with nanotechnology. We may one day be able to construct machines that measure only a few billionths of a meter across -- so small you can't even see them with a light microscope. These molecular machines could, in theory, assemble material one molecule at a time. With billions of these assemblers, you could create practically anything as long as you had the raw materials at hand. But before you throw away your microwave and toss out your oven, you should know that there are other scientists like Richard E. Smalley who think that there are fundamental barriers that make devices like molecular assemblers a virtual impossibility.
For the time being, we here at HowStuffWorks.com have to make our hot Earl Grey tea the old-fashioned way. But we're still hoping nanotechnology brings the replicator to reality!
There may be no gadget as versatile and useful as the Doctor's sonic screwdriver from "Doctor Who." It can open (or engage) locks ranging from rusty old padlocks to digital keypads. It can reprogram computers and repair old wiring. In a pinch, you can use it as a weapon and knock people unconscious with it or pair it with a power source to zap Daleks or Cybermen. What can't it do?
Well, it can't open anything that has a deadlock seal on it. What's that? It's a plot device designed to make it harder for the Doctor to escape a situation. In other words, a sonic screwdriver works in any situation except when it's not convenient to the plot. We'd love to have this kind of device. Most of the time, it will work perfectly. When it doesn't work, you know you're in a really important situation.
While the Doctor has had decades to become adept at wielding the sonic screwdriver, his human traveling companions have also put it to use in a pinch. That gives us hope that this incredibly flexible tool would still work in the hands of a novice. We eagerly await the full-scale production of the device -- no toolkit should be without one.
Did we leave out your favorite sci-fi gadget? Let us know what your pick would be!
MIT's AlterEgo allows people to control computers without ever uttering one word. HowStuffWorks looks at how this could change the way we communicate.
More Great Links
- Adams, Douglas. "More Than Complete Hitchhiker's Guide: Complete & Unabridged." Longmeadow Pr. 1987.
- BBC. "Doctor Who." (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/dw
- "Iron Man (Anthony Stark)." Marvel.com. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://marvel.com/universe/Iron_Man_(Anthony_Stark)
- Drexler, K. Eric et al. "Debate About Assemblers -- Smalley Rebuttal." Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. 2001. (Sept. 23, 2011) http://www.imm.org/publications/sciamdebate2/smalley/
- Smalley, Richard E. "Of chemistry, love, and nanobots." Scientific American. Vol. 285, No. 3. pp. 76-77. September 2001. (Oct. 5, 2011) http://cohesion.rice.edu/NaturalSciences/Smalley/emplibrary/SA285-76.pdf
- Sonnenfeld, Barry. "Men in Black." Amblin Entertainment. 1997.
- StarTrek.com. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.startrek.com/
- StarWars.com. (Sept. 22, 2011) http://www.starwars.com/
- Zemeckis, Robert. "Back to the Future." Universal Pictures. 1985.
- Zemeckis, Robert. "Back to the Future Part II." Universal Pictures. 1987.