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Technical Advances Mean Every Day Is Christmas

Technical Advances Mean Every Day Is Christmas

By Ross Pomeroy - December 19, 2014

Paramount Pictures photo

Christopher Nolan's space epic “Interstellar” depicts a dire version of the not-too-distant future, one where our planet is in trouble and mankind’s very survival as a species is in question. The glimpse is discomforting on account of its realism. Crop blights, dust storms, pollution: These are the plagues facing the dwindling number of denizens of “Interstellar's” imperiled Earth. These things have happened and undoubtedly will happen again.

But fret not. Today's Earth remains—for the most part—green, blue, and beautiful. We shouldn't be complacent, however. There are lessons we can learn from films like this. Here's one that's stuck with me.

Early on in the movie, two of the main characters, Cooper and Donald, are conversing on the front porch of their farmhouse. Cooper, a widowed former astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey, is reflecting on the dismal rut in which human civilization finds itself. He recalls with nostalgia the lofty echelon where it once perched.

“When I was kid, it felt like they made something new every day,” Donald responds. “Some gadget or idea—like every day was Christmas.”

We’re lucky. Donald's wistful remembrance remains our reality. Just look at a few of the advances that happened this year:

-- Only 10 weeks after Christmas 2013, the holiday returned in March. Chemists at Notre Dame created a new class of antibiotics to do battle against the infamous MRSA and other drug-resistant bacteria. Drug-resistant bacteria currently claim an estimated 700,000 lives each year. That may rise to 10 million by 2050 if the most dire predictions come true. Researchers are resolved to make sure they don't.

-- It felt like Christmas Day on April 30, when physicists announced that they had constructed a tractor beam that can pull microscopic objects with sound waves. According to Hamish Johnston, who reported on the breakthrough for Physics World, the technology could be used to deliver encapsulated drugs to the precise location inside the body that requires treatment.

-- Christmas came early in September, when Apple announced a watch that’s like a gadget out of “Star Trek.” The Apple Watch wraps an incredible amount of technology around your wrist. Even more importantly, it offers a medium for other tinkerers to toy with. A single app can transform the device from a simple timekeeper to a life-improving gadget.

-- It came again in October, when Lockheed Martin unveiled plans for a compact nuclear fusion reactor that can fit on a truck and power a city of 100,000 people, with almost no pollution. Sewing this vision into reality will be an uphill task, but imagine if it worked. Fusion, quite literally the power of the stars, has the potential to uplift civilization as few other inventions can, producing clean, practically limitless energy.

Twice this month it has already felt like Christmas morning. On Dec. 9, a team of scientists reported that they had engineered artificial skin that's sensitive to heat, humidity, and pressure, bringing us closer to the crafting of prosthetic limbs as functional as the real things. The technological artistry involved was staggering. “The bulk of the new skin is composed of a flexible, transparent silicone material called polydimethylsiloxane -- or PDMS. Embedded within it are silicon nanoribbons that generate electricity when they're squished or stretched, providing a source of tactile feedback," Sarah Fecht described in Popular Science.

Four days before that, NASA successfully launched a spaceship that could one day ferry courageous human explorers to another world. But we must work hard to ensure that the Orion spacecraft becomes more than just ornamental. Due to budget limitations, the ship is not expected to carry astronauts until 2021 at the earliest. We should not allow that date to slip even further away.

A lot of days felt like Christmas this year, and each bestowed a gift in the form of a “gadget or idea.” Now that the actual holiday season is upon us, it's a perfect moment to reflect on those remarkable gifts, and to remember that it is we ourselves who deliver them. They don't just materialize under a tree. They're woven into being through the hard work of technologists and scientists. It is through supporting these innovators and maintaining a culture friendly to science and technology that life will continually improve.

Just like the true spirit of the season, the essence of innovation is not about receiving. Nor is it about reveling in what we have. The true spirit of innovation is about doing. Doing, and dreaming of the good that can still be accomplished, and the work yet to be done. Let's make that spirit last forever.

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