Archive for December 15th, 2010

Science Wednesday: A Sonic Screwdriver

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

Prof. Bruce Drinkwater, who's working on creating a sonic screwdriver

I love it when Science-Fiction tools move from realm of fantasy to the hardware store shelf.  Today I carry around a portable communication devices that would seem right at home in the hands of Captain Kirk and Mister Spock.   My smart phone even has an application that turns it into a functioning Tricorder, capable of measuring sound levels and magnetic fields amongst other things.  Lasers have become so common place over the last fifty-years that they appear in our entertainment systems and grocery store check-out lines.

Now, a scientist in the UK is working on one of my favorite Sci-Fi devices, as seen in the long running series Doctor Who.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Doctor, he’s not your typical hero and tends to favor intellect over brute force.  While other fictional characters save the Universe with blasters, phasers, and light sabers, the Doctor is equipped with a screwdriver, albeit a pretty spiffy one.  Equally effective at opening locked doors and dismantling the plans of intergalactic evildoers, the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver could soon become a reality.

A scene from the Dr. Who episode “The Doctor Dances,” 2005

According to Bruce Drinkwater, the professor who has proposed the idea of creating a functional sonic screwdriver, ultrasonic waves can be rotated at high enough speeds to create a force field capable of turning screws and moving other objects.  Working at Bristol University, with a youth science program entitled Big Bang, Drinkwater is hoping to inspire the next generation of young engineers.  Ultrasonic waves, sound waves humans can not normally hear, are often used to penetrate objects supplying focused energy that can be measured as it bounces back as a form of sonar.  Ultrasound images are already in use as a medical diagnostic tool, and often provide expectant parents with their very first baby pictures.

What Dr. Drinkwater is hoping to create is a twisting force, a bit like a mini-tornado, to remotely manipulate objects.  Other uses for ultrasonic devices could include medical probes and instruments that could separate diseased cells from healthy ones.  Sonic tools could also be used in the manufacture of nanotechnology devices, another science fiction staple of the last few decades.

Sometimes truth is just a strange as fiction.

December 2010

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