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.

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2 Responses to “Science Wednesday: A Sonic Screwdriver”


  1. 1 4myskin December 15, 2010 at 8:43 am

    A Sonic Screwdriver!?!?! Sign me up! 😀

  2. 2 GORDON HAROLD DOWTON December 15, 2010 at 11:02 am

    First, let me say that I very much like your sit/blog salon of science and related. You bring to light subject, objects, topics of interest and that perhaps need/need not be questioned. The ‘need not’ rarely occurs in this childish brain as the five cardinal questions always seem to pop up(no matter what settings one uses on their computer). The what, when, where, why and how always feel a need to make their appearance in what is seen, read, heard touched and the like. Is it ‘I wonder…..?’ Could be. My late mother had an uneasy feeling whenever she was near ‘the walking towers’ as she called them, those metal structures that hydro used to carry the high tension wires. She actually meant ‘feeling’ in that she felt an ‘uneasiness,’ as she put it…’The nervous system was jumpy..felt like screaming.’ There have been studies done on families living close to these fields of force and they do/do not support an effect upon the human organism. But, one wonders at all of this gathered, focused energy of short and long waves. It is not for nothing that makers of micro-wave ovens warn against those with pacemakers, standing to close to the oven when it is on. We will not know the actual facts until long term epidemiological studies are done, but, whenever energy of some kind, strength is gathered and focused, it is sure to behave much differently than random scattered energy. Simply a precautionary tale that my mother happened to bring to mind.


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