Monthly Archives: February 2012

Steampunk Cannot Die

A lot of the sci-fi I’ve been reading recently has been of the steampunk variety. There’s a certain something about them that is incredibly charming, and in fact completely different from the aesthetic we’ve come to expect of all things technological, these days.

First, I want to take a moment to reflect on the gorgeousness of this collection of short stories:

The stories themselves, by the way, are very good — not mind-blowingly so, but worth the price of the book.

I’m aware that there are various themes that steampunk usually strives to encompass, but I have to admit I’m woefully unaware of what those are, and how they work. I’m hoping my next trip to the library will yield some reading on this.

In the meantime, though, I’ve been thinking about why they appeal to me personally. And I think part of it has to do with the contrast I mentioned above, what I’ll call the iPod culture vs. steampunk.

It’s been pointed out before that Apple has exhausted every permutation of the word “magical” in the way it refers to its products. I’m an admirer of Apple’s obsessive attention to user-oriented design, but I find it disturbing that they’d actually associate a technological product with the arcane and impossible.

Apple doesn’t create its products by waving magic wands forged in a dragon’s lair or something — it recruits people who, despite being geniuses, have to follow the same rules of programming and physics that the rest of the world does. So to suggest that their products exist in some metaphysical realm which no one else can even dream of… that’s is a little absurd.

What’s worse is the kind of impression that gives a consumer. Real effort and compromise went into that product — it didn’t just appear out of thin air. I’d say the whole “magical” concept completely distances the user from the reality of what’s working inside it.

But then again, that’s also reflective of my philosophy in general. I disagree with the notion that breaking anything down into its scientific components reduces its potential to thrill and inspire (for a more thorough exposition on the subject, I recommend this link).

This is where steampunk comes in.

The aesthetic of the movement — setting aside its political, social or historical implications — is vastly different. It’s not simply that the analog replaces the digital, or that software is substituted by mechanical components. It’s that the vastness, the scale and the degree of machine-human interaction make the final product so much more visible to the consumer.

Software doesn’t seem to exist in the steampunk world; everything must be made mechanical and microprocessors are clearly out of the picture. That accounts for the huge scale of the endeavor, which means that every rotation and click of the final product can actually be seen. As impressive as the iPod is, you simply can’t observe the logic gates that drive the operations. For anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the technology involved, the finished product is a work of human ingenuity. For anyone else, it would be a black box of, well, magic.

And then there’s the very design of all things steampunk. It’s almost instinctive to imagine delicate gear mechanisms and engraved brass when steampunk enters the picture (a Doctor Who episode I was rewatching recently did this quite beautifully here and here). It’s difficult to find two more disparate styles — today’s impetus to streamline everything, and steampunk’s baroque tendencies. I suppose that’s a product of the times as well, but I take it as a philosophy too — a point of view that acknowledges and celebrates complexity.

And on that note, I leave you with several lovely examples of objects that, if not strictly steampunk, are in the general neighborhood of it.

A Lego robot arm with several degrees of freedom; can grasp objects and pour a glass of water.

Credit: sumthinelse5790

A brilliant rendition of House of the Rising Sun, by several decommissioned bits of gadgetry:

Credit: bd594

No discussion of steampunk, I feel, would be complete without the demo of the steampunk HP laptop:

Credit: TheDatamancer


Temporal Cloaking

The Background

This experiment is a little too fantastic for me not to keep coming back to it. I’m referring to the experiment conducted by Cornell physicists, who played around with a couple of fundamental qualities of light to make something that I’m inclined to call magic.

That sentence doesn’t really do justice to the ingenuity of the experiment, so here’s a link to a lovely animation by the folks at SciAm.

Obviously light travels, in a vacuum, at the same blistering speed of about 300,000,000 m/s, but in specific media, blue light for instance travels faster than red light. In other media, the effect is reversed. And that’s the — if not simple, then fairly well-known — law of light that the researchers have used to create this experiment.

The Limitations

This doesn’t, of course, mean that we’re going to see secret underground societies of the future secretly traveling by temporal cloaking or anything. The effect was created for all of 50 picoseconds. That’s an impossibly small amount of time — each picosecond is a trillionth of a second, a zero followed by a decimal point and 11 friends, before the 1. The internet seems to agree that a blink lasts about 300 to 400 milliseconds. The experiment would have to create 6 billion such precisely timed blips in time for someone to vanish for the blink of an eye.

There’s also the problem of the technology not exactly being, well, cloak-like. The experiment involves lasers and a lot of optical fibre, according to the Cornell Chronicle’s story, and while that’s relatively low tech, it’s not about to be, say, the Dark Knight’s latest gadget.

The Possibilities

The story linked above, to Cornell’s site, actually posits a couple of use cases for the technology that I didn’t see many papers mentioning. Author Steele talks about inserting emergency signals and multitasking operations on a photonic computer, which are very exciting in and of themselves.

What’s interesting is that we don’t have to look too far into the future to see a potential for science fiction here. Most computers or laptops these days perform at close to 3 GHz, which means that every calculation takes 333 picoseconds. If the research can ratchet up the temporal blip to something close to that number, you could lose one cycle of calculation in a run-of-the-mill computer; in a supercomputer, more could be lost.

I can imagine something pretty destructive happening if this technology went underground. It may not take much to disrupt the sending of one packet of data; that could scramble sensitive communications.

It’s still a little further into the future, but quite fun to think of.