The Leidenfrost effect and the ship of the imagination


Wood anemones

Wood anemones

A while back, I read an article on the Leidenfrost effect, which was discovered in the 18th century. It occurs when cold water is dropped onto a heated surface and the drops move around because there is a vapor separating them from the heated surface. The difference in temperature is what creates this effect. There is a video online showing phyics students working on a way to turn this effect into something useful. They are able to control the direction in which water droplets move and can make them move uphill on a serrated surface, as if the droplets are climbing stairs.

These people are not limited by someone else’s idea of what can and cannot be done. I’m going to take a little time to show that imagination plus ignoring ‘can’t happen’ and ‘can’t be done’ can come up with something useful.

When Albert Einstein was pondering things and coming up with the theory of relativity, he said that space can be warped. A few decades later, the Hubble telescope gave us a photograph of the light from distant galaxies being warped, and the photograph clearly showed that space was also being warped.

Prior to Hubble, in 1956, Robert Heinlein wrote in ‘Have Spacesuit – Will Travel’ that Mother Thing’s beehive-like spaceship didn’t move through space. It simply slid past it.

Gene Rodenberry, in an effort to keep production costs low, came up with the term ‘warp drive’ for the Enterprise. If you haven’t heard of ‘Star Trek’, you’ve been living in a small closet. ‘Star Trek’ ran for a couple of seasons and then was canceled, but its succeeding progeny in the form of several series used the same terms as the original series.

Miguel Alcubierre, a Spanish physicist, was a big fan of ‘Star Trek’. In 1994, he developed the math for the warp drive, which shows that a starship which creates a warp ‘bubble’ will warp space in front of it and behind it, and surf through space. It does not actually move, and therefore, Einstein’s prediction that an object approaching the speed of light will acquire excessive mass, does not happen.

So we go from Einstein to Heinlein to a TV series to a physicist with a love of the TV series and a vivid imagination, and the news a few weeks ago was that some NASA physicists are running experiments to see if they can create a warp bubble.

Other people, with no imagination, complained that the energy from the ship coming out of warp travel would make nearby planets explode. Well, people used to say that cars would scare horses to death, too, and that people couldn’t fly in a heavier than air machine. Now we have cars with silent engines (electric/gas hybrids) and airplanes, and before too long, Richard Branson will be sending tourists into space. There is always a nay-sayer somewhere in the crowd. These are the people who squash imagination instead of applauding it.

If someone offers you a trip on the ship of the imagination, take him up on it. My wish for all of you who read this, for this year 2014, is that no one will squash your imagination and your sense of wonder.

The wood anemones at the foot of the tree in the photo at the start of this post are something that have fascinated me since I found that clump of blossoms. I keep wondering when I will run into an elf sitting there, counting his arrows and rolling a new bowstring into shape with beeswax. Or will I find one of the Little People there sometime in April, having himself a pipe and a mug and waiting to tell me ridiculously funny stories?

I don’t know, but I do look forward to it, and all the months and years to come.

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