Over the years, the science-fiction genre has amassed an impressive arsenal. Waltz through its fictional armories, and you'll find armaments spun from every scientific breakthrough, crazy theory and "Popular Science" article that sci-fi authors could get their hands on.
From the phasers and red matter bombs of "Star Trek" to the lightsabers of "Star Wars," our books, movies and comics are loaded with a vast array of organic, nanotech, gravity and energy weapons. But how much science is there to all of this? And just what kind of sci-fi heat will the soldiers of the future really be packing?
In this article, we'll look at five far-out approaches to spreading destruction and mayhem among earthly residents. So check your crysknives, chainswords and Klingon bat'leths at the door and take a quick glance into the future.
Want to lift 300 pounds (136 kilograms), but you're not quite Schwarzenegger? The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Raytheon Company have made a robotic suit that makes people super strong. It multiplies lifting strength up to 20 times, and the U.S. Army hopes to use it for heavy lifting in the field.
The aluminum suit acts as an exoskeleton and fits almost like a jacket studded with position and motion sensors. Once the sensors feel the wearer's arm move, the suit follows through with its own hydraulics system. Both endurance and strength get a boost. The biggest drawback so far is the battery, which needs frequent recharging, and the 150-pound (68-kilogram) suit's weight, which makes it hard to drag around [source: Jewell].
Over the years, powered armor has become a science-fiction mainstay, from the battle-hardened warriors of Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel "Starship Troopers" to the anime battlefields of "Mobile Suit Gundam" and the radiated wastes of "Fallout 3." If an imagined future has soldiers in it, chances are they're outfitted in terrifying steel exoskeletons. No word on whether DARPA and Raytheon will seek inspiration from the space marines of "Warhammer 40000" for their next iteration of powered armor.
Are you not one to fight with brute force? With our next weapon (of sorts), you could change history instead.
Time travel isn't a weapon, necessarily, but neither is a B-52 Stratofortress. The latter is a bomber, a delivery system for weapons. Likewise, if our future operates the way it did in the Terminator films, we might use time travel to assassinate future military leaders before they rise to power. Or perhaps we'll actually wage full-blown wars across four dimensions, such as the Time War waged between the Time Lords and the Daleks of TV's "Doctor Who."
Real time travel is much trickier than movies would lead us to believe, but it is within the laws of physics. Einstein taught us that time slows down -- or to think of it visually, stretches out -- when you travel close to the speed of light. You only need an airplane to notice the effect. In a famous experiment, physicists synchronized five atomic clocks, then kept one on the ground and put the rest on two very fast airplanes (one heading eastward, the other westward). After the airplanes landed, their clocks measured less time than the ground clock. The difference was tens to hundreds of nanoseconds [source: Nave]. If the clocks were people, the airplane clocks would be younger than the ground clock.
Of course, nanoseconds don't interest us. We want to meet ourselves as children or old folks. Serious time travel requires more than an airplane; it requires us to play around with black holes, wormholes or cosmic strings, all of which we're still studying as phenomena.
We can't really say whether we'll ever be able to instantly go forward or back in years (except by aging), but the physical framework is real enough for it to make our list.
Next, we'll play with more physics.
Sure, it didn't vaporize people like thalaron radiation did. But when Captain Kirk and the Star Trek crew needed to escape, they jumped into the teleporter. Kirk just stood on a platform, and this wickedly cool machine mapped every atom in his body. It sent information about the atoms by light waves (just like the Internet sends information by radio waves) to a new place. In the new place, machinery received the information about Kirk's atoms and rebuilt Kirk.
In real life, scientists have teleported objects: a photon and a laser beam. But there are big barriers to teleporting humans. First, as Kevin Bonsor points out in How Teleportation Works, we'd need to find and describe all 1028 atoms in the body, which we can't do. Second, to reassemble the person, we'd need to put each atom in the right place and make sure it had the right properties. A tiny imprecision could be deadly.
This means no beaming your soldiers behind enemy lines, much less "telefraging" someone by teleporting things directly into his physical coordinates.
If you'd like to keep your atoms, read on for a weapon on a much larger scale.
Asteroids may call to mind lots of images: the Earth shrouded in dust, dinosaurs dying, crowds running, Aerosmith singing, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Asteroids have made plenty of disaster-movie plots, all of which go like this: Don't panic, but a giant rock is headed for the Earth.
Here's how it could go: Either a comet (if an outer planet's gravity pulled one closer to the Earth) or an asteroid could cross Earth's orbit or pass nearby [source: Morrison]. NASA watches for these near-Earth objects and plans to find most of the ones 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) in diameter and larger, as well as learn which ones might collide with Earth. Why 1 kilometer? Anything with that diameter or bigger could do terrible damage [source: Morrison].
Movies like "Deep Impact," "Armageddon" and "Asteroid" get a lot wrong. For example, in "Armageddon" a comet collides with an asteroid, knocking an asteroid the size of Texas at Earth. No asteroid in our solar system is that big, and no comet could knock an asteroid that big at us [source: Plait].
Real plans to divert an asteroid are more like sketches than ready-to-use plans. With 10 years of warning and a medium-sized asteroid, we might plant a nuclear bomb on or near the asteroid. With 20 years of warning and a small asteroid, we might collide an unmanned spacecraft with the asteroid to verify its location and slow it and divert it [source: Yeomans]. But as Carl Sagan points out in "Pale Blue Dot," if an asteroid were headed toward Earth anyway, and we had mastered how to intercept and deflect it, nations could try to knock the asteroid at one another.
The next weapon is as gentle as a butterfly.
It's an old idea to train animals for use in war. We've trained bees as bomb-sniffers and used dolphins to patrol our ports [source: Vergano]. The weaponized insects of "Aeon Flux" may be a ways off, but making animals into machines is already a reality. Working under the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), researchers have made real moths and beetles into remote-controlled robo-bugs. In the future, the insects may carry cameras or chemical sensors into the field.
The engineering starts when the bugs are larvae. At this time, you can implant wires into the bugs, and their bodies grow healthily around them. Their nerves, muscles and brains intertwine electrically with the implants [source: Bozkurt].
That intermingling helps in bug control because moths and beetles operate on reflexes [source: Bozkurt]. Because entomologists know which patterns to send to which nerves to trigger a behavior, they can use electrodes to hijack the bugs. For example, stimulating the neck muscles makes it circle left or right. By implanting a tiny radio receiver on the moth's back, researchers can control it wirelessly from a joystick [source: Bozkurt].
In mechanizing moths, researchers encountered the hilarities you'd expect. Tobacco moths, the kind used in the experiments, must shiver for five minutes to warm their flight muscles before they fly. Not wanting to wait, researchers implanted heaters to warm the muscles [source: Bozkurt]. And when carrying so much metal, the moths can't fly their normal range of kilometers without getting exhausted. Not to worry. The researchers hung the moths from helium balloons [source: Bozkurt]. For obvious reasons, balloons wouldn't work for spying missions. You can watch a video of the moths here.
For more superpower or sci-fi articles you might like, keep reading.
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- Bozkurt A., Gilmour R, Lal A. "Balloon Assisted Flight of Radio Controlled Insect Biobots." 2009. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering. Vol 56, no. 9.
- Bozkurt, A., A. Lal and R. Gilmour. "Electrical Endogenous Heating of Insect Muscles for Flight Control." 30th International Conference of IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. 2008. (11/5/2009)http://sonicmems.ece.cornell.edu/publications/EMBC2008_Bozkurt.pdf
- Bozkurt, A., A. Lal and R. Gilmour. "Radio Control of Insects for Biobotic Domestication." IEEE Neural Engineering Conference. 2009. (11/5/2009)http://sonicmems.ece.cornell.edu/publications/NER09_Bozkurt.pdf
- Jewell, Mark. "Robotic Suit Could Usher In Super Solider Era." MSNBC.com. May 15, 2008. (11/5/2009)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24651455/
- Morrison, David. "FAQs About NEO Impacts." September 2004. (11/5/2009)http://impact.arc.nasa.gov/intro_faq.cfm
- Morrison, David. "Introduction." September 2004. (11/5/2009) http://impact.arc.nasa.gov/intro.cfm
- Nave, C.R. "Hafele and Keating Experiment." HyperPhysics. 2000. (11/12/2009)http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/HBASE/relativ/airtim.html
- Plait, Phil. "The Astronomy of Armageddon." December 28, 2008. (11/5/2009)http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/movies/armpitageddon.html
- Rudnyk, Marian E. "Asteroid." World Book Online Reference Center. 2005. (11/11/2009)http://www.worldbookonline.com/wb/Article?id=ar034580.
- Vergano, Dan. "Real Spying Squirrels, Dolphins Helped Inspire 'G-Force.'" USA Today. July 27, 2009. (11/5/2009)http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/columnist/vergano/2009-07-25-g-force_N.htm
- Yeomans, Donald K. "Comet." World Book Online Reference Center. 2005. (11/11/2009)http://www.worldbookonline.com/wb/Article?id=ar125580.
- Yeomans, Donald K. et al. "Deflecting a Hazardous Near-Earth Object." 1st IAA Planetary Defense Conference: Protecting Earth from Asteroids. April 27-30, 2009.