Never Underestimate Science Fiction

When I wrote yesterday about Tarl Roger Kudrick‘s “A Pocketful of Silence,” I didn’t mention anything about the science fiction premise of the story. The narrator discovers a noise-canceling goo, and takes it home and starts investigating it:

Even though it looks sticky, it only adheres to itself. When I slap it onto a wall, it falls off. I put it on the couch, which is covered with cat hair, and when it’s lifted off, not one hair is removed. More intriguing is how it silences anything it’s spread over. I coat pencils with it and break them: no sound. I spread it over a blender, and the blender works silently.

But what happens to the sound? I can’t see how it could be emitting modulated waves like some noise-canceling devices do, and it glows blue when it’s coating something noisy enough. So does it convert sound into light? I guess what’s really going on when I scrape the gunk off the blender and get a nasty shock. I confirm it with a few more experiments.

Somehow, this stuff converts sound into electricity.

At this point it’s almost midnight and I’ve figured out that by sticking the blender’s plug into the goop, I can make the blender work just by yelling at it.

At the time, I thought this was a fun science fiction concept, but not terribly realistic. Imagine my surprise when I was going through press releases this morning and discovered this:

Imagine a self-powering cell phone that never needs to be charged because it converts sound waves produced by the user into the energy it needs to keep running. It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem thanks to the recent work of Tahir Cagin, a professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University.

“Even the disturbances in the form of sound waves such as pressure waves in gases, liquids and solids may be harvested for powering nano- and micro devices of the future if these materials are processed and manufactured appropriately for this purpose,” Cagin said.

Key to this technology, Cagin explained, are piezoelectrics. Derived from the Greek word “piezein,” which means “to press,” piezoelectrics are materials (usually crystals or ceramics) that generate voltage when a form of mechanical stress is applied. Conversely, they demonstrate a change in their physical properties when an electric field is applied.

One of the things that amazes me about science fiction is that it shows how close the fictional imagination can be to other forms of human creativity, such as scientific creativity. I don’t know if Kudrick was aware of this research and based the goo on fact, but I’d guess not. A striking coincidence for me, in any case.

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