The inverse law of gee-whiz

Many people go to movies to see visions of the future. There is that gee-whiz moment when you see some fantasy version of future technology, and a little voice in your brain says “I want one of those!”

Just to list a few of many examples – the “Star Trek” transporter, “Star Wars” holovideo (well ok, that one is really a rip-off from “Forbidden Planet”), the “Minority Report” gesture wall, or flying cars from countless films like “Blade Runner”, “Back to the Future” and “The Fifth Element”.

One odd thing about all of these things is that their gee-whiz factor stems partly from their very unreality. We know in our gut that these are visions not from our real future, but from the future as it might exist in some alternate universe. Each of them breaks one law or another that we sort of already know about, even if we’ve never really thought about it before.

The transporter violates so many laws of physics, from the laws of thermodynamics to laws of computational complexity, that it fairly screams “Not really possible!” Similarly, the coolness of the holovideo lies precisely in the fact that it seems to defy fundamental laws of optics – “projected” light is bending and scattering in mid-air, without bouncing off of anything. (Full disclosure: We actually worked on something like this in our lab a while back, but we cheated. Our “holodust” system bounced light off the dust in the air).

The “Minority Report” wall seems vaguely plausible until you start to think how it would feel to hold your arms up in the air all day, just to use your computer. It wouldn’t be very pleasant. But that’s precisely the point. We are being told, on a subliminal level, that this is not really our future, but a fantasy of our future.

Flying cars actually exist, but they are noisy, they consume alarming quantities of fuel, and their powerful ducted fans tend to create very unpleasant effects upon anyone unfortunate enough to be standing underneath one. This one is really a fantasy not about flying cars per se, but about effortless anti-gravity. In other words, a leap from real physics to fantasy physics.

Ironically, many of the innovations that have turned out to have the greatest impact on our lives are the least visible. We never notice the air conditioner (until it stops working). Yet it has completely transformed our nation’s landscape. For example, without A.C. there could be no office buildings or other high rises in places like Atlanta Georgia – still be fairly rural agrarian communities.

Similarly, the washing machine was a revelation when it first arrived on the scene. Hard as it is to imagine now (society has evolved quite a bit), many women were once virtually slaves to laundry – needing to spend large numbers of hours each day hand-washing clothes for a family.

There are many inventions like this. Completely unglamorous – we don’t even notice them – but they have transformed our lives, in some cases vastly for the better.

Perhaps the real importance of an invention can be measured as roughly inverse to its gee-whiz factor. Certainly not always, but often enough that it might be a useful yardstick (aha, another really useful, if unglamorous, invention…).

13 thoughts on “The inverse law of gee-whiz”

  1. So…would you rather invent something unglamorous but, um, something we anthros can’t live without, or something that only a few people saw but were simply amazed at?


  2. I personally would much rather invent the unglamorous practical thing than the useless amazing thing. In my book, a washing machine that frees millions of people from drudgery is worth a lot more than a levitating top.

  3. Don’t be misled by the word “teleportation”. The phenomenon of single-atom quantum entanglement (and therefore simultaneous action at a distance) is already well known. This experiment is cool because this single-atom entanglement is measured over a nice distance – one meter.

    Whenever physicists report these sorts of experimental results, people mistakenly think the result is relevant for “transporting” something much larger than a single atom. Alas, it is not.

    I’ve noticed something similar when physicists report “transporting” an atom a fraction of a second into the future – it often gets erroneously reported as the first steps toward time travel. At quantum scales, time is reversible, but not at macroscopic scales.

    Maybe what we are really seeing here is a quantum entanglement between physics and popular culture. 😉

  4. So, I can’t go backwards in time if I latch onto a tachyon?

    There was a really fun, but somewhat flawed, description of transporting a whole person at the quantum level in Michael Chrichton’s Timeline.

    If you crossed your eyes, drank a beer, and took a couple of bong hits, you could almost believe that a person could be serialized and teleported through quantum foam…

    Fun fantasy… It was made into a terrible movie that had nothing to do with the pseudoscience of the book but rather jousters and damsels in distress… Go figure… The average movie going audience can’t handle much more than extracting genetic code from mosquitos to build a dinosaur genome married with a frog.

  5. What you describe is what gets green-lighted in Hollywood, not what that average movie going audience can handle.

    I think everybody who watched “A Beautiful Mind” understood the concise and fundamentally accurate example given in a bar by John Nash, as played by Russell Crowe, of how to achieve a Nash equilibrium solution (an essential part of the theoretical work for which Nash won the Nobel prize in economics):

    “If we all go for the blonde, we block each other and not a single one of us is going to get her. So then we go for her friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because nobody likes to be second choice. But what if no one goes to the blonde? We don’t get in each other’s way and we don’t insult the other girls. That’s the only way we win.”

    It’s not that audiences can’t handle these things. It’s that films that trust audience intelligence don’t get green-lighted enough in Hollywood.

  6. i was responding to your saying this: “The transporter violates so many laws of physics, from the laws of thermodynamics to laws of computational complexity, that it fairly screams “Not really possible!”

    it is possible. on a tiny single atom scale for a tiny distance. so, technically, even though its at a tiny scale. its “possible.”

  7. Yes, I realize you were responding to that. Sadly, I must stand by my original statement. The Star Trek Transporter does indeed violate many laws of physics, including laws of thermodynamics and computational complexity, precisely because it operates on a macro-scale.

    It is not the entanglement of a single atom that is the obstacle, but rather the astronomical leap to the roughly 1026 atoms in a human body. When you scale quantum entanglement up to even a small number of atoms, combinatoric problems quickly dominate.

    Entanglement itself certainly violates no laws of physics – and in fact was predicted long before it was experimentally verified. But it’s just not relevent to the kind of thing Gene Roddenberry was describing.

    Don’t get me wrong – I would love to live in a universe where the Transporter is possible. Unfortunately, quantum entanglement doesn’t lead to that universe.

  8. Even suspending the laws of physics, thermodynamics, and flux capacitance… I have another fear of teleportation.

    If, you are completely deconstructed and serialized for teleportation. Does it make sense that you could be duplicated, down to the level of synaptic state from that same serialization? Essentially each copy is identical up to the point of reconstruction? Both copies would have the same memories, physical traits, and know, absolutely that they are You.

    Take this further… if in a teleportation system, if the original is completely deconstructed and serialized, and somehow remotely reconstructed, that reconstruction would know that it was you as well. But, wouldn’t the original You have been destroyed? Would this be the same as making the duplicate and then destroying the original?

    In terms of the duplicate, it would act, think, be You, but, the original that actually was You would have been destroyed…

    So, for the original, the lights would simply go out, but, for the target, it would have no way of knowing that it wasn’t, in fact, you…

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