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Technology That Changed The World

The Transistor Is the Daddy of All Technology.

shutterstock_275792237Without the transistor, pretty much all the technology we take for granted today wouldn’t exist – or if it did, our home computers would be the size of Belgium. The basic building block of everything electronic, the transistor is widely credited to Bell Labs’ William Shockley, who based his own research on findings by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain in 1947.

The IBM PC Gave Birth to the Home Computer.

The first IBM PC was powered by an Intel 8088 microprocessor, was the size of a portable typewriter and packed 16K of RAM. It cost nearly $2,000. It’s dated now, but if it weren’t for this first PC, we might not have computers at all. At the time, it would have been impossible to imagine that one day we would have computers small enough to fit inside our phones—but it all comes from the 8088 microprocessor.

The PC brought computing to the desktop, and its influence lives on. When IBM stopped fighting clone manufacturers and licensed technology to them instead, it led directly to today’s modular, upgradeable and customizable machines. When you’re upgrading your aging graphics card to play Crysis or swapping out your old DVD drive for a Blu-ray/HD DVD combo unit, you’ve got IBM to thank. Or curse.

TCP/IP Holds the Internet Together.

Developed by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the early 1970s, Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol is the glue that holds the Internet together. Without it, we’d just have a bunch of networks that couldn’t talk to one another.

The Apple iMac Made Technology Stylish.

The original iMac is one of the most influential designs of the last decade. In a world where computers were ugly, blocky and beige, Apple showed machine-makers a better way of doing things. And the iMac has influenced not just computers, but irons, vacuum cleaners and even baby bottle sterilizers. With the iMac, Apple rediscovered its groove, giving it the platform to design other icons of our time like iPods and iPhones. You may have heard of them, but without the Apple iMac we would never have had them.

The World Wide Web Makes It All Possible.

The World Wide Web isn’t the Internet. Created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and released in 1992, the web took off in 1993 with the introduction of the Mosaic Web browser. Without the World Wide Web, modern Internet as you know it wouldn’t exist. Berners-Lee could probably have made enormous stacks of money from patenting and licensing his invention, but he gave it away instead.

shutterstock_119624326The Mouse.

Invented by Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute in 1963, the mouse changed the way we interact with machines – but Engelbart didn’t receive a penny in royalties for his invention, because his patents ran out before the mouse turned up in PCs. The mouse ball came along in 1972, making tracking easier, and while the nuts and bolts have changed – today we have wireless mice and laser mice, not to mention mice with more buttons than a tailor’s shop – the mouse is still an essential part of our computing kit.

SMS Changes the World.

It may well have ruined the English language, but SMS (Short Message Service) has also transformed the way we communicate – and it was done so entirely by accident. While the idea was kicking around during the mid-1980s, nobody thought of it as a way for people to send messages to one another; instead, it was envisaged as a way to let people know they had new voicemails. The first mobile phone SMS was sent by a Nokia student engineer in 1993, and by 2000, the average user was sending 35 SMSes per month. We now know people who send that many messages every few minutes.

Viral Diseases

Emerging viral diseases are always high value news items. However, how will viruses change over the next few years? In recent years, the most significant virus of them all, in terms of human cases and death toll, was the re-emergence of Ebola, which is causing the biggest outbreak of the disease in history. But there is also chikungunya fever, which appeared in the United States for the first time in July, and enterovirus D68, a previously rare disease causing an outbreak of respiratory illness among U.S. children.

Humans have come a long way in preventing viral diseases over the last one hundred years. Children receive vaccinations against nine viral diseases, including many that used to cause life-threatening complications, such as polio. But still, there are fewer treatments for viral diseases than for those caused by bacteria, and when infectious disease pandemics emerge, the pathogens that are the most lethal are the viruses.

shutterstock_363993494Treatments for viral diseases have generally stayed far behind treatments for bacterial diseases. One reason for that is simply because scientists have been working on antibacterial treatments for longer. Viruses are also much smaller than bacteria, and they have fewer genes or proteins to target with treatments. Viruses also mutate much more quickly than bacteria, so any therapy that is developed may no longer work after a short time.

In addition, bacteria are living cells that divide on their own, and a lot of drug treatments against bacteria work by knocking out essential functions of those cells, such as the ability to replicate. But viruses are not made of cells, and they are even not exactly “alive” — they just hijack the machinery of their hosts’ cells in order to replicate, so researchers can’t target virus functions or replication in a traditional way.

When the first antibiotics were developed in the 1940s, they were considered something akin to a miracle cure for diseases that had once seemed unstoppable. A few decades later, scientists developed drugs against viruses, known as antivirals. However, although there are “broad-spectrum” antibiotics, which are single drugs that work against dozens of bacteria, the spectrum for antivirals is much narrower. Most antiviral drugs are specific for one type of virus, although some work against two or three.

Some of the most successful antiviral drugs inhibit a certain viral enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which synthesizes parts of the virus. Several drugs against HIV work in this way. However, only RNA viruses (HIV for example) use reverse transcriptase, so drugs against this enzyme will not work for DNA viruses. In addition, the structure of reverse transcriptase can be very different depending on the virus, which is why an antiviral that works against HIV might not work for Ebola.

Discovering antiviral drugs is easier today than it used to be, thanks to new technologies. That should continue to be a strong factor in favor of humanity when it comes to fighting diseases of the future. A few decades ago, researchers had to test potential drugs individually, and it could take three to six months to test three hundred potential drugs, Now, the process is automated with robots, so those same three hundred drugs would require only a few days to test.

In addition, researchers can now view three-dimensional models of viral components on a computer, and quickly design and “test” compounds with computer programs that simulate the binding of drugs to viral components. However, because new antiviral drug treatments may be years or decades away, public health organizations are focused on stopping pandemics before they start. New viral diseases typically emerge because of human activity that brings people into contact with wildlife, such as road building, hunting and agriculture expansion. About 75 percent of emerging diseases in people come from animals. So to reduce the risk of an outbreak, researchers need to figure out ways to reduce the activity that brings us into contact with wildlife, particularly in incredibly hot areas where diseases tend to emerge, such as tropical areas. Pandemics of the future will hang on the thread of researchers being able to fight the onset of the disease with all the technology that is available to them.

Win a signed book

Starting today I’m giving away five signed books of my latest novel, Future Furies. Just enter the Goodreads Giveaway. It’s free to enter and continues until April 2nd. Good luck!

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Brief Introduction to Nanotechnology

In modern times, the use and control of tiny matter (nanotechnology) has become increasingly important. It has many uses from developing sports equipment to medical applications, to uses within the textile industry and even helping with energy. There are, however, some concerns about its use. The tiny matter is referred to as nanoparticles. These particles are measured in nanometers (nm). A nanometer is one billionth of a meter (0.000,000,001m). Nanotechnology is concerned with the use and control of structures that are 1-100 nanometers in size.

Some of these nanoparticles occur naturally, for example in volcanic ash. Some occur by accident, for example during the combustion of fuels. Many occur by design. However, nanotechnology has a number of interesting potential applications in areas.

shutterstock_289678541Medicine

Things behave differently at the nanoscale. An excellent example is the fact that gold actually reflects red light at the nanoscale. This has resulted in the design of experimental systems that kill cancerous cells with normal visible light, but leave normal cells unharmed. Also, body tissue can be reproduced or repaired using nanotechnology, which could eventually develop into treatments to replace or repair organs.

Energy

Nanotechnology could be harnessed to consume extremely low amounts of energy, making it a vital alternative to current methods of supplying power.

Textiles

Nanotech is already at use in consumer products ranging from stain-resistant and anti-wrinkle textiles in clothing, to cosmetics. If keeping clothes clean isn’t enough, ‘smart clothing’ could monitor your heart rate and other vital signs.

Filtration

The relationship between the volume and surface area of some particles can change at nanoscales in such a manner that they can end up with more ‘outside’ than ‘inside.’ (If you’re a “Dr. Who” fan, think of it as the opposite of a TARDIS.) The advantage is that the more surface you have, the more reactions you can have on that surface. This can allow new kinds of filtering, such as water for drinking or light for solar energy.

Global Warming

From the North Pole to the South Pole, there is change in the air. The planet is warming up. Science fiction authors tell sometimes of what will happen with a warmer world—but that future isn’t so far away. Many changes are happening right now. This rising heat is melting sea ice and destroying glaciers. It’s changing the way animals live and the way our weather works. Slowly but surely, a warmer world will make its effects known. But what will that world be like?

shutterstock_155217797In the near future, sea levels are expected to rise over 7 inches, and by the end of this century, with continuous melting at the poles, those levels could add between six to eight inches more to seas around the world. Freak weather will become far more common with storms, hurricanes and other catastrophes looking ever more likely. Plants will bloom earlier than the insects that pollinate them. Droughts will become far more common. Fresh water will become rarer, and disease will run rampant with the onset of mosquitoes carrying malaria.

The ecoystems of the world are going to change drastically with animals on the move. Those that can adapt, will—those that cannot adapt will die. Polar bears have already been showing signs of becoming skinnier, and it has already been said that if the sea ice disappears, the polar bear will become extinct.

These are just some of the changes we will face in the future. But we already facing changes on a day-to-day basis. Researchers have tracked the decline of the Adélie penguins on Antarctica, where their numbers have fallen from 32,000 breeding pairs to 11,000 in 30 years. Some butterflies, foxes, and alpine plants have moved farther north or to higher, cooler areas. Spruce bark beetles have boomed in Alaska thanks to 20 years of warm summers. The insects have chewed up 4 million acres of spruce trees.

So it isn’t just science fiction authors who have ideas about a warmer future. It’s today, tomorrow and every day until the end of Earth’s life.