Primal Numbers – Making Magic

For centuries, magicians have amused us by making things disappear. we’re fascinated by it. One moment something’s here, the next minute It’s not. We know, of course, that It’s a trick. But what if it weren’t? What if science could create things out of thin air, then simply make them vanish when we’re done? The technology is closer than you think?and it could completely change the way we use natural resources.

A recent breakthrough in things that are there-but-not-there is called Ultrahaptics. Its current development is light years away from where this technology could eventually go, but It’s an intriguing start. As the BBC reports, Ultrahaptics “makes invisible objects in mid-air that you can touch and feel.”

The invisible object?say, a radio dial?functions much like an icon that you would tap or drag on a touchscreen. But instead of touching a flat screen, you’d be able to feel the three-dimensional shape of a dial. Its physical properties would be built “by focusing ultrasound waves emitted from a collection of tiny speakers.” You wouldn’t be able to see it, but it would be there just the same, as real to your hand as an old-fashioned dial made of plastic or metal.

Now hold that thought for a second, and factor in the idea that sound waves can be used to move objects. As Live Science notes, manipulating sound waves can counteract gravity and allow something to be supported in midair and “to float in that spot.” And we’re not just talking about paperclips here. Scientists have even been able to levitate mice.

And that combination of facts is where things get interesting. Imagine that, 10 or 20 years from now, the research in ultrasound waves has moved ahead. Instead of using several tiny speakers, a small, central object is programmed to send ultrasound waves in all directions. Perhaps a hovering sphere like Harry Potter’s golden snitch. The software that controls the waves could shape them into virtually any object?a chair, a couch, a spoon.

Add some advances in acoustic levitation and you can see the possibilities: a virtual chair or table capable of supporting a human. Given the pace of technological advance in just the past century, the idea doesn’t seem so farfetched.

But what practical use would they be, these chairs and spoons that we can make vanish simply by turning off the source of their sound waves? Incredibly useful, especially when we consider the amount of natural resources they could save. Compared to the wood, plastic, and metal that go into so many everyday objects, the small wave-emitting cores would be far more efficient to produce. And transporting a thousand tiny spheres that “become” the objects we want would use far less time and fuel.

Programming them to turn into countless different items could also mean you’d have a new bed or couch every week. don’t like that blue La-Z-Boy anymore? Download a software update and redecorate your living room in mere minutes.

All these advances are, admittedly, a decade or three down the road. But the basic principles are there. We just need to learn how to harness them, much like we’ve gone from Benjamin Franklin’s key on a kite to powering virtually every part of our daily lives with electricity. It’s a matter of time and experimentation, and a scientific curiosity to learn more.

So the next time you see a magician make something disappear, ponder the fact that maybe it was never there in the first place. Because science has a few tricks up its sleeve too.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.