End of the Earth

Today Matthew Partridge tries to convince me that I might not die in a horrible disaster movie style way… thanks to fibre optics?

Learn more about how great fibre optics really are at Matthew’s Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas shows on the 11th and 13th August. 

Can fibre optics save me in a zombie apocalypse?

If there is one thing my childhood prepared me for it’s what to do in a zombie apocalypse. Zombie apocalypses were so common in movies that it was very hard not to grow up as someone that is always looking for how they could fight zombies using simple every day objects I happened to have lying around my high tech fibre optics lab.

Now almost every zombie apocalypse involves losing power (apparently zombies have a thirst for electrical fuses more than brains) so I think we need to rule out any use of the fibres and lasers or light sources. But even without these fibre optics still have two vital uses in a zombie apocalypse, as a weapon and as a way of pooping safely. Firstly weaponizing fibre optics is relatively simple, they are after all glass and their tips are so small that they can quite easily break the skin. You can even ‘sharpen’ them by simpley heating them and stretching them out into tapered ends. These tapers can be so small that they don’t so much cut as push between skin cells. Making a bundle of these into a spear is going to be a formidable zombie brain stabbing weapon and one that is very durable thank to their strength. Secondly, pooping in zombie movies is practically an extreme sport given the number of protagonists that die from zombies sneaking up on them in the toilet. This is where you can use fibre optics in one of the oldest applications, as a bendy flexible scope. Using a long length of fibre optic as something called an endoscope you can sit in comfort on the toilet while keeping an eye under the cubical for any sneak zombie trying to interrupt.

Can fibre optics save me from a pandemic?

This is a tricky one to answer because there are so many different types of pandemics. A pandemic is a fast spreading infection which sounds simple but encompasses lots of different things including fungal, parasitic, viral and the most infectious agent of all, glitter. But one thing they all have in common is that you are a big squishy bag of biology and there is a very small thing that wants to get inside and multiply like crazy and in the process probably make you cough in that special movie way that means that you are now going to die in about 2 scenes time. The best way to survive a pandemic is to not get infected in the first place, simple. Now obviously you can just make yourself a giant hamster ball and bury yourself under the ground in a bunker wrapped in clingfilm (which my Mum assures me keeps everything out) but with fibre optics you can continue to live a semi normal life and remain infection free. One particular type of fiber optics is something called Hollowcore fibre optics. Unlike their solid counterparts hollowcore fibre optics are hollow (the clue is in the name). The property has many different applications but one that is already in use in various places is filtration. As a liquid is passed through a large bundle of fibre optics the larger components like cells (which on a micro scale are big and fat) get ‘stuck’ and the liquid passes through without them. You can even coat the insides of the tubes so they don’t just passively stop all cells but actively grab the right cells, viruses or glitter and stop them flowing through. So by making a straw made up of a bundle of hollow core fibers you could happily enjoy your Starbucks Frappuccino safe in the knowledge that each sip is pandemic free.

Can fibre optics save me from robot ascension?

Robot ascension isn’t just hypothetical. Ever since Boston Dynamics posted that video of a robot being kicked it has been inevitable that one day the robots will rise up against us and begin their enslavement of humankind. How exactly robots will ascend is a bit harder to predict. Developments in robotics is moving so fast it’s hard to keep track. Somewhat embarrassingly for this question one of the reasons for this rapid development is that fibre optics being so much lower power and smaller than regular electrical connections are helping with this rise of the machines. The use of fibre optics as shape sensors and pressure sensors are even helping to make machines that can feel themselves, their surroundings and the neck of the researcher they forcing to release the safety locks. Luckily some of this technology is even being used to enhance humans so that we have a fighting chance. Fibre optic artificial nerves are helping people missing limbs to interface with their prosthesis and control them more naturally. Some of these nerve connections are so responsive they out perform their biological version. If we are to survive against our robot overlords we should start an immediate enhancement program giving humans new stronger limbs with better nerves slowly replacing all of them with better synthetic components…. join us human, become better, become a robot.

How else can fibre optics save our lives/make our lives better?

One piece of advice I was once given by a fellow scientist about being interviewed is to not answer the question being asked, answer the question that you want to answer. I’m not entirely sure it was good advice and it certainly didn’t answer the question “when is my paper deadline” which is what I’d asked them, but I’m going to follow this advice now.

The question isn’t how else ‘can’ fibre optics save our lives? It’s how else DO fiber optics save our lives. Fiber optics are everywhere doing all kinds of amazing jobs. They floating in the ocean listening for leaks in pipes or sensing pressure waves from earthquakes. They are in hospitals sensing minuet amounts of proteins or the insides of tumors to help treat them better. They are in prototype fusion reactors directing impossibly powerful lasers. They are in a million places doing a million amazing things making our lives better.

Why does no one know how great they are?

Fiber optics are a technology that is old and new at the same time. It’s technology that has existed since the late 1800s it has been a corner stone of communications since the late 1900s and it’s only recently that new applications have been discovered which allow them to do yet more amazing things like kill zombies, filter out diseases or work as artificial nerves. They are developing so fast and doing so many things it’s hard to keep up with all the publications and new stories. What people need is a fun 1 hour format show that helps explain these developments and links them to problems in their daily lives. If a show like that existed then in no time at all everyone would know all the amazing ways fibre optics could save the world.