Science Indistinguishable from Magic
One scientist's expansion of the Rachel/Aaron exposition scene in 1.13.
- Author's Note: I don't own the characters or Revolution; I'm just playing with them for a bit for fun, not profit. Spoilers for 1.13
Rachel was propped up, sitting on a storage box in the rebel base. Across from her, on a cot, sat an astonished Aaron. He sighed, starring at Rachel's notebook, trying to understand the coded scribblings Rachel had been working on since escaping Bass.
Bemused Rachel asked, "Could we give it a rest, Aaron?" She'd been attempting to explain for days.
Aaron said, "Rachel, I have been resting for 15 years."
Rachel, fully understood Aarons feeling of uselessness, and therefore continued her explanation of how she ended the world, "In the beginning, Ben and I had though we had found the holy grail of Material Science; a room temperature superconductor."
Rachel paused for a moment to collect herself. "It had been pure serendipity, baking my freshly ozonated silicon waters in the same oven as a batch of Ben's YBa2Cu3O7 superconductor. When I had pulled the wafers out, I had thought my career was over; they had a graphite-like texture. I went to toss them out, tens of thousands of bucks down the drain. And it wasn't until I noticed that the refrigerator magnets were dancing did I realize that this was special."
"Several months, and many long nights, later we had concluded that yes this new ceramic was a room temp. superconductor." Stated Rachel.
Aaron interrupted, "Truly? A room temp. superconductor? Then why are we in this powerless world instead of one with free electricity, no energy loss from power plan to home, and Mag-Lev-Trains? I mean a room temperature superconductor is right up there with cold fusion, a scientific panacea!"
Rachel gave a wry smile. "I'm getting to that, but first what do you know about superconductors, chemically, I mean."
Aaron took a breath and launched into what sounded an awful lot like a rehearsed lecture, "So normal conductors, metals and the like, have an electronic structure such that they can share electrons easily. Electrons – or holes – can flow along a wire made of a conductor material with a minimum of resistance – like a sidewalk.
"On the flipside, insulators – like rubber – do not have easily accessible excited stated for electrons to go into, so they are like brick-walls for electrons.
"Semi-conductors have a small bandgap. The places where electrons can go are higher energy than a conductor, and lower energy than an insulator. Because of this, and the fact that semi-conductors are only doped with a few extra holes or extra electrons, they serve more like turnstiles. Yes electrons can get through, but it takes more effort than a sidewalk and the throughput is lower."
Rachel nodded in approval at Aaron's simile, he did really understand more about Materials Science than most Comp. Sci. people did.
Aaron continued, "Now superconductors are like moving-sidewalks; easier and faster to move along than normal sidewalks. I don't really understand how it is, but that it what I know."
Rachel grinned at Aaron's sheepishness, "It's okay, I've spent much of my career trying to understand them, and Ben did his graduate work on superconductors, but none of the leading theories is particularly compelling to me; if Ben were around he'd argue about the Meissner effect and Cooper pairs until his was blue …"
Rachel stopped, shook herself and began again. "So, the new ceramic we discovered wasn't in fact a true room temperature superconductor, it's more like a room temperature super-semi-conductor. To continue your analogy, it is as if it oscillates between being a moving sidewalk and a brick wall, or maybe a subway; sometimes you board, and travel very fast and effortlessly, and sometimes you just stand there and wait.
"When we figured out this out, we brought in Dr. Jaffe and Dr. Beaumont and started a little company. We invested everything into this company, our life savings, Charlie's college fund, everything. We imagined getting rich and saving the world. We imagined creating little nanites that would absorb near-UV light and transmit it to electric devises. Just imagine, completely free electricity!"
Rachel got somber, "As you can see, it didn't turn out that way. Making nanoscale structures that absorbed UV light was easy. We used nano-imprint lithography to manufacture the rudimentary computer inside out of normal silicon, and then used electro-deposition to coat the computer with the yttrium-silicon-ceramic."
"Dr. Jaffe worked a miracle and made them self-replicating, but under external control. Getting the nanites to transmit the electricity, that was my job. It proved impossible. The oscillations between superconductor and super-insulator was too erratic, too fast, the "subway" of electrons was just not useable by electronic devises. What they did do well was absorb electricity from these devices."
Rachel sighed, "This is when Ben turned to the D.O.D. I didn't want to give in, but Mr. Flynn had us over a barrel. He brought in a lot of new specialists, weapons guys like Dr. Sanborn. After a few tweaks to the nanites, they grew tendrils an atom wide that were able to by-pass any insulator and completely short-circuit anything – power lines, batteries, generators, anything. They said it would revolutionize war – end the bloodshed in Iraq and elsewhere."
Rachel sat in silent mournful contemplation for several minutes.
Aaron turned back to her rough diagrams of the nanites. "I mean, this is what caused the Blackout? So how many of these things do you think are out there?"
Rachel paused, and estimated based upon the availability of the limiting material, yttrium, "Couple hundred quadrillion, 1X10^26 give or take a few orders of magnitude."
Aaron's eyes boggled. Rachel got up and walked over to some shelving. He said, "It's unbelievable. I mean, this whole time, I just – I thought computers were gone, and it turns out they're everywhere."
Rachel took a small bit of satisfaction from astonishing the great Aaron Pittman and continued, "Each one is the size of a virus – about 300 nm in diameter. They're everywhere. They're in the air, on buildings, you're – we're breathing them in right now."
Aaron, his mind on the tangible, "And they're programmable?"
Rachel clarified, "Two commands: Absorb electricity and replicate."
Aaron was still dumbfounded, "This is – this is so far beyond anything I could have ever imagined was possible."
Rachel grew tired of his hero-worshiping, she felt she only deserved disgust, "We ended the world, Aaron."
Aaron continued, "So they just – they just started reproducing out of control?
Rachel said simply, exhaustedly, "Something went wrong in The Tower. I never did find out what."
A/N: In lieu of a new Revolution to think about, I tried to make scientific sense of Kripke's explanation for how the power went out. I hope you guys like it, and it's comprehensible. Reviews and constructive criticism are greatly appreciated :)
A/N 2: Credentials – Masters degree in Biophysics, and summer internship at IBM studying nano-imprint lithography of Si wafers. Not actually a materials scientist.