Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mars, Tablets and Hydrogel

There's a lot going on today. And it's not even a Saturday. I think of Saturday as the day of many rewards, but apparently the solar system and Apple are irreverent about the days of the week. They will reveal mighty wonders whenever they want!


The solar system is revealing Mars today - the red planet will be the closest to Earth that it will get until 2014. It will be particularly visible in North America tonight, so be sure to step outside and get a good look. One that will hold you over for 4 years. You know, now that I think about it, maybe the solar system did plan to have this happen on a Wednesday. Heaven knows I'm not about to leave my apartment on a Thursday night in the middle of 30 Rock to look at the sky. (I seriously still watch TV shows on the TV and not online. I can pretty much start asking for the seniors discount at moving picture theatre.)

The other big news down on Earth is that Apple will be debuting their brand new gadget: the tablet (or as Information Week called it, "tablet computing device." Computing device? IW is in the seniors line with me at the movie theats, probs.) Word keeps coming in about what the tablet can do - it will be somewhere between and iPhone and a notebook computer, with more versatility and capability than an iPhone for people who are out of the office a lot. It also serves the functions of a Kindle, which, given all the tablet's other features, could give Amazon some tough competition.

The question will be whether or not enough people need something between and iPhone and a notebook. Will those people who switch from a notebook have everything they need, and will those who switch from an iPhone find the excess overwhelming. The tablet is about the size of a kindle, which might be more than iPhone users want.

Still, the tablet is fascinating to me because like much of what Apple has produced in the last 10 years, it's most futuristic-looking-thing available. Apple seems to have realized that if you really want people to buy your stuff, make sure it looks like it is from a science fiction movie. Having the opportunity to hold and play with something that looks like the future we dream of is apparently worth a four hour wait in line, $200 plus $75 every month after that. And Apple has figured out that to tap into this, you cannot do it gradually. If you make technological advances slowly, you still end up with great stuff at the end, but people have time to get used to them and then become jaded.

We should all take a look around and remember that if we transported someone from 1900 to 2010 their head might explode looking at everything we have (not to mention the fact that they would no longer have to worry about getting polio, small pox, measles, mumps, or dying from any number of what we now consider "minor" afflictions). I'm still awed by the iPhone but in a few years I'm sure the Apple tablet will be just oh so passe to many people.

But for those of us who can appreciate the little advances, I'm very excited to see what happens with this new hydrogel (extensive article about it in Science News).

[Now let me note that by saying "little advance" I am not trying to down play the amazingness of this stuff. Quite the opposite. I am making a comment about how sometimes we overlook truly revolutionary things in favor of entertaining things. Like, some people might look at this hydrogel and say something like "Can I check my email on it? I can't? WHATEVS NOT INTERESTED!]

So the hydrogel is mostly water, which is ideal for biological uses, like tissue replacement. But often water-based materials that are soft enough for the human body can be easily damaged. Materials that are self healing are often hard and brittle. But the new hydrogel is turning out to be the best of both worlds and exhibiting properties not seen in any other material. It's quite soft but also tough (described as very tough jello pudding). And perhaps best of all, it's self healing.

The material is made of water and clay tablets that have a positive charge around their edges, but negative charges on their tops. The researchers then added an ingredient called the G binder, which gives the material the self healing property (it's also used in some hand creams, lubricants and laxatives). Like octopus arms, the molecule grabs onto the positive charge on the clay tablets and will reconnect them if they are pulled apart.

Between the tablet, the hydrogel, CNN's holograms (very necessary), and the new wooden legs, we're pretty much living in the future world (all we need is to bring back laser disks).

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