Where Is My Flying Car?

From The Wall Street Journal:

The science-fiction writers who flourished in the postwar era, like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, promised a glittering technological future. A lot of what they imagined has come true, from powerful pocket phones and a global library to synthetic foods and self-driving cars. “The Jetsons,” which premiered in 1962, depicted a futuristic life of extraordinary ease. George Jetson’s flying car folded into his briefcase, while his job at Spacely Space Sprockets consisted mostly of resting his feet on his desk while machines did the work.

The question for J. Storrs Hall is why some of those visions have materialized but others have not. Air travel remains a tedious business of driving to the airport, flying and then driving to the ultimate destination. Space travel languished for decades until a recent private-sector boom. And the way we generate, transmit and use energy remains antiquated.

Mr. Hall is a research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and an associate editor of the International Journal of Nanotechnology and Molecular Computation. “Where Is My Flying Car?” is a handsomely designed hardback published by Stripe Press, owned by Stripe, the ragingly successful payments-infrastructure company. The press publishes “ideas for progress,” and Stripe is to be applauded for trusting old-school printing to disseminate ideas. The combination of Mr. Hall and Stripe makes for an unusual kind of book—argumentative, ornery, and technical yet ultimately inspiring.

Mr. Hall focuses on three scientific advances that he believes are within reach but remain unfulfilled: flying cars, nanotechnology and cold fusion. “The reason we don’t have flying cars today isn’t technological feasibility,” he writes. “We have had the means to build, manufacture, and improve flying cars for the better part of a century.”

Similarly, the physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk in 1959 titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he described an achievable pathway from large-scale to nanoscale manufacturing. Such a shift, he said, would allow us to make ever smaller sets of tools to make ever smaller products. The path was followed intermittently by a few brave souls. Had it been pursued more rigorously, Mr. Hall argues, “the entire physical paraphernalia of The Jetsons’ world would be here now.” The same thing happened to cold fusion, which promised enormous gains in energy use and efficiency but was never seriously pursued.

The author gives several reasons for this dispiriting phenomenon. The first is the “Machiavelli effect.” In “The Prince,” Machiavelli wrote that innovators are opposed by “all those who have done well under the old conditions.” In scientific research, the academy tends to be full of people who have done well under the old conditions and resent novelty. They’re protected by a centralized funding system that rewards incumbents and “makes it easier for cadres, cliques, and the politically skilled to gain control of a field.” These established players “are resistant to new, outside, not-Ptolemaic ideas. The ivory tower has a moat full of crocodiles.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

13 thoughts on “Where Is My Flying Car?”

  1. Cold fusion was never seriously pursued because nobody could reproduce the results, including the original researchers. Seriously, consider how much money has been thrown at *hot* fusion because people want that power source to work!

    And the “it’s a secret cabal against my Wonderful Idea” thing is a very accurate symptom of crackpot science. Actual revolutionary science has this wonderful thing called “experimental data” that is very effective for showcasing new ideas, and scientists LOVE new stuff. (Says the actual, if not working, scientist…)

    • Yup. While there is something to the old-fogies-in-science phenomenon, there also is a constant stream of young blood looking to make their bones. There is a Nobel Prize to be had from cold fusion. Or there would be if it were real.

      • Actually, it *is*real.
        But it is quantum physics driven. And subtle. Not something chemists or plasma physicists can manage. It’ll likely be decades if not longer until the fiasco is forgotten and the phenomenon is reexamined and understood. Longer before it’s engineered.

        Fusion in itself isn’t hard to do. Philo Farnsworth was doing fusion in vaccum tunes last century. These days it’s the stuff of science fair projects.


        • BTW, the Farnsworth Fusor wasn’t a viable commercial product by itself. It never produced more energy that it consumed. So, ITT wasn’t actually wrong.
          (Still its hard to avoid paranoia when tbey *are* out to get you and you’ve been burned before.)
          What the article glosses over is the patents expired ages ago.

          It has spawned followers, though.

          Robert Busard’s “WiffleBall” Polywell reactor is a direct descendant of Farnsworth’s Fusor. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell

          It has intermitently received US NAVY funding and is currently privately funded. Still alive, inching towards breakthrough. The limiting factor isn’t the science but the engineering. Containment is a witch. 😀

          Several other outfits are working similar approaches, from Canada to San Diego to Boston. Several are claiming to be one prototype away from net positive energy. Work won’t stop there, though, since the ultimate goal isn’t just any old fusion reaction but aneutronic, waste-free reactions. The most likely being Proton-Boron.

          My expectations are we’ll see working Fusion demonstrators this decade, early models the next, all before ITER does anything. They’ll live side by side with small fission plants. Long term, we’ll see fusor sized mobile units running Proton-Boron but there’s a lot of engineering still to be done. A big help would be room temperture superconductors. Those too are on the horizon.

          They’ll all show up eventually.
          (True cold fusion? Next century most likely.)

          • Neutron readings.
            They detected extra neutrons from their apparatus.
            So did some others. But not everybody. Some detected excess heat but no neutrons and others neutrons but no excess heat. Some both. All random and unpredictable. Quantum mechanics causes all sort of weirdness.

            Where Fleischman and Pons were wrong was to claim they *caused* it. They set up conditions where it can happen…randomly. Statistically, fusion events *were* happening. As they do all the time. Very low level. They set up a metal matrix that very slightly boosted the chances of two nuclei fusing. Whee! Useful? Not any time soon.

            For that matter, the Philo Fusor is also cold fusion. Low density plasma forced together and fusing. But it takes more energy to make it happen than it produces.

            Hot plasma is just one way to make fusion happen. It’s just a matter of two nuclei coming together in just the right way. Nothing magical there. The challenge is *controlled* fusion: making it happen when you want it, where you want it, often enough to matter

            Expect to see more weirdness reports as our instrumentation gets better and we start detecting more quantum effects filtering through. It’s like neutrino detectors. It takes a year of constant detection to detect enough events to say they are going by. Or this event:


            They thought they might have found an axion, a hypothetical form of dark matter. Or maybe they found an odd neutrino. Or something else. Still TBD.

            At the cutting edge of science it is best to remember Clarke’s first two laws:

            1- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

            2- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. (Or, as sometimes formulated: Everything is impossible. Until somebody does it.)

            We live in the era of the impossible becoming possible. Makes it really interrsting for the various subgenres of SF.

            For example, earlier this year, Dr. Harold White–ex- of NASA Eagle Works–working for DARPA, accidentally created a real world space warp bubble. Microscopic. Useless for now. But very real.

            • Useless save for the fact that he did it, observed it, measured it, and has opened the door for many more to follow. the first step is perhaps the most useful. That’s all it takes.

              MIT and their subsidiary Cambridge have demonstrated they have the magnetic field necessary for their hot fusion reactor. To date, the magnetic field has taken more energy to produce than the reactor produces. Now the energy need has been reduced enough to get more output than input.

              And just for fun, imagine the social implications of abundant, cheap, safe, and clean energy.


              • It’s early days for warp field tech but the key thing for me is knowing space *can* be warped with finite amounts of energy. Now to see how many different ways the bubbles can be tuned.

                What engineers make of the Casimir Effect will be fun to watch.

                My first thought is finding out how much matter can be stuffed into a bubble. Arthur C. Clarke patented the use of something like it to convert a stream of gas direct to energy. Both for power and propulsion. (Used it in IMPERIAL EARTH, too.)

                On Fusion, I favor the Polywell approach because it offers a road to *really* small reactors. But I wouldn’t be surprised if TAE is first to tbe finish line.


                Unlike most of the others, they have started by focusing on *controls*.

          • Here:
            New Scientist 2009:

            “After two to three weeks, the team found a small number of “triple tracks” in the plastic – three 8-micrometre-wide pits radiating from a point (see diagram, top right). The team says such a pattern occurs when a high-energy neutron strikes a carbon atom inside the plastic and shatters it into three charged alpha particles that rip through the plastic leaving tracks. No such tracks were seen if the experiment was repeated using normal rather than heavy water.

            Johan Frenje at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an expert at interpreting CR-39 tracks produced in conventional high-temperature fusion reactions, says the team’s interpretation of what produced the tracks is valid.

            “I must say that the data and their analysis seem to suggest that energetic neutrons have been produced,” he says, although he would like to see the results confirmed.”

          • Also this from NASA 2013:


            “LENR is absolutely nothing like either fission or fusion. Where fission and fusion are underpinned by strong nuclear force, LENR harnesses power from weak nuclear force — but capturing this energy is difficult. So far, NASA’s best effort involves a nickel lattice and hydrogen ions. The hydrogen ions are sucked into the nickel lattice, and then the lattice is oscillated at a very high frequency (between 5 and 30 terahertz). This oscillation excites the nickel’s electrons, which are forced into the hydrogen ions (protons), forming slow-moving neutrons. The nickel immediately absorbs these neutrons, making it unstable. To regain its stability, the nickel strips a neutron of its electron so that it becomes a proton — a reaction that turns the nickel into copper and creates a lot of energy in the process. ”

            A different approach to the chemists’ but it too produces neutrons.
            And like all other forms of fusion to date, requires more power to run than it produces. Besides, there isn’t much money in trNsmuting nickel to copper. 😀

    • Thing is the worlds of science and technology/engineering are distinct and separate.

      Suppression of technologies is rare but real. Companies do buy patents they never exercise. Not always for nefarious reasons. But sometimes…
      So is espionage, patent stomping, and IP theft. (Lifeblood of China tech all three.)
      Look to the history of TV linked above.
      Patent lawsuits are common, wins less so. It’s a sea of sharks.

      Thing is, there’s more to tech advances than the science, which most actual crackpots fail to appreciate. Still, some “science crackpots” aren’t. Some are true researchers working outside the orthodoxy of the university and government bureaucracies. And the smarter ones find their way to Venture Capitalists willing to bet on them. Entire industries have come from such minds.

      It’s not wise to write them all off.

  2. Just because the present doesn’t resemble the past’s ideas of what our era would be like doesn’t mean the 21st century isn’t developing even faster than the “futurists” of the past could imagine.
    Beause it is.

    Videophones? All over. Wireless instead of wall mounted (though we have those too–ECHO 15″ ) and pocketable to boot. More, instead of merely person to peson, we have 50 person remote meetings.

    MULTIVAC? An all-knowing database anybody can query from anywhere? We have the Web and browsers that not only bring us to-the-second commerce, press releases, propaganda, news, and misinformation, but also factual information for those skilled enough in critical reading. Plus the parallel world of youtube where you can get videos of pretty much everything, factual and fake.n

    Ebooks? That too was science fiction and despite the attempts of old publishing is steadily growing. And with it whole new business models or authors and *readers*. No more deep TBR lists. The rule of the day for ebook buying is just in time for reading. The famifications of that are still rippling out.

    Tube cars? A lesser known SF concept (rooted in the 1904 VACTRAIN and pneumatic tubes of the 20th) posited subways and trains replaced by small cars travelling in underground tubes at ridiculous speeds. Today it’s called HYPERLOOP and there’s a dozen+ ongoing projects with actual governments spending billions to link cities at, yes, ridiculous speeds. Prototypes have been tested. Tubes are being laid out. Hyperloop is to trains as the internet is to wired telephones. Packetized people mover. Its biggest impact will be on ground cargo, though.

    Flying cars? Actually, the OP is wrong. We have the cars. What we don’t yet have is the traffic control system to manage them in volume. Much more important. In the meantime, we have STARWARS style speeder bikes you can buy today. Several models. Most notable, this: https://jetsonaero.com/ Out of Sweden, the aptly named JETSON flying bike. Video at their site. Priced like the first Tesla electric car. That is: luxury toy.

    Speaking of electric vehicles, the dominant player is producing close to a million cars a year despite tbe pandemic and valued at over $1T dollars, more than the next ten internal combustion auto manufacturers combined. Which are now stampeding to get into the EV business a decade late. Clueless environmental pundits speak of ending ICE cars by 2035. Riiight. First world Idiots.

    Mind you, the Machiavelli effect is real.

    You see it in trade publishing, especially Europe.
    Old Space, in the US among the big companies used to living off NADA and the SpaceForcd, but especially in Europe. A whole book can be written on the lost decades of space just listing the guilty.
    And yes, Fusion is also a casualty. The primary example being the boondoggle that is ITER, purposefully inching forward and sasting as much money as possible to make sure nobody gets FUSION before the rest.

    The thing is, the OP ignores the emergence of Big Tech out of entrepreneurial capitalism. Space and Fusion could be hobbled when the funding was controlled by IdiotPoliticians™ who prefer to spend money on vote-buying pork barrel projects and roads to nowhere vs spending on game changers that might upset their big brown baggers.

    But Big Tech rains money out of its productivity.
    More than most corporate types know what to do. Enough that there is enough money floating around to fun “wild eyed” ideas like electric cars, flying motorcycles, reusable rockets big and small, an orbital internet, private space stations, asteroid mining, artificial RNA vaccines, dancing robots (leading to fruit picking robots–think on that one a bit) and, most importantly: the support structures needed to *make money* off those technologies.
    What governments won’t fund, venture capitalists will. They lose some, they win some. But the wins are massive.

    IdiotPoliticians™ all over are racing to try to control Big Tech–from China to the EU to DC. But the djinn is out of the bottle and outside of China they will fail. Because IdiotPoliticians™ follow the money and, as Microsoft discovered, they are cheap to buy off and will stay out of your way if you let them pretend they’re in charge. They’re not.

    Environmentalists, Old Space, and Labor unions are presuring the FAA to deny SpaceX launch permits for their new game changing rocket? Musk is covered. He is refurbishing two used old rigs to serve as floating launch pads. Plus building a second Spaceport in Florida. Plus his old rocket factory in California. 100,000 empoyees. 60% of the satellite launch business at 50% less than anybody else. And for Thanksgiving he sent out an email warnibg the company coukd go bankrupt if they don’t ramp up production of the new engines. Which “leaked” to the media. As did emails detailing a confab between his biggest competitor from Old Space, labor union bosses, and WH staff. Anybody want to guess how the FAA is going to report?

    When local activists started to target the new half built Tesla auto plant in Germany, Musk announced downsized projected production and started talking to the UK for a possible plant. Suddenly the German government was out in force getting the plant back on track. The UK plant is still in discussion and likely to happen anyway. Post pandemic the rule is “build where you sell”.

    Remember when IdiotPoliticians™ made noises about stopping the Amazon HQ in NY? Amazon just shrugged and took away the 25,000 jobs. Big Tech doesn’t bluff.

    Oh, and as for fusion?
    There’s a dozen private outfits working on different aproaches to *small* fusion reactors. Using lasers, ions, inertial confinement, electrostatic confinement, pistons! Several showing enough results to get VC funding. Because unlike the ITER boondoggle, their approach makes business sense. And not for 20 years out but for 2025-30.

    And they’d better hurry because tbere’s another dozen outfits *building* small modular fission reactors. Factory built, transportable, for plants buildable in 4 years, not 10-15. Safer and much cheaper. The first *production* model has already been certified by the NRC in DC. Last august, in fact. The folks that have been blocking fusionto protect their regime are about to become irrelevant. Because that is what Big Tech does. It bypasses obstacles.

    It’s tbe 21st century out there.
    It’s not just about the toys, it’s about the support structure, the market, the financing, and yes, the politics. With an epochal change in who pulls the strings of the IdiotPoliticians™ and bureaucrats.

    Not an obstacle, not when there’s money to be made.

    • Last week I was sitting at a dockside restaurant in Florida. Thirty feet away was a SpaceX boat with the recovered nose cone of a recent launch. They have a fleet of recovery boats. SpaceX has one rocket stage that has been reused ten times. Launch costs for satellites have plummeted.

      SpaceX has plans and forecasts for its business, but the forecast of the full extent of cascading changes due to its progress can’t be plotted by anyone.

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