September 2013 issue

Date:21 August 2013 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Of flying cars and demon worms…

Our cover story this month salutes some of the most exciting and revolutionary concepts in aviation, from a solar-powered record-setter of disarming fragility to a whisper-quiet hybrid airliner, from an outrageous train-cum-plane to a hybrid-electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) flying car, the Terrafugia TF-X. Standard equipment in this little charmer includes a vehicle parachute system that can be activated in an emergency should the pilot believe it to be incapable of auto-landing.

Then there’s the Skylon space plane, a research project funded jointly by the European Space Agency and UK company Reaction Engines. The technical challenges may be immense but the concept is undoubtedly worth exploring, as evidenced by a R900 million British government investment. As PM’s Anthony Doman tells it, the ideas range from the far-sighted to the frankly far-fetched, and there’s no guarantee of commercial acceptance. Then again, the Wright brothers also had their detractors. See “Take off into tomorrow”, starting on page 36.

Back on the ground (in fact, far below it), a team of scientists discovers a remarkable creature that appears to defy all the rules (“Life in the abyss”, page 58). If Halicephalobus mephisto sounds like a mouthful, try “demon worm” – the name given by researchers to a voraciously hungry, incredibly tough creature that sports a whip-like tail and was found 1,3 km underground in a South African gold mine. Think that’s extreme? Try 3,6 km – the depth at which Princeton geologist Tullis Onstott and his team discovered another species of nematode worm, making it the deepest land animal found to date.

That’s by no means the end of it. Our planet is home to creatures so tough and adaptable, so counter-intuitively strange, that they beggar belief. Writer Colin Barras broadens our perspective: “In fact, we now know that the depths of the Earth’s crust harbour isolated ecosystems whose inhabitants defy many established biological rules. There are microbes that metabolise so slowly that they may be millions of years old; bacteria that survive without benefiting from the Sun’s energy; and animals that do what no animal should – live their entire lives without oxygen. This strange menagerie might give us insights into where life originated and where it is heading. It may even help our search for life on other worlds.”

Staying with our own world, we present a photo album from the files of the European Space Agency and its partners (“Earth, but not as you know it”, page 76). If you’ve never seen the dunes of the Namib Desert or a plankton bloom off the coast of Ireland from a viewpoint in space, this one’s for you. Earth may be under siege, but from some perspectives, at least, it remains beautiful.

We also explore the mysteries of telomeres (are we indeed programmed to die?), spend a week in Nevada’s Death Valley aboard a variety of mean machines, debunk a few tech myths, liberate our inner metalworker, build a mirror with a classy frame, and offer our usual feast of must-have gadgets. That should pretty much take care of your reading for a while…

FutureTech 2013: For a number of sound reasons, we have decided to put this year’s FutureTech conference on hold. We plan to relocate it to the Mother City next year, at which time we hope to share in the creative feast surrounding World Design Capital Cape Town 2014, preceding the conference with a number of smaller events allied to our theme, “Altered Realities”. We hope you understand.

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)