The future ain’t what it used to be

Dr Mark Lewney

Dr Lewney is known as the guitar physicist. One of his previous talks was called “Where physics and guitars collide” and the video link is below

He won the first ever Fame Lab Competition and he does a lot of science and maths talks across the UK.


Why aren’t astrologers rich? Surely, the horoscope of a footballer would tell them how to win a game? The science of foretelling the future has changed dramatically over the centuries, so why can we predict some things, like total eclipses, but not others? Guitar physicist Dr Mark Lewney presented ‘a history of the future’, beginning with films such as 2001 Space Odyssey and Back To The Future 2. He explained in simple terms what chaos theory and quantum physics is, and how these mind-blowing theories prevent us from predicting everyday life. Finally, he looked at the evolution of science and technology and how, with the development of supermaterials such as graphene, our future may change completely. Even though we cannot be sure exactly what the future holds – we know that it is going to be very exciting when we get there!

The talk

The following are notes from the on-line lecture. Even though I could stop the video and go back over things there are likely to be mistakes because I haven’t heard things correctly or not understood them. I hope Dr Lewney, and my readers will forgive any mistakes and let me know what I got wrong.

Dr Lewey began his talk by playing the theme tune from the film 2001: A space Odyssey on his guitar (he played his guitar throughout the talk).


2001: A Space Odyssey is a 1968 epic science fiction film produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. The screenplay was written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, and was inspired by Clarke’s 1951 short story “The Sentinel” and other short stories by Clarke. A novel released after the film’s premiere was in part written concurrently with the screenplay. The film, which follows a voyage to Jupiter with the sentient computer HAL after the discovery of an alien monolith affecting human evolution, deals with themes of existentialism, human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

In the film there are moon bases and manned Jupiter missions


A still from 2001: A Space Odyssey showing the gigantic lunar base at Clavius Crater. Such facilities are many decades in the future given the budgetary limitations of NASA’s exploration plans. (credit: MGM/UA)

In the 2001 novel, Project Jupiter is introduced as a program to send the first manned spacecraft to Jupiter. In the film adaptions, the spacecraft named Discovery gets trapped in Io’s orbit.


The film is noted for its scientifically accurate depiction of space flight, pioneering special effects, and ambiguous imagery. Kubrick avoided conventional cinematic and narrative techniques; dialogue is used sparingly, and there are long sequences accompanied only by music. The soundtrack incorporates numerous works of classical music, among them Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II, and works by Aram Khachaturian and György Ligeti. (below left)


Stanley Kubrick (July 26, 1928 – March 7, 1999) was an American film director, producer, screenwriter, and photographer. He is frequently cited as one of the greatest filmmakers in cinematic history. (above right)

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke CBE FRAS (16 December 1917 – 19 March 2008) was an English science-fiction writer, science writer, futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, and television series host.

Of Course, in 1969 a man actually did land on the Moon.


Buzz Aldrin on the Moon as photographed by Neil Armstrong (Armstrong seen in the visor reflection)

Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Centre on Merritt Island, Florida, on July 16 at 13:32 UTC, and it was the fifth crewed mission of NASA’s Apollo program. The Apollo spacecraft had three parts: a command module (CM) with a cabin for the three astronauts, the only part that returned to Earth; a service module (SM), which supported the command module with propulsion, electrical power, oxygen, and water; and a lunar module (LM) that had two stages—a descent stage for landing on the Moon and an ascent stage to place the astronauts back into lunar orbit.

Apollo 11 was the spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin formed the American crew that landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC (14:17 CST). Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface six hours and 39 minutes later on July 21 at 02:56 UTC; Aldrin joined him 19 minutes later. They spent about two and a quarter hours together outside the spacecraft, and they collected 21.5 kg of lunar material to bring back to Earth. Command module pilot Michael Collins flew the Command Module Columbia alone in lunar orbit while they were on the Moon’s surface. Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the lunar surface at a site they named Tranquility Base before lifting off to rejoin Columbia in lunar orbit. (below left)


Neil Alden Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012) was an American astronaut and aeronautical engineer, and the first person to walk on the Moon. He was also a naval aviator, test pilot, and university professor.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Is not what he meant to say (above centre)

Buzz Aldrin (born Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr., January 20, 1930) is an American former astronaut, engineer and fighter pilot. Aldrin made three spacewalks as pilot of the 1966 Gemini 12 mission, and as the lunar module pilot on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, he and mission commander Neil Armstrong were the first two humans to land on the Moon. (above right)

Michael Collins (born October 31, 1930) is an American astronaut who flew the Apollo 11 command module Columbia around the Moon while his crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, made the first crewed landing on the surface. He was a test pilot and major general in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.


Tranquility Base is the site on the Moon where, in July 1969, humans landed and walked on another celestial body than Earth for the first time.

Dr Lewney was born in 1973. He thought he would have a jet pack when he grew up and be an astronaut.


A jet pack, rocket belt, or rocket pack is a device worn on the back which uses jets of gas or liquid to propel the wearer through the air. The concept has been present in science fiction for almost a century and became widespread in the 1960s.

As Dr Lewney grew up the predictions continued.

In 1975 another science fiction programme.

Space: 1999 is a science-fiction television programme that ran for two series from 1975 to 1977. In the opening episode, set in the year 1999, nuclear waste stored on the Moon’s far side explodes, knocking the Moon out of orbit and sending it, as well as the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, hurtling uncontrollably into space.


In 1980 there was Flash Gordon, set in the year 2000 (Dr Lewney was 7)

Flash Gordon is a 1980 space opera film directed by Mike Hodges, based on the King Features comic strip of the same name created by Alex Raymond. The film stars Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Ornella Muti, Max von Sydow and Topol, with Timothy Dalton, Mariangela Melato, Brian Blessed and Peter Wyngarde in supporting roles. The film follows star quarterback Flash Gordon (Jones) and his allies Dale Arden (Anderson) and Hans Zarkov (Topol) as they unite the warring factions of the planet Mongo against the oppression of Ming the Merciless (von Sydow), who is intent on destroying Earth.


When Dr Lewney was 15 there was “Back to the Future II”

Back to the Future Part II is a 1989 American science fiction film directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Bob Gale. It is the sequel to the 1985 film Back to the Future and the second instalment in the Back to the Future trilogy. The film stars Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and Thomas F. Wilson. The film follows Marty McFly (Fox) and his friend Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Lloyd) as they travel from 1985 to 2015 to prevent Marty’s son from sabotaging the McFly family’s future; when their arch-nemesis Biff Tannen (Wilson) steals Doc’s DeLorean time machine and uses it to alter history for his benefit, the duo must return to 1955 to restore the timeline.


Hoverboards (above left) Flying cars (above right)

Also, outdoor holograms

What Dr Lewney thinks now (aged 45.2)

“The future ain’t what it used to be”

We are in Marty McFly’s future and things have not turned out the way they are portrayed in the film.

Dr Lewney thinks that is a bit sad (I can’t comment as I have never seen the film).

He thought we would be living on the Moon by now.

A quote by Douglas Adams from his book “The Meaning of Liff)

Zeerust(n.)- The peculiar kind of datedness which affects things designed to look futuristic.


The Meaning of Liff (UK Edition: ISBN 0-330-28121-6,) is a humorous dictionary of toponymy and etymology, written by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, published in the United Kingdom in 1983 and the United States in 1984.

The book is a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet”. Rather than inventing new words, Adams and Lloyd picked a number of existing place-names and assigned interesting meanings to them, meanings that can be regarded as on the verge of social existence and ready to become recognisable entities. (below left)


Douglas Noel Adams (11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001) was an English author, screenwriter, essayist, humourist, satirist and dramatist. Adams was author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which originated in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy before developing into a “trilogy” of five books that sold more than 15 million copies in his lifetime and generated a television series, several stage plays, comics, a video game, and in 2005 a feature film. Adams’s contribution to UK radio is commemorated in The Radio Academy’s Hall of Fame. (above right)

John Hardress Wilfred Lloyd CBE (born 30 September 1951) is an English television and radio comedy producer and writer. His television work includes Not the Nine O’Clock News, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Spitting Image, Blackadder and QI. He is currently the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity.

Dr Lewney has never had a space shuttle and he can’t even travel on a supersonic plane as Concorde no longer flies.


The Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde is a British–French turbojet-powered supersonic passenger airliner that was operated until 2003. It had a maximum speed over twice the speed of sound, at Mach 2.04 (2,180 km/h at cruise altitude), with seating for 92 to 128 passengers. First flown in 1969, Concorde entered service in 1976 and operated for 27 years. It is one of only two supersonic transports to have been operated commercially; the other is the Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-144, which operated in the late 1970s.

In 1980 Dr Lewney read a book called “Our Future” written by Dr Magnus Pyke


Magnus Alfred Pyke OBE FRSE FRIC (29 December 1908 – 19 October 1992) was an English nutritional scientist, governmental scientific advisor, writer and presenter. He worked for the UK Ministry of Food, the post-war Allied Commission for Austria, and different food manufacturers. He wrote prolifically and became famous as a TV and radio personality, and was featured on Thomas Dolby’s 1982 synthpop hit, “She Blinded Me With Science”.

Dr Pyke’s book basically outlined what life would be like in 2030 and he felt it would either be very different from 1980 or very similar. Dr Lewney feels he was hedging his bets a bit.

Dr Pyke said “You might be living in a house made of plastic”. Dr Lewney says “We’ve had them for quite a while, they are called caravans”

Dr Pyke said “You might want to go on a quick trip around the world, travelling at 22,500km/h (much faster than the speed of sound) on an underground train powered by electromagnetic waves”. Dr Lewney feels that was a bit optimistic. He is happy if the trains are actually working.

Dr Pyke said “your car may run on hydrogen – or gin). This isn’t so daft as hydrogen fuel cells are being developed for cars and bioethanol can be used in some cars.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts the chemical energy of a fuel (often hydrogen) and an oxidizing agent (often oxygen) into electricity through a pair of redox reactions.

They are used to power fuel cell vehicles, including forklifts, automobiles, buses, boats, motorcycles and submarines.

Ethanol fuel is ethyl alcohol, the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, used as fuel. It is most often used as a motor fuel, mainly as a biofuel additive for petrol.

Dr Pyke said we might be watching a wall sized TV screen and order groceries on a home computer. Dr Lewney feels that this wasn’t an ambitious enough prediction as we are doing this stuff right now. Computers aren’t needed because we have smartphones.

Dr Lewney’s “Proper job” is a senior patent examiner. So, he gets to see new inventions first. He would like to think that this would give him some idea of what might become important in the future and change lives.

A patent provides legal protection for an invention, helping the patent holder to innovate and grow their business.

Patent examiners are at the forefront of enabling this innovation. They ensure high quality; valid patents are granted.

The history of fortune telling

The film 2001: A space Odyssey was made in 1968 and looked forward to 2001.

Back to the Future 2 was made in 1989 and looked forward to 2015

Magnus Pyke wrote his book in 1980 and looked forward to 2030.

The prediction of the future has gone on for a very long time.

Plato’s republic

He predicted future political systems

The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, authored by Plato around 375 BC, concerning justice the order and character of the just city-state, and the just man. It is Plato’s best-known work, and has proven to be one of the world’s most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically.


Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

Roger Bacon predicted future technologies such as submarines, planes and cars


Roger Bacon (c. 1219/20 – c. 1292), also known by the scholastic accolade Doctor Mirabilis, was a medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empiricism.

Thomas More’s Utopia (Utopia means nowhere) foresaw the end of poverty


Utopia (Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia,] “A little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia”) is a work of fiction and socio-political satire by Thomas More (1478–1535), written in Latin and published in 1516. The book is a frame narrative primarily depicting a fictional island society and its religious, social, and political customs. Many aspects of More’s description of Utopia are reminiscent of life in monasteries.


Sir Thomas More (7 February 1478 – 6 July 1535), venerated in the Catholic Church as Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, and noted Renaissance humanist. He also served Henry VIII as Lord High Chancellor of England from October 1529 to May 1532. He wrote Utopia, published in 1516, which describes the political system of an imaginary island state. He had died before it was published.

Francis Bacon predicted modern universities


Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Alban, Kt PC QC (/ˈbeɪkən/; 22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626), also known as Lord Verulam, was an English philosopher and statesman who served as Attorney General and as Lord Chancellor of England. His works are credited with developing the scientific method and remained influential through the scientific revolution.

L. S. Mercier predicted optical cabinets (televisions)


Louis-Sébastien Mercier (6 June 1740 – 25 April 1814) was a French dramatist and writer, whose 1771 novel L’An 2440 is an example of proto-science fiction.

All the predictions so far are positive.

Thomas Malthus predicted a future population catastrophe. Resources can increase linearly but populations can increase geometrically. Resources of the planet can be outstripped


Thomas Robert Malthus FRS (13/14 February 1766 – 23 December 1834) was an English cleric, scholar and influential economist in the fields of political economy and demography.

In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus observed that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. In other words, humans had a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living, a view that has become known as the “Malthusian trap” or the “Malthusian spectre”. Populations had a tendency to grow until the lower class suffered hardship, want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease, a view that is sometimes referred to as a Malthusian catastrophe. Malthus wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible.

Future predictions become a bit bleak.

Jules Verne foresaw the death of culture


Jules Gabriel Verne (8 February 1828 – 24 March 1905) was a French novelist, poet, and playwright.

Paris in the Twentieth Century is a science fiction novel by Jules Verne. The book presents Paris in August 1960, 97 years in Verne’s future, where society places value only on business and technology.

Written in 1863 but first published 131 years later (1994), the novel follows a young man who struggles unsuccessfully to live in a technologically advanced, but culturally backwards world. The work paints a grim, dystopian view of a technological future civilization.

Many of Verne’s predictions were remarkably on-target. His publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, would not release the book because he thought it was too unbelievable, and its sales prospects would be inferior to Verne’s previous work, Five Weeks in a Balloon.


H. G. Wells predicted the end of the Human species or the division into two new species.


Herbert George Wells (21 September 1866 – 13 August 1946) was an English writer. Prolific in many genres, he wrote dozens of novels, short stories, and works of social commentary, history, satire, biography and autobiography. His work also included two books on recreational war games. Wells is now best remembered for his science fiction novels and is often called the “father of science fiction”, along with Jules Verne.

A futurist and “visionary”, Wells foresaw the advent of aircraft, tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television and something resembling the World Wide Web.

The Time Machine is a science fiction novella by H. G. Wells, published in 1895 and written as a frame narrative. The work is generally credited with the popularisation of the concept of time travel by using a vehicle or device to travel purposely and selectively forward or backward through time. The term “time machine”, coined by Wells, is now almost universally used to refer to such a vehicle or device.

Metropolis (one of my husband’s favourite films) is regarded as one of the first full length science fiction films. It predicted the majority of the human race being enslaved by an elite.


Metropolis is a 1927 German expressionist science-fiction drama film directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Thea von Harbou in collaboration with Lang, it stars Gustav Fröhlich, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge,and Brigitte Helm. Erich Pommer produced it in the Babelsberg Studios for Universum Film A.G. (UFA). The silent film is regarded as a pioneering science-fiction movie, being among the first feature-length movies of that genre. (below left)


Friedrich Christian Anton “Fritz” Lang (December 5, 1890 – August 2, 1976) was an Austrian-German-American filmmaker, screenwriter, and occasional film producer and actor. (above right)

Thea Gabriele von Harbou (27 December 1888 – 1 July 1954) was a German screenwriter, novelist, film director, and actress.

Aldous Huxley predicted vat-grown people. No need for a mum or dad.


Aldous Leonard Huxley (26 July 1894 – 22 November 1963) was an English writer and philosopher. He wrote nearly fifty books—both novels and non-fiction works — as well as wide-ranging essays, narratives, and poems.


Brave New World is a dystopian social science fiction novel by English author Aldous Huxley, written in 1931 and published in 1932. Largely set in a futuristic World State, whose citizens are environmentally engineered into an intelligence-based social hierarchy, the novel anticipates huge scientific advancements in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation and classical conditioning that are combined to make a dystopian society which is challenged by only a single individual: the story’s protagonist. Huxley followed this book with a reassessment in essay form, Brave New World Revisited (1958), and with his final novel, Island (1962), the utopian counterpart.

George Orwell, didn’t think the human race would develop very well.


Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic. His work is characterised by lucid prose, biting social criticism, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support of democratic socialism.


Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, often published as 1984, is a dystopian social science fiction novel by English novelist George Orwell. It was published on 8 June 1949 by Secker & Warburg as Orwell’s ninth and final book completed in his lifetime. Thematically, Nineteen Eighty-Four centres on the consequences of totalitarianism, mass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society. Orwell, himself a democratic socialist, modelled the authoritarian government in the novel after Stalinist Russia. More broadly, the novel examines the role of truth and facts within politics and the ways in which they are manipulated.

The story takes place in an imagined future, the year 1984, when much of the world has fallen victim to perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, historical negationism, and propaganda. Great Britain, known as Airstrip One, has become a province of a totalitarian superstate named Oceania that is ruled by the Party who employ the Thought Police to persecute individuality and independent thinking.[5] Big Brother, the leader of the Party, enjoys an intense cult of personality despite the fact that he may not even exist. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a diligent and skilful rank-and-file worker and Outer Party member who secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion.

In ancient Greece and Rome, you would go to the oracle if you wanted to know the future.

The word oracle comes from the Latin verb ōrāre, “to speak” and properly refers to the priest or priestess uttering the prediction. In extended use, oracle may also refer to the site of the oracle, and to the oracular utterances themselves, called khrēsmē ‘tresme’ (χρησμοί) in Greek.

Oracles were thought to be portals through which the gods spoke directly to people. In this sense they were different from seers (manteis, μάντεις) who interpreted signs sent by the gods through bird signs, animal entrails, and other various methods.

Oracles would give their predictions in a vague sort of poem which the person making the request would have to try and make sense of.



Michel de Nostredame (depending on the source, 14 or 21 December 1503 – 1 or 2 July 1566), usually Latinised as Nostradamus, was a French astrologer, physician and reputed seer, who is best known for his book Les Prophéties, a collection of 942 poetic quatrains allegedly predicting future events. The book was first published in 1555.

One of his predictions (apparently one of his best) “Beasts wild with hunger shall cross the rivers: Most of the fighting shall be close to the Hister (Danube), it shall result in the great one being dragged in an iron cage while the German shall be watching over the infant Rhine”.

Some people make a big deal out of this because Hister sounds like Hitler, which is rubbish as Hister is just another name for the Danube.


The Danube in Budapest (above left). Course of the Danube, marked in red (above right)

The Danube is Europe’s second-longest river, after the Volga. It is located in Central and Eastern Europe.

Dr Lewney has never seen an accurate prophecy that was specific.

The only accurate astrological one he has come across has stated that the stars and planets will not affect your life in any way.

Humans can’t predict very much at all. But some things can be predicted really, really accurately.

One such thing is an eclipse. These can be predicted years in advance as can the time they last. You couldn’t go and put a bet on it happening as everybody knows.


The above shows totality during the 1999 solar eclipse. Solar prominences can be seen along the limb (in red) as well as extensive coronal filaments.

An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object or spacecraft is temporarily obscured, by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer.

The term eclipse is most often used to describe either a solar eclipse, when the Moon’s shadow crosses the Earth’s surface, or a lunar eclipse, when the Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow.

What happens during a solar eclipse?

Next UK total solar eclipse will be on the 23rd of September 2090

Next UK total lunar eclipse will be on the 16th May 2022

What is an annular eclipse?

When the Moon is not at its closest to the Earth its apparent diameter is less than that of the Sun and even where the Moon’s disk obscures the Sun centrally, the outer ring of the Sun’s disk is still visible. This is called an annular eclipse. Next one is on the 10th June 2021. Much of Europe, Asia, North and West of Africa, much of North America, the Atlantic and the Arctic will have an annular eclipse

Why can’t you bet on something specific but you can on everyday things that an astrologer would be able to predict if they actually had “the gift”.

If astrology is a thing why don’t astrologers place bets and win.

The reason why some people thought everyday events could be predicted is to do with something called “The music of the spheres”.

The musica universalis (literally universal music), also called music of the spheres or harmony of the spheres, is an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies – the Sun, Moon, and planets – as a form of music. This “music” is not thought to be audible, but rather a harmonic, mathematical or religious concept. The idea continued to appeal to scholars until the end of the Renaissance, influencing many kinds of scholars, including humanists. Further scientific exploration discovered orbital resonance in specific proportions in some orbital motion.


The discovery of the precise relation between the pitch of the musical note and the length of the string that produces it is attributed to Pythagoras. The Music of the Spheres incorporates the metaphysical principle that mathematical relationships express qualities or “tones” of energy which manifest in numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds – all connected within a pattern of proportion. Pythagoras first identified that the pitch of a musical note is in inverse proportion to the length of the string that produces it, and that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple numerical ratios. In a theory known as the Harmony of the Spheres, Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear. Subsequently, Plato described astronomy and music as “twinned” studies of sensual recognition: astronomy for the eyes, music for the ears, and both requiring knowledge of numerical proportions.


Pythagoras of Samos (c. 570 BC – 495 BC) was an ancient Ionian Greek philosopher and the eponymous founder of Pythagoreanism.

He thought that each planet was encased in a big crystal ball and that they orbited the Earth on concentric rings. The time for them to orbit the Earth corresponded with a musical note. If he could work this out, he could predict the future.

Music and planetary orbits have almost nothing to do with each other although the idea lasted a very long time.


Fludd’s elemental music and spheres. Diagram showing the relation of the five basic elements to the heavenly spheres and the music of the heavens, as depicted by the English physician, astrologer, and mystic Robert Fludd (1574-1637). The text labels on the diagram are in Latin. A divine hand (upper right) is tightening the string on which the musical notes can be played. The concept that the perfect heavens were based upon musical theory goes back to Pythagoras and the Ancient Greeks. Artwork published in Fludd’s philosophical treatise Utriusque cosmi historia (1617).

How can we predict things like eclipses but not things that happen in everyday life (I would quite like to know the winning numbers for the UK National Lottery).

Planetary systems are pretty unique because they are pretty stable and predictable.

We are used to seeing animations of planets orbiting a star. In our system the planets have an ellipse shaped orbit

The Solar System is the gravitationally bound system of the Sun and the objects that orbit it, either directly or indirectly. Of the objects that orbit the Sun directly, the largest are the eight planets, with the remainder being smaller objects, the dwarf planets and small Solar System bodies. Of the objects that orbit the Sun indirectly—the natural satellites—two are larger than the smallest planet, Mercury



All planets of the Solar System lie very close to the ecliptic. The closer they are to the Sun, the faster they travel (inner planets on the left, all planets except Neptune on the right).


Side-by-side animations of a star and planet orbiting their common centre of gravity (barycentre), and of the pair moving through space as they orbit, creating the star’s “wobble” that revealed the planet. This technique, called the astrometric technique, is expected to be particularly good for detecting Jupiter-like planets in orbits distant from the star. This is because when a massive planet orbits a star, the wobble produced in the star increases with a larger separation between the planet and the star, and at a given distance from the star, the more massive the planet, the larger the wobble produced. Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF


The orbits and size of the planets are not to scale (and the author of the article thinks their orbital speeds have be altered too), but that’s just to make them visible. Apparently, the person who designed the animation is not a scientist so there are a lot of errors in the animation. However it does show two important points outlined below, which are true.

Planets trace a helical path in space because our Solar System is orbiting the centre of the galaxy and the Sun has a little wobble because it shares a common centre of gravity with its planets.

The way that Isaac Newton thought of the stars and planets as objects that moved in absolute time and space. Points in which “stuff” happens. This is how planetary orbits/motions and eclipses are known because everything is nice and stable.


Sir Isaac Newton PRS (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1726/27) was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author (described in his own day as a “natural philosopher”) who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), first published in 1687, established classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics, and shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for developing the infinitesimal calculus.

Of course, things changed at the start of the 20th century as more information came to light.

Chaos theory can explain why we can’t predict things like who is going to win something. Not everything is nice and stable. In very few situations are we able to know the initial conditions really well.

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the study of chaos — dynamical systems whose apparently random states of disorder and irregularities are actually governed by underlying patterns and deterministic laws that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.

The butterfly effect, an underlying principle of chaos, describes how a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state (meaning that there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions). A metaphor for this behaviour is that a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas can cause a hurricane in China.

In celestial mechanics, especially when observing asteroids, applying chaos theory leads to better predictions about when these objects will approach Earth and other planets. Four of the five moons of Pluto rotate chaotically. In quantum physics and electrical engineering, the study of large arrays of Josephson junctions benefitted greatly from chaos theory. Closer to home, coal mines have always been dangerous places where frequent natural gas leaks cause many deaths. Until recently, there was no reliable way to predict when they would occur. But these gas leaks have chaotic tendencies that, when properly modelled, can be predicted fairly accurately.

Chaos theory says even if you know a system quite well, you’ll never be able to know it well enough. There are some times where this doesn’t matter so much and things can be predicted quite well. There are other times when things just can’t be.

You can predict the motion of a simple pendulum. If you know its length you can calculate it’s time period and you can work out its position for any particular time.

A pendulum is a weight suspended from a pivot so that it can swing freely. When a pendulum is displaced sideways from its resting, equilibrium position, it is subject to a restoring force due to gravity that will accelerate it back toward the equilibrium position. When released, the restoring force acting on the pendulum’s mass causes it to oscillate about the equilibrium position, swinging back and forth. The time for one complete cycle, a left swing and a right swing, is called the period. The period depends on the length of the pendulum and also to a slight degree on the amplitude, the width of the pendulum’s swing.



where T is the time period, L is the length of the pendulum and g is the local acceleration of gravity.

Dr Lewney demonstrated his chaos pendulum.


In physics and mathematics, in the area of dynamical systems, a double pendulum is a pendulum with another pendulum attached to its end, and is a simple physical system that exhibits rich dynamic behaviour with a strong sensitivity to initial conditions. The motion of a double pendulum is governed by a set of coupled ordinary differential equations and is chaotic.

Motion of the double compound pendulum (from numerical integration of the equations of motion)


No matter how well you know the initial position of the pendulum and its properties you can’t predict how it will swing. Even if you start it from the same position each time it will swing differently.

So, the world isn’t as orderly as Newton thought it was. You can’t know most things really accurately at the start and just do calculations to see how they will change because they are chaotic. And, of course, there is another big problem called “quantum physics”.

Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics that provides a description of the physical properties of nature at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles. It is the foundation of all quantum physics including quantum chemistry, quantum field theory, quantum technology, and quantum information science.

In Newton’s day atoms weren’t something to be considered and “small” was something seen down a primitive microscope.

Quantum physics introduced uncertainty


Werner Karl Heisenberg (5 December 1901 – 1 February 1976) was a German theoretical physicist and one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics.

In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle (also known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the accuracy with which the values for certain pairs of physical quantities of a particle, such as position, x, and momentum, p, can be predicted from initial conditions.

The uncertainty principle states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be predicted from initial conditions, and vice versa. In other words, if you know the momentum (mass x velocity) of a particle you can’t know its position and if you know its momentum you can’t know its position.


You can’t know the position and momentum perfectly accurately at the same time (although this isn’t an excuse if you get stopped for speeding by the police).

The uncertainty principle does have some remarkable consequences.

In modern physics, the double-slit experiment is a demonstration that light and matter can display characteristics of both classically defined waves and particles; moreover, it displays the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical phenomena. This type of experiment was first performed, using light, by Thomas Young in 1801, as a demonstration of the wave behaviour of light. At that time, it was thought that light consisted of either waves or particles. With the beginning of modern physics, about a hundred years later, it was realised that light could in fact show behaviour characteristic of both waves and particles. In 1927, Davisson and Germer demonstrated that electrons show the same behaviour, which was later extended to atoms and molecules. Thomas Young’s experiment with light was part of classical physics well before quantum mechanics, and the concept of wave-particle duality. He believed it demonstrated that the wave theory of light was correct, and his experiment is sometimes referred to as Young’s experiment or Young’s slits.


Photons or particles of matter (like an electron) produce a wave pattern when two slits are used.


Light from a green laser passing through two slits 0.4mm wide and 0.1mm apart. The green patches are the result of constructive interference and the dark patches are a result of destructive interference (the two waves meeting at the point are completely out of phase and cancel each other out). (below left)


Thomas Young FRS (13 June 1773 – 10 May 1829) was a British polymath who made notable contributions to the fields of vision, light, solid mechanics, energy, physiology, language, musical harmony, and Egyptology. (above centre)

Clinton Joseph Davisson (October 22, 1881 – February 1, 1958) was an American physicist who won the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of electron diffraction in the famous Davisson–Germer experiment. (above right)

Lester Halbert Germer (October 10, 1896 – October 3, 1971) was an American physicist. With Clinton Davisson, he proved the wave-particle duality of matter in the Davisson–Germer experiment, which was important to the development of the electron microscope. These studies supported the theoretical work of De Broglie.


Louis Victor Pierre Raymond de Broglie, 7th duc de Broglie (15 August 1892 – 19 March 1987) was a French physicist and aristocrat who made ground-breaking contributions to quantum theory. In his 1924 PhD thesis, he postulated the wave nature of electrons and suggested that all matter has wave properties. This concept is known as the de Broglie hypothesis, an example of wave–particle duality, and forms a central part of the theory of quantum mechanics.

If the electrons had been totally particles you would have expected them to go through either of the slits and form a pile exactly behind the slit, they had passed through.

So, imagine electrons as tennis balls and throwing them at the wall. Some will bounce off the wall, but some will travel through the slits. If there’s another wall behind the first, the tennis balls that have travelled through the slits will hit it. If you mark all the spots where a ball has hit the second wall, you would expect to see two strips of marks roughly the same shape as the slits.

In the image below, the first wall is shown from the top, and the second wall is shown from the front.


Replacing tennis balls with light gives you an interference pattern caused by two light beams interfering with each other


However, replacing light with electrons also gives an interference pattern.



Increasing numbers of electrons

The above result suggests that what we call “particles”, such as electrons, somehow combine characteristics of particles and characteristics of waves. That’s the famous wave particle duality of quantum mechanics. It also suggests that the act of observing, of measuring, a quantum system has a profound effect on the system. The question of exactly how that happens constitutes the measurement problem of quantum mechanics.

Now what is particularly weird is that if you decide to “observe” the electrons passing through the slits using some sort of detector you get the “tennis ball” pattern.

If you block off one of the slits you would simply get electrons piling up behind the slit.

The Universe “knows” you are trying to be clever. You only get the nice pattern if you don’t know which slit the electrons pass through. The Universe won’t let you know.

The even weirder thing is that each electron can pass through both slits at the same time, if you have two slits.

A famous quote attributed to Richard Feynman

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”


Richard Phillips Feynman ForMemRS (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American theoretical physicist, known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as his work in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model.


Above left: “observing” the electrons going through the slits. Above right: Blocking one of the slits

Relativity is another reason why we can’t predict things. The idea of absolute time and space was no longer correct (although Newton’s world still works under normal circumstances)

The theory of relativity usually encompasses two interrelated theories by Albert Einstein: special relativity and general relativity. Special relativity applies to all physical phenomena in the absence of gravity. General relativity explains the law of gravitation and its relation to other forces of nature. It applies to the cosmological and astrophysical realm, including astronomy.

The theory transformed theoretical physics and astronomy during the 20th century, superseding a 200-year-old theory of mechanics created primarily by Isaac Newton. It introduced concepts including spacetime as a unified entity of space and time, relativity of simultaneity, kinematic and gravitational time dilation, and length contraction. In the field of physics, relativity improved the science of elementary particles and their fundamental interactions, along with ushering in the nuclear age. With relativity, cosmology and astrophysics predicted extraordinary astronomical phenomena such as neutron stars, black holes, and gravitational waves.


Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics (alongside quantum mechanics).

You shouldn’t look directly at the Sun because it would damage your eyes. If you could, you wouldn’t see the stars behind it, or around it because it is so bright.

Solar eclipses come in handy because the Moon covers up the Sun (although you still shouldn’t observe it directly) and weirdly the stars you know should be behind it are visible.


The first observation of light deflection was performed by noting the change in position of stars as they passed near the Sun on the celestial sphere. The observations were performed by Arthur Eddington and his collaborators during the total solar eclipse of May 29, 1919, when the stars near the Sun (at that time in the constellation Taurus) could be observed. Observations were made simultaneously in the cities of Sobral, Ceará, Brazil and in São Tomé and Príncipe on the west coast of Africa. The result was considered spectacular news and made the front page of most major newspapers. It made Einstein and his theory of general relativity world-famous.


Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington OM FRS (28 December 1882 – 22 November 1944) was an English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician.


The change in direction of the light from the star is due to the Sun’s gravity warping spacetime itself.

We “see” the star in the wrong position because we are not aware of the warping of spacetime.

A blackhole is an extreme example of warped spacetime.


A black hole is a region of spacetime where gravity is so strong that nothing—no particles or even electromagnetic radiation such as light—can escape from it. Spacetime completely bends in on itself. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass can deform spacetime to form a black hole.

So, thanks to Einstein Newton’s “absolute space and time” is no longer considered correct, and thanks to Heisenberg we can no loner make predictions from initial speed and position (the latter causes problems in real systems).

What about the direction of time? It is very apparent with growing old (although I still regard myself as looking 30 with the mental outlook of a 7 year old, despite the fact that at the time of writing I am 61).


Particles moving about in a box, regularly colliding with each other and the sides of the box. If the animation was reversed you wouldn’t know the difference.

However, if your box had a gap in it so the particles could escape then it would be obvious if you reversed the animation because the particle would all move back into the box. There is no reason why all the particles would be aiming for just one spot on the box, the spot where there is a hole. It would be highly unlikely that they would all go to the hole.

The language of statistics become important here rather than the language of certainty.

The statistics of physics

The second law of thermodynamics: Entropy or disorder always increases.

The second law of thermodynamics establishes the concept of entropy as a physical property of a thermodynamic system. Entropy predicts the direction of spontaneous processes, and determines whether they are irreversible or impossible, despite obeying the requirement of conservation of energy, which is established in the first law of thermodynamics. The second law may be formulated by the observation that the entropy of isolated systems left to spontaneous evolution cannot decrease, as they always arrive at a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, where the entropy is highest. If all processes in the system are reversible, the entropy is constant.

An increase in entropy accounts for the irreversibility of natural processes, often referred to in the concept of the arrow of time.

Break an egg, cook it and eat it (not me I’m a vegan). You can’t reverse the process although statistically it isn’t impossible, it’s just vastly unlikely.

The man behind the idea was Ludwig Boltzmann (below left)


Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann (February 20, 1844 – September 5, 1906) was an Austrian physicist and philosopher. His greatest achievements were the development of statistical mechanics, and the statistical explanation of the second law of thermodynamics.

His work was continued by Paul Ehrenfest (above right)

Paul Ehrenfest (18 January 1880 – 25 September 1933) was an Austrian and Dutch theoretical physicist, who made major contributions to the field of statistical mechanics and its relations with quantum mechanics, including the theory of phase transition and the Ehrenfest theorem.

Statistical mechanics, branch of physics that combines the principles and procedures of statistics with the laws of both classical and quantum mechanics, particularly with respect to the field of thermodynamics. It aims to predict and explain the measurable properties of macroscopic systems on the basis of the properties and behaviour of the microscopic constituents of those systems.

It is the statistics of a system that can show what time actually is and time is the method of finding an arrangement that is likely.

It is not impossible that something unexpected could happen but the sheer number of atoms, even in a grain of salt, in the Universe is not unexpected.

The direction of time is just down to statistics. Just likely things happening rather than the other around

Statistics is the discipline that concerns the collection, organization, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of data.

If increasing disorder shows the direction of time, where did the order come from in the first place.

As long as disorder increases overall you can create a little pocket of order, it just “costs” a lot.

Making an ice cube involves removing heat from the water, and the molecules form an ordered state. This doesn’t go against the first law of thermodynamics which explains that energy is transferred from higher temperatures to lower temperatures, because a freezer is doing work, removing the energy from the water, and we have to pay for the electricity for the process to happen.

The order on the Earth, which allowed life to form, occurred because of a massive increase in disorder in the Sun.

Why do we remember the past and not the future, well it could simply be because the future hasn’t happened yet or that it would require an enormous input of energy into our brains for us to predict things and our brains couldn’t cope (like Donna Noble in Dr Who)

Donna Noble is a fictional character in the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who.

Donna touches the Doctor and is imbued with the totality of his knowledge, but because her mind cannot handle the knowledge, the Doctor is forced to wipe her memory, otherwise her brain will burn up.


So, what are Dr Lewney’s predictions based on current technology?

One of his favourite inventors was Buckminster Fuller


Richard Buckminster Fuller (July 12, 1895 – July 1, 1983) was an American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, and futurist.

Fuller loved geodesic domes. He thought you could make them into home and put them anywhere. They are cheap, strong and easy to make. However, they wouldn’t be very luxurious. It might be difficult to have services such as water, electricity, gas and sewage removal.

When you are building a housing estate the building site looks a mess at first because pipes and cables have to be laid before building begins.


A geodesic dome is a hemispherical thin-shell structure (lattice-shell) based on a geodesic polyhedron. The triangular elements of the dome are structurally rigid and distribute the structural stress throughout the structure, making geodesic domes able to withstand very heavy loads for their size.

Dr Lewney feels that with new materials could help with building.

The idea of the geodesic dome led to the creation of a new allotrope of carbon, now called Buckminsterfullerene.


Buckminsterfullerene is a type of fullerene with the formula C60. It has a cage-like fused-ring structure (truncated icosahedron) that resembles a soccer ball, made of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons. Each carbon atom has three bonds. It is a black solid that dissolves in hydrocarbon solvents to produce a violet solution. The compound has received intense study, although few real-world applications have been found, so far. What it does show is that new forms of carbon can be made and their properties can be investigated.


Carbon nanotubes often refer to single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) with diameters in the range of a nanometre. They were discovered in carbon arc chambers similar to those used to produce fullerenes. Single-wall carbon nanotubes are one of the allotropes of carbon, intermediate between fullerene cages and flat graphene.


You can also get inorganic nanotubes.

Nanotubes have a lot if useful applications such as energy storage, device modelling, automotive parts, boat hulls and sporting goods.


Aerogel is a synthetic porous ultralight material derived from a gel, in which the liquid component for the gel has been replaced with a gas without significant collapse of the gel structure. The result is a solid with extremely low density and extremely low thermal conductivity. Nicknames include frozen smoke, solid smoke, solid air, solid cloud, blue smoke owing to its translucent nature and the way light scatters in the material. Silica aerogels feel like fragile expanded polystyrene to the touch, while some polymer-based aerogels feel like rigid foams. Aerogels can be made from a variety of chemical compounds.


You can hardly feel you have anything in your hand. It is a very good thermal insulator.


A flower on some aerogel, which is sitting on a Bunsen flame. It would provide brilliant insulation for housing.


Graphene is one of the most promising materials. Its proper isolation and characterisation (2004) gained a Nobel Prize for Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in 2010. It is basically two-dimensional carbon and it is incredibly strong. It is also an excellent heat conductor.

Graphene is an allotrope of carbon consisting of a single layer of atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice. The name is a portmanteau of “graphite” and the suffix -ene, reflecting the fact that the graphite allotrope of carbon consists of stacked graphene layers.


Scanning probe microscopy image of graphene (above left). Graphene is an atomic-scale hexagonal lattice made of carbon atoms (above right). (below left)


Sir Andre K. Geim FRS, HonFRSC, HonFInstP (born 21 October 1958) is a Russian-born Dutch-British physicist working in England in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester. (above right)

Sir Konstantin Sergeevich Novoselov FRS FRSC FInstP (born 23 August 1974) is a Russian-British physicist, and a Professor at the Centre for Advanced 2D Materials, National University of Singapore. He is also the Langworthy Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester. His work on graphene with Andre Geim earned them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

Putting aerogel and graphene together would give you a layer of perfect insulator and a layer of perfect heat conductor.

Only one substance can get through graphene and that is water. This would make it a perfect water filter.

Aeroponics uses graphene


Aeroponics is the process of growing plants in an air or mist environment without the use of soil or an aggregate medium. Air/water is pressurised so it forms droplets on the plant roots. These droplets are the same size as those formed in soil. Because there is no soil there is nothing to compete with the plants for nutrients.

Dr Lewney’s favourite building in the world is the Arctic Cathedral


Tromsdalen Church or the Arctic Cathedral is a parish church of the Church of Norway in Tromsø Municipality in Troms og Finnmark county, Norway. It is located in the Tromsdalen valley on the east side of the city of Tromsø. It is the church for the Tromsøysund parish which is part of the Tromsø domprosti (arch-deanery) in the Diocese of Nord-Hålogaland. The modern concrete and metal church was built in a long church style in 1965 by the architect Jan Inge Hovig. The church seats about 600 people.

One of the major applications of graphene is for flexible screens in phones, tablets and computers. Samsung developed a prototype in 2010. During a developer conference in 2018, they showed a foldable smartphone prototype, which was subsequently revealed in February 2019 as the Galaxy Fold.


The screen is made from graphene, but the whole phone is flexible.

A flexible display or rollable display is an electronic visual display which is flexible in nature, as opposed to the traditional flat screen displays used in most electronic devices. In recent years there has been a growing interest from numerous consumer electronics manufacturers to apply this display technology in e-readers, mobile phones and other consumer electronics. Such screens can be rolled up like a scroll without the image or text being distorted. Technologies involved in building a rollable display include electronic ink, Gyricon, Organic LCD, and OLED.

Graphene can be incorporated into very efficient solar cells.

A solar cell, or photovoltaic cell, is an electrical device that converts the energy of light directly into electricity by the photovoltaic effect, which is a physical and chemical phenomenon.


So, Dr Lewney’s predictions:

Within the next twenty years or so we might be able to have a house made of graphene that is luxurious and comfortable to live in. It could be put anywhere and filter its own water and sewage. Produce its own electricity and store it from solar and wind.

You wouldn’t need to dig up anything to fit the infrastructure and the building would be very strong and light. You wouldn’t need to buy separate TVs or computer screens. You could just cover the entire inside walls with graphite screens (this might actually let you camouflage the building from the outside and let Dr Lewney turn the inside into the Arctic cathedral).

Questions and answers

1) Why does the Sun’s gravity become string during an eclipse?

Actually, it doesn’t. The gravity is the same throughout. It always bends the light from stars. We don’t normally notice because the bending isn’t great and the Sun is very bright. As mentioned earlier Einstein predicted this effect and Arthur Eddington proved it. It’s only during an eclipse the effect becomes visible. The Moon removes a lot of the Sun’s brightness when it “covers” it.

2) Could a graphene house be used on the Moon if you could get it up there?

That is a very good question. Yes, it is a goal to put structures on the Moon and aerogel would make a fantastic insulating layer as it can get quite cold on the Moon when the surface isn’t facing the Sun, but incredibly hot when it is. Also, the structure would need to be airtight. You don’t want to lose any air from inside the building. You would need a source of water and there is promising evidence that there are water sources on the Moon. Once you have your water, light and seeds you have aeroponics, a food source. I would suggest that the structure be tested under the sea first. If water could get in you would know the structure wasn’t air tight, something you don’t want to find out on the Moon. I think it will happen but not exactly as I’ve said because there might be different materials, which might work better than the ones we have now or be cheaper.

Graphene is already just about cheaper than silicon but the trouble with it is that it is not easy to make circuitry out of it, because it needs some manipulation. You only want it to transmit electricity in one direction, like a normal semiconductor. It is possible to make semiconductors and circuitry out of graphene. Once you’ve got reliable graphene circuitry plus all the other things you can make out of graphene, I can’t see how it won’t radically change the future.

For most of us adults, buying our houses are our life savings. Imagine if a decent house didn’t cost a lot of money because you could just put it anywhere, without having to dig foundations or lay pipes, and it was self-sufficient in terms of water, energy and food. It would be an amazing future.

3) Is graphene expensive? Is it difficult to manufacture?

It’s getting easier. In some respects, the process was discovered by accident. The group of scientists at the University of Manchester had a Friday night club, where they had a few beers in the Lab and they just tried different things that were unlikely to work. One of their activities was to see if they could make 2D carbon. They took a pencil and produced some graphite powder. They got some Sellotape. Put the pencil powder on the Sellotape. squashed it together and then pulled the Sellotape apart. They repeated the process again and again and thought that eventually each of the little flakes would be just one atom thick. The genius factor was actually working out whether they had achieved this. They dissolved the flakes in acetone to get rid of the sticky bits from the Sellotape and used very clever optical measurements to do with colours to determine the flakes that were actually one atom thick.

The group did consider patenting their idea which would have meant that only the University of Manchester could make graphene. They didn’t. They released it to everyone.

4) Do you think it would be possible to use to collect microplastics from rivers and seas?

Yes, but there are already materials that can do that. The real advantage in graphene is it only lets water through so you can filter sea water straight away. This will revolutionise developing countries who find it difficult to source freshwater. In terms of the microplastics it’s a bit trickier as you’re not going to be able to filter a whole river or sea through a piece of graphene. If it is easier to make more effective filter structures out of graphene nets, then that is a possibility.

A wacky idea for graphene is to use it to make self-replicating robots that can find bits and turn it into themselves to find other bits of graphene.

If you could make a self-replicating robot out of microplastics that could make a replica of itself out of bits of microplastics that it finds. You could then collect it.

5) Is there much more research going on at the moment with the potential to use graphene? Is it still “the material of the future” with a race to use it in the best possible way?

The Koreans are getting really good at making actual practical things like the Samsung phone although they don’t quite understand the physics of graphene like the University of Manchester. The University of Manchester are the World leaders in graphene expertise about graphene itself.

What usually happens is that Samsung create something amazing and then contact Manchester to explain why it works. It’s a lovely cooperation between the brilliant minds at the University and the brilliant engineers in South Korea. Brilliant combination of theory and practice which is driving progress.

6) Is this because Manchester is holding things back or because they know so much about the material?

They just do different research as do other academic institutions. They really want to understand the physic of this material. Understanding the fundamentals of the physics will unlock even more doors in the future. Private enterprise like Samsung just want to sell things that work. They’re not quite so worried about the fundamental properties. Just a difference in emphasis of what is considered important. An academic research University will have a different set of priorities to one of the world’s biggest phone sellers.

7) How do the aeroponics work with graphene?

You don’t absolutely need graphene to do aeroponics. It just means you can filter the water. Being able to build things out of graphene and aerogel that are nicely insulated. Graphene can provide the energy for the pump and for light. During the day you can have the Sun shining on the plants. If you’ve got graphene photocells with a battery you can light the plants at night, perhaps with tiny LEDs next to the leaf.

There is a lot you can do with graphene and aerogel to make the process really efficient and self-contained.

8) If graphene is that much self-sufficient what about the second law of thermodynamics where entropy always increases?

Graphene itself isn’t necessarily self-sufficient. It allows for self-sufficiency in terms of collecting energy efficiently. Storing energy efficiently, making things that are harder, bulletproof, invisible and more useful. None of that violates the second law of thermodynamics because the energy it’s getting is from the Sun. When the Sun fuses hydrogen into helium it gives out a lot of energy, but the process is very inefficient. It is producing an awful lot of energy to give us sunlight. However efficient graphene is it will never be able to convert sunlight with 100% efficiency. So, the second law of thermodynamics is safe. No matter how much nice order we get from graphene it’s still being bought by an enormous increase in disorder because of the Sun burning down.

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