The U.K.’s Sonic Screwdriver Prototype and What It Means for You as a Person
You know what would be great? If I could unscrew things without using my arm to apply the torque. You know what would also be great? If I could have some surgery done on a part that’s inside my body without doctors having to slice through the other bits of me that are in the way. You know what else is great? Bow ties and chucks.
Those three (great) things all have to do with the fact that the world is now one step closer to bringing a fictional device out of the minds responsible for the sci fi television show, Doctor Who, and into the hands of surgeons in the operating room. If you are wondering who, what, when, where, why and HOW, please feel free to keep reading. If you are thinking to yourself, “Doctor Who. That’s a good question,” don’t fret, I’ll provide all the spoiler-free information that you need to know to understand the basic premise, but I encourage you go rent yourself a box set from your favorite local DVD distributor or online video stream and enjoy this really unique and endearingly campy show.
I. Doctor what? A sonic who?
If you’re already a devoted Whovian, you can probably skip over these next two paragraphs. Unless you’re so Whovian that there’s no such thing as reading too much Doctor, then by all means continue.
For everybody else, the sonic screwdriver is one of the hand-built devices in the arsenal of the television show’s title character, the Doctor. The Doctor is a relatively immortal alien, the last of an extraordinarily intelligent, time-traveling race known as the Time Lords. The Doctor regenerates instead of dying when he is severely wounded, repairing every single cell in his body, resulting in a dramatic change in his physical appearance and a subtle change in his personality. This concept has allowed the show to be passed down from actor to actor since 1963. The Doctor has a notorious reputation that spans across time and space for being a fearsome warrior, but in practice he’s MacGyver with a PhD in astrophysics. A violent past has left him with a bit of post-traumatic shock and the show follows his struggle to find contentment in the time he spends traversing the Universe after these events, when his default frame of mind is to do as little harm as possible. A reoccurring theme in the show is that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” or rather, the Doctor’s brain is mightier than any legion of deceptive cyborgs or alien sociopaths that are hell bent on ensuring the human race never makes it into the 23rd century.
His good looks and charm don’t hurt him, either
(image from the TARDIS Wiki)
The sonic screwdriver embodies this concept as a device the Doctor invented, not as a weapon to kill, but as a tool to do really clever things with sonic waves. Although the aesthetics have changed over the years as the screwdriver grew to become a more iconic piece of the show, the basic design has stayed the same. The so-called screwdriver is a mechanical rod that’s more or less the size of a ballpoint pen with an LED at one end. In a typical TV episode, the Doctor whips out the device, aims the LED at something he wants to meddle with, and flicks a switch on the side with his thumb to turn it on. The LED glows, and in later seasons also makes a noise, emitting sonic waves that coax stubborn doors to open, locks to unlock, and, yes, screws to unscrew. It is also sometimes used by the Doctor as a scanner to identify alien contaminants or a remote to hack into less sophisticated electronics. The sonic screwdriver’s one fallacy is that it just doesn’t work on anything made out of wood . If encountering another sonic device of similar caliber, the two sonic streams interfere with each other when crossed and may suffer damages. The sonic screwdriver is marketable enough that you can now purchase it in toy form various places on the internet, and though they may make you feel like you’re ready to take on all of time and space, they’ll do little more than sound cool and look pretty as they buzz and glow and suck a few batteries dry.
But they will totally make your cosplay feel 10% more legit
(image from ThinkGeek)
The science behind the sonic screwdriver isn’t that outrageous or farfetched, especially when compared to some of the other tech featured on the show. Sonic is a word associated with acoustics, or waves propagating in a solid, liquid, or gas. More specifically:
Definition of so•nic (adj)
1 : utilizing, produced by, or relating to sound waves; broadly : of or involving sound
2 : having a frequency within the audibility range of the human ear –used of waves and vibrations
Waves can be thought of as the transference of energy through a medium. It takes an initial, usually mechanical, push or vibration to add energy to the medium and create a wave. For example, you add mechanical energy to water when you jump into a pool. Another example is adding energy to a cymbal by smashing a drumstick against it and waves propagate in the sheet metal. The sound you hear, in the splash and the cymbal crash, is really just your eardrum interpreting these waves as the energy dissipates in the medium. This is also why you hear noise when you drop a solid object on the floor. There are other types of waves, such as electromagnetic waves, that can travel without a medium, but we’re not going to get our hands sticky with that mess of quantum mechanics today.
The energy and resultant waveforms that the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver sends through the air are powerful and flexible enough to manipulate the matter they propagate through, such as the inner mechanisms of a handcuff’s lock or the hinges and springs that trigger a spaceship’s door. Outside the television universe, ultrasonic waves have thus far been used to push objects of various weight and mass, but the technology is a hair less sophisticated than what you’d find on the Doctor’s lost home planet, Gallifrey.
 We can only assume that the Ents evolved as Middle Earth’s defensive response to Time Lords.
II. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom…
Researchers at the University of Dundee’s Institute for Medical Science and Technology (IMSAT) in the UK have invented an ultrasonic device that can not only push an object around, but also rotate it, using an acoustic spiral. This caused a small stir on the internet in April after the University of Dundee published a summary of the group’s findings in a press release in which one of the researchers on the project, Dr. Mike MacDonald, explains:
“This experiment not only confirms a fundamental physics theory but also demonstrates a new level of control over ultrasound beams which can also be applied to non-invasive ultrasound surgery, targeted drug delivery and ultrasonic manipulation of cells.”
This is the first time such a device has been used to rotate an object, bringing the Doctor’s nimble screwdriver one step closer to reality. Their machine doesn’t have the elegance of the Doctor’s tricked-out, steampunk pen, sure, it’s basically a blue rubber disk with what looks like a syringe stuck on top floating in a jar, but it’s still pretty nifty, as you can see for yourself in the video below.
BBC News also has a video that shows the sonic jar in action, accompanied by some informative sound bites from an interview with Dr. MacDonald and a BBC reporter appropriately pondering the mysteries of the device from behind his academic glasses.
The Dundee group’s paper, Mechanical evidence of the orbital angular momentum to energy ratio of vortex beams, was accepted by the Physical Review Letters on March 15 of this year. It hasn’t been published yet, so for now we have to settle with just reading the abstract. An abstract is a summary of the entire research paper. It states what the group did, how they did it, and what they found out. What it looks like they did to achieve the rotation in the disk is fire a few parallel ultrasound beams up at the disk, but the beams also rotate, creating an acoustic helix that adds in some angular momentum.
The Dundee group aren’t the only engineers that are attempting to tease the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver out of their research. Bristol University’s mechanical engineering department has a research group dedicated to studying Ultrasonics and NDT (non-destructive testing), or as they put it: “A study of the fundamental science and practical applications of ultrasound.” One of their group members, Professor Bruce Drinkwater, is a Professor of Ultrasonics, a title that already places him two degrees from being a Professor Time Lord, who brought his expertise to The Big Bang: UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair in March 2011. In a Bristol University press release, Professor Drinkwater summarizes the current state of ultrasonic technology:
“Doctor Who is renowned for bending the rules of science. But technology has radically moved on since the Doc first stepped out of his Tardis in the sixties. Whilst a fully functioning time machine may still be light years away, engineers are already experimenting with ultrasonic waves to move and manipulate small objects.”
His research group is working on a number of projects right now, including the sonotweezers, a joint collaboration between Bristol University, the University of Glasgow, the University of Southampton, and the University of Dundee to develop an ultra-sensitive, microscopic version of ordinary lab tweezers, or the kind that you use to pluck body hair, substituting the tweezers’ prongs with ultrasound. The sonotweezers (gesundheit) have their applications in biology and chemistry, where the manipulation of delicate microscopic cells and inorganic particles can be a hassle.
Another area that ultrasonic technology has started to have an impact on is in medicine. In his TED talk, “Ultrasound surgery – healing without cuts,” Yoav Medan talks about his work at InSightec developing ultrasound for tissue incision and pain relief. At about 1:22 minutes into the video, Medan shows the results of an experiment performed in an acoustics physics lab that focuses an ultrasound ray on a submerged piece of transparent silicone, intended to simulate human tissue, and creates a slice in the center of the chunk without damaging the surrounding silicone. This technique has already been used to some success and will only get more sophisticated as engineers figure out how to fine-tune their control over acoustic beams.
III. Trust me, I’m a doctor.
Probably the coolest thing about all of this is this is actual research that you can actually do. You might not get to work with either of these particular groups on this specific topic, but if you want to get undergraduate or advanced degree in science, you’ll probably have to take on a research project at some point or participate in a research group for academic credit towards your major. This is how science and engineering get done in the academic world: you find a topic you’re interested in and go at it, coming up with applications and finding new venues to explore, and inspiring other groups in your field. Looking into various university research groups is actually the most crucial part of the graduate school application process, apart from figuring out how you’re going to pay for it. If you do want to go for your PhD, it helps to have been involved with a research group at the college or university where you’re getting your bachelor’s degree. Another option is pursuing an internship over the summer, which can be pretty sweet if you want to meet new people and learn about schools and companies outside of your college.
I MUST STUDY THIS GRASS
(image via the TARDIS wiki)
On a side note about research papers, the Physical Review Letters, like Science, Nano Letters, and many, many other science journals require a subscription in order to read the research papers they publish. Colleges and universities often pay for these through their libraries, at the request of their science departments, so if you’re attending college right now or live local to one and you’re interested in dipping into the current literature in your favorite field of study, check it out to see if you can get access. If you can’t stomach the headache-inducing techno-babble that’s in the meat of most research papers, you can always just skim the abstracts and/or the introduction section. You can probably figure this out for yourself, but an introduction section is the first part of a research paper that summarizes the topic the researchers are studying and gives some background on the topic that usually includes citations of previous work done by other research groups in the field. Research papers and other kinds of science literature are pretty intimidating if you’re not well-versed in the field and don’t have a mental dictionary of commonly used science terms to fall back on, so don’t sweat it too much if you’re just breaking into it.
I’ll leave you with this video from the BBC, Doctor Who’s Top 11 Sonic Screwdriver Scenes. And they really mean the eleventh Doctor’s Top 11 Sonic Screwdriver Scenes.
Header image source of the tenth Doctor from the Official Doctor Who Tumblr.