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VCU Engineer Wows with Talk on Sci-Fi and Science Reality Convergence

Standing center stage in the packed WCVE-TV studio during November’s Science Pub RVA event hosted by Science Matters, Virginia Commonwealth University Engineering School Associate Professor Karla Mossi, Ph.D., took on the “final frontier” – science fiction or science fact. The mechanical and nuclear engineering expert’s conclusion: The two are merging ever closer.

“Where will our imaginations take us?” she said, citing the book “Prey.” “It is the next generation that will have to tackle head-on the issues that surround the convergence of nano-, bio- and computer technologies.”

Mossi’s talk, hosted by Science Matters, an educational initiative of Central Virginia’s public television station, was no tedious lecture. Instead, this special Science Pub RVA event combined socializing and stimulation aimed at boosting creative minds.

The format fitted Mossi just fine. Microphone in hand, she captivated the 175-person crowd as her slide show sound track filled the cavernous studio with the theme song of one of television’s most successful sci-fi shows – Star Trek, a series she watched in Spanish re-runs during her childhood in Honduras.

“Consider Captain Kirk’s hand-held communicator,” she said. So novel was the device, though it didn’t exist then, that it inspired inventor Martin Cooper to create the cell phone in 1973.

Consider flat-panel televisions. The sci-fi sitcom The Jetsons provided the source for an invention that now, Mossi noted, “you can buy at Costco.” Moreover, flexible, fold-up television screens “are coming,” she added. “They are not very far off.”

Consider how Batman’s costume protected him as he rescued damsels in burning buildings. Today, the fire-retardant material is made by DuPont and worn by policemen.

And consider Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. In the future, Mossi said, “these meta-materials that interact with magnetic fields in light waves to bend light in a way that no natural material can could result in a cloaking device similar to Harry Potter’s cape.”

“These are things we are using today,” she said, noting that spectacular advancements also are being made in medicine, engineering, manufacturing, technology and the arts.

Yet despite these successes, some sci-fi inventions – including Star Trek’s transporter that allowed Capt. Kirk to beckon “beam me up” – are not yet being studied because their fictional applications deny numerous scientific rules, said Mossi, who also serves as VCU Engineering’s Graduate Program Director for Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering.

Today’s real superhero, for instance, carries batteries as a power source. But tomorrow’s hero will have a logistic fuel-based system and a climate-controlled, thermoelectric-based uniform. Together these innovations, which currently are under research, will reduce the weight soldiers carry by almost a third, Mossi said. “A soldier today carries more weight than in mediaeval days,” she noted.  “Why? It’s in part due to the weight of batteries.”

College students to retirees peppered Mossi with questions about robots, nanoparticles and how to resolve emerging dilemmas in science ethics. One man asked where she envisions the Internet will be in a 100 years – a query so mind-boggling that she simply uttered “fascinating.”

As for her favorite sci-fi device, Mossi didn’t need to ponder. “The transporter.”

“Honduras, where I grew up, had very bad roads,” she said of the long drives travelling with her family to shop or visit scientific sites that lured her into studying engineering. “My dad, he liked to go to hydroelectric plants for vacation.”

Robert J. Mattauch, Ph.D., VCU Engineering School’s dean emeritus, lauded Mossi’s talk by quoting the late aerospace engineer Theodore von Karman.“Science, chemistry, physics explores what is. Engineering creates what never has been.

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Article by Ruth Intress for VCU School of Engineering 

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