Scientists, intrigued by a 3-foot-square thing, created something that will actually work — and nobody knew it

Science can really be complicated. Omicron Prompts a Swift Reconsidered Among Scientists Props launched last month on Google’s official research site — known as Google Science Grants — prompted some additional questions among scientists,…

Scientists, intrigued by a 3-foot-square thing, created something that will actually work — and nobody knew it

Science can really be complicated.

Omicron Prompts a Swift Reconsidered Among Scientists Props launched last month on Google’s official research site — known as Google Science Grants — prompted some additional questions among scientists, further highlighting how little we know about many of the world’s most fascinating questions.

The thought-provoking energy detector uses microwaves to “generate fluctuating pulses of energy that can either amplify or cancel each other out,” according to a promotional video. The pattern created has the unique ability to interfere with electromagnetic transmissions — say, a flashlight if your hand is holding it to see an object you’re trying to see. The Omicron Prompt, which was invented by Philippe Grassini, Daniel Traversa and Feng Zhang, should be able to detect threats at the nanoscale.

The simple plan is to make a small linear device — about 10x10x10 centimeters in size — and apply it at small-scale. The latest version of the device includes internal thermistors that take gas out of an oxygen tank, then heat the gas to determine whether it’s or isn’t poisonous (gas is said to have a lethal 3.6-degree Kelvin rating). They want to figure out if the current and current return rates might be useful for sensing waste gases.

Once an even smaller, less harsh version of the device is created and that’s tested, they could make it more powerful, too.

That is not yet the plan. The new device would be made using a commercially available, standard semiconductor package. Not only is that standard more stable, but it’s also better for the electrical components in the device (it’s like having components designed for most of a computer built into the device).

However, other scientists say it’s too soon to say whether the experiment will work, and added to The Salt that researchers in China have been working on a similar, but bigger version of a similar device for 20 years. (Listed on their website, the team is still working on the technology as of 2017).

Dr. Peter O’Sullivan, a researcher in University College London’s department of chemistry, also questions whether Grassini, Traversa and Zhang — who have yet to register a patent for the Omicron Prompt — should get credit.

“They’re not inventors,” he said. “They’re a hardware company. They’re not operating within the bounds of the usual regulatory processes. That’s what I want regulators to take into account.”

Dr. Thomas Fisher, a researcher at McMaster University’s department of fluid mechanics, says the devices might prove useful, but he’s also told to keep one eye on the Chinese group.

“They’re at the very early stages of making a machine,” he said. “They can make whatever they want.”

Omicron Prompts show just how little we understand about the nature of the universe. At first, it sounded like the water bottle logo. But the device’s creators say it could pave the way for a new system to detect minute changes in plasma, which can be used to measure the earth’s magnetic field — something that researchers could never capture with existing technology.

And although the invention is still in its infancy, even some physicists say it’s too early to estimate how big the potential of the Omicron Prompt might be.

“I’m fascinated,” said Dae Jin Kim, a researcher in the department of atmospheric and environmental sciences at Seoul National University, who is interested in trying to predict the earth’s magnetic field. “I’ve thought about this since I was a kid.”

The Salt editorial staff contributed to this article.

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