Placeholder, SPQS Universe

The Science of Placeholder, Pt.5

Metamaterials are perhaps one of the most exciting areas of 21st century physics and engineering, and will allow us to accomplish effects not possible with naturally-structured materials.  But I should make something clear up-front.  Metamaterials aren’t necessarily new synthetic chemical substances exhibiting strange properties, they are new periodic structures of existing materials (though certainly, custom-designed polymers could be useful for certain applications), that allow for desirable macroscopic effects.

Research has progressed the most with electromagnetic metamaterials, but a great deal of headway has also been made with acoustic and seismic metamaterials.  Seismic metamaterials will be of especial-use here on Earth for the construction of greatly improved earthquake-proof structures, but could also be extended into general kinetic absorption for body armour and spaceship hull design.  The vast array of sensor design coming from research into electromagnetic and acoustic metamaterials is also quite fascinating.  Basic ‘cloaking’ has already been achieved in the microwave spectrum (ie., objects have been rendered nearly invisible through metamaterial cloaking to microwave radiation).  Superlenses can achieve resolution beyond the diffraction limit (!).  Ultrasonic sensors can be designed.  Sound and light can be custom-modified, ‘shaped’ if you will; ultrasonic waves can be shaped down to audible wavelengths, ultraviolet light, x-rays, and gamma radiation can be shaped into visible light.  And you can even hope to see materials which are entirely transparent to the visible light spectrum, but entirely reflective to ultraviolet light, x-rays, and hard radiation (although reflecting infrared, microwave, and radio waves is much easier to accomplish).  The trick to that is the negative refraction index that can be achieved with metamaterials.  And you can even design metamaterial absorbers to trap high-energy particles from alpha decay (among other things).

That’s right, we can actually start thinking about designing sheets of ‘metaglass’ that are fully transparent to visible light, but shield against all forms of hard radiation, even alpha and beta decay.  We could stand three feet away from a reactor core, behind a sheet of metaglass, and not even worry.  Fine, that’s more than a few years away, and will require some major improvements to nanoscale engineering to accomplish.  But at least we now know such things are possible.

(Spoiler Alert!  The rest of this post discusses technical details of Placeholder’s plot and primary characters.)

Metamaterials in the SPQS Universe:

In Placeholder, I make it clear enough that just about every material used for space engineering is some form of metamaterial.  And this isn’t just me hyping a field of limited potential, it’s me recognizing the potential of metamaterials for creating lightweight but stronger structures, with enhanced durability and impact resistance, all coated on the exterior hull in a conveniently thin layer entirely reflective to hard radiation.  As I mentioned in the previous post, Cosmic Radiation is a serious danger for astronauts on long-term missions.  Metamaterials are one solution, and in my opinion also the best, due to their highly-customizable nature.

I’ve even incorporated metamaterials into the design of computers.  I didn’t feel the need to specifically state it, because it seemed kind of obvious, but metamaterials play a vital role in the design of optical computers and general optronics.  Specifically, I did mention how the terminal screens are constructed.  At first glance they just seem like a portable sheet of metaglass with comfortable hand-holds along the side and a projection display unit (with built-in wireless transmitter/receiver) attached to the bottom.  The projection unit communicates with the terminal base, which is linked to the local hub, but receives instructions through each individual’s neural interface (a basic brain-to-computer interface that provides input to the terminal, but does not receive output from it to be fed directly into the brain).  All output is projected onto the back of the sheet of layered metaglass, and each layer of the metaglass sheet is customized for a very specific wavelength frequency (dark red to bright red light)—it could easily be made full-colour, but red light preserves night vision, which is integral for astronauts.  The effect it creates is a fully 3-dimensional display with a misty cloudiness appearing vaguely somewhere behind it, and for security, you can only make out any details on-screen if you’re directly in front of it.  Otherwise, it just looks like a sheet of glass.  Pretty neat, eh?  Such a screen isn’t actually all that far away (although certain durability aspects involving high-pressure tempering are a little unrealistic, simply due to cost).

The wide array of sensors accessible from the SFS Fulgora’s Flight deck and Research bay also, naturally, make use of metamaterials.  When analyzing stellar spectrographs, it is useful to have the widest range of finely-tuned sensors possible, and metamaterials can be of great use in improving our current catalogue of sensors and telescopes for use in space.  Imagine, for example, being able to take detailed images of Pluto’s surface from low-Earth orbit.  Imagine being able to enter a new star system, and have a complete system model generated from sensor data within minutes.  Metamaterial-based sensors will allow us to do that.  Who knows where this new technology will lead us?

There’s a lot more I could get into, but metamaterials are an emerging field.  If you want to keep up to date with it, it never hurts to keep the wikipedia article bookmarked: (most of the specific sections are only summaries that link to complete articles on each of the main topics, so there’s plenty to read from that one page alone).

There’s also some interesting texts on metamaterials: Search for Metamaterials on

Specifically, Electromagnetic Metamaterials: Physics and Engineering Explorations (978-0471761020), and Metamaterials Handbook – Two Volume Slipcase Set (978-1420053623) look pretty good.  Though there are a lot of others to choose from on Amazon.

In my next post, I’ll finally be getting around to molecular reconstruction, which may not be as far off in the future as we think.

— the Phoeron