Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver can unlock any door, disarm weapons and even track aliens — so if you got a sonic screwdriver in real life for one day, what would you do?
Some would presumably hypnotize their foes or talk to their pets, some would think of uploading their consciousness into a computer (yes, a sonic screwdriver can do that), and of course, some would try to sell it to the highest bidder. But what if I told you that at least some of the technology in Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver already exists?
The science behind Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver
A sonic screwdriver can perform many functions, from healing minor injuries to scanning matter and controlling computers. So if any device could incorporate even a few capabilities of this fictional device for real, it would be an outstanding achievement. Still, the big question is, is it possible to create a real-life sonic screwdriver?
In several episodes, the Doctor tightens a screw or locks or unlocks a door from a distance. Interestingly, in reality, sound as a form of energy can also cause vibrations and move objects without any physical contact. For instance, in 2010, a team of scientists and engineers from the University of Bristol and the Big Bang UK performed some experiments involving ultrasonic sound waves for manipulating objects without actually touching them.
The team proposed that when ultrasonic force fields are rotated at high speeds, these sound energy fields behave like the tip of a screwdriver and can loosen or tighten a screw in the same way the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver does. Ultrasonics expert Bruce Drinkwater who led these experiments believes that “superpowerful” ultrasonic sound waves can be used to create a real-life sonic screwdriver. He said during an interview, “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.”
Another research paper published in 2013 reveals that sound waves can even make an object float (or vibrate) in the air by employing a technique called acoustic levitation. The research was based on an experiment in which scientists used two platforms placed one above the other and facing each other. The platform placed on the upside produced downward sound waves, and the other platform located on the bottom side generated sound waves that went upward.
When a small object was placed in the empty gap (in the air) between the two platforms, instead of falling down due to gravity, the object was vibrating in the air – but how? This was due to the fact that just like electromagnetic waves, sound waves have momentum, and therefore, they can also exert force on an object.
So sound waves from the platforms also caused an equal but opposite acoustic radiation force that not only nullified the effect of gravity on the object but also created a low-pressure zone (called a node) in which the object could neither move upward nor downwards and so was forced to stay in the air. This unique setup developed by scientists to demonstrate acoustic levitation also proved that using sound energy, a device (like a sonic screwdriver) can move objects (or push away Daleks) in real life.
In June 2021, Shota Kondo and Kan Okubo, engineers from Tokyo Metropolitan University, published a study that addressed a hemispherical ultrasonic transducer array, a technology that, according to Kondo and Okubo, can lift millimeter size objects from a reflective surface using only sound. The Japanese engineers also claimed that the contactless movement of an object from a reflective surface was made possible for the first with their method.
It’s not exactly a full-capacity sonic screwdriver, but it’s a start — and suggests that at least some of its capability could be achievable in the foreseeable future. But that’s just a part of what it should do.
Could we actually build a real-life sonic screwdriver?
Doctor Who’s amazing sonic screwdriver has numerous functions, and with time, the show has introduced its new and advanced versions as well. So with our current technology, it’s almost impossible for a single device to perform every task that the fictional screwdriver does. But over the years, scientists have been able to create devices that have successfully demonstrated some of the most famous sonic driver actions in reality. In other words, while having one device that does all these amazing things seems far-fetched for now, we could have separate instruments that do some of the things.
In 2012, researchers at the University of Dundee came up with a device that, like the fictional tool, was capable of moving an object using ultrasonic sound waves. The device produced human DNA-shaped vortex beams that could make a 90 gram rubber disc levitate. Scientists who performed this experiment claimed that this real-life sonic device could prove to be useful in ultrasound medical treatment of the human body.
“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”, said Dr. Mike MacDonald, one of the scientists who were involved in the sonic screwdriver experiment at the University of Dundee.
Two years later, in 2014, a team of researchers from the University of Glasgow developed a device called the heptagon acoustic tweezer that was believed to have the potential for healing damaged human cells and nerves in the future. Like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, this device also used sound energy to perform its cell repairing functions. The acoustic tweezer was presented as a simple alternative to the traditional and time-taking laser-driven cell patterning methods that required special instruments and various other resources.
In 2016, another group of researchers from the University of Bristol announced the completion of a real-life sonic screwdriver and a sonic gauntlet that used sound waves to levitate objects. In order to create the sonic screwdriver, the researchers fitted acoustic arrays inside an actual screwdriver. This modification allowed them to hold tiny polystyrene balls in the air with their device. The acoustic array inside the sonic screwdriver consisted of multiple acoustic transducers that produced multiple focused acoustic waves capable of controlling tiny objects without any physical contact.
The researchers from the University of Bristol highlighted that although for now, sonic energy can move only smaller pieces of matter, in the future, devices based on the same concept would be able “to manipulate cells, liquids, compounds or living things without touching or contaminating them”. So while some of the more exquisite functions of the tool remain unavailable, its main power, that of moving things with sound, may be closer.
For the last 50 years, the sonic screwdriver has been a part of our favorite time-traveling hero’s life. The device has helped the doctor unravel numerous mysteries and evade life-threatening situations. The efforts that the scientific community has been making to make the device a reality could make any hard-core Doctor Who fan feel both excited and emotional.
Whether we look from the perspective of a scientist or a common man, a device like the sonic screwdriver can solve an endless number of problems that people face on a daily basis. So just like the sonic screwdriver has developed over time in the show, let’s hope we also get to see more and more advanced real-life sonic screwdrivers in the future.
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