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Weird Science

Why is it that the really cool-sounding research–the stuff of comic books and science-fiction novels–comes out of the Department of Defense? Anyway, that’s the way it seems sometimes–apart, I suppose from some of the quantum weirdness physicists often study.

Here’s the latest example of what I mean, via a press release from DefenseLink:

The Army Research Office awarded a $4
million grant in mid-August to lay the scientific foundation it hopes
will someday enable soldiers in the field to communicate through a
deliberate thought process.

Elmar Schmeisser, ARO program
manager, described the revolutionary concept in terms of the way
today’s field soldiers communicate with radios. “You’ll press the
button on your harness, you’ll think, then you’ll throw the button
off,” he said.

Gone will be the microphone. Gone will be the
receiver. The message will go directly from the soldier’s head into a
computer programmed to decipher his brain waves, Schmeisser explained.

The result will be communication that’s silent, secure and free of background noise.

Perhaps there’s a serious point to be made here. America’s (indeed, the world’s) major science funding agencies insist they’re interested in transformative research, and I believe them. Yet, you rarely see program announcements from NSF or NIH that are quite this–well, exciting, in a popular-science sort of way. Is this an indication of a more ambitious scientific culture in the military establishment–or is it just a manifestation of a more authentic scientific culture at the mainstream funding agencies. Or is it something else?

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