Schrödinger's Kitten

Irreverent Science for Everyone

Faster, Happier, More Carbon Fibre

  • macro
  • sport

Speaking as a bitter intellectual who was always picked last in PE, the Olympics suck. A host of wunderkind who had the good judgement to be born with a handful of genes optimising them for a highly-specialised nonsensical behaviour go on a jolly. A joyful populace gets to embrace the value of healthy exercise and physical activity by testing their posteriors' endurance and goggling at said prancing Greek godlings emblazoned with adverts for fast food. Some government blows a discretionary budget and then some on sports infrastructure — so much more crucial to the wellbeing of a country than digital infrastructure or sewer pipes — and 'rejuvenating' some poor estate to within an inch of its life with some excitingly edgy street art.

No, this is not a display of what is best in humanity; how far sheer, bloody-minded determination and hard work can get a human. But its frequently overlooked sister event, whose competitors frequently have to overcome adversity just to get down the corner shop... the Paralympics have potential.

Paralympians might not get first crack at the virgin track, but they do sport some cutting edge technology. The cunningly fused materials, honed aerodynamics, frictionless joints and maneoverable wheels that enable them to achieve mean they bring science out on the track with them, which, despite its problems, is a field much more open than the world of professional sports.

Whether Pistorius, the runner with faster times after bilateral amputation than most people with standard issue legs, gets an advantage from his medical history is a complicated question. Surely though, there will come a time when scientific augmentation will make better athletes than random genetic recombination by drunken amateurs on a Friday night. And then the Paralympics will come into their own. As Pistorius and coach say to their critics: 'Have the surgery, get the carbon fibre blades, and we'll see who's fastest.'

Now that is a competition worthy of humanity. Who among us has the chutzpah to give up bits of their anatomy for the best that current technology has to offer? Swap legs for struts and pistons in smart materials that will store and release stress: embed monitors in eyeballs that, powered by blood glucose, can give tips on strategy. Harness the power of angular momentum with a hyper-extended arm suitable for launching javelins (and storing things on high shelves), or glide away on filed and reinforced toenails to new heights in the world of ice-skating.

These athletes would represent more than the products of nature and nurture. Their courage in consenting to having limbs and organs chopped off and out; the imagination and creativity of their home country; their fundamental science, R&D, and the magnitude of their research spend; all would have a place to play in victory.

It's possible that some competitors might get a bit upset when their lungs needed upgrading after a year, or their kidneys got hacked. Discovering their specifications were now incompatible with the protocols of the event might also be a tad irksome, as would sustaining a small fracture and needing to be posted off, ground mail, to Korea for repair. I fear that the amount of intrusive adverts and the encouragement to sit still and stare mindlessly might also fail to decrease.

I suppose the ultimate conclusion of the Super-Callous, Fragile-Ethics, Amputated-Games-Show (and you can have that name for free, LOCOG be damned) is to just have sentient cars, robots or brains in jars rattling round tracks or performing synchronised aquatic motors. We have already automated detection systems to adjudicate; now all that remains is to replace the spectators with robots. Implementing jingoism, national grudges and objectification of volleyball players modules is going to be a challenge, but I'm confidence we can surmount it — we could have an app store for character flaws.

We could even supplant bitter media monkeys who demonstrate their disinterest in the Olympics by writing about it with some sort of automation. It wouldn't need to be complicated: you'd just need it to say 'I hated school', sniff intermittently and not mention its desire to crush humanity underfoot. How about it, puny humans?


This was originally written for Physics World's Lateral Thoughts column, but in the end we went with a different approach to the topic of a Physics Olympics: you can read the Physics Games that made it, and much more sensible physics coverage, in July's free download of Physics World.

Content: Scary Boots — Design: Canis Lupus