Stealing Celestial Fire

A laser has sparked artificial lightning in a laboratory, a first step toward controlling real thunderbolts

3 min read

There has to be a better way of tapping a lightning bolt than flying a kite in a storm, and a group of French and German scientists just may have found one. They have demonstrated in a laboratory that shining powerful laser pulses between two electrodes elicits a controllable form of lightning. They hope that their invention will eventually help to fend off lightning strikes on airports and power stations.

They employed their Teramobile laser, whose pulse lasts for a mere 100 femtoseconds and packs a peak power of 5 terawatts. The pulse rips the electrons from air molecules, creating a plasma; it also changes the refractive index of the air, a phenomenon called the Kerr effect. The effect focuses the light just enough to balance plasma-induced diffraction, creating a straight and highly conductive channel, called a filament, which can stretch up to 3.8 meters between the charged electrodes.

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic

Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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