Sky highway

Flying cars are considered to signal the arrival of the future – or rather, the lack of its arrival. They have been promised by inventors for decades, and always seem to be just around the corner, but have never become commercially available.

Mass-produced flying cars are still not likely to be around the next bend. They face many possible problems, but NASA recently completed a study about making more use of the roughly 3000 small airports in the United States.

In the 1960s, flying cars were popular in fiction. The Jetsons, a cartoon family living in the year 2062, travelled by flying car. In more recent movies, Harry Potter travelled to Hogwarts aboard the Weasleys’ flying car, while Lucy Wilde’s car had extendable wings that enabled a
quick getaway in Despicable Me 2.

Keys to the real world

Flying cars are almost as old as flying aeroplanes, but none have really made it past the test stage to become widely available. In 1917, less than 15 years after the Wright brothers flew the fi st aeroplane at Kittyhawk in the United States, Glenn Curtiss invented a car with three wings and a propeller.

Robert Fulton tried something different in 1946. Instead of modifying a car to make a plane, he modified a plane into a car. His ‘Airphibian’ could be converted into a car in five minutes by removing the wings, tail and propeller. The following year, plans to build 160 000 cars with a huge wing, propeller and tail were abandoned after a crash when it ran out of fuel. Although the pilot had checked the car’s fuel gauge, the separate propeller engine’s tank was empty.

Henry Ford predicted in 1940 that ‘a combination airplane and motorcar is coming.’ He worked with engineers in the Ford company’s aircraft division to develop the first ‘aerocar’. The result was the Ford Flivver, a single-seat plane that could be driven along a road. However, the prototype was described by famous pilot Charles Lindbergh as one of the worst planes he’d ever flown. Furthermore, the Flivver’s test pilot was killed in a crash off the Florida coast, which stopped the small plane’s development. Henry Ford declared in the 1950s that, ‘the day where there will be an aerocar in every garage is still some time off.’

For more on this and 41 other inventions of the future, check out our book, Imagining the Future: Invisibility, Immortality and 40 Other Incredible Ideas, by Simon Torok and Paul Holper (CSIRO Publishing),

Flying cars

Eternity: could we ever become immortal?

People now live longer than ever before. A girl born in Australia today can expect to live for about 84 years, but a girl born in the late 1800s was expected to live for just 54 years.

We owe this improvement to better food, advances in medicine and having more money. Fewer babies and young children die, and our work and lives are far safer than they used to be.

What can be done to extend your life? Let’s start with the things you can control yourself.

First: watch your diet and weight. The Mediterranean area of Europe is home to lots of people who are more than 100 years old. Most people there eat healthy diets that are high in fruits, vegetables, nuts and healthy fats such as olive oil. Also, don’t smoke or drink too much alcohol when you are older.

Next: study. Educated people live longer. They are more likely to have better jobs and make healthier lifestyle choices. Be friendly. Strong social networks help support us; helping other people may help us better look after ourselves.

Exercise is good. Light physical activity every day leads to less disability in old age and a longer, healthier life. Stand instead of sitting. Sitting for long periods when studying, working and watching television is unhealthy, so try to spend some time doing these things on your feet.

For more on this and 41 other inventions of the future, check out our book, Imagining the Future: Invisibility, Immortality and 40 Other Incredible Ideas, by Simon Torok and Paul Holper (CSIRO Publishing),

Climate of change

Ice and heat are enemies. As the world warms, the ice on the land melts. Most glaciers are in retreat, with their water gushing into the sea. This makes the sea level rise. Add the expansion of the oceans, which get bigger as their water warms, and we have a significant threat to coastal regions.

More than 150 million people live less than one metre above high tide level, and billions of dollars of homes, businesses and roads are located on the coast. In Australia, about six million people live within two kilometres of the beach. So what can we do when our cities and towns start to slowly slip under water?

Coping with climate change

Florida architect, Jacque Fresco, specialises in designing cities of the future. He has a vision of floating cities made up of interlocking, cog-shaped buildings.

A company called Freedom Ship floated the idea of an ocean platform more than a kilometre long that would slowly circle the world and could house 60 000 people. The barge would have high-rise apartment buildings, an onboard hospital, schools and a huge shopping mall. But the estimated $11 billion cost may sink this idea before it starts.

What about the millions of people on land who rely on glaciers for their water supply? Farmers in the northern Indian town of Skara grow crops such as barley. The farmers rely on meltwater from the Himalayan glaciers to water their crops. Because the Tibetan Plateau is warming quickly, the glaciers are disappearing, resulting in water shortages in India.

Years ago, an Indian engineer named Chewang Norphel noticed that slow-moving water freezes more readily than swift streams. He used his observation to make artificial glaciers, working with a team to set up canals and divert water from local rivers during winter. The canals slow the water and allow it to freeze. In spring, after seeds have been sown, the artificial glaciers melt and water the fields.

For more on this and 41 other inventions of the future, check out our book, Imagining the Future: Invisibility, Immortality and 40 Other Incredible Ideas, by Simon Torok and Paul Holper (CSIRO Publishing),

Can we become invisible?

We all love the idea of being able to creep around, watching people without them knowing, eavesdropping on conversations. Think of all the fun you could have if, at the snap of a finger, you could become invisible.

Lots of books and movies have featured people who deliberately or accidentally became invisible, such as The Invisible Man and Harry Potter. In some stories, experiments with chemicals and nuclear explosions have made fictional characters become see-through.

Real-life invisibility

‘Stealth’ aircraft have radar-absorbing panels and are painted with a special coating. This deflects radar signals up or down, rather than back to the radar-detecting instrument, making it harder for the radar to detect objects.

A team from the University of Singapore has developed an invisibility gun. It makes things invisible by bathing them in a beam of darkness. Using a laser and a special lens, the researchers have used the darkness beam to hide a tiny three-dimensional model of the letter ‘N’. The method works only with small objects, so the challenge for the researchers will be scaling it up to the size of a person – if they really want it to catch on.

An English company has used tiny carbon tubes called nanotubes, each 10 000 times thinner than a human hair, to make a material they claim is blacker than black. The material captures 99.96 per cent of the light that hits it. When coated onto aluminium foil, it makes the foil almost impossible to see. ‘It’s like black, like a hole, like there’s nothing there,’ says a company spokesperson.

A nanotube material called Vantablack will be used in astronomical cameras and telescopes to reduce the reflections from stray light. This will let astronomers spot faint stars. If you could make a shirt from Vantablack, it would appear as if your head was floating in mid air, with your hands suspended nearby. Could this be just like the Harry Potter cloak of invisibility?

For more on this and 41 other inventions of the future, check out our book, Imagining the Future: Invisibility, Immortality and 40 Other Incredible Ideas, by Simon Torok and Paul Holper (CSIRO Publishing),

Imagining the future: a guide to the incredible inventions just over the horizon

Imagining the Future book cover    Paul and Simon ABC tardis interviews June 2016










We are living in a rapidly changing world – when most of today’s primary school students grow up, they’ll have jobs that don’t exist right now, and they’ll be using technologies that haven’t been invented, to solve things we don’t know are problems yet!

Our new children’s book from CSIRO Publishing, Imagining the Future: Invisibility, Immortality and 40 Other Incredible Ideas, shows young Australians the world they may very well find themselves in, all based on current scientific advances. Printed food, talking with animals, designer babies, weather control, and immortality: some concepts are more likely than others, while some are already happening, but all have science behind them.

We need to get more young people hooked on science and mathematics and this book will teach the next generation how to dream big, believe in their ability to make dreams a reality, and turn science fiction into science fact.

If you can dream it, you can invent it. And inventors just keep on inventing. Get prepared for a fantastic future.

More information:

19. Flying

Help! Lending a hand to vulnerable species

Global hotspots, such as the waters southeast of Australia, have warmed dramatically and dozens of marine animals have moved south. Many others need our help.

Dr Alistair Hobday, from CSIRO, says these sea temperature changes are clear – not only in the physical records, but also in the biology. ‘As the oceans have warmed, nutrient levels have changed, which is influencing productivity southeast of Australia,’ he says. ‘More than 100 species of fish and two dozen invertebrate species have moved south.’

With temperature rises having a dramatic impact, Alistair is investigating adaptation options for ecosystems as a whole, as well as individual species. In partnership with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Alistair has investigated adaptation options for the shy albatross, a protected species that is in decline.

You can find out more at

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at

Ouch! Feeling the record heat

Last summer, temperatures around the world showed an unusual upward spike. Globally, February was more than a degree warmer than usual, breaking the record set in 2015 that had itself broken the record set in February 2014. A stable climate means that you’d expect that every record hot temperature will be matched by a cold record. But that’s not what we are seeing. Sydney had a record run of high temperatures above 26°C this summer – 36 days in a row, which smashed the previous record of 19 days set in 2014. Over the past decade, for every new cold record there’s been an amazing 12 new hot records. And it appears to be our fault.

How are you preparing for heatwaves? Join the discussion at

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at

Torok ACT fires

Innovation and Australian inventions

Australians are great inventors. We have a history of ideas and thinking up new ways of doing things. Perhaps our inventiveness comes from the fact we have unique problems. Or maybe it’s our geographic isolation: in the past, if we didn’t come up with a solution, no-one else would.

Using a great Australian invention from 1940: zinc cream (image: Scope).

Many thousands of years ago, Indigenous Australians invented boomerangs to help them hunt. Australians have been inventing ever since.

So what exactly is an invention? It’s a design or a way of doing something that is new. It’s rare for an inventor to work in isolation; modern science is usually carried out by a team of people. Inventors usually take other people’s ideas and knowledge, and build on or adapt them. Isaac Newton, the famous 17th-century English physicist and mathematician, described this approach by saying, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants’.

Australians have been pioneers in so many fields. Our inventiveness has helped us live longer, made agriculture more efficient, industry more competitive and enriched our lives. It has also earned Australia billions of dollars in income.

Australians have made incredible and life-changing discoveries in the area of medicine with the development of the Cochlear implant, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Ultrasound, Penicillin, the Cardiac Pacemaker and IVF. Our love of food has given rise to the Chiko Roll, Vegemite, Anzac Biscuits, the Granny Smith apple, Lamingtons, and the Pavlova. Our quirky nature has produced the Victa mower, the Hills Hoist, Dynamic Lifter fertiliser, the Esky and the wine cask. And in 1933 a farmer wrote to the Ford car company asking it to develop a vehicle that was suitable for ‘taking the family to Church on Sundays’ and for taking ‘my pig to town on Mondays’; a year later, the first ‘utility’ or ‘ute’ rolled off the Ford production line.

While Australians have come first in many areas, we should also take pride in some narrow seconds. Lawrence Hargrave made wonderful advances in powered flight and came close to being the first person to fly in a powered machine. Henry Sutton designed, but never built, a ‘telephane’ to transmit moving images of the Melbourne Cup to people in Ballarat, 100 kilometres away. Forty years later, the first television incorporated many of the ideas behind the telephane.

Have a look at this video I did with the TV show Scope a few years ago when I was with CSIRO or our book, 101 Great Australian Inventions.

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to come up with a new idea, a new solution to a problem or a new device that makes life safer, better or more fun.

The value of local knowledge

When a coastal town faces increased flooding, what comes next must come from the community.

The most important thing for Councils when planning adaptation to climate change is to identify the risk to people, and then work with the community to use local knowledge to plan solutions, explains Carol Muzyk, Strategic Projects Coordinator for the District Council of Mallala in South Australia.

Carol works with the community of Middle Beach, a small coastal settlement that is threatened by coastal flooding.

‘Identifying the risk needs to be done first and in consultation with the community,’ she says. ‘Then any action also needs to be worked through with the community: they may well be the ones who suggest the solutions, as they live in, and know, the area. And they need to be the ones happy with the way forward as it is for them, and impacts them.’

The Council contracted the University of South Australia and URS Australia to undertake a Coastal Settlements Adaptation Study to compare the impact of sea-level rise now with what is likely to happen in 2050 and 2100.

The low lying settlement of Middle Beach is threatened by flooding, and has been for some time. ‘The study concluded that there are no viable protection options for Middle Beach, and problems will be further exacerbated with rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges anticipated in future,’ Carol explains.

For more on this story, see

Scientell is working with the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at

CoastExchange: Another brick in the seawall

Scientell is proud to be helping the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) launch their online discussion about coastal adaptation, CoastExchange. You can sign up at

The purpose of this virtual community of adaptors is to provide a forum in which users can interact with their peers to share ideas, approaches, opportunities, and more.

Comment on our features that provide topical snippets of coastal adaptation information. Browse our news section for the latest happenings in Australia and other places. Pose a question for discussion with your peers. Share content that you find helpful. Or win in our competitions and quizzes.

Feature: Another brick in the seawall

For centuries, people in coastal areas have battled to keep the sea at bay – especially during storms and king tides. Sea walls are one option. But they are expensive and can create environmental problems.

Gold Coast City Council has some authority on the subject. They have around 18 kilometres of sea walls and they have learnt a thing or two since 1967, when tropical cyclones caused extensive damage to southern Queensland beaches. Back then, property owners threw everything they could find into hastily erected barriers. They used concrete slabs and rubble, gravel, plastic sheeting, bricks – even old car bodies.

For more on this story, see