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Living in the Future: Driverless cars, Bridging longer spans, and negative temperatures

Driverless cars – also called self-driving cars – are now legal in three states – Nevada, Florida, and California. As a result, testing by the major automakers has been going on to make these vehicles safe, and auto makers Toyota and Audi are ready to reveal their driverless cars next week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. If driverless cars aren’t impressive enough, the automakers describe one other futuristic feature – the cars will park themselves too, allowing for self-valet parking!

Humans have made bridges across rivers and channels for thousands of years, but new technologies and designs are allowing for cheaper bridges to be built. Different bridge designs are used for different distances, balancing safety with expense. New materials and load distributions are allowing the cheaper bridges to work in places they never would have before. Now, cable-stay bridges are being built over longer and longer spans, whereas before only suspension bridges would work. Oddly, the biggest technological boost may be in the oldest tech being used – concrete. With new steel rebar, and coatings for the cables, cable-stay bridges are becoming more economical and common!

The last story for Living in the Future this week is particularly mind-blowing. What’s the coldest temperature you can think of? If you remember your highschool physics, you’re probably thinking of absolute zero, the temperature at which all molecular activity stops. But to thermodynamics, which measures production of entropy in a system instead of molecular motion, there is another possibility – so-called negative temperatures. The negative temperatures here aren’t below zero celcius or farhenheit – but a system in which there is a maximum level of energy an atom can have. This causes the entropy of the system to drop – the opposite of the normal effect – and physicists are calling this a negative temperature system. And despite the bizarre nature of the notion, this negative temperature system – and the sense of negative pressure that draws the molecules together instead of separating them – have been demonstrated experimentally in Germany. This promises to be a huge new field of physics to explore – more proof that we are, indeed, living in the future!