We hear a lot about scientists and their fancy ideas, though it’s actually engineers who put those ideas into practice for real world applications. At its most basic, engineering is the science of building things – like machines – to apply theoretical scientific principles to real life situations. The theoretical system of measuring time, as one example, no matter how sophisticated or accurate, is useless in the absence of a working clock.
Of course, the greatest engineering marvels of today are a bit more advanced and complex than clocks. In the past few years, engineers from around the world have built many things that were once thought impossible, or at least well in the realm of the distant future.
10. Parker Solar Probe
Despite its seeming proximity to Earth, we know very little about what’s going on with our own Sun, especially on its surface. It seems to be cooler than its atmosphere – or the corona – which is where all the Sun’s heat really comes from. It doesn’t make any sense – it’s like feeling hotter the further away you move from a fire.
That’s only one of the many things we don’t know about the Sun, and until recently, reaching its corona to take measurements was considered an impossible, futuristic task. NASA’s Parker probe broke that barrier on April 28, 2021, when it became the first man-made thing to touch the Sun’s atmosphere. It was Parker’s eighth flyby, and gave us some crucial insights into how solar winds are generated.
The probe is still in orbit around the Sun, and is expected to make another close flyby some time in 2025.
9. Mind-Controlled Prosthetics
Modern prosthetics are, in themselves, one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time. For most of our history, amputees had to either live without them altogether, or make do with rudimentary, uncomfortable models made out of leather, wood and other basic material. It’s only now that prosthetic limbs have come to look and even almost feel like real limbs. Still, they’re far from being the real thing, as it’s impossible to recreate the neural connection between a living organ and the brain with a machine.
Mind-controlled prosthetics are a new class of prosthetics that could be, well, controlled by the mind, though they’re still in their early stages. One prototype developed by Swedish scientists connects with the patient’s nerves, muscles and skeleton, allowing them much more control over their fingers and wrists than previously thought possible. Currently, it’s in active use by three Swedish patients and doesn’t require any additional care or supervision by a medical professional, unlike most prosthetics we have right now.
According to the researchers, the technology could be available for patients outside Sweden within this year. While it’s still not the same as a real limb, it provides us a glimpse into what the future of prosthetics might look like.
8. Burj Khalifa
Sometimes, engineering is about pushing the frontiers of not just engineering, but also other areas of study, which advances our overall understanding of the world. However, it doesn’t have to be, as good engineering could also just be about building a really tall and good-looking building.
Currently, the tallest building in the world is the Burj Khalifa, standing at a height of 2,717 feet. It is extraordinarily tall – about 500 feet taller than the next competitor – making you wonder how it’s even standing upright.
Built by a Chicago firm called Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Burj Khalifa took over six years to complete, and was first opened to the public in January 2010. Its Y-shaped base is designed in the shape of the local Hymenocallis flower, though it also works to absorb heavy winds.
There are a total of 163 floors, each built in a different shape to reduce the effect of the winds as you go higher. Apart from residences and shopping districts of its own, the building houses multiple observation decks, including the two-story At The Top on its 124th and 125th floors, as well as luxury restaurants, corporate spaces and a three-story lounge.
7. Floating Cities
Rising sea levels pose a huge challenge to the Netherlands, as over one-third of the country already lies below the current sea level. To counter its worst effects, a Dutch architecture firm has come up with Schoonschip: a conceptual residential project in Amsterdam that combines architecture and sustainable design to come up with an entirely new style of living.
The entire neighborhood is built on floating arks in the Johan van Hasseltkade canal, and currently houses around 100 people in 46 residential properties. It’s an alternative to all the land-based models we currently have, though by no means a novel one – many native communities around the world still live on floating settlements.
Schoonschip is more than just a fancy houseboat, however. Every part of its design is meant to be sustainable and reusable, with all the decision-making in the hands of the residents. For one example, all the energy generated within the complex is done through renewables, and traded among the residents through a blockchain.
Nanobots – or microscopic robots that can carry out any function you want – have shown up in science fiction in various forms. Until recently, though, it was next to impossible to actually make something like that. Thanks to advancements in theoretical sciences and nanotechnology in the past few years, we already have the first prototypes of what future nanobots might look like.
As you’d expect, these tiny machines have quite a few use cases in medicine. A group of researchers from the University of California San Diego have developed nanobots that could clear toxins and pathogens from the bloodstream. Another one from the University of New South Wales figured out a way to train these bots to repair themselves with DNA, blurring the line between living organs and man-made robots.
5. Invisibility Cloak
When we think of an invisibility cloak, we think of a hypothetical material that could render us truly invisible. (Or, just as likely, we think of Harry Potter. Naturally.) Many prototypes have been tried, though almost all of them rely on either cheap tricks of the light, or were too bulky to be of any real use.
The only material that comes close to real-life invisibility is Quantum Stealth, developed by a Canadian corporation known as Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp. It’s a passive, everlasting effect, too, instead of using some kind of power generation or illusion to make it seem like you’re invisible.
From the videos released by the firm, it’s clear that the material is designed to successfully bend light around any kind of subject – including large vehicles. We don’t know exactly how it works, though, as that information is still classified due to its possible military applications in the near future.
4. Mind Reading
It’s one thing to scan the brain for electrical and neurological signals, and another to actually read and record what’s going on inside our heads like we perceive it. The former could be achieved by many machines found at your local hospital. The latter, though, is a barrier we never thought machines could cross, as consciousness is much more than just waves of electricity passing through the brain.
As it turns out, it’s really not. We already have machines that can identify a song playing inside your head with the help of an AI, as it learns the connections between brain signals and specific sections of music with the help of machine learning. Or even recreate the image you’re thinking about, albeit to a lower degree of accuracy than the songs (though still high enough to be creepy).
3. 4D Objects
We’ve all heard of 3D printing, which involves basically making anything you want, as long as you have basic ingredients and its blueprint. It’s a revolutionary concept in itself, and has been successfully used in a wide variety of applications. Some day, it might even allow us to print living organs, or even living beings.
4D just builds upon that concept, except the printed things are now able to react to different conditions in real time. Quite a few 4D materials – also called smart materials – have been developed in the past few years, including self-healing plastics that can eliminate wear and tear and make plastic items infinitely reusable, fabrics that can rearrange their molecular arrangement to changes in the weather, and shoes that can fully repair themselves with an additional gel, among others.
2. Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence isn’t an entirely new concept. First coined in 1956, the term has come to refer to any type of machine or algorithm that can mimic human intelligence. Early experiments involved rudimentary, slightly-intelligent automatons like the John Hopkins Beast, though the technology was still held back by the lack of processing power and other computational limitations to have a real impact.
Fast forward to today, and Artificial Intelligence is easily one of the most groundbreaking developments of the past few years, thanks to the proliferation of powerful graphical processing units (or GPUs), machine learning and the emergence of ‘Big Data’. Neural networks, as one example of its many implementations, are able to think and compute exactly like the human brain, which includes the ability to learn from their mistakes.
AI has revolutionized many fields, including medicine, logistics, space research, marketing, and pretty much anything that involves parsing a lot of data. That also, unfortunately, includes warfare, as militaries around the world develop their own AI-based technologies to be used in the automated battlefields of the future.
1. Large Hadron Collider
The Large Hadron Collider is perhaps one of the most important engineering works ever undertaken. It’s a 17-mile-long underground tunnel located on the border between France and Switzerland, with its primary purpose of smashing different kinds of particles together at really high speeds to understand the true nature of reality.
First operated in 2008, it was a massive project, not just in scale but also the scope of its purpose. Organized by CERN – or the European Organization for Nuclear Research – it was designed and built by over 10,000 scientists, engineers and other professionals from around the world. At over $10 billion, it’s easily the most expensive machine ever built, and we can now tell that it was well worth it. Since its first run, the LHC has made many important, fundamental contributions to theoretical physics, including the highly-publicized discovery of the Higgs boson back in 2012.