Remember back in grade school when you learned the story of Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone? The tale goes that on March 10, 1876, Bell spoke nine words into the precursor to the telephone that changed the world: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you." Two floors below in the cellar of the building, Mr. Watson heard him, and today we find ourselves inseparable from the powerful mobile communication devices we quaintly call "cellphones."
This week, it was reported that a similar message was sent and received. But instead of using a wire, the message was sent via a beam of neutrinos. The message simply said, "Neutrino."
According to a press release issued Wednesday, a research team led by scientists from the University of Rochester and North Carolina State University sent a beam of the nearly massless particles through nearly 800 feet of stone.
This communication system was a bit more complicated than Bell's, since it required the use of the Fermi National Accelerator Lab just outside Chicago, as well as a multiton detector called MINERvA, located in a cavern more than 300 feet underground. The Fermilab particle accelerator, one of the world's most powerful, created the beam of neutrinos by accelerating protons around a 2.5-mile-circumference track and colliding them with a carbon target.
This was a profoundly important moment in applied science. It proves that communicating between any two points on Earth is possible without satellites or cables, according to Dan Stancil, professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and the lead author of the paper describing the research. "Neutrino communication systems would be much more complicated than today's systems, but may have strategic uses," Stancil said in the release.
Of course, we won't have neutrino-powered cellphones anytime soon. But the "strategic uses" mean government (likely military) funding will be available for continuing the research. One of the applications Stancil cited was long-distance submarine communications through water, which is not possible with today's technology. Another is space communication -- for instance, sending and receiving messages from the far side of the moon or deep space.
All this speculation might seem farfetched and easy to dismiss. And neutrino-based communications might end up being a flash in the pan. But think of it in the context of the role that disruptive technologies play in the evolution of businesses and the birth and death of industries. Henry Ford put buggy makers out of business with a new model for transportation. Today, technological developments in sensors and computing are making possible autonomous vehicles that may revolutionize transportation again.
And consider the speed at which these disruptions occur. Starting with the founding of Bell Labs in 1889, it took 136 years to go from Bell's invention to the smartphone. That's four generations, going back to your great-grandparents. If anything, the pace of technological disruption is accelerating. The Internet was commercialized in the mid-1990s, and it's hard to recall what life was like before those three little Ws. Facebook will go public soon with an anticipated market capitalization of a few billion dollars. Who saw that coming a decade ago?
CIOs and communications OEMs around the world, take note of the disruptive word of the week: neutrino.