The 50 Best Inventions

The year's most inspired ideas, innovations and revolutions, from the microscopic to the stratospheric

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Phillip Toledano / Trunk Archive

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1.83 METERS | The Urban Photonic Sandtable Display is a holographic map that shows buildings and terrain in full color and three glorious dimensions — no goofy glasses required. After the real-world landscape is swept by unobtrusive lasers, software created by Zebra Imaging renders the map, and then a set of lenses displays buildings and land features to heights of up to 30 cm. Commissioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Sandtable will, among other things, make possible better strategic planning and fewer surprises on the battlefield.


2.13 METERS | Photo collages are a hallmark of British artist David Hockney's oeuvre. But his latest addition, titled May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM, invites viewers to see more than still pictures. The installation comprises 18 screens showing high-definition pictures taken by an array of nine cameras set at different angles and exposures on a stretch of land between two streets in East Yorkshire, England. The subject is largely static, but because the pictures switch to the same angle at different points in time, the effect is that of an artwork in motion.


2.5 METERS | Magnetic-resonance-imaging (MRI) and ultrasound technologies are each remarkable in their own right, but combine them and you get something life-changing. A technique called focused ultrasound uses MRI pictures to guide multiple beams of acoustic energy into a concentrated hot spot deep inside the body to heat and melt away tumors or other growths like uterine fibroids. A version of the device is being tested to tweak brain regions to relieve pain and even the tremors associated with Parkinson's.


3 METERS | NASA's newest Mars rover, Curiosity, is twice as long as any previous rover and weighs nearly 900 kg. That's a good thing, because when it lands on the Red Planet (Curiosity is scheduled for an August 2012 touchdown), it will have to explore the Gale Crater, which covers an area the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined and has peaks taller than Washington's Mount Rainier. Curiosity's 10 onboard instruments include two that ingest and analyze rock and powder samples collected by the rover's two arms. It's all powered by a radioisotope generator that uses radioactive decay to produce heat and electricity.


3.48 METERS | There was a lot of hullabaloo this year about the Dreamliner, and for good reason. It's a great airplane. But the most important development in aviation in 2011 is the PurePower PW1000G Geared Turbofan engine, developed by Pratt & Whitney, a Connecticut-based aerospace manufacturer. The PurePower engine promises a 16% improvement in fuel burn and carbon emissions over conventional engines, and it makes half as much noise. It can do all this because of some clever gearwork that connects the fan to the rest of the engine — the PurePower is able to pair a big, slow, quiet fan with a fast, efficient turbine. The industry is taking notice: Airbus ordered 600 PurePower engines for its new A320neo airplane.

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