Science of the Impossible

Imagine a world where cancer is cured with light, objects can be made invisible, and teleportation is allowed through space and time. The future once envisioned by science fiction writers is now becoming a reality, thanks to advances in materials science and engineering. This seminar will explore "impossible" technologies—those that have shaped our past and those that promise to revolutionize the future. Attention will be given to both the science and the societal impact of these technologies. We will begin by investigating breakthroughs from the 20th century that seemed impossible in the early 1900s, such as the invention of integrated circuits and the discovery of chemotherapy. We will then discuss the scientific breakthroughs that enabled modern "impossible" science, such as photodynamic cancer therapeutics, invisibility, and mind-reading through advanced brain imaging. Lastly, we will explore technologies currently perceived as completely impossible, and brainstorm the breakthroughs needed to make such science fiction a reality. The Sophomore College version of this seminar allows for more intensive lab work as well as visits to local labs inventing the future.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Jennifer Dionne

Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering

Jennifer Dionne is an associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford. Jen received her Ph. D. in Applied Physics at the California Institute of Technology, advised by Harry Atwater, and B.S. degrees in Physics and Systems & Electrical Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to joining Stanford, she served as a postdoctoral researcher in Chemistry at Berkeley, advised by Paul Alivisatos. Jen’s research develops new optical materials and microscopies to observe chemical and biological processes as they unfold with nanometer scale resolution. She then uses these observations to help improve energy-relevant processes (such as photocatalysis and energy storage) and medical diagnostics and therapeutics. Her work has been recognized with the Alan T. Waterman Award (2019), a Moore Inventor Fellowship (2017), the Materials Research Society Young Investigator Award (2017), Adolph Lomb Medal (2016), Sloan Foundation Fellowship (2015), and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2014), and was recently featured on Oprah’s list of “50 Things that will make you say ‘Wow’!”.