So, you've completed the game, saved the princess, collected the gold, and defeated the final boss. Now what?
It's time for a sidequest.
In gaming, sidequests are those things that you do when you're not doing that thing that you were supposed to do. You may have already completed the main quest. Or perhaps you’re completing the main quest, but suddenly there are villagers to save. Sidequests open an extra layer of worldbuilding to the game; sometimes, there is treasure to be gained, and discoveries to be made.
A lot of times, they are just fun.
Real-life sidequests happen, too.
Oh…Snoop Dogg was hanging out with Martha Stewart. And then this reply:
To win at life, but not log out? To relax and enjoy the sidequests? Yes! If I win even a little like Snoop Dogg, I would love to go on a sidequest or two myself.
Sometimes, an entire industry results from a sidequest. As a child, I loved comic books. The four-color newsprint was cheap, and possibilities were limitless. There were gods and demons and planet-eaters from somewhere far, far away, and your favorite superhero could defeat them with cosmic-level strength or arcane high magic or speed that surpassed photons.
However, when it came to the TV, “Superman” largely limited George Reeves to fistfights, some awkward flying shots, and bendable props. Adam West's “Batman “disguised limited special effects with camp. Even “The Incredible Hulk” scaled the Hulk’s strength to somewhat-plausible-for-Lou Ferrigno levels.
But then, computers went on a sidequest. No one invented computers to believably render Hulk and Thanos. Computers were designed for crunching numbers and doing calculations—computing.
But as they fulfilled their mission, more calculations became possible, more things were turned to numbers and crunched. It became inefficient to display their results as mere lines of text and numbers. And so, graphics.
And someone created a light pen. And in 1972, Fred Parke digitized a hand.
And somewhere, some computer person must have heard villagers like me complaining of not-very-superheroes and spaceships with wires on them. And now, thanks to computers on a sidequest, we finally have movies that can match or even surpass the comic books that are still somewhere in plastic bags in a cardboard box at my parents’s house.
Speaking of my parents, I just spoke with them and may visit them next weekend, which I can do thanks to the COVID vaccine. My vaccine contained messenger RNA. Just a few years back, mRNA vaccines were a concept waiting for some funding. But with this pandemic, the folks at Moderna and Pfizer /BioNTech could fund and develop a whole new type of vaccine.
Messenger RNA vaccines offer distinct advantages over more traditional vaccines. In case the virus mutates, there’s no need to isolate and attenuate another virus. Identify and adjust for the new spike protein, and we're good to go.
Also, mRNA vaccines can trigger a very strong immune response—which is why many of us need to recuperate after our second shots.
But once you get over that? You can visit your parents and hear your mother talk about her colonoscopy.
And now, having completed its main quest, mRNA technology is taking on HIV. The idea of using mRNA vaccines to treat HIV is not new. In fact, HIV was one of the first imagined applications for mRNA vaccines. But again, funding. And the existing HIV medications are very effective, which ironically reduced the urgency of developing a brand-new class of vaccine.
But now, we have that new class of vaccine, and as you read this article, HIV vaccine trials are underway. What’s exciting is that two main obstacles to previous HIV vaccines—eliciting an adequate immune response and adapting to different mutations--are exactly where mRNA vaccines excel. A practical, effective HIV vaccine would be glorious. Even if I'm 96 years old, I'm going to be first in line to get it, if nothing else, as a big middle finger to a disease that has taken so many of us.
With sidequests, we’re often playing with time. Since it wasn't along a main mission, a situation could have existed for decades, even centuries. Then, Snoop Dogg comments on Olympic dressage—and suddenly tradition and innovation are linked in a new and delightful way.
Brass itself is on a sidequest. The ancient Greeks called it orichalcum, and prized its bright golden color. Since it didn’t rust, and any oxidation could be polished, orichalcum was worked into decorative armor or and jewelry and even currency. Brass still appears in some coins, now known as “Nordic gold.”
Brass resembles gold in another way—it’s malleable and easy to work. It’s lighter and harder than gold, yet brass tubes can bend and curve and taper and flare—which is perfect for crafting trumpets and French horns and Sousaphones.
But brass is still quite delicate, and dropping a brass instrument can easily damage it. Dents are traditionally repaired by striking with rawhide hammer, or pried out using a steel rod with a ball-shaped end. But brass can be stretched by steel, and hammering can make the brass brittle and easy to crack.
Enter neodymium. Neodymium was discovered in 1886, one of the last nonradioactive metals to be discovered. Its uses were largely limited to tinting glass until 1984, when General Motors and Sumitomo Special Metals both used it to make incredibly strong magnets.
Neodymium magnets paved the way for a new generation of electric motors (the ones in your drone), speakers (the ones in your ear), and even magnetic fasteners (the ones closing your fancy Amazon gift box).
And Sousaphone dent removers.
I’m sure that in 1984, nobody from GM or Sumitomo was thinking of French horns. But if you drop a steel ball into the body of, say, a tuba, a neodymium magnet on the other side attracts the steel ball with enough force to smooth out the brass with neither hammering nor prying.
And, since the steel ball can roll freely, a neodymium magnet can smooth bends and curves with an ease that is impossible with traditional repair tools.
And thus, the story of one of our oldest metals becomes entwined with one of our youngest. Not as part of the main story—
But in the song of a wonderful sidequest.
**photo by Whoisjohngalt at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons