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An alien mining operation has seed bombed Earth for its latest harvesting. It grows crystals which it then grinds up for its own various uses later on. However, these crystals are made up of common elements from the periodic table. They aren't some new undiscovered particles or anything of the likes. They're from the same universe as Earth.

One use of these particles is combining them into molecules to create a particle shield. When suspended in a field, this particle cloud can shrug of enemy attacks for a bit before the shield degrades.

However, despite humanity's best attempts to replicate such particle shielding, they've failed. Even when they've assembled the exact same elements, they get nothing but dusty/hazy clumps.

Why can the aliens make common elements into a particle shield whereas humanity cannot despite using the exact same elements as the aliens?

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    $\begingroup$ DNA consists of Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen and Phosphorus. Yet we have not been able to mash those together to make human DNA from scratch. The same goes for foods, flavours, drinks... everything you see around you is made up of atoms from the periodic table, yet nothing of that can be made, unless you know the method of how to make it. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Feb 12 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK: DNA printing equipment is relatively widely available. Researchers have even been able to designa and make an entirely new and fully functional bacterial DNA strand. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 12 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP And yet we have not been able to make human DNA being from scratch. Because — despite self-deprecating jokes — human beings are not bacteria. Which only reinforces my comment: even though we have potential method for how it possibly could be done, we still cannot do it. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Feb 12 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ it sounds like the FIELD holding the particles is more important than what particles you use. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 12 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK The main reason nobody had put together a WHOLE human genome from scratch is because it is a pointless and expensive endavor. But to say we haven't been able to make a human DNA is false. We had been synthesising human genes for decades now (and that counts as a human DNA....) $\endgroup$
    – Negdo
    Feb 13 at 11:23

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At least three answers have said what I'm about to say. I upvoted all of them.

All of the periodic table elements needed to build a cell phone (Thanks @MS!) were well known and easily obtained 100 years ago. And yet the first cell phone wasn't invented 100 years ago. It was invented 50 years ago, and it was little better than a walkie-talkie. The cell phones of today could have been built (if all you care about is the list of elements) 100 years ago.

And yet they weren't.

I anticipate that 99.999% of the inventions in the next 150 years will be based on elements in the periodic table of elements that we know today. And yet if we were given one such invention to look at, we wouldn't be capable of building it any more than someone 100 years ago could a modern cell phone.

  1. We simply might not understand the physics behind it. I lived through what the following quote is talking about.

It has long been thought that building nanometer-sized transistors was impossible. Simply put, the physics and atomic structural imperfections couldn’t be overcome. However, scientists built fully functional, nanometer-sized transistors. They did so using atomically flat, two-dimensional molybdenum disulfide semiconductor and a single-walled carbon nanotube imbedded in zirconium dioxide.

Now, had we been handed such a creature, could we have figured it out? Probably. Significantly faster than the Real Life discovery? Probably not by much, because...

  1. An entire infrastructure is necessary to manipulate raw materials in a way to make, for example, modern integrated circuits. Just because you can see what someone else did to make something happen doesn't mean you have the know-how to make it happen. There is a literal mountain of tools, technologies, factories, and experience holding up that glorious integrated circuit. The same would be true for your particle field.

  2. Someone once said that "The phrase that typifies real discovery isn’t ‘Eureka’ but: ‘huh. That’s funny’.” If (and I stress, if) we can look at the atomic nature of the particle shield and see it's root assembly, it's highly unlikely our reaction will be "Eureka!" It's far more likely our reaction will be, "huh, that's funny." Elements of the periodic table have, as an example, ions. Ions can be positively charged or negatively charged. But the funny thing is, just because a molecule is made up of groups of ions, doesn't mean we have the slightest idea how all those ions were assembled. What chemical processes were required? What forces had to be brought to bear? How many proverbial goats had to be sacrificed?

In other words, insofar as we understand science today, of course the particle field is made up of elements we recognize. That doesn't mean at all that we have the slightest idea how to construct it.

After two thousand years we think we've figured out the secret behind Roman Concrete. Two thousand years! Modern analysis! Built from existing elements! And we actually knew how to make it in the first place! And yet it took two thousand years to figure out something that we'd forgotten.

It's completely believable that we'd have no idea how to make the particle field work. What doesn't make sense is that we'd be capable of creating an atomic duplicate and it not work. That requires something else that you're not telling us about. Like a soul or Dark Matter or some other quasi-mythical additive, because by definition, if no such creatures exist, then an atomic duplicate must work.

Or you can't make an atomic duplicate. Which is far more likely.

Huh... that's funny.

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    $\begingroup$ This is one trope in scifi that has always annoyed me. Aliens arrive and attack and two months later the plucky human resistance has its own crude plasma guns and is developing FTL drives to attack the alien home world. Use the alien weapons? Steal their ships? Sure and sure, but make our own on that timeline? Really? $\endgroup$ Feb 13 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair - it's not like recreating roman concrete was a major goal for most of humanity over the last 2000 years. It's more of a curiosity, which a small group of people investigated. $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Feb 13 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ «But the funny thing is, just because a molecule is made up of groups of ions, doesn't mean we have the slightest idea how all those ions were assembled.» — IIRC, in 20th century there were several instances of materials we knew that can be created decades before engineers found a way to actually created it. Theoretical physicist were already writing papers on them, and their properties. While no-one on Earth had them. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Feb 13 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ Veritasium has a recent video about the decades-long struggle to create blue LEDs, even after the essential principles were well-established and all the basic materials and processes involved were known. Echoes many of the themes JBH mentions, including the initial discovery of the first (red) LED as a "huh, that's funny" moment. $\endgroup$
    – Jay McEh
    Feb 13 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Falco I see your point, but don't kid yourself. The number of people who could meaningfully contribute to the investigation of alien technology is also very limited. A story-dependent question is, "how much of your economy are you willing to shut down to investigate this technology?" And when you've figured it out, you're still stuck with issue #2 in my answer. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 13 at 20:42
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We know about Graphene. We know what it would look like if we refined it. We even make it in small quantities. But we can’t build it in large continuous sheets to any shape you want. We lack the capacity and knowledge to do so.

A better example might be chip manufacturing. One Dutch firm spend years trying to figure out a lithography technique which was theoretically possible but no one knew how to really do it. They managed to find out and instantly became the one and only manufacturer of the machines that build the highest end chips. Every other company is now years behind.

Every other company could “just” buy one of these machines (just 300+ million a piece) and take it apart. But that isn’t enough for those other companies to learn this and start catching up. These machines are precise, they are intricate, they are complex. And just knowing the end result and having a live piece that can do it does not guarantee in any way that you can do it too.

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    $\begingroup$ For those readers who may wonder, the Dutch company mentioned is ASML. (And there is a two years waiting list for those who want to buy on of their litography machines.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 12 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ It would also be like structures that could only be assembled via 3D printing. You could present one made of regular old steel to WW2 machinists and they would not have the capability to reproduce it simply because they lack the technology (equipment, for example) to do so. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 12 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ I think computer chips are a particularly good comparison. Imagine taking a modern chip back just a few decades. Scientists in the 80s could, after some work, figure out how a modern chip works; but they'd be no closer to figuring out how the machines used to make them work because the thing and the thing needed to make the thing are completely different. $\endgroup$ Feb 14 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ @JackAidley no need to go back to the 80’s. The current day scientists not working at ASML already can’t reproduce this. Although they know everything they need to know to replicate it. From the techniques used to the examples they have of what it produces to the machines themselves. But they know WHAT techniques to use rather than HOW those techniques are used. That takes science and effort to understand that ASML keeps secret. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Feb 14 at 16:01
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Because it's complicated

Most individual pieces of technology are actually quite simple in isolation. Sometimes they have to be very pure, or a very precise size or shape, but ultimately a gun is just a complicated-shaped set of bits of metal, and a CD is just a flat piece of plastic with some very fine scratches in it. To produce components with these properties may itself require sophisticated technology, but that's just a recursion problem. Needing to make the machines to make the machines is pretty standard engineering practice.

The "only" problem with producing advanced technology is how to put it together, or rather to understand how it has been put together and why assembling the simple pieces in precisely that order causes it to work. If you'd given Charles Babbage a set of drawings of a Casio calculator translated into Difference Engine mechanics, he would in principle have everything he needed to understand how it worked, but he would never have been able to begin to comprehend its complexity in the language he was familiar with. Today we have a clear "understanding" of genetics, but when asked to bridge the gap between "peas have a tallness gene with two alleles and the tall one is dominant" and "peas have genes which cause them to produce flowers", pretty much every human will collapse into mumbling and shrugging, with maybe a bit of guesswork, vague theorising and outright bullshitting. All the pieces are there in principle, but we just don't have the 'language' to assemble them into something we can extract true meaning out of.

Maybe these crystals form a fractal pattern with a depth that exceeds our current microscopy ability [the pre-silicon computing industry trying to make sense of an integrated circuit]. Maybe their shape amplifies harmonics in the field in a way that only manifests on a large scale, requiring too large a sample to fit in our instruments or impossible to isolate from its environment [basically all agricultural research]. Maybe there are just such an insane number of variations in the crystal structure that we don't have the computing power needed to model them [Babbage, neuron modelling and, until recently, protein folding]. Give a gun to a Roman and you've armed him with a club. Until you also give him the knowledge of how to use it.

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This is just a simple addition to the other answers stating that just having the materials is not enough, and that you need the knowledge AND technological infrastructure for the equipment required: Structure matters and you have to be able to build that structure.

One use of these particles is combining them into molecules to create a particle shield.

And what are molecules if not a structure?

Even when they've assembled the exact same elements, they get nothing but dusty/hazy clumps.

This might be obvious after I point it out, but doesn't this sound awfully similar to the difference between a living creature and a bunch of water and coal? Biological organisms are just made out of regular old elements, and rather abundant ones at that. But assembling them together properly is a vastly different matter.

A tank of water a bunch of coal will get you nowhere close. Oh, and those other trace elements? Make sure to get the proportions right because if you don't you will get gruesome results. Actually, if you manage to get something that can be classified as gruesome, you should be very proud because it means that not only did you get very close to something resembling anything living at all, it was a large, macroscopic, multi-cellular thing. A truly monumental result.

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For the exact same reason a caveman couldn't make a phone: we don't know how to manufacture them.

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The control system that projects the field to create the particle shield is what hasn't been duplicated. The particles must be held in very specific and rotating patterns and must be able to perfectly anticipate incoming energy to be able to disperse most of it. The hardware and physical makeup are of the controllers and shield are of common material.

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If you mixed together all the elements in a neodymium permanent magnet, you would have a moderately magnetic (but unmagnetized) lump of iron containing a little neodymium and boron, not a neodymium magnet. The manufacturing process requires strong magnetic fields to first magnetically align the material during forming and later provide the final magnetization.

Analogously, the alien crystals have some poorly understood interactions with additional physical fields that we don't know how to produce, but normal matter can be made to produce those fields if properly arranged in their presence. The alien crystals are able to do this as they are grown, and if the researchers knew how, they'd be able to use a fragment of crystal as a seed to grow more.

Also, maybe this is actually just an easy way to manipulate those fields, if you already have the crystals. If other methods were used to produce the first crystals, they might also be able to do other, more interesting things. Much like how you can use electromagnetism to make even stronger magnets, electric motors and generators, transmit radio signals, etc. Maybe the aliens don't even know this, and humans might get an advantage if they figure it out.

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I'll add one thing that's not mentioned (as of my posting): Energy requirements and necessary control structure.

Talk of combining stuff to make phones, dna and the like is all well and good but combining stuff is half the conversation.

The other half is powering it.

Then the next half is controlling it.

Just because you can make a cell phone or a cpu doesn't mean you have the power requirements - either the fine tuned requirements or the power scale required. Just because you have a PC doesn't mean you have the software - the operating system or the applications.

What's it take to make a particle shield? Stuff + Energy + modulation of the energy JUST SO.

So the answer is we don't have the technology to power it... nor the fine tuned control of the energy to control it.

The materials are the first 90% of the problem

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninety%E2%80%93ninety_rule

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  • $\begingroup$ To be fair OP’s alien devices are stand-alone. So the firmware is already on the device and in theory could be extracted if it’s just stored in common elements or in electric charges. Assuming of course one can measure and replicate it. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Feb 14 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael "the firmware could be extracted" I don't know about that. Could you extract the firmware from an iPhone without the requisite tools? Could you extract the drivers on top of that? The OS on top of those? If these things are comparative to something like an iPhone, Watch, etc? Then having the materials is merely the first step. having aluminum, sand and other parts that the CPU is made of is barely scratching the surface of what's needed to replicate modern tech. $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Feb 14 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ Software has to be stored in some form. In Earth technology it can be actual physical structure (like on a stone tablet or CD or on-chip ROM) or electric charges (flash memory) or magnetic fields (harddisks). If you are able to analyze and replicate all the molecules and structure of something like a modern semiconductor, surely you could also replicate the memory and its contents. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Feb 15 at 7:27
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    $\begingroup$ Though of course if OP wants to they could make this the impossible obstacle. Maybe the scientists in their story are able to replicate all the molecules and the physical structure but don’t realize that they also have to pay attention to the charges, magnetic fields or quantum states or something to reproduce the firmware. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Feb 15 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Could you imagine someone from 100 years ago... 150 years ago... further... getting an iPhone. They can see the glass, aluminum and other base things. They use it until the battery runs out of juice. Now what? Now you have some lithium and silicon. how do you even know to put a certain type of electricity at the right point to get it to power the batter to get it to turn back on? Then once it's turned on... how would that primative society get past stuff like bitlocker which encrypts the software stack to protect against hackers? $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Feb 15 at 22:30
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We only perceive the universe in four dimensions (3 spatial ones and time). The aliens perceive the universe in more dimensions than we do.

When you analyse their technology, you are never able to get the full picture. Some parts of their machinery are in those tiny, looped dimensions that String Theory scientists keep babbling about.

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Because its has DRM built into it, ever changing, alternating and the actual shields structure is just a "version" that is useless to hack into and subvert because as the clock strikes, the actuall shield producing technology will outrace you producing a new version. And you would need the shield generator software, the knowledge inside being sealed against reading and tampering, to reproduce the effect. Now make it something that self-destroys by watching it and you got yourself a shield that cant be matched.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a very valid extra angle. I mean we can barely "recreate" video games from 10 years ago in a lot of cases, how on earth would anyone expect to recreate even just the software of such a shield? A completely different lineage of programming with all our assumptions thrown out of the window. They could probably gift us all the hardware and it would remain impossible for a long time $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Feb 14 at 12:24
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There's a classic thought experiment in which you speculate that a modern fighter jet is somehow dropped back in time about a hundred years, and try to figure out what the scientists of the time could learn from it.

Last time I was involved in this, the conclusion would be that the main thing they'd learn would be how to make precision resistors. None of the electronics would make sense, given no theory of semiconductors; even if they somehow figured out that part of it was a high-frequency oscillator they'd be completely confused by waveguides ("circuitry with plumbing?!") and wouldn't be able to figure out what that signal was being used for. Most of the materials would defy analysis with the tools of the time; the aerodynamics likewise.

They could probably figure out that the jet fuel was fairly obscene quantities of kerosene, but not how the engine actually worked.

Don't think too hard about the likely outcome of attempts to analyse the ordinance...

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Well, it's an interesting question and I see a lot of answers but let me summarize: prerequisites - knowledge, infrastructure, specialists. You just need to be at certain level of technological advancement - let's imagine a situation with a sad smartphone which is quite popular at this topic: somehow it was transferred 100 years back, could it be recreated at that point of time - certainly not. But almost all of its components could be identified (even some assumptions about its roles could be made), there is no alien or unknown materials - carbon, silica, gold, silver, lithium and so on. But you have no technologies which allows to recreate it and no specialists, you are lacking fundamental and applied knowledge - transistors were in early stage of development, plastic just started it's path to every corner of human's life, reverse engineering of integrated circuits at nanometers scale unimaginable. That's it - you have unique technology at hands but can do nothing to recreate it, it's not impossible though - but it will take time, with cell phone - decades but it could be centuries or thousands of years for other advanced technology sample.

By the way, one popular conspiracy theory hints that the explosive exponential growth of semiconductor technology and information systems since the middle of the last century is due to extraterrestrial discoveries shared by the U.S. government with certain contractors. I rather believe that we simply matured in the sum of technologies at some point.

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