Archive for October, 2010

Sir, Could I See Your Breeding License?

By Kyle Munkittrick | October 14, 2010 8:14 am

Weeeeee!The whole discussion about what we’ll find immoral in the future got me thinking about that little group often described as our collective “future”: children. We often hear about children as our future when someone says, “Think of the children!” or “We shouldn’t leave this problem for our children to solve!” Children of Men, Ender’s Game, and A Wrinkle In Time, to name a few sci-fi classics, all place the symbolic future in the hands of either children or a specific child. If children are our “future” then who gets to have and raise children in the future will probably be pretty important.

Why then are we so cavalier about who we let have and raise them? As technology enables more people to reproduce, environmental pressures make each new life a bigger burden, and our understanding of child psychology improves, it’ll become more and more evident that just because a person can have kids doesn’t mean they should have kids. My guess is that, decades down the road, future generations will require a license to reproduce and start a family. That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

The thing is, we already have sort of a “family license” system. It’s called adoption. If you are adopting, or trying to use an assisted reproductive technique (ART), then you have to meet some requirements. Adoptive parents must meet not just minimal standards like “no history of violence” but also quite high standards of stability, concern for the child’s welfare, wealth, and other characteristics reviewed through applications and interviews. Those who would use ARTs are often given more than an eyebrow raise by their physicians if they’re over a certain age or have a given lifestyle choice. Regardless of what criteria must be met, the point is they are always stricter than the criteria a couple must meet to be able to reproduce in the, uh, standard fashion, because there are no criteria (besides the reproductive biology) for being able to have kids unassisted.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Top Posts

Ralph: The Official Mascot of Space Tourism

By Kevin Grazier | October 13, 2010 2:00 pm

Many activitites, jobs, and pastimes have virtual mascots—mascots that just seem to get adopted over time. Gamblers have always courted lady luck. Absinthe drinkers talk about seeing the green faerie. Mars exploration has the Great Galactic Ghoul, to which we’ve alluded recently.

It’s on point related to that last one that I’d like to expand.  SpaceShipTwoThe fledgling space tourism is poised to explode. Seven people have already paid seven-figure sums to fly to the International Space Station. Like any airline, Virgin Galactic allows you to book your flight to orbit. The Russian Orbital Technologies Corporation has announced that it will build a space hotel by the year 2016. This is about to become a HUGE industry; I think space tourism needs a mascot.

Now I do a lot of public outreach, and talk to hundreds, even thousands, of people about space and space travel each year. A common desire among those who dream to slip the surly bonds of Earth is to “float weightless, free of gravity.”  Almost as a rule, I find that these people are unaware of something called Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS).  Put more simply: space sickness.

For the first few days in space, most space travellers experience dizziness, disorientation, and/or nausea (sometimes very severe). Senator Jake Garn–a former naval avaiator and presumably used to motion-related sickness–was so sick that NASA astronauts named the unofficial unit of space sickness the “Garn”. An astronaut who is space sick at a level of one Garn is, essentially, useless as far as performing meaningful work. A space tourist at a level of one Garn would probably not be enjoying his or her “vacation.” One can almost envision space tourists, upon return to Earth, debarking from their spacecraft sporting the very same Transderm patches upon which some cruise ship vacationers rely.

So in some senses the industry already has a built-in mascot, one that has been with space travelers since the onset.  Unlike the virtual mascots already listed, I see space tourism’s virtual mascot as being different than those previously mentioned, and more similar to the virtual mascot of 400 meter dash runners.  As runners hit the 300 meter mark, and lactic acid builds up to a high concentration in their muscles, runers say that “Rigor mortis sets in,” “You have a refrigerator on your back,” or “The bear jumps on your back.”  Some athletes merge two and  just say that “Riggy Bear” has jumped on your back.

Combining the spirit of the 400 meter dash mascot with the experience of Senator Garn and others, I propose that the mascot for space Tourism–one whose loving embrace you would prefer to avoid, but who will probably be your busom buddy whether you like it or not–be named Ralph*.

I’m not sure what form Ralph should take, the best thing I’ve come up with to date is an amoeba (think of the behavior of liquid in microgravity). I know, that’s lame. So I’m throwing it out (pun partially intended) to you. In the talkback, what form should “Ralph the Mascot of Space Tourism” take?


*For the uninitiated, to “Ralph”, or to “meet Ralph”  is a slang term meaning to vomit.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Space Flight

Wireless Monitoring, a Stepping Stone to Star Trek Health Care

By Eric Wolff | October 11, 2010 6:12 pm

We have a ways to go before Dr. McCoy can run up to a patient, swipe a Tricorder over them and come up with an instant diagnosis, but we’re swiftly building a ladder to that future with wireless sensors and our smart phones.

Anyone who’s had an EKG knows they’re a moderately unpleasant experience: Electrodes dangling long wires must be taped to your chest (which includes getting a patchy shave from the nurse, for the hirsute among us), which of course makes moving around the room a challenge when it comes to stress tests or other related examinations.

We’ll dispense with most of that stuff, if engineering doctoral candidate Yu Mike Chi and Dutch biotech IMEC have their ways in the market place.  Chi, who is still studying at the University of California-San Diego, devised a sensor that can pick up the electromagnetic pulses from heartbeats through layers of cloth, eliminating the need for direct skin contact. The sensors relay medical quality heart rate data to a nearby computer. The sensors can be embedded in a hospital gown in a medical environment, or eventually in clothing for ongoing data collection.

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The History of the Next Millennium According to Sci-Fi

By Joseph Calamia | October 8, 2010 3:52 pm

To celebrate DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary, we asked great minds of science to tell us their hopes for the future. But science fiction already knows what happens next. Just take these predictions for the next millennium, along with some near misses gone by during our first three decades.

1984: Big-screen TVs are good for government control and workout videos.

1997: IT issues lead to artificial intelligence–and cause nuclear war.

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Does Technology Help Us Be More Ethical?

By Kyle Munkittrick | October 7, 2010 2:11 pm

I DISAPPROVE WILL ROBINSON, I DISAPPROVERonald Bailey over at Reason Magazine has noticed a trend. When a new technology comes out, particularly if it impacts birth or death, people have a very powerful initial reaction: “Yuck!” However, within a few years, that “yuck” quickly shifts to “yippie!” A perfect example is Robert Edwards accepting the Nobel Prize in Physiology for developing the first successful in-vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques with his colleague, Patrick Steptoe, in 1978. Everyone knew IVF was a huge breakthrough at the time; everyone also freaked out at the idea. The scientific community took another 30 years after the birth of Louise Joy Brown to approve of IVF enough to award Edwards and Steptoe with the prize they so clearly deserved.

In an unrelated, but completely relevant article, the Washington Post’s Kwame Anthony Appiah triggered a debate over moral progress and history with his recent “What will future generations condemn us for?” His guesses are that our prison system, the industrial meat complex, elderly care, and environmental damage will bring the most intense “how could they do that?” from history students. Will Wilkinson adds that nation-states dividing up the world with their borders, tariffs, and limits on freedom of movement will look pretty awful to citizens of the next century. Tyler Cowen (who teaches at my alma matter) tried to figure out what we might condemn future generations for, worrying that torture, pre-emptive war, and anti-gay sentiment may make a comeback. What is going to help determine whether we’re moving towards utopia or dystopia?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Philosophy, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Morality

Caprica Puzzle: If a Digital You Lives Forever, Are You Immortal?

By Malcolm MacIver | October 5, 2010 3:09 pm

CLARICE: Zoe Graystone was Lacy’s best friend. A real tragedy for all of us. She was very special. I mean, she was brilliant.

NESTOR: At computer stuff, right? That’s my major. Did you know that there are bits of software that you use every day that were written decades ago?

LACY: Is that true? Oh, that’s amazing.

NESTOR: Yeah. You write a great program, and, you know, it can outlive you. It’s like a work of art, you know? Maybe Zoe was an artist. Maybe her work… Will live on.

From: Rebirth, Season 1.0 of Caprica

cylon1I’m excited that today Caprica is back on the air for the second half of its first season. As the show’s science advisor, I thought I’d pay homage to its reentry into our living rooms with some thoughts about how the show is dealing with the clash between the mortality of its living characters and the immortality of its virtual characters.

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You Can't Make Chocolate Milk By Feeding a Cow Chocolate

By Eric Wolff | October 5, 2010 9:00 am

cowIn last week’s episode of Fringe , the man who is fast becoming my favorite mad scientist, Walter Bishop, tried to make a cow lactate chocolate milk by feeding it cocoa beans.

Obviously this doesn’t work. Which is too bad. I spent a lot of time trying to see if one could flavor milk by feeding cows different things, but unsurprisingly, their stomachs digest most of the flavor out of what they eat.

Not that feed is irrelevant. As it happens, putting turmeric and coriander into cattle feed may reduce the production of global-warming inducing methane, according to research from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.  Methane is actually much more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, so the vast quantity of methane produced by the world’s millions of cows and sheep is a significant contributor to global warming.

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Does Mars Have Alien Life? Break Out the Planetary Breathalyzer

By Kevin Grazier | October 4, 2010 2:57 pm

I recently speculated that spacecraft both orbiting and sitting upon Mars may have already detected signs of life.  In particular, some spacecraft have detected signs of methane:

In 2004 the European Space Agency probe Mars Express detected the presence of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. Methane can be produced geologically (and Mars is not short on volcanoes), or biologically. (Though media reports of that observation got a bit out of hand.) Either way, this is an important observation and research on the source of this methane is still ongoing.

Methanethiol-3D-vdWThe existence of methane is ambiguous: Though methane is produced biologically, as I wrote above, it’s also produced geologically (and, in fact, the methane detected on Mars tends to be both localized and emanating from some of the more volcanic regions). It can also be delivered by comets. Given its ubiquity, methane may raise hopes, but in the end turn out to be a poor biomarker. Detecting life elsewhere will require multiple lines of evidence.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Astronomy

Mind Controlled Wheelchairs, They're For Reals

By Eric Wolff | October 4, 2010 4:00 am

On last week’s episode of Fringe, Dr. Walter Bishop, our resident mad scientist, remarked that he heard Massive Dynamics was developing wheel chairs that could be controlled with the mind.

Hey Walter, we can already do that. Check it out:

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The Firefly's Glow Could Revolutionize Stem Cell Therapy

By Jeremy Jacquot | October 2, 2010 9:12 am

firefly stem cells

For years, researchers have been using fluorescent proteins in bacteria and animals to study everything from gene therapy and neural development to cancer and limb regeneration (and create some very pretty pictures). The concept is fairly simple: by inserting the gene for GFP (green fluorescent protein, originally found in jellyfish) at the end of another gene—say the gene for hemoglobin—its glow can be used to measure how much hemoglobin is produced and where it is produced in the cell.

Inspired by the success of GFP as a research tool (it earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008), scientists have adopted a similar approach to identify and locate transplanted stem cells in animal models. Except in their case, they’ve begun to use the gene for luciferase, the enzyme responsible for the mesmerizing glow of the firefly. And if this method works, it could make stem cells a potent tool for addressing heart disease.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Biotech, Medicine

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