Sister Discover Blog 80beats reports:
Fossilized dinosaur embryos, found still in their eggshells, have claimed the title of the oldest vertebrate embryos ever seen–they were fossilized in the early Jurassic Period, around 190 million years ago, researchers say. The embryos are from the species Massospondylus, a prosauropod, the family of dinosaurs which gave rise to iconic sauropods like the Brachiosaurus.
Of course, just because we found the well-preserved bones of a dinosaur embryo doesn’t mean we can bring the thing back to life with a snap of the fingers (or even with a crack scientific team “sparing no expense”). But remember that most scientists were very skeptical that any viable tissue could be found in dinosaur bones until Mary Schweitzer did just that—and faced a lot of misguided attacks before her results were confirmed.
WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio, recently gathered together several of my fellow science and engineering researchers at Northwestern University to talk about the science of science fiction films. The panel, and just short of 500 people from the community and university, watched clips from Star Wars, Gattaca, Minority Report, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Matrix. I was the robot/AI guy commenting on the robot spiders of Minority Report; Todd Kuiken, a designer of neuroprosthetic limbs, commented on Luke getting a new arm in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; Tom Meade, a developer of medical biosensors and new medical imaging techniques, commented on Gattaca; and Catherine Wooley, who studies memory, commented on Eternal Sunshine.
The full audio of the event can be streamed or downloaded from here.
Ronald 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?
As part of DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary celebration, the magazine invited 11 eminent scientists to look forward and share their predictions and hopes for the next three decades. But we also want to turn this over to Science Not Fiction’s readers: How do you think science will improve the world by 2040?
Below are short excerpts of the guest scientists’ responses, with links to the full versions:
The concept of the Dattoo arose in response to current trends towards increasing connectivity and technology as self-expression. To realize a state of constant, seamless connectivity and computability required the convergence of technology and self. The body would need to literally become the interface. Computers and communication devices require physical space, surfaces, and energy. The idea of DNA tattoos (Dattoos) is to use the body itself as hardware and interaction platform, through the use of minimally-invasive, recyclable materials.
The picture reminds me of the Buzz Lightyear/ Turanga Leela style forearm computer. That seems like a pretty practical place to put a Dattoo. I have a few other ideas: Read More
A patient receiving a flu shot.
In the not too distant future, the phrase “shooting up” could take on a whole new meaning. At least if the U.S. Army has its way. Wired‘s Danger Room blog reported a few days ago that the military is seeking bids for a high-tech form of vaccination that could be delivered quickly and efficiently to a large number of troops in the heat of battle. More specifically, the Pentagon wants a DNA vaccine that can be administered via a literal shot to the arm—and a jolt of electricity. All without causing too much “discomfort” to the patient, of course.
Suffice it to say that this futuristic-sounding vaccine would be a far cry from what you and I received as children. As last year’s swine flu epidemic made painfully clear, our current methods of vaccine development, which have remained essentially unchanged for decades, are woefully outdated. The vaccines take too long—upwards of seven months—to produce, are easily prone to failure if not prepared correctly and, in many cases, lose their potency after only a year. These failings have helped draw attention to DNA-based vaccines, cocktails of genetically engineered plasmids which offer the promise of inducing a stronger, and more targeted, immune response. Where regular vaccines are slow to develop and hard to combine, DNA vaccines can be made relatively quickly and mixed together to ward off multiple pathogens at once. They are also generally safer to produce and administer, more durable and can be scaled more easily.
“Would you take a magic pill to make yourself straight?” asked an audience member at a GLBT forum at Winona State University in Minnesota. The concept is not pure fantasy: scientists have flipped a genetic switch to make female mice homosexual and rogue pediatric endocrinologist, Maria New, has been giving mothers dexamethasone to prevent lesbian daughters. Pre-implantation genetic diagnostics, combined with in-vitro fertilization, is making it possible to select out genetic defects and disorders, and to select for desirable traits. The science of sexuality is driving us towards a future in which we may have the option to choose our child’s sexual orientation. This scenario poses a few questions:
If you’re anything like me, then you probably uttered an audible groan of disdain upon first laying eyes on the title of this book. In a literary landscape already awash in guides on surviving the coming zombie/robot/(insert your own term) apocalypse, the last thing I wanted to read was yet another piece of cloying, pseudo-scientific babble.
I felt compelled to give it a chance, however, after flipping to the authors’ page and realizing, to my great relief, that I was dealing with actual scientists. Scientists with a wry sense of humor and penchant for science fiction, as I soon found out. Having listened to (or slept through) my fair share of biology lectures during college, I was curious to see how they would approach such a complex topic–and, more importantly, how helpful their “tips” would turn out to be. I’m happy to report that not only have they written one of the most entertaining, succinct guides to biotechnology and cloning, they have also provided an exhaustive guide on how to best your clone—surely a pressing question for anyone reading this blog. Read More
Buried in the Economist‘s excellent special report “Biology 2.0” on the decade since the completion of the Human Genome Project is a chart that I almost didn’t believe when I saw it. Using data from M.I.T.’s Broad Institute, the cost of genomic sequencing (in dollars per million base pairs) was plotted against the cost of computing. The results were astonishing.
Moore’s Law (the speed of computing per dollar doubles every 18 months), perhaps the representative concept of ever accelerating technological progress and the foundation of Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of a technological singularity, looks pretty pathetic. And genomics is still getting cheaper and faster:
We are teaming up with Jennifer Ouellette and the crew at the Science and Entertainment Exchange to produce a panel on “MAD SCIENCE,” i.e. Science as a double-edged sword, ethically and morally neutral in and of itself, but dependent upon who wields it, and how.
Beloved Internet Personality Phil Plait is lined up to moderate (after he gets his tattoo) and we’re expecting guests from Eureka, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Stargate: Universe and more. Watch this space for additional details.