Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner‘s dead-tree forebear) opens with Deckard arguing with his wife about whether or not to alter her crummy attitude with the “mood organ.” She could, if she so desired, dial her mood so that she was happy and content. Philip K. Dick worried that the ability to alter our mood would remove the authenticity and immediacy of our emotions. Annalee Newitz at io9 seems to be worried mood manipulations will enable a form of social control.
The worry comes from recent developments in neuro-pharmaceuticals. Drugs are already on the market that allow for mood manipulation. The Guardian‘s Amelia Hill notes that drugs like Prozac and chemicals like oxytocin have the ability to make some people calmer, more empathetic, and more altruistic. Calm, empathetic, and altruistic people are far more likely to act morally than anxious, callous, and selfish people. But does that mean mood manipulation going to let us force people to be moral? And if it does, is that a good thing? Is it moral to force people to be moral? Read More
We learned watching Ghostbusters that for busting ghosts, nothing beats a well-placed zap of protons from a backpack-turned-positron collider. Now, researchers at Harvard University are working on a technique that could let future firefighters do their job (sort of) the same way, using an electric beam—generated by a portable amplifier, which might even fit in a backpack—to put out the flames.
The researchers’ early-stage prototype consists of a 600-watt amplifier hooked up to a electric beam-shooting wand, according to their presentation at the American Chemical Society meeting earlier this week. In tests, they were able to quickly zap out flames over a foot high.
Matt Lamkin argues that universities shouldn’t ban cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Lamkin is a lawyer and, like myself, a master’s candidate in bioethics. He rightly believes that a ban would do little to promote fairness or safety among students. The rule followers would be at a disadvantage while the rule-breakers would be at a greater safety risk. But Lamkin doesn’t believe we, as a society, should be ok with cognitive enhancement usage. Instead, he argues:
The word “cheating” has another meaning, one that has nothing to do with competition. When someone has achieved an end through improper means, we might say that person has “cheated herself” out of whatever rewards are inherent in the proper means. The use of study drugs by healthy students could corrode valuable practices that education has traditionally fostered. If, for example, students use such drugs to mitigate the consequences of procrastination, they may fail to develop mental discipline and time-management skills.
On the other hand, Ritalin might enable a student to engage more deeply in college and to more fully experience its internal goods—goods she might be denied without that assistance. The distinction suggests that a blanket policy, whether of prohibition or universal access, is unlikely to be effective.
Instead, colleges need to encourage students to engage in the practice of education rather than to seek shortcuts. Instead of ferreting out and punishing students, universities should focus on restoring a culture of deep engagement in education, rather than just competition for credentials.
Lamkin’s argument is that cog-enhancers are an easy way out for those in school. Struggling to study builds character and good habits. Though he disapproves of cog-enhancers, I appreciate his hesitancy to involve the law. Lamkin doesn’t believe policing cog-enhancing drug usage is necessary, but would prefer honor codes opposing cog-enhancing drugs. He believes honor codes cause one to “internalize” the value of not using the drug. What is curious is that Lamkin doesn’t actually address what Ritalin and Adderall do for a student. As a person who has a legit prescription for Ritalin, and who knows his fair share of folks who’ve taken Adderall off-label, I believe I can speak to how cog-enhancers work in at least an anecdotal sense.
Four Loko is in the news! For a caffeinated malt liquor drink that comes in an assortment of barely palatable flavors, it sure is generating a lot of controversy. The FDA is banning it! People are taking sides and making bathtub home-brew! Politicians are binge drinking it for SCIENCE! Some folks think the ban might be classist or infringe our freedom of speech! Why is everyone so upset over this disgusting fusion of energy drink and booze? The official answer:
The FDA says it examined the published peer-reviewed literature on the co-consumption of caffeine and alcohol, consulted with experts in the fields of toxicology, neuropharmacology, emergency medicine and epidemiology as well as reviewed information provided by product manufacturers. FDA says it also performed its own independent laboratory analysis of these products and listened to experts who have raised concerns that caffeine can mask some of the sensory cues individuals might normally rely on to determine their level of intoxication.
Allow me to translate: the caffeine, guarana and taurine make it so that you’re less aware you’re drunk, so you get more drunk. Caffeine and alcohol, what a novel combination! Apparently the FDA has never heard of Red Bull and vodka, Irish coffee, or even a whisky and Coke. More importantly (or more hilariously) the FDA seems to think that people who purchase drinks like Four Loko and Joose make a point to pay attention to “sensory cues” to “determine their level of intoxication.” My absolutely unscientific and unverifiable opinion is that it is very hard to rely on “sensory cues” when one is “blackout, fall-down drunk.”
But that’s not the real point, is it? If it was, we’d ban every possible combo of caffeine and alcohol. What’s at stake here is our society’s fear of cognitive enhancement.
I have seen the future, and it is cilia. Yes, you read that right: those trillions of tiny hair-like extensions that carpet every inch of your body could bring scientists’ visions of a universal class of “smart” materials that change and adapt when subjected to various stimuli closer to reality. These artificial cilia could one day do everything from testing drugs and monitoring air quality to measuring glucose levels and detecting electromagnetic fields.
While largely ignored over the past century (or, at best, dismissed as being purely vestigial), scientists are finally beginning to appreciate the many vital functions they perform in and outside of our bodies. Much like an antenna or sensor, cilia gather information from their surroundings and react—by activating a cellular process or shutting down cell growth, for example—if something seems amiss. They can also act as miniature roads or railways, carrying dirt, bacteria and other noxious materials out of our lungs or shuttling a fertilized egg from the ovary to the uterus. And, perhaps most importantly, cilia make it possible for us to see, hear, smell, and otherwise feel the outside world.
Now some researchers believe that cilia-like structures could bring their sensory prowess to medicine, environmental monitoring and a number of other fields. Leading the charge is Marek Urban of the University of Southern Mississippi who has created a copolymer film with hair-like filaments that mimics the functions of normal cilia. Read More
When William McDonough and other pioneers of the sustainable architecture movement first envisioned the concept of living, breathing buildings, it’s safe to say that they probably didn’t have structures teeming with actual living, breathing bacteria in mind. But don’t tell that to Henk Jonkers of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. What he and his colleagues have developed—a self-fixing bacteria-concrete hybrid—may do more to propel sustainable architecture into the mainstream than McDonough could have ever hoped for.
While it may sound unheard of, scientists have been pressing bacteria into service in construction for years. The use of mineral-producing bacteria has already been explored in a variety of applications, including the hardening of sand and in repairing cracks in concrete. But there are two problems inherent to this approach. First, the reaction that these bacteria undergo to synthesize calcium carbonate results in the production of ammonium, which is toxic at even moderate concentrations. The other problem is a more prosaic one. Since the bacteria have to be applied manually, a worker or team of workers would have to go out every few weeks to patch up every little crack on every slab of concrete—nearly defeating the purpose of making the repair process simpler and more cost-effective.
Jonkers’ solution was to track down a different bacterial strain that could live happily buried in the concrete for prolonged periods of time. Because the bacteria would be mixed into the concrete from the start, they could immediately nip small cracks in the bud before they had a chance to expand and become exposed to water, rendering them vulnerable to further wear and tear. (Concrete structures are typically reinforced with steel bars, but these can easily become corroded when water seeps into the cracks.) Such a strain would have to endure the high pH environment of concrete and churn out copious amounts of calcium carbonate without also producing large quantities of ammonium. Read More
Researchers’ new-found interest in frogs may only be skin-deep, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because hidden within their rugose (science-ese for “wrinkled”) flesh may lie a bumper crop of powerful antibiotics. Though hardly a secret among researchers, who’ve been singing their praises as a potential treasure trove for new drugs for years, efforts to systematically catalog—or even investigate—the thousands of amphibians that could yield promising new antimicrobial substances have been few and far between.
In a few years’ time, recharging your handheld PC may be as easy as just slipping it into your back pocket. That is, as long as you don’t mind having a virus cocktail woven into your pair of slacks. Yes, the humble virus–that tiny protein-coated bag of genetic material that we more commonly associate with global pandemics–could replace graphite and lithium iron phosphate as the material of choice with which to build the next generation of customizable, high-powered, lithium-ion batteries.
Despite what you may think, this isn’t actually such an unusual pairing. By virtue of their simple design (most only contain enough genes to encode a few dozen proteins) and infinite capacity for manipulation, viruses have become the favored go-to tool for scientists seeking to explore cellular systems and tinker with their underlying components. Gene therapists have been infecting bacterial, plant, and animal cells with viruses for years in order to shuttle in new genes and repair malfunctioning ones. In one recent application, a team of researchers led by University of Pennsylvania ophthalmologist Arthur Cideciyan restored sight to two blind individuals by injecting a virus equipped with a retinal gene into their eyes. Read More
Having already become a ubiquitous part of our mobile-centric daily lives, wireless technologies are now poised to slip inside our bodies. Researchers and companies around the world are designing the next generation of biosensors—implantable microchip-like devices that can monitor a patient’s health and ping doctors on their smartphones or computers if something is amiss. One day, some of these devices could even apply short-term fixes or treat disorders outright.
The major challenge that scientists face is developing a sensor that is both long-lived and biocompatible. The human body is extremely picky about implants, and will quickly reject or react poorly to most materials found in everyday electronics. Even the materials that make peace with the body’s immune system, like those found in pacemakers, are not always ideal. Some require constant maintenance, while others need to be replaced every few days and are inconvenient to install, to say the least.
Meeting the press during a recent visit to Tokyo, NASA Astronaut Alan Poindexter — Commander of recent Discovery ISS resupply mission STS-131 — was asked if there had been sex in space. His reply was succinct and left no room for ambiguity (though this photo does look pretty chummy):
We are a group of professionals. We treat each other with respect and we have a great working relationship. Personal relationships are not … an issue. We don’t have them and we won’t.
Hang on a second. I’m not sure that the concepts of “sex in space” and “professional” are mutually exclusive. I’m sure that, given what we’ve learned about human physiology because of spaceflight, that there are any number of cardiologists, internists, endocrinologists, OB/GYNs, and a whole host of other health-care professionals and researchers who would love to have physiological data taken of a couple before, during, and after a union in a microgravity environment. These researchers would be the Masters and Johsons, Kinseys, and perhaps even the Shere Hites of their time.