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.
Transhumanism is a big, complicated, sprawling idea. The central concept – that humans can be made better with technology – touches on a lot of hopes and fears about the future of humanity. Though I’m always going on about how great human enhancement could be, I’ve got my fair share of fears myself. But my fears are probably way different than many of your fears. But how in the world can we represent those concerns? As it turns out, I’ve found a pretty good set of archetypes that represent our hopes and fears: Marvel Comic’s Avengers.
How we frame scientific progress changes how we see individual technologies. When we think about science changing people, our minds naturally go to that group of individuals constantly being bombarded by gamma radiation, genetic mutagens, cybernetic interventions, and biological acceleration. I’m talking, of course, about superheroes. Superheroes are modern mythology. And because of that, they make great metaphors for understanding big issues. With The Avengers movie officially announced, I can’t help but notice that the four main members* of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man – are great examples of the different ways different people understand (or misunderstand) enhancement. Respectively, they are The God, The Monster, The Soldier, and The Robot.
Now, in the case of the Avengers, I don’t mean that they each represent a kind of enhancement, like cognitive enhancing pharmaceuticals or genetic engineering for athleticism. I am talking about the mindset people have around enhancement. Will transhumanism make people into monsters or Gods? Is science on the right track or out of control? The Avengers represent how you think enhancement works. Not only that, each Avenger symbolizes the hopes, fears, and problems enhancement may have. Whatever your dreams or nightmares about enhancement are, at least one member of Marvel’s wonder team has got you covered. So which Avenger represents you? Read More
Limitless is one of the first movies to directly take on the idea of pharmaceutical enhancement. The trailer is here and fake viral ad for NZT is here. I’m already wary of the film based on the trailer. Not because of the acting, directing, or plot, which all look good enough. Instead, my problem is that the movie appears to take the same boring old stance on enhancement: the cost of making yourself superhuman is too high.
Limitless has a simple set-up: loser/author Bradley Cooper who lives in filth and dresses like a hobo is offered a pill that will make everything all better. The pill makes him much smarter, more creative, and more driven. Thanks to this new found brilliance, Cooper makes boatloads of money and catches the eye of evil Robert De Niro, who threatens Cooper in various menacing and shadowy ways. Then the pill starts making Cooper crazy and his world starts crumbling around him. It’s Flowers for Algernon except with bespoke suits, exotic cars and international intrigue.
The reason I’m getting an overall vibe of “meh, who cares” from Limitless is that the even though the film has a great bad guy with De Niro and his shadowy mega-corporation, it takes the easy way out and makes the drug the enemy as well. Flowers for Algernon is great because the main character, Charlie, has to cope with how his intelligence-burst impacts his social life. We’re confronted with the fact that increased intelligence doesn’t mean increased maturity, worldly experience, or romantic ability. Limitless ignores these deeper issues.
Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the problem of power and wealth was that Cooper had to deal with other wealthy and powerful people, who are, in general, incredibly awful? Or what would Cooper do if the drug simply stopped working? Or how it affected his relationship with the woman he thought he loved when he becomes too smart – way too smart – for her and is bored by a person he once admired?
The theoretical enhancement drug at the center of Limitless could have allowed the writers to ask much more interesting questions than the trailer lets on. Maybe the movie will surprise me, but I doubt it.
Image viral promotional material for Limitless
Greetings from South Africa, where I’ve been visiting these past two weeks. It’s a country of great beauty and cultural complexity. Besides mastering driving on the left hand side of the road, and not getting too excited when I see “ROBOT” painted in giant white letters on the road (it means stop lights ahead), I made a stop at the District 6 Museum in Cape Town. The events surrounding the real District 6 were part of the inspiration for both the title and content of District 9, the great 2009 science fiction mockumentary set in South Africa.
The movie, if you haven’t seen it, is about a group of aliens who arrive on a mysterious mother ship hovering above South Africa. Eventually the authorities send an expedition up to find out what’s going on and discover a bunch of starving aliens. They are settled in a South African township called District 9, directly below the mother ship (a squatter camp in the township of Soweto, called Chiawelo, was used for the shooting). Much of the story revolves around the forced relocation of the aliens from District 9 to District 10. Besides being confined to the township and being forcibly relocated, they suffer various other kinds of oppression very reminiscent of the ways blacks were treated during the time of apartheid. Interestingly, in this case, South Africans of all colors are united in their hatred and mistreatment of the aliens, derogatively called “Prawns” (not least because they look like supersized bipedal version of king prawns, a delicious crustacean that is often on the menu at nicer restaurants in South Africa).
It’s good to be back to blogging after a brief hiatus. As part of my return to some minimal level of leisure, I was finally able to watch the movie Moon (directed and co-written by Duncan Jones) and I’m glad that I did. (Alert: many spoilers ahead). Like all worthwhile art, it leaves nagging questions to ponder after experiencing it. It also gives me another chance to revisit questions about how technology may change our sense of identity, which I’ve blogged a bit about in the past.
A brief synopsis: Having run out of energy on Earth, humanity has gone to the Moon to extract helium-3 for powering the home planet. The movie begins with shots outside of a helium-3 extraction plant on the Moon. It’s a station manned by one worker, Sam, and his artificial intelligence helper, GERTY. Sam starts hallucinating near the end of his three-year contract, and during one of these hallucinations drives his rover into a helium-3 harvester. The collision causes the cab to start losing air and we leave Sam just as he gets his helmet on. Back in the infirmary of the base station, GERTY awakens Sam and asks if he remembers the accident. Sam says no. Sam starts to get suspicious after overhearing GERTY being instructed by the station’s owners not to let Sam leave the base.
Here’s the extended version of our interview with director Joe Kosinski from the December issue of DISCOVER, in which the first-time feature film director talks about reinventing the light cycle, building suits with on-board power, and how time passes in Tron compared to the real world.
Why return to Tron, and why now?
The original Tron was conceptually so far ahead of its time with this notion of a digital version of yourself in cyberspace. I think people had a hard time relating to in the early 1980s. We’ve caught up to that idea—today it’s kind of second nature.
Visually, Tron it was like nothing else I’d ever seen before: Completely unique. Nothing else looked like it before, and nothing else has looked like it since—you know, hopefully until our movie comes out.
How did you think about representing digital space as a physical place?
Where the first movie tried to use real-world materials to look at digital as possible, my approach has been the opposite: to create a world that felt real and visceral. The world of Tron has evolved [since it's been] sitting isolated, disconnected from the Internet for the last 28 years. And in that time, it had evolved into a world where the simulation has become so realistic that it feels like we took motion picture cameras into this world and shot the thing for real. It has the style and the look of Tron, but it’s executed in a way that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s virtual. I built as many sets as I could. We built physically illuminated suits. The thing I’m most proud of is actually creating a fully digital character, who’s one of the main characters in our movie.
What did you keep from Tron, and what evolved?
A few days ago two assassination attempts on Iranian nuclear scientists were made. One succeeded while the other was a near miss. This is just a short while after programmable logic controllers running Iran’s centrifuges came under cyber attack. Attempts to stop Iran from having the bomb have transitioned from breaking the hardware to killing the brains behind the hardware.
The idea of attacking scientists to stem technological development is an old one. Perhaps the most dramatic example from recent times is Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In his case the targeted killings were embedded in an anti-technology philosophy fully developed in his Manifesto. In the recent assassination attempts in Iran, we see the workings of geopolitical pragmatism in its most raw form.
Regardless of what we may think of Iran having the bomb, the strategy of killing scientists and engineers of a country’s technological infrastructure is one that should give us pause. Few steps separate this ploy to making them the domestic enemy as well, a tradition with an even deadlier history that includes the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s purge of academics.
I’m a science educator. I often think, nay obsess, on how I can do my part to help bring more scientific literacy into everybody’s daily life. In a recent blog post entitled The Myth of Scientific Literacy, worthy of a read, Dr. Alice Bell opines that if we (scientists, educators, politicians) are going to plead the case for increased science literacy, then we should do a better job of defining just what we mean by “science literacy.” She says:
Back in the early 1990s, Jon Durant very usefully outlined out the three main types of scientific literacy. This is probably as good a place to start as any:
- Knowing some science – For example, having A-level biology, or simply knowing the laws of thermodynamics, the boiling point of water, what surface tension is, that the Earth goes around the Sun, etc.
- Knowing how science works – This is more a matter of knowing a little of the philosophy of science (e.g. ‘The Scientific Method’, a matter of studying the work of Popper, Lakatos or Bacon).
- Knowing how science really works – In many respects this agrees with the previous point – that the public need tools to be able to judge science, but does not agree that science works to a singular method. This approach is often inspired by the social studies of science and stresses that scientists are human. It covers the political and institutional arrangement of science, including topics like peer review (including all the problems with this), a recent history of policy and ethical debates and the way funding is structured
On the first point, I do think that there are some basic science facts which should be required fodder in K-12 education. From my field alone, people should not only know that Earth orbits the sun, they should know that our year is based upon the time takes Earth to complete the journey. Don’t laugh. On my last birthday, when I told folks that I’d completed another orbit of the Sun, a distressing number of them did not understand the implication and, upon further questioning, didn’t know that Earth’s orbital period was the basis of one year. K-12 students should know that the Moon orbits Earth, why it goes through phases, and given it’s significance (in particular for several religious holidays), that our month is based upon that orbital period. Finally, everybody should know why we have seasons.
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.
The chasm between science and the humanities is nowhere more blatent than the lack of work on how science fiction is reprocessed and used by those of us securely strapped into the laboratory. It’s a topic that attracts some heat: Some scientists take to suggestions of inspiration between their creations and those in preceding Sci-Fi with the excitement of a freshman accused of buying their midterm essay off the internet. In Colin Milburn’s new work on ways of thinking about this interaction, he refers to Richard Feynman’s 1959 lecture “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” This lecture is a key event in the history of nanotechnology. In it, Feynman refers to a pantograph-inspired mechanism for manipulating molecules. It turns out that he most likely got this idea from the story “Waldo” by Robert Heinlein, who in turn probably got it from another science fiction story by Edmond Hamilton. Rejecting the suggestion of influence, chemist Pierre Laszlo writes: “Feynman’s fertile imagination had no need for an outside seed. This particular conjecture [about a link between Feynman and Heinlein] stands on its head Feynman’s whole argument. He proposed devices at the nanoscale as both rational and realistic, around the corner so to say. To propose instead that the technoscience, nanotechnology, belongs to the realm of science-fictional fantasy is gratuitous mythology, with a questionable purpose.”