Posts tagged: mad science
Scott K. Johnson reviews On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship Between Life and Earth by Toby Tyrrell:
Spiritual groups that hope to attract your interest may exhort you to “Be a part of something bigger than yourself!” But James Lovelock would tell you that you can already check that off your to-do list.
In the early 1970s, Lovelock—with the help of Lynn Margulis—developed the Gaia Hypothesis, which views the Earth and its ecosystems as resembling a sort of superorganism. Lovelock was working for NASA at the time, developing instruments that would aid the Viking landers in looking for signs of life on Mars, so he was thinking about how life interacts with its environment on a planetary scale. And Margulis was famed for her ideas about symbiosis.
This intellectual background led to the idea that organisms are not just passive inhabitants riding a big rock that determined whether they lived or died. Organisms were active participants in the molding of their environment, tweaking and improving conditions as part of a massive, self-regulating system.
In On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship Between Life and Earth, University of Southampton Professor Toby Tyrrell sets out to comprehensively put the Gaia Hypothesis to the test, using everything we’ve learned about life and its history on our planet.
I’ve blogged before about Dartmouth College research finding that correcting people’s incorrect beliefs with facts can backfire. Now the same group has confirmed their previous work, this time testing various pro-vaccination messages.
Mother Jones reports:
The paper tested the effectiveness of four separate pro-vaccine messages, three of which were based very closely on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) itself talks about vaccines. The results can only be called grim: Not a single one of the messages was successful when it came to increasing parents’ professed intent to vaccinate their children. And in several cases the messages actually backfired, either increasing the ill-founded belief that vaccines cause autism or even, in one case, apparently reducing parents’ intent to vaccinate.
The study, by political scientist Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College* and three colleagues, adds to a large body of frustrating research on how hard it is to correct false information and get people to accept indisputable facts. Nyhan and one of his coauthors, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, are actually the coauthors of a much discussed previous study showing that when politically conservative test subjects read a fake newspaper article containing a quotation of George W. Bush asserting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, followed by a factual correction stating that this was not actually true, they believed Bush’s falsehood more strongly afterwards—an outcome that Nyhan and Reifler dubbed a “backfire effect.”
Nathaniel Rich’s article on the de-extinction movement includes this letter by Stewart Brand to George Church and Edward O. Wilson:
Dear Ed and George …
The death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914 was an event that broke the public’s heart and persuaded everyone that extinction is the core of humanity’s relation with nature.
George, could we bring the bird back through genetic techniques? I recall chatting with Ed in front of a stuffed passenger pigeon at the Comparative Zoology Museum [at Harvard, where Wilson is a faculty emeritus], and I know of other stuffed birds at the Smithsonian and in Toronto, presumably replete with the requisite genes. Surely it would be easier than reviving the woolly mammoth, which you have espoused.
The environmental and conservation movements have mired themselves in a tragic view of life. The return of the passenger pigeon could shake them out of it — and invite them to embrace prudent biotechnology as a Green tool instead of menace in this century… . I would gladly set up a nonprofit to fund the passenger pigeon revival… .
Full Story: The New York Times: The Mammoth Cometh
The details of how it de-extinction would actually work are fascinating, and if you stick with the article long enough, it does include some criticism from mainstream biologists. For one thing, this isn’t really bringing back an old species so much as it easy creating a new species that is very close to the old. In fact, one environmental lawyer has already suggested that such species could be patentable.
Quartz reports on a recent study on scientific breakthroughs:
James Murphy, the former frontman of the band LCD Soundsystem, made what he called the biggest mistake of his life at 21, when he turned down a writing job on a sitcom that was about to launch.
The sitcom’s name was Seinfeld.
Instead, he lurched around, working as a bouncer and later a DJ before finally releasing the first LCD Soundsystem album at the not-so-tender age of 35.
Murphy might have been older than some of his dance-rock peers, but his experience is fairly common among people who experience major creative breakthroughs, according to a new paper from NBER.
The authors examined the high points of the careers of both great inventors and Nobel-Prize winning scientists, and they found that the late 30s were the sweet spot for strokes of genius.
Black box recorders are a common feature in aircraft. They sit there keeping track of everything that is happening. Then, if something goes wrong the information can be reviewed to piece together exactly what happened and form a view of the events that may otherwise have been lost.
Now the Pentagon is attempting to develop a similar system for use in humans, and in particular soldiers who have suffered brain damage. If they could be fitted with a black box in their brain, then it may be possible to trigger memories surrounding a traumatic event and overcome memory loss quickly and easily. […]
It’s common to see memory loss in someone suffering brain damage, but they can also forget their personal details and skills, such as remembering their own name, who their family is, and even how to drive. As well as stimulating the brain to recover recent memories, it is hoped the implant would be able to recall common information and therefore help them remember who they are.
Emelie Rutherford writes for TechCrunch:
Lynn Rothschild has short brown hair and smiley eyes. She cracks jokes about biology and microscopes with ease. Diana Gentry, her decades-younger Ph.D. student, loves classic video games and vegetarian cooking. She lives near Silicon Valley. The two colleagues have a funny banter, and have spent holidays together. But they share one unique goal.
They’re trying to 3D-print wood in space.
The Stanford University researchers have been working long hours honing a three-dimensional printing process to make biomaterials like wood and enamel out of mere clumps of cells. Pundits say such 3D bioprinting has vast potential, and could one day be widely used to transform specially engineered cells into structural beams, food, and human tissue. Rothschild and Gentry don’t only see these laboratory-created materials helping only doctors and Mars voyagers. They also envision their specific research – into so-called “synthetic biomaterials” – changing the way products like good-old-fashioned wooden two-by-fours are made and used by consumers.
Full Story: TechCrunch: How NASA Prints Trees
The Verge reports:
Google’s blockbuster $2.9 billion sale of Motorola Mobility to Lenovo won’t include the Advanced Technology and Projects group led by former DARPA director Regina Dugan. The news was confirmed today on a conference call with Lenovo, and sources familiar with the matter say the group will be integrated with Google’s Android team, where Dugan will report to Sundar Pichai but maintain a more independent role. […]
The most notable project to come from Dugan’s group was the Project Ara modular phone, which allows different phone configurations to be constructed from various parts. The plan is to use Google’s scale and resources to accelerate the project, as well as other wild ideas like security tattoos and other biotech sensors.
Latest from me at Wired:
In the not too distant future, we could see cyborg plants that tell us when they need more water, what chemicals they’ve been exposed to, and what parasites are eating their roots. These part-organic, part-electronic creations may even tell us how much pollution is in the air. And yes, they’ll plug into the network.
That’s right: We’re on our way to the Internet of Plants.
That’s the message from Andrea Vitaletti, the head of a blue-sky research group working on this very thing at a lab in Italy. The project is called PLEASED, short for “PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices.” Though the project is still in the early stages, Vitaletti believes plants could serve as ideal sensors, monitoring so many aspects of our environment. Plants are cheap and resilient, he argues, and they could potentially monitor many different things simultaneously.
“Plants have millions of years of evolution. They are robust. They want to survive,” Vitaletti says.
This piece for Matter by Will Storr on the poisoning of former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko has all the intrigue of a techno-thriller novel:
TUCKED INTO THE Millennium Hotel on London’s Grosvenor Square, the Pine Bar is a place of hush and shadows. Dark wood panelling, leather seats, and black shaded chandeliers cosset those who seek discretion in style. Head barman Norberto Andrade has hidden many celebrities in its recesses during his 27 years of service, including James Bond stars Sean Connery and George Lazenby.
The three Russians who ordered drinks on the chilly afternoon of November 1, 2006 had little of the lethal glamour one might expect of spies. True, two of them were smoking cigars and drinking gin. But the other, a fair-haired man whose slightly angelic face and wide eyes gave him a look of worried alertness, was dressed inelegantly in a khaki t-shirt, jeans, and a denim jacket. He sipped green tea as the smokers, complaining about the small British measures, ordered several rounds of drinks at once. Andrade placed their orders on a tray, but when he reached their table, one of the men obstructed him. The moment had an unforgettably hostile edge to it. He struggled to put the drinks down, finally managing to sit them next to the tea pot.
The men eventually left, and Andrade cleared the table. As he poured the remaining tea away, he noticed that the consistency of the liquid that tipped into the sink was strange. Gooey. He couldn’t have known it as he puzzled over its weird yellow tinge, but the man who’d been sipping the tea was a 43-year-old Russian dissident called Alexander Litvinenko, and the tea itself, draining away into the London sewers, was lethally radioactive.
Litvinenko lived in north London’s desirable Muswell Hill; he left the Pine Bar and arrived back home around seven. He changed his clothes, sat down to a chicken dinner prepared by his wife, Marina, and spent the evening watching Russian news online. Four hours later, he went to bed.
Before long, however, he was up again?—?vomiting with such violence that Marina began to panic. She brought him wet towels, dosed him with magnesium tablets. Nothing seemed to work. During the night, his temperature plummeted, yet he begged for the windows to be opened so he could gulp down more of the freezing November air.
“It looks like they’ve poisoned me,” he said to his wife.
A paper by researchers from the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition and published in the national defense journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calls for the creation of super soliders through “physiological monitoring and feedback, changes in nutrition, and careful pharmaceutical interventions.”
Here’s the abstract:
Modern technological warfare requires a level of cognitive ability and discipline unique in the history of armed conflict. Recent advances in physiology, nutrition, neuroscience, and engineering offer a significant potential to prevent or reduce the degradation of a warfighter’s mental or physical capabilities in this demanding environment. The authors explore four categories for potential enhancement of military personnel: genetic or computational-mechanical alteration of the human body; physiological monitoring and tighter coupling between man and machine; pharmaceuticals; and nutrition and supplementation. None of these types of enhancements is without controversy; in particular, genetic intervention would require morally intolerable experimentation. In the foreseeable future, the military enhancement technologies most likely to see use will be akin to those seen in elite athletics. Physiological monitoring and feedback, changes in nutrition, and careful pharmaceutical interventions all could improve warfighter performance, and, the authors assert, such enhancements are not morally problematic if their effects are candidly assessed and revealed. In choosing whether and how to enhance military personnel, the government must balance long-term health hazards with a reduced risk of near-term injury or death. If physiological monitoring and feedback (and regulation, through drugs or other means) can decrease large, immediate, or long-term risks to the life or well-being of service personnel, the authors write, there appears to be a moral obligation to provide those enhancements to warfighters.
(via Doc Leecher)