Cyborgs in the making?

March 18, 2014

Yesterday our younger son asked why science fiction so often portrays problems that arise from a mix of the biological with the mechanical. We had an interesting conversation about real-life instances of machines embedded in people’s bodies, such as mechanical heart valves and cochlear implants. Such devices clearly improve a person’s quality of life without raising concerns that machines could be taking over.

Science fiction, of course, is always looking at what could happen in the future based on current trends. Might we someday have implants that challenge our ability to distinguish between person and machine? Or that make the distinction meaningless?

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Turning science fiction into science

March 9, 2013

I read recently about a number of scientific advances in 2012 that would once have been possible only in science fiction. None of them seem especially surprising, considering previous scientific advances I already knew about.

Today, however, I was surprised to read a discussion of the pros and cons of bringing an extinct species back to life. I knew that cloning techniques had continued to develop since it first made big news. But I wasn’t aware that there was serious work on recovering DNA from extinct species for the purpose of creating live animals.

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Books: Frameshift

December 4, 2012

A reader review of one of Robert Sawyer’s other novels commented that Frameshift is probably his best book so far. Having read it now, I am inclined to agree. The main characters are well-developed, believable, and make you care about them. The science fiction scenarios are also believable – so much so that I’m not sure exactly where the science ends and the science fiction starts.

The scientific focus in Frameshift is on genetics. Pierre Tardivel is a geneticist, doing research to discover the function of “junk DNA.” His concern with genetics is more than professional, however, as he learns as a young man that his biological father has Huntington’s disease, and that there is a 50% chance he also has the defective gene that will end his life early – and cause serious problems even sooner.

(One kind of mutation that Tardivel studies is a frameshift, hence the title. A frameshift is “a mutation that occurs when one or two nucleotides are added or deleted, with the result that every codon beyond the point of insertion or deletion is read incorrectly during translation.” Pierre’s wife apparently has a frameshift mutation which results in her being able to read minds (if the other person is in close proximity to her). Her telepathic power plays a significant role in the plot, but it is not central.)

In many ways, the book is as much about ethics as it is about genetics. Is it a good thing to get genetic testing that tells what conditions you are likely to develop – or pass on to your children?  Is it right for an insurance company to be able to deny coverage based on the results of genetic testing? How should society treat people who are “defective” in one way or another? What are the appropriate limits of experimentation regarding human genetics?

At the time Sawyer wrote the book, the issue of insurance companies denying coverage based on genetic testing was – I am guessing – a contentious issue. (I don’t remember now whether I was aware of debates over the issue at the time.) But since then, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act has gone into effect, providing (as best as I understand it) the protection that Tardivel argues for in Sawyer’s novel.

Sawyer also devotes a significant chunk of the novel to efforts to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals – men who callously and cruelly destroyed the lives of those they considered inferior – often based on attributes that are genetically determined, whether or not the Nazis knew or cared about the role of genetics. How well that major subplot fits into the novel as a whole I’m not sure, but as usual I learned something from reading about it.

Ultimately, though, the book is even more about people than it is about science or ethics, which is why I liked it so much. In some of Sawyer’s books, I found the science fascinating but not the people, as though the characters were just there to enable Sawyer to convey his ideas. In Frameshift, I really cared what happened to the people (well, at least the good guys), and for me that’s what makes a really good book.

Books: The Neanderthal Parallax

November 9, 2012

Having previously enjoyed Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, I tackled his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy over the past two weeks. Like Sawyer’s other science fiction, these novels are based on real science, however speculative some of it may be. As in the WWW trilogy, one of these areas of speculation is the origin of consciousness.

In the WWW trilogy, the theory that is explored posits a relatively recent origin of consciousness, less than three millennia ago. In this trilogy, it is set about 40,000 years ago, and is thought to be the result of a collapse and subsequent reestablishment of the earth’s magnetic field. Along with consciousness and therefore conscious choices came the first split between parallel universes.

As chance would have it (this being based on quantum theory), in our universe, it was our ancestors who developed consciousness. In the parallel universe, it was those we call Neanderthals. Our own ancestors, in that universe, failed to develop consciousness and subsequently died our, presumably (according to Neanderthal scientists) due to lower intelligence, our cranial capacity not allowing for as large a brain.

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On seeking newness

February 18, 2012

I did something new recently. When I found a blog I liked, instead of adding it to my Favorites folder, I clicked on “Follow” so that I would get new posts by email. At least I thought that was the way it would work – I didn’t get my first update until day before yesterday, a couple of weeks after I had found and followed it.

The post is about neophilia, which is itself a relatively new word (at first glance I thought it said necrophilia, which is something quite different). According to Merriam-Webster the word was first used in 1932, but I don’t recall having seen it before. Now that the New York Times has published an article about a recent book on our need for newness and change, however, I imagine we’ll be seeing more of it.

I have to agree with the blogger Ugotitwrong that the support given for calling novelty-seeking “the quintessential human survival skill” is weak. The pace of change throughout most of human history has been very slow, compared to recent decades. Obviously innovation took place, but it’s pure conjecture to say that the people with the strongest desire for novelty moved it forward, while more cautious people kept change from happening too fast.

I can as easily imagine a “neophiliac” eagerly trying a new type of berry or mushroom and getting poisoned, while the more cautious “neophobe” observed and learned what not to eat. Without knowing what genes influence this behavior, and what other behaviors or traits they affect, we can’t do more than guess how novelty-seeking affected survival.

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The color of cerumen

December 15, 2011

This post is about earwax. If you have no interest in earwax, or find the idea of a post about earwax repellant, you may wish to stop reading now.

I happen to enjoy learning new things, and what I learned about earwax today was certainly new. To begin with, the medical term for earwax is cerumen. It is a mix that includes shed layers of skin, keratin (the same stuff our hair and nails are made of), fatty acids, alcohols, an organic compound I never heard of before called squalene, and cholesterol. And whatever dirt happens to get in the ear and get trapped by the earwax (that is one of its protective functions).

What got me interested in earwax today was its color. I had used a Q-tip, as usual, to dry my ears after taking a shower. I know, you’re not supposed to put Q-tips in your ears, but I can’t stand the feeling of water in my ears. The Q-tip does a great job of drying them, and if it happens to remove some bits of earwax that’s just fine with me. But what looked so strange this morning was the dark gray on the Q-tip, along with the usual yellowish and brownish residue.

What in the world was in my right ear that produced that gray stuff? I tried another Q-tip – more gray, though by the time I had used the other end of it, either the gray was gone or my ear was too dry for anything to stick to the Q-tip. I figured it was probably nothing, but I was curious enough to do a search on the internet.

I found nothing much about finding gray on your Q-tip when you clean your ears, but I did find out more about earwax. Such as the fact that some people have “wet” earwax and some have “dry” earwax. The dry earwax is often a darker color, and some people do have a mix of the two, but I’m pretty sure I don’t, since I never saw anything like that before today.

However, it also turns out that, unlike many physical traits, the type of earwax can be easily traced to a single gene, which has a dominant and recessive form. The dominant form produces wet earwax, the recessive produces dry earwax. You can learn all about the genetics of it here.

So I still don’t know why my Q-tip is gray. But I know a bit more about cerumen now. And so do you.

Books: Nature Via Nurture

November 3, 2011

Several weeks ago, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal, about how children deprived of the opportunity to learn to speak when they are young are unable to acquire the skill later in life. I had long known that learning a second language is much easier prior to about age twelve, but I had never thought about the significance of that time period for learning one’s first language. Near the end of the article, there is a suggestion that the difficulty that autistic children have with language development may also be related to the “window” for such learning opening too early or too late.

Curious to read more by this author, I googled Matt Ridley and found that he not only writes regularly for the Wall Street Journal but that he has also written several books. Of these, Nature Via Nurture:Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human seemed particularly interesting, and I was pleased to find it available through the local library. It is written as popular science, not a textbook, so someone interested in learning in depth about how genes work would probably be disappointed. But for someone like me with an interest but little previous knowledge on the topic, it is a fascinating book.

My previous knowledge of genes was not much more than what I learned in tenth grade biology. I knew that genes are responsible for physical features such as hair and eye color, as well as a number of other traits that are not as easily defined or traced. I knew about dominant and recessive genes, which explain why I had red hair even though no one else in my immediate family did. I knew that genes are only part of the story, as even identical twins are not identical in every regard. And I knew that there was a great deal of research going on into the genetic basis for a number of physical and mental disorders.

I realized, however, early in the book, that I had no clear idea exactly what a gene was. (Much later in the book I found out that is in part because the word has been used in at least five different ways in the past century.) I asked my husband Jon, since his first career was in molecular biology, and he explained that a gene is the coding to produce a specific protein. That puzzled me even more – what does producing a protein have to do with having red hair or blue eyes? Jon did point out that genes are so small that scientists usually can only trace specific traits to part of a particular chromosome, not down to the level of a particular gene.

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