David Brin – Our biohacker future (more science roundup!)

  • Published on October 19th, 2013

By David Brin

Five-Billion-Years Science journalist Lee Billings is releasing his long-awaited tome entitled Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, (a nod to the Gabriel García Márquez masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, while referring to the apparent absence of extraterrestrial life – at least, so far.)

Lee’s book confronts the puzzle over whether or not we are alone in the cosmos, not from a systematic point of view as I have done (meticulously ticking off possibilities and plausibilities).

Rather, Billings takes the reader on a journalist’s personal voyage of perspective, with each chapter revolving around the story of a scientist or philanthropist or some other personality whose curiosity helped to push back the shrouding fog, opening up the skies a bit, allowing light to fall upon our biggest enigma.

It is an engrossing book that you’ll enjoy anywhere, from that transcontinental flight to enjoying it at the beach… as our planet’s ponderously reliable rotation makes a glowing ball of fusion-heated gas seem to “descend” in the west.

Our Biohacker Future 
Biohackers constructed their temple for amatuer bio-creativity in 2009, with the establishment of Brooklyn-based Genspace, the world’s first government-compliant DIY biotech lab.

DIYBIOLOGYAs Casey Research commentator Doug Hornig put it in Biohackers, Our Next Computer Revolution or Global Catastrophe in the Making?

Genspace is the democratization of science in a nutshell, a nonprofit funded by membership dues, tuition fees, and donations from supportive nonmembers. You can attach yourself to one of the scientists already embarked on a project, or you can set up one of your own. The only credential you need to bring is your enthusiasm for the subject, with Ph.D.s onsite to help you through the rough spots.”

The idea is spreading across the globe. In the U.S. alone, there are now about a dozen community biolabs, or “hackerspaces,” as they’re known. Along with Genspace, they include Boston’s Open Source Science Lab, BOSSLABBioCurious in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles as well as Bio, Tech and Beyond, which just opened near me at Carlsbad California. More information on local groups and standards for laboratory safety can be found at DIYbio.org.

DIY-Bio-LabsHornig again: 

Everyone admits that there are risks involved in fooling around with synthetic life forms. But the biggest one is the threat of bioterrorism, and that’s probably not going to come from the public DIY Bio community. The horrible killer virus that unleashes World War Z is far more likely to emerge from a secret lab of some dedicated terrorist group. And you can be sure that the international intelligence agencies are on high alert for signs of any such development.”

As for regulation, the U.S. government so far hasn’t taken any steps to control at-home biology.

Or will we hack in code? Arduino’s Raspberry Pi  “computer on a board” has dazzled members of the Do It Yourself movement. Now Intel has leaped in with an improved version. It will give away 50,000 of them to universities soon.

There are already hundreds of active Hackerspaces around the globe.

Then there are the replicators. Little mobile M-blocks created by researchers at MIT can seek each other out and self-assemble into larger robots.  This article cites Terminator but I recall Stargate.  Let’s do it smart, eh?

Or will nature hack us first? Ask the hornets. Some giant varieties are spreading due to warmer weather and people are dying, especially now that Asian Hornets have spread to Europe and Korea. Reminiscent of a novel I just read (and blurbed) — Invasive Species by Joseph Wallace.

Not if we get real smart, real fast! Do it by emulating Einstein’s brain!  Here’s an interesting article about how it differed.

Clues for our next hacks
Naked mole rats have what any animal would want. They live long lives—about 30 years—and stay healthy until the very end. Now biologists at the University of Rochester have new insights into the animal’s longevity — better-constructed proteins.

Bad news for Singularity Zealots! Our brains may be much more complex than simply the sum of a trillion synapses . Although the human brain contains roughly 100 billion neurons, it contains billions more non-electrical brain cells called glia.  I have long held that this network of cells does a lot more than just support and feed neurons.  Indeed, I’ve suggested — way back in EARTH (1989) — that the glia and astrocytes might be true computational centers and the neurons serve as flashy communications hubs between them. All major glial cell types in the brain — oligodendrocytes, microglia and astrocytes — communicate with each other and with neurons by using chemical neurotransmitters and gap junctions, channels that permit the direct transfer between cells of ions and small molecules.  Research is revealing that glia can sense neuronal activity and control it. Now this “second brain” is getting a fresh look.

our-final-inventionRay Kurzweil may not agree that glia and internal neuron structures do computing. But he does offer an interesting discussion of the tradeoffs in developing artificial intelligence (AI) taken from James Barrat’s new book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. Dolorous musings abound.  For example, as George Dyson wrote, “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.” Indeed, Ray asks: “How can we get an AI to learn what our idealized values are?”  I see no sign – alas – that Barrat and Kurzweil and Dyson have thought this through … as American women are dying younger than the previous generation.

I’ve just written a creepy story about this:  Tissue Engineering: How to Build a Heart. With thousands of people in need of heart transplants, researchers are trying to grow new organs.  The “scaffolding” approach is gaining steam.  Watch next year for my novelette that takes it to… extremes!

Sci Miscellany 
Only 80 light-years from Earth, a 12 million-year-old planet has properties similar to those of gas-giant planets orbiting young stars. Because it is floating alone through space, rather than around a host star, astronomers can study it much more easily. The planet, which has only six times the mass of Jupiter, was identified by its faint and unique heat signature.

Researchers found that some fruits — strawberries, oranges, peaches, plums and apricots — had no significant effect on the risk for Type 2 diabetes. But eating grapes, apples and grapefruit all significantly reduced the risk. The big winner: blueberries. Eating one to three servings a month decreased the risk by about 11 percent, and having five servings a week reduced it by 26 percent.

Substituting fruit juice for whole fruits significantly *increased* the risk for disease.

A PhD student at University College London, is trying to give schools cheap access to the expensive imaging capabilities that allowed her team to capture the first in-water image of the DNA helix structure.  And to do that, she and her colleagues are developing a £300 open-source atomic force microscope (AFM) that uses 3D-printed parts, Arduino computers and Lego bricks.

Rice University theorists calculate that atom-thick carbyne chains may be the strongest material ever, if and when anyone can make it in bulk. Carbyne is a chain of carbon atoms held together by either double or alternating single and triple atomic bonds. That makes it a true one-dimensional material, unlike atom-thin sheets of graphene.

A Penn State anthropologist can identify the sex of some of the people who placed their handprints on rocks and cave walls. Interestingly, he found that the first cave painters may have been mostly women.  

Like something out of a Robert Heinlein novel, students at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have built a metal rocket engine using 3D printing techniques and conducted a hot fire test for a 3D-printed metal rocket engine in California’s Mojave Desert.

And finally… 
the-clock-of-long-nowMarek Kohn offers an excellent rumination on “horizons” and why some modern efforts are returning to the view held by medieval cathedral-makers… that it is worth planning on the scale of a millennium.  “At a Hindu monastery in Hawaii, the Iraivan Temple is being built to last 1,000 years, using special concrete construction techniques. Carmelite monks plan to build a gothic monastery in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming that will stand equally long. Norway’s National Library is expected to preserve documents for a 1,000-year span.

The Long Now Foundation dwarfs these ambitions by an order of magnitude with its project to build a clock, inside a Nevada mountain, that will work for 10,000 years. And underground waste disposal plans for the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in Finland have been reviewed for the next 250,000 years; the spent fuel will be held in copper canisters promised to last for millions of years.”

Explore similar topics in a nonfiction book by Gregory Benford: DEEP TIME: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia.  Here is Chapter one.

(Originally appeared at ContraryBrin.)

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