Thursday, September 13, 2007

SCIENCE & SUCH: still catching up...

Devin Murphy sent this one in: - The Synthetic Biology Company Your Building Blocks of Life. It looks like you can order gene sequences, embedded in host organisms. There's even a mix-and-match program called Gene Designer. They also check with a CDC database, hopefully to keep people from ordering smallpox or 1918 influenza.

Jeb sent this in. A researcher tried to desalinate seawater with a radio-frequency generator he developed to treat cancer. He discovered that as long as the salt water was exposed to the radio frequencies, it would burn. The radio frequencies act to weaken the bonds between the elements that make up salt water, releasing the hydrogen, Roy said. Once ignited, the hydrogen will burn as long as it is exposed to the frequencies, he said.

David Brin comments: This is only the beginning. I have long figured that fine-tunable masers should be able to do countless things, like dig holes. In this case, of course, I very much doubt that you’ll find a net energy gain. But as a desalinization method...

The Neuroscience of Empathy: To neuroscientist Jean Decety, empathy resembles a sort of minor constellation: clusters of encephalic stars glowing in the cosmos of an otherwise dark brain. See how they flash, decety says, pointing to the orange-lit anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula on an fmri scan. This person is witnessing another person in pain. ... What‘s interesting is that this network of regions is also involved in the firsthand experience of pain.

David Brin comments: This is a fascinating article dealing with a topic that has long fascinated me in many ways, ranging from fiction to pondering the over-used assumption that advanced extraterrestrials will automatically be altruistic.

What is under-mentioned in the article about Jen Decety and empathy is the perspective of evolution. Yes, it was somewhat advantageous to be able to sympathize with others, in order to create bonds and facilitate social interaction. But that is more recent. I contend that the real roots of empathy lie in something far deeper, older and more feral... predation. Specifically, the advantages that fall upon a predator who is able to empathize with, and thus imagine the thought patterns of, his prey. I have pointed out before the irony that this might be the background source of our capability to imagine that we are the “other”... and that sympathy is actually an emergent property. The feral empathy ability becomes sympathetic empathy when the right conditions appear. The gregarity of social apes. The self-interested desire to make alliances. Cutlural teachings that encourage sympathetic reactions. And above all, satiation.

Ponder. Contemplate. Comments welcome.

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See a presentation "Nanotechnology and the Future of Warfare" given by Mike Treder, my colleague at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology,
at the recent World Future Society conference.

Life, But Not as We Know It – (Australian – August 13, 2007)Scientists have discovered that inorganic material can take on the characteristics of living organisms in space, a development that could transform views of alien life. An international panel from the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the University of Sydney found that galactic dust could form spontaneously into helixes and double helixes and that the inorganic creations had memory and the power to reproduce themselves.

Our Lives, Controlled from Some Guy’s Couch – (New York Times – August 17, 2007)If you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems. Some computer experts have projected, based on trends in processing power, that we will have such a computer by the middle of this century. Yawn!!!

The Enthusiast – Technology Review – September, 2007)A controversial biologist at Harvard claims he can extend life span and treat diseases of aging. He may be right. David Sinclair's basic claim is simple, if seemingly improbable: he has found an elixir of youth. The 38-year-old professor of pathology discovered that resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, extends life span in mice by up to 24% and in other animals, including flies and worms, by as much as 59%.

And I (and - I think - only I) keep trying to explain to these people that NONE of these studies of bacteria and flies and mice have ANYTHING to do with human beings! We are different because we are already the Methuselahs of mammals, getting three times as many heartbeats as mice or elephants. We needed long lives, to sustain culture and raise long-childhood offspring. Hence, we have already turned on all of the chemical switches that expand lifespan in any straightforward way. See:
Do We Really Want Immortality? for a splash of cold water on the extropians' dreams. Hey, I hope I am wrong!

(Lately, I've been hoping that about a lot of things.)


Scientists Hail Frozen Smoke as Material That Will Change World – (Timesonline – August 19, 2007)A MIRACLE material for the 21st century could protect your home against bomb blasts, mop up oil spillages and even help man to fly to Mars. Aerogel, one of the world’s lightest solids, can withstand a direct blast of 1kg of dynamite and protect against heat from a blowtorch at more than 1,300C. Nicknamed “frozen smoke”, it is made by extracting water from a silica gel, then replacing it with a gas such as carbon dioxide. The result is a substance capable of insulating against extreme temperatures and of absorbing pollutants such as crude oil.

Celestial Add-on Points Google Earth at the Stars – (New Scientist – August 27, 2007)Amateur stargazers have a new way to explore the heavens - with an update to Google's free global mapping application Google Earth. The new feature, called Sky, adds a wealth of astronomical data to Google Earth, including images of more than 100 million individual stars and 200 million galaxies. At the press of a button, a user sees their perspective shift upwards, revealing the correct constellation of stars for their selected position on Earth. They can then pick out particular stars or planets manually, or using the search field, and zoom upwards to see more detailed images and additional information. Some 20,000 celestial objects can be searched for by name using the Sky feature.

Eight-million-year-old Bug is Alive and Growing – (New Scientist – Augsut 7, 2007)An 8-million-year-old bacterium that was extracted from the oldest known ice on Earth is now growing in a laboratory, claim researchers. If confirmed, this means ancient bacteria and viruses will come back to life as ice melts due to global warming. This is nothing to worry about, say experts, because the process has been going on for billions of years and the bugs are unlikely to cause human disease.

Segway Inventor Focusing on Green Cars – (EcoGeek – August 11, 2007)Dean Kamen has spent over $40 million in the last decade developing stirling engines which convert heat directly into mechanical energy by use of an expanding and contracting gas inside a cylinder. His stirling engines are already being used in developing countries. There are a couple in India that can power an entire village by burning cow patties. But Kamen started to realize that stirling engines would never be economical until they were mass produced. Which is when he met the CEO of the electric car company, THiNK, and decided that he'd found his method of mass production.

Psycho Paintball & Drug Drones – (Wired – August 23, 2007) and drug-spraying robots sound like something for The Joker rather than the Marine Corps. But these are two of the more promising new methods for administering nonlethal chemical weapons (sorry, calmatives) being developed by the Pentagon. For larger targets such as a crowd, there are a number of new projectiles under development for carrying chemical agents including 81mm mortar and 155mm howitzer rounds.

So High, So Fast – (ABC News – August 17, 2007)At virtually any moment — day or night — you can look up and know that somewhere over Earth there's a U-2 pilot at the edge of outer space, watching and listening. Developed in secret for the CIA more than 50 years ago, the U-2 first detected the movement of Soviet nuclear weapons into Cuba, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the U-2 is not just a piece of Cold War history. Since this spring it is flying more missions and longer missions than ever before — nearly 70 missions a month over Iraq and Afghanistan, an operational tempo that is unequaled in history. The pilots fly for 11 hours at a time, sometimes more than 11 hours up there alone. By flying so high, the U-2 can look off to the side, peering 300 miles or more inside a country without actually flying over it. It can "see" in the dark and through clouds. It can also "hear," intercepting conversations 14 miles below.


In the past month, the Bush administration has ordered employees to ignore congressional subpoenas, asserted broad new parameters for executive privilege and issued an executive order that could permit seizing assets of Americans deemed at its discretion to be hurting the war effort in Iraq. Meanwhile, the administration continues to spy on its own citizens, including widespread data mining of telephone records and emails. The American Freedom Campaign is working to build bipartisan grassroots support "to reverse the abuse of executive power and restore our system of checks and balances." The Campaign is designed to be an online hub for Americans concerned about the country's democratic system and who are ready to act to protect the Constitution.

There are now almost 200,000 private "contractors" deployed in Iraq by the United States government. This means that U.S. military forces in Iraq are now outsized by a coalition of corporations whose actions go largely unmonitored. In essence, the Bush administration has created a shadow army that can be used to wage wars unpopular with the American public but extremely profitable for a few unaccountable private companies. "I think it's extraordinarily dangerous when a nation begins to outsource its monopoly on the use of force and the use of violence in support of its foreign policy or national security objectives," says veteran U.S. Diplomat Joe Wilson, who served as the last U.S. ambassador to Iraq before the 1991 Gulf War.

18 comments:

Mark said...

Scientists have discovered that inorganic material can take on the characteristics of living organisms in space...

More and more it appears this universe is "designed" to grow life and form intelligence. This is almost enough to get one to believe in God (again), if only as an emergent property.

(For the record, I do believe in God, as long as I get to leave the definition of God undetermined.)


This is nothing to worry about, say experts, because the process has been going on for billions of years and the bugs are unlikely to cause human disease.

Truly deadly diseases have to walk a fine line between the quick kill and incubations long enough let the disease spread. We may have nothing to worry about, but that doesn't hold for those working with the bacteria.


the Bush administration has ordered employees to ignore congressional subpoenas...

A scary reminder that ultimately there are no such things as laws, only free will and the willingness of most people to follow the rules most of the time. (I say scary, but truth be told I take comfort in this thought as well, depends on my mood and what we are discussing at the time.)

I think we passed the real threat, but there was a time I believed we were only one terror event away from losing this country. Not because of the terrorists, of course; even on their lucky days they can only give us a bee sting. But our ability to harm ourselves has no such boundaries.

jeb said...

Dr. Brin,

Re. empathy and evolution: I would certainly consider the idea of empathy as useful to a predator a reasonable hypothesis; however, I would point out another possibility, which is that empathy may have been evolved as a tool of prey, not predators. Being "able to ...imagine the thought patterns" of one's predator might be even more useful. I think such a scenario accords better with the story of primate evolution, in which current paleontological data suggest a relatively late development (no earlier, IIRC, than the great apes) of significant levels of meat-eating.

BTW, 'jeb' is initials, not a name....

Mark said...

My first post was largely prompted by this part I then forgot to include:

And I (and - I think - only I) keep trying to explain to these people that NONE of these studies of bacteria and flies and mice have ANYTHING to do with human beings! We are different because we are already the Methuselahs of mammals, getting three times as many heartbeats as mice or elephants.

I tend to find most of your thoughts and ideas interesting and a great new way to view the world, but ultimately no better than conventional wisdom. This is one of the few things you've brought up from time to time that I quickly found myself agreeing with 100%. Once stated, it is so obvious I have a hard time believing others don't see it as well.

I suspect we'll know how to turn of aging completely by the end of this century, but it won't be something like this.

Tony Fisk said...

Scientists have discovered that inorganic material can take on the characteristics of living organisms in space...

Was that a sepulchral chuckle coming from Fred Hoyle's grave?

Bugs have been thawing out over millions of years... and plagues keep re-emerging.

And when comparing with H5N1, didn't they retrieve 1918 flu from corpses in Alaskan permafrost?

jeb said:
empathy may have been evolved as a tool of prey, not predators.

...so *that's* why we all enjoy a game of hide and seek!?

Both hypotheses sound reasonable, and appear compatible.

Which prompts me to wonder what games we need to start playing in order to hone our 'spot the klepto/psychopathic leader' skills?

David McCabe said...

Oh great, now they're going to blow up planes using only salt-water.

Tony Fisk said...

Even greater (not):
'salt-water is PEOPLE!!'

Anomalous said...

Dean Kamen's work is always interesting, and his numerous patents on Sterling engines speak to his expertise in this area.

This, combined with inexpensive hydrogen, could lead (in the long run) to near-zero-emission vehicles that are actually useful to drive. In the short run it could certainly reduce our dependency on foreign oil... we have plenty of things you can burn that aren't derived from crude oil.

alan said...

I have long had a similar view to what you suggest about predation being the foundation of empathy. Although the prey does need to be aware of the presence and appetite of the predator, the level of empathy required for that seems to me far less than that needed to manipulate or trick the other entity into a trap. Of course nothing precludes playing both roles at once, and a small early mammal might well have combined the need to closely observe a large and dangerous dinosaur for security reasons with discovery of the opportunity for egg stealing that was presented by having big mama T tempted away from the nest.

But now on to a very different item in your post...

For the sake of your continued credibility as a scientist I hope that "I very much doubt that you’ll find a net energy gain" (from dissociating water and then recombining its components)was intended as an extreme understatement.

BictonBoy said...

There is a great article in this months Rolling Stone "The great Iraq Swindel" (on line at http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/16076312/the_great_iraq_swindle/2 ).

Nothing new to regulars of this Blog but might be good ostrich fodder.

Enterik said...

Relative to our primate cousins, humans (and their forbears) seem to have undergone significant K-selection, perhaps our ability to manipulate our environment has effectively made the environment more stable.

Can we further stabilize the environmental conditions for the majority of humans? Would life span continue to expand?

In the shorter term, I feel compelled to assert that lifestyle choices that alter diet quality, exercise, injury and stress all have the most power to forestall death...naturally but not indefinitely. So don't sit around waiting for recombinant or chemical science to extend your lifespan, nutritional science has already shown the way.

As a secant comment intersecting the issue of increasing lifespans, I posit that it is prudent the meet increases in lifespan with increases in education as a way to drive down birth rates in order to avoid exascerbating overpopulation.

Sam Taylor said...

I'm going to more on your empathy == predator theory here, since I think this is one of the most fascinating topics you've posted.

I do a lot of different types of martial arts, and a lot of different types of martial arts sparring. One thing I have noticed is that the best fighters (the best predators) DO have empathey BUT only a very little of it.

The necessary empathy to read your opponents is very small. An excess of empathy is actually a severe hinderance. If you are concerned about hitting your opponent too hard (as I often am), then you trigger an extra mental pattern. This slows you down. Additionally, your attacks may then be hesitant or too weak/slow to land.

As long as you have a tiny amount of empathy, it will suffice for predatory/combat purposes.

That said, in order to rise to the top of your society, you need some sort of ability to understand and empathize with that society's rules. Without a conscience (which may hold you back in combat), you cannot stay a part of society for long.

That said, I've noticed that there seems to be a break-even point even on conscience.

Of the best fighters I know, the ones with VERY LITTLE conscience (1 on a scale from 0 to 10) are consistently among the best fighters, but tend to be poorly employed in real life.

Those with slightly higher amounts of conscience (3 on a scale from 0 to 10) are still top-level fighters, but tend to do very well at finding and keeping jobs as well.

After 5 or 6 on the scale, empathy and conscience both tend to affect your fighting in negative ways. Social status is about the same (lower in fighting circles, higher in non-fighting).

None of this is scientific, of course. These are just my personal observations of about 50 or so fighters that I know from around the country. Take them for what they're worth, but they're better than philosophizing in a vacuum :)

Sam Taylor said...

Jeb said, "empathy may have been evolved as a tool of prey, not predators. Being "able to ...imagine the thought patterns" of one's predator might be even more useful."

This, I think, is a bit of a blind alley. Most of us highly-conscionable creatures have difficulty imagining or understanding the processes of Serial Killers/Homicidal Maniacs -- and these are the predators we breed in our own species.

JMO, tho. YMMV.

atolley said...

"And I (and - I think - only I) keep trying to explain to these people that NONE of these studies of bacteria and flies and mice have ANYTHING to do with human beings! We are different because we are already the Methuselahs of mammals, getting three times as many heartbeats as mice or elephants. We needed long lives, to sustain culture and raise long-childhood offspring. Hence, we have already turned on all of the chemical switches that expand lifespan in any straightforward way."

While I doubt that any one technique, like large doses of resveratrol that turns on the Sir2 gene, is going to work, it may well be that we can extend our life spans significantly through multiple techniques. We already do. However I share your skepticism in that for every system we shore up, another will fail. For example, even if we keep our bodies more ageless, how about our brains? Will brains stay younger and more flexible, will degenerative brain diseases result in what looks like lots of Alzheimers cases in young looking bodies?

As for the consequences of lonfer life spans, look around you. The average life span has nearly doubled in a couple of centuries and post retirement lifespans have increased so much that government and private pension schemes cannot cope well. Most sensible schemes have federal level pensions delay payout to adjust for this.

David Brin said...

My "horizons" papers (cited above) discuss how empathy and sympathy are naturally fluid things, in healthy human beings, who apply these things with a lot of contextual adjustment. Satiability and satiation mean that our neighbors are no longer potential prey, to be stolen from in order to feed our kids, and instead likely fellow citizens to cooperate with in building a shared/successful society.

This horizon-expansion process, has proved itself in societies that BOTH teach tolerance memes ANd have experienced long periods of predictable and reliable satiation. Our own civil and gender rights movements fit right into this pattern.

It also explains conservative vs liberal tendencies. Those on the far right despise horizon expansion and those merely right of center accept it, but with some suspicion.

The far left sees the process as sacred to a (psychologically) religious degree, devoting to it all the fervor that earlier generations gave to tribe or nation. Moreover, they often turn and despise those who speak up for earlier/older loyalties.

My own take on this is that moderate (but firmly assertive and dedicated) liberalism offers fealty to the horizon-expansion process, helping drive it forward, without treating it like some sort of religion. It also allows us to keep one foot planted in older loyalties that still retain relevance, despite our hopes for even more enlightened times.

----

atolley, ponder this mental experiment. If caloric restriction or simple diet regimens expand lifespan in other animals, will they do so in humans?

Since records have been kept, there must have been 10,000 monasteries established, where ascetic monks deprived themselves in a variety of ways with many diets. By now, we would know if such procedures worked. See any 200 year old monks capering about?

No, this won't be easy, alas.

Enterik said...

ATOLLEY: As for the consequences of longer life spans, look around you. The average life span has nearly doubled in a couple of centuries and post retirement lifespans have increased so much that government and private pension schemes cannot cope well. Most sensible schemes have federal level pensions delay payout to adjust for this.

Then you would have to deal with massive ammounts of un- and under- employment. Technology would have to stop increasing efficiency and making jobs obsolete. Birth rates would have to decline. All of this presumes one would like to avoid Make Room! Make Room!, Logan's Run and Mark of Gideon type scenarios...

Joel said...

Aerogel is *not not not* made by extracting water, and then replacing it with a gas. Doing so would produce the hard little granules that come in shoes and beef jerky. This type of silica gel has been crushed by the retreating solid/liquid boundary as the liquid evaporated.

The process of making aerogel is fundamentally different, and is called "supercritical drying".

It involves washing out the material with liquid carbon dioxide (freon works, too), then transitioning that liquid to a gas in bulk, by going around the "triple point", where the distinction between liquid and gas ceases to apply.

atolley said...

david brin: "Since records have been kept, there must have been 10,000 monasteries established, where ascetic monks deprived themselves in a variety of ways with many diets. By now, we would know if such procedures worked. See any 200 year old monks capering about?"

Humans have been living in a Malthusian condition for most of their existence. Are you suggesting that caloric restriction isn't valid because they demonstrably did not live long lives? You're a scientist, you know that even thought experiments need controls :)

The problem in testing humans life extension is that caloric restriction is about keeping your body "hungry". Longevity may be about delaying fertility, etc., or it could be about reducing the total oxidation of compounds by mitochondria. Obviously it is easier to test in fruit flies and C Elegans because they are too simple to have different lifestyles. We also know that there are some documented long-lived individuals, so we know it is possible, albeit rare. I don't think we have to assume that longevity has to be entirely "natural". Today we extend lives with organ transplants as one option. 1I don't think it is that far-fetched to speculate that replacing everything, even at the cellular level is ultimately possible. My thought experiment. Replace every cell in your body with one a fraction of it's age (you can do it over time). Wouldn't your pattern still be the same but "younger". The source of those cells could be samples taken and stored frozen when you were a teenager.

enterik: "Then you would have to deal with massive ammounts of un- and under- employment. Technology would have to stop increasing efficiency and making jobs obsolete. Birth rates would have to decline. All of this presumes one would like to avoid Make Room! Make Room!, Logan's Run and Mark of Gideon type scenarios..."

That is the "lump of labor" fallacy. I'm old enough to have heard that argument used for preventing automation (computerization)and immigration (too many job seekers). The Luddites used it in the C18th.

Certainly we don't want an overpopulated world as depicted in "Make Room, Make Room!" (filmed as Soylent Green), but interestingly, Europeans are already reproducing at less than replacement rate today, immigration being the only source of population growth. Reducing the death rate to close to zero with a2x lifespan would result in a doubling of world population, but we already know that population growth is fastest in short lifespan, relatively uneducated, agrarian populations. Knowing that you have say 150 years to live might well result in delayed reproduction, mitigating that population growth.

Enterik said...

Atolley, I am not making a zero-sum arguement. I understand that the number of jobs offered is variable and has periods of increase. But currently job production is not matching population growth and technology is exascerbating the situation (but not the only factor). Of course, technology is also creating jobs, so there is an average vector which I can't calcualate. Maybe what constitutes full employement will change, France already has a 35 hour week.
Perhaps, the whole concept of work will change or evaporate and Brin's age of amateurs will materialize out of sheer boredom :-P

I also understand that education level is inversely correlated with birth rate (and correlated with other factors as well). As it stands in our professional society, many people are reproducing later and later in reproductive life, with the barrier being set around 40 years of age. Beyond that the long term health of the mother and embryo/fetus/prenate/neonate at risk. so unless their is also a boom in early aging and reproductive research, there seems to be a finite window of opportunity we are already butting up against. Perhaps, people will choose to become parents at an earlier age, knowing that they have a whole other life beyond 75.