experimental plant

Several years ago, scientists at the sustainable farming research center Rothamstead decided to splice a gene from peppermint into wheat to help ward off aphid infestations. You see, when hungry adult aphids decide it’s time for a snack, the essential oil given off by peppermint mimics a danger signal for the insect. Imagine trying to bite into your sandwich just as a fire alarm goes off over your head with no end in sight. That’s exactly what happens to aphids, and the thought was that this ability could be spliced into wheat to reduce pesticide use while increasing yield. It should also be noted that Rothamstead is non-profit, the research initiative was its own and no commercial venture was involved in any way, shape or form. Sadly, the test crops failed to live up to their expectations and deter aphids with the pheromone they produced, EβF. Another big, important note here is that despite the scary name, this is a naturally occurring pheromone you will find in the peppermint oil recommended by virtually every organic grower out there.

Of course, noting the minor nature of the genetic modification involved, the total lack of a profit motive on the part of a highly respected research facility, the sustainability-driven thinking which motivated the experiment, and the fact that the desired aphid repellent was derived from a very well known, natural source, anti-GMO activists decided that they wanted to destroy test crops in more mature stages of the research anyway because GMOs are bad. No, that was the excuse. Scientists planting GMO plants? They obviously want to kill people to put money in Monsanto’s pockets with evil Frankenfoods. With the experiment failing, they’re probably celebrating that all those farmers trying to protect their wheat lost a potential means of doing so and they won’t be driving to the research plots in the middle of the night to set everything on fire. The group which planned to carry out this vandalism, like many other anti-GMO organizations, lacks any solid or scientifically valid reason to fear these crops, and was acting based solely on its paranoia.

Indeed, anti-GMO activism is basically the climate change denial of the left. It revolves around a fear of change and bases itself on fear-mongering and repeating the same debunked assertion after another ad nauseam, with no interest in debate and even less in actually getting educated about the topic at hand. While anti-GMO zealots rush to condemn any Big Ag study showing no identifiable issues with GMO consumption on any criticism they can manage, real or imagined, with no study ever being good enough, they cling to horrifically bad papers created by scientists specifically trying to pander to their fears, who threaten to proactively sue any critics who might ruin the launch party for their anti-GMO polemics. Had Big Ag scientists done anything remotely like that, the very same people singing praises to Séralini would have demanded their heads on the chopping block. Hell, they only need to know they work in the industry to declare them parts of a genocidal New World Order conspiracy. But you see, because these activists are driven by fear and paranoia, to them it’s ok to sabotage the safety experiments they demanded to assure that scientists can’t do their research, while praising junk pseudoscience meant to bilk them.

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asteroid impact

Unlike you see in the movies, no one will be rushing to save the Earth at the last minute with no budgetary or logistical constraints when we detect a killer asteroid headed towards us. Instead, there are dedicated people worldwide who have the tools and the funding to map asteroids that could do some real damage, keep track of their trajectories, and give us early warnings so we can divert or even destroy them should they start falling towards our planet. However, it’s not a lavishly funded or properly staffed group to put it mildly, which is why Motherboard’s profile of it comes off in such an unflattering way, calling it disorganized and inadequate. While I’m positive that the NEOO isn’t going to argue that considering their mission to very literally save the world, they’re given lofty goals and meager cash. But what it will debate is the notion that it’s somehow disorganized. We went from zero situational awareness to tracking half a million objects in only ten years, and to say that having a whole lot of possible impact mitigation plans is anything but reflective of the challenges involved, seems like fishing for justification for a click-bait title.

Pretty much any primer on preventing asteroid impacts could tell you that every asteroid is very different, which means that the same exact technique will have a completely different effect on different asteroid types. Attaching rockets or mass drivers to randomly tumbling rocks could all too easily accelerate an impact rather than prevent it. Drilling into iron rich asteroids, which are more or less just solid pieces of metal, would result in a broken drill. Nuking a rubble pile would send radioactive buckshot raining down on Earth with apocalyptic results straight out of a sci-fi horror movie. What some writers rush to call disorganized or haphazard, are actually just sober attempts to amass an impact mitigation toolkit that would give us multiple ways of dealing with a stray asteroid about to hit us, and tailor detailed plans for each asteroid type. We want to push comets and large, steady asteroids out of the way, nuke metallic asteroids into safe orbits, and capture and re-direct rubble piles through gravitational assists or even inflatable craft, testing all these approaches as thoroughly as possible to make sure they’ll actually work in a crisis.

Now, because the science is still being worked out and we’re not quite sure how the spacecraft testing these methods should work down to every detail, it’s going to take a while to get them in orbit around target asteroids. Throw in typical manufacturing delays and glitches to fix, and the timelines look abysmal. If the NEOO had more money, it could move faster, but even then, we’d have to deal with the fact that not every mission would be successful because, again, we’re still learning how all of this will work. So far, we know kinetic impactors definitely pack a good punch as seen with the Deep Impact mission. We also know we have the know-how to land on comets and asteroids, as Rosetta and Philae demonstrated. We’re on the right path towards being able to defend ourselves from another K/T event, like the one that gave the dinosaurs what is one of the worst weeks the planet has ever seen. And while we do need more money to test our ideas out in the real world, there seems to be real progress in getting it, hiring more staff, and figuring out how to track more objects. Unlike some writers would have you believe, it’s actually starting to come along and politicians are taking it seriously enough to open up the funding spigots.

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gawking_600

Now, is it just me or are you not really a celebrity until you either have a naked photo spread of yourself in a random glossy magazine, or your very own sex tape? It’s almost as if the gossips who decide who’s who on national television won’t pay attention to you unless there’s either an attention-pleading nudie spread or a threat of a sex tape looming over your head. But alas, the heady days of the celebrity sex tape might be coming to an end, according to Amanda Hess, a conclusion she bases on the ever less enthusiastic reaction of the public to the latest scandals such as The Fappening and Hulk Hogan’s recorded foray into swinging. As Hess sees it, we’ve entered sex tape and celebrity nudity fatigue because there have simply been too many tapes, pictures, and rumors, and the trend is so widespread, very likeable entertainers are affected by hackers in search of sleaze. Instead of laughing at the lax security and overconfidence of C-list actors and actresses, and the desperate pleas for attention from D-list has-beens, we are now empathizing with the invasions of privacy done to make a scuzzy buck off the shock value.

While this may all be true, I think there’s a very important piece of the puzzle Hess is missing in this regard and it has to do with the ubiquitous, internet-connected technology always within an arm’s reach. Back in the days of Tommy Lee and Pamela, you had to set up a camera, make a tape, have that tape duplicated, use fairly convoluted equipment to digitize it, upload it to a web server which you had to configure correctly to accept the format in which you digitized it, spread the word on countless message boards, manually submit it to a search engine, and finally, over the course of a few months actually get widespread notice of the sex tape. Just writing that out would be enough to make you winded, but also shows why celebrities thought they would be in the clear if they just hid their tapes well enough. But today, the camera is on your phone, video gets recorded in a standard format for which everyone has players, and with one-click uploads, you can go from casual sex to amateur porn stardom in a matter of minutes. And many do.

Having constant access to technology has also taken a great deal of flirting and hook ups to the web where you can find anyone from a soul mate, to quick, no-strings-attached fun. And much like the old joke about male masturbation, there are two types of people who use technology to help them flirt, those who send nudes, and those who lie about it. In fact, spies intercepting web cam and IM traffic on popular messaging platforms between regular people in the UK were just straight up shocked at how much nudity they saw. If the 11% number doesn’t seem that high to you, keep in mind that said spies were actually trying to do some targeted snooping, so most of the nudity they saw was after attempts to filter it out. We get naked for the camera so often, we overwhelm top notch government data centers with high tech filtering mechanisms to the point where “well, I tried searching for it and all this porn came up” is a real problem for spies on top secret versions of the internet built specifically to exclude civilian distractions and access.

It’s even a widespread problem for kids just entering puberty. Teens with low self-esteem and a hunger for approval and cred send naked pictures to each other all the time. Adults who need a confidence boost about their bodies can easily solicit strangers’ opinions in anonymous forums, even though they probably shouldn’t. And even when we take pains to make our adult pictures, videos, and chats private, all it takes is one small security hole or a careless moment, and bam, some hacker can get into out accounts and either harvest what we already have, or install very nasty malware to capture some of our sexual moments. Of course we could run with the notion that we shouldn’t share anything we don’t expect to be public and if there are naked pictures of us on the web, we deserve it. But this is a downright sociopathic line of reasoning, on par with a defense of a burglar who only stole your stuff because you didn’t have stronger locks while also lacking the good sense to only buy things you were prepared to lose in a robbery. If you tried to protect your assets and failed, telling you to protect them better, or not have them, is asinine.

So what does this all have to do with the decline of the celebrity sex tape/leaked pic genre? We went from giddy curiosity, to boredom as such tapes were being released for publicity and a bit of cash, to a nasty feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we’ve now taken enough nudes or done enough adult things on the web to realize that we might be next. There are extortionists whose goal it is to trick you into getting sexual with them and then blackmail you. There’s the revenge porn business, perhaps the sleaziest scam of all time. When we know that celebrity nudity was really hacked rather than made in an attempt for another 15 minutes of fame, and we can also be compromised in much the same way, as two non-famous victims of The Fappening were, it becomes a lot less fun to watch these videos or pics. Rather than guilty pleasures brought to us by paparazzi in that TMZ celebs-behaving-badly school of tabloid gossiping, they very much hit home like the gross invasions of privacy they are. And not having enough means of stopping a nasty hack that will embarrass us, we cringe in reply, knowing we can suffer the same fate…

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hallucigenia

The bizarre creature pictured above is an arthropod, a distant relative of crabs and lobsters, an amazing evolutionary blip during the Cambrian Radiation. We know three things about it. It was predatory, it was one of many such weird animals trying to eek out a living in the shallow water off uninhabitable coasts, and considering its lineage, it was likely delicious steamed and with a measured touch of melted butter. We also know that despite being an evolutionary dead end, it’s an important species because it shows us the sheer variety of life able to emerge when animals were a blank slate, starting with little more than disc-shaped bacterial colonies that evolved very primitive organs for filter-feeding. Who knows what they could’ve become had they managed to survive and their ancestors branched out, undergoing billions of years of change. What would a planet dominated by the direct descendants of such predators look like? Certainly very alien.

Just think about that for a minute. Consider that this spiny, eldritch thing really existed and what you would think were you to come across it today, and compare it to UFOlogists’ declarations of alien life that looks like really skinny gray humans with bug eyes and big heads. Of all the forms life has taken even here, on our home world, an alien planet around a distant star, with its own environment and evolutionary history managed to produce another intelligent life form which by sheer coincidence just so happens to look like us? It’s absurd! Who says there is a limit to how many appendages an intelligent life form could have? As long as it’s clever enough to build the shelter it needs and harvest the resources it requires, it has the potential to mull other life on all the worlds across its night sky, and maybe even build a ship to explore beyond its own world. If anyone tells me that he has seen aliens and they look like us post-nuclear apocalypse, and with a penchant for nudism, excuse me if I point at Cambrian fossils and scoff at such a notion.

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If you’ve never been out with a large group of teachers, and I don’t mean five or six of them, I’m talking about 30 or 40 people, a word of caution. Teachers can drink so much that sailors would caution them to slow down and maybe have some water instead. The wildest parties that yours truly has ever witnessed were teachers’ nights where the people who have to deal with some of the worst local bureaucrats and your kids, put even the rowdiest frat boys to shame. But why do teachers needs to let loose so badly on a regular basis? Well, it’s mostly thanks to standardized testing, which is ruining their profession and their students’ learning potential. How? Well, let me hand it over to John Oliver’s model monologue on the subject, vetted by all the teachers I know, and confirmed to be absolutely, spectacularly dead on when it comes to this painful subject…

To sum it up, standardized tests are given far too much, they’re written very poorly and with no sense of how to ask age appropriate,  or sometimes even sane questions, graded by a random group of people recruited on classified sites according to a senseless standard, are pushed by clueless politicians and their appointees, and exist primarily for the benefit of testing companies, because they sure as hell haven’t improved education one iota. In fact, they did the opposite. If you ever dealt with anything in the world of education or academia, you’ll hear that if you teach your students well enough, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pass a standardized test that’s supposedly measuring their educational milestones, or why you should focus on teaching to the test in the first place. But that only works when the tests are sane and appropriate, and you are not tying numerically impossible and ridiculous benchmarks to both student grade and teachers’ pay. When you peer inside the process, it quickly becomes apparent that the politicians and the test makers haven’t the faintest clue what they’re doing and when you point our their abject and borderline malicious incompetence, they resort to political invective about teachers’ unions.

To her the politicians tell it, the tests are fine, the benchmarks are fine, it’s those dang teachers who won’t get with the program because [insert list of imaginary teacher pay and benefits you’ll see on right wing shock jock blogs here]. But you see, most teachers care and most of them do want to help the kids. However, as those on the front lines, they see that the current tactics are not working and that in many other places in the world currently outperforming Americans on all sorts of educational benchmarks, standardized testing is nowhere near as prevalent. Why? The schools in other educationally high achieving countries get better funding, teachers get not just better education, but better pay and more autonomy because they just spent six years learning how to develop minds and are hired and treated as professionals, and the schools track pupils into possible career paths of interest early to give them a jump start on their future. The notable exceptions are Asian schools where students live and die by the test, but even there, there are far, far fewer than some 130 tests over the course of 14 years we currently have in the U.S.

So how exactly are students around the world doing better? Partly, many live in countries where schools have strict national standards and more equal funding across the board, the population is more homogeneous, and income inequality is less pronounced. This is important because the biggest achievement gap in education often boils down to poverty. And sometimes there’s good old fashioned cheating involved. Chinese students who are supposedly doing far better than all of their American counterparts are actually hand picked to be the only ones who count towards the country’s score on international achievement tests. While the rest of the countries taking the test count pretty much everyone, China insists on grading only its best and brightest. If the U.S. pulled the same trick, it would dominate the rankings since American students account for close to a third of the top performers on such tests. However, the problem still remains that for all the testing that was supposed to help identify and fix gaps, all we’ve successfully done is hand over tens of billions of dollars to testing companies because the average student is still performing at an exceedingly mediocre level that has now fallen on colleges to fix with an expensive remedial circuit of classes that nobody actually wants to teach, much less teaches well.

And there are even more bad news there as standardized tests are ruining even that as well. It may be disheartening to hear that after finally making it through the testing gauntlet before you finally get to college, you need to take yet another set of standardized tests to see if you need a few remedial classes. It gets worse when you’re told that you do in fact need them because the tests you took have the predictive power of a coin flip regarding your performance. Yet again, a test written by companies for a profit with little clue what to actually test points to a problem we’ll need to fix and when it does, politicians demand even more testing, more money, more classes, and oceans upon oceans of useless data. The more conspiratorially minded might even call the No Child Left Behind Act a stealthy giveaway to testing companies, but in reality it’s a symptom of a political culture in which a politician is supposed to be an expert in everything and have the appropriate media-friendly solution to every problem. Instead of actually parsing the issues, the lawmakers demand improvement and accountability, then help pass laws requiring both with no clue how to implement them. In come lobbyists who sell them a fanciful bill of goods with which non-experts can’t argue, and the experts who can lack the political pull to be heard.

As a result, the current American education system stretching almost into graduate school, is a product of the blindly ambitious leading the powerful but ignorant, pulled to the side by a snake oil salesman or two who sense that they can make money on the whole thing, all while telling us that they only want to help. But let’s be honest. Yes, the politicians at the top want to help as do those below them, I’m sure. However, the testing companies only give a damn about quarterly returns and profit margins, and because those politicians who want to help have no background in education, or have been out of it for so long they only have the faintest recollections of what it means to teach someone, are often clueless, they easily let profiteers sway them to pursue not the right course of action, but the one most profitable for the companies hiring the lobbyists. It’s a vicious circle. Ignorance breeds more ignorance because it doesn’t know any better. And as it runs schools into the ground, neither will the students whose formative educational years have basically been reduced to little more than filling in little bubbles with a number two pencil…

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old man with pipe

When someone dies young, we say that this person’s death is tragic, that he or she died before his or her time. When someone dies in advanced age, we say that the deceased has lived a full life and it must have been their time to go as if age alone was the culprit. Both stances are very problematic form a scientific standpoint because, you see, nowhere does our biological makeup have a kill switch. There is not one gene or one process that acts like a ticking clock and once it runs out, we die. In fact there are creatures that seem to be near-immortal in this regard, weird jellyfish and microbes that can regenerate themselves when their bodies become worn and frail as if to start their lives anew. To blindly submit to mortality as if it’s somehow ordained by some force from above is to neglect the complete lack of any scientific basis for “our time to go” and ascribe to the frequently repeated misnomer that people die from old age when it’s not the old age that kills the person, but simply makes him or her very easy prey for numerous diseases.

Considering aging a disease or a medical condition is actually a lot more important than it might sound because at stake is government approval for anti-aging drug trials, with researchers able to communicate that their work is valid despite the fact that it fights something doctors don’t see as a disease. In reality, aging is a complex degenerative condition that needs to be treated like one and while there is no one switch we can flip to stop it, there are things we can do to slow it, partially reverse some of its effects, and allow for a longer period of life in good health and with fewer aches and pains. If the worst thing that comes out of these drug trials are treatments that don’t actually extend our lifespans but drastically improve our physical and mental fitness, that’s already a huge net gain because not only are people better off, but we’d also save trillions with less acute treatment for typical physical and cognitive problems of old age being necessary. It’s also a very realistic goal over the next 15 years provided that the funding is there, of course.

We should think of aging much the same way we think of HIV and AIDS. Left untreated, it won’t kill us by itself, but it will open enough doors for something to come along to do that dirty work, and so we should fight it with an arsenal of lifestyle changes. It’s going to be many years before we see rousing successes, but we already have promising pathways desperately in need of the funding and scientific rigor and legitimacy to be taken to their full potential. Convincing those in charge of the purse strings and regulatory approvals that they’re fighting a real problem, rather than just messing around with something nature has preordained, will be crucial because when they don’t think a valid problem is being fought or a valid question is being asked, they’re rather unlikely to keep writing the checks and giving green lights. There’s a cultural battle to be fought here because history is replete with those who claimed to know how to beat aging or death with potions and rituals which yielded nothing or even killed their patients. But armed with the basic understanding of how biology actually works, today’s scientists have a real shot at it.

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pluto approach

According to some people, Pluto never stopped being a planet. While there was acrimony when the new definition was approved by the IAU, after a while it seemed that people got used to the idea that maybe, certain planet-like objects shouldn’t be called planets after all. However, as we approach Pluto with the fastest spacecraft ever built to study worlds like it, the person in charge of the mission’s science, Alan Stern, insists that it’s a planet and those who defined it otherwise lack a persuasive argument to call it anything else. According to him, if we start applying IAU’s definition to current planets, none would qualify because they can’t clear out their orbits and all have various stellar bodies crossing paths with them or following in their orbital wake. Jupiter is not even a proper planet because it attracts so many comets, Neptune can’t be a planet thanks to the fact the Pluto crosses its orbit, and Earth has a cloud of asteroid debris following it. And if none of these spheres is a planet, then what exactly is? But the catch here is that Stern may be emphasizing the letter of the definition over its spirit to score a rhetorical buzz-worthy point.

While he correctly says that a definition that could leads to hundreds of planets in our little solar system alone shouldn’t bother us because science is science and we need to call things as they are, rather than change definitions solely for the sake of convenience and textbook publication, how he interprets the requirement to clear one’s orbit is suspect. There’s math involved in how one determines if a planet cleared its orbital neighborhood and what is meant by cleared, and it should be pointed out that Stern co-authored a paper that contributed greatly to this concept in the first place some 15 years ago. Nowhere does it state that a planet must have a pristine orbit because such a thing is physically impossible in most solar systems. Instead, the idea is that it’s the dominant body in its orbit, and has enough scattering power to send incoming bodies away, which isn’t a perfect definition and could cause some semantic headaches in certain cases, but hardly as absolutist as Stern makes it sound. And the IAU debate raises a valid point. If we call anything round and orbiting a star a planet, how many planets would we have? At what point is there a difference significant enough between planets to require us to rethink the definition?

For what it’s worth, Stern does have an answer to that. Despite raging and fuming about how it all went down at the IAU meetings, he doesn’t want to get rid of the term dwarf planet. But in his mind, that’s just another type of a planet along with numerous other classifications he offered in his paper trying to define any planet’s orbital dominance. He sees us categorizing planets much like we do stars, from dwarfs to hyper-giants based primarily on mass, and each world falling at a certain point along a planetary Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. So what if we identify Ceres and Eris along with a whole host of Kupier Belt Objects as planets as long as they orbit the sun and have enough mass to become round? So what if we end up with 3,000 planets? Isn’t that better than arbitrarily drawing a cutoff at a number we can easily memorize solely for the purposes of nomenclature in classrooms? As we see with extrasolar systems, planets are weird things in all sorts of erratic orbits, so perhaps, how we define what is and isn’t a planet should reflect that in our literature. Plus imagine how big and colorful our model solar systems would get…

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exposed brain

For those of you who haven’t read my post about social activism in the skeptical movement, or don’t remember it, I would recommend a quick refresher before proceeding. One of the biggest reasons why a pop sci blogger would be concerned with this topic is because such debates are spilling into college campuses at an alarming rate, and colleges is where we’re supposed to be, at least in theory, minting future scientists and public intellectuals. How ready and willing they’re going to be to challenge their minds, hear contradictory ideas, and tackle tough questions many find painful to discuss or that have no easy answers, will shape how and even if they’ll have any tangible impact on the world around them. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t want to censor, discourage, or outright antagonize social justice activists, I want college students to hear what a passionate activist has to say about a topic. What I will advocate against, however, is making all of college so safe emotionally and potentially physically, that it borders on the absurd.

Here’s a prime example of this. In a bid to respond to the scandals surrounding colleges’ role in their students’ sex lives one university is seriously mulling imposing a ban on women entering a fraternity between 10 pm and 3 am. Sororities objected of course, and with good reason. You’ll never solve a problem by restricting people’s freedom of choice and movement and it’s such an amazingly tone-deaf and dehumanizing idea to think that it’s fine to basically punish women just to avoid bad PR instead of dealing with widespread binge drinking which contributes to most of the cases they’d like to avoid at all costs. But that’s how bureaucrats think. If drunken fraternity hookups cased trouble, let’s just ban events where such situations occur. Easy fix and no need to dig deeper, right? Wrong. It’s just one more a clear signal that colleges are dropping the ball and failing their students, morally and educationally. How exactly is a topic for several upcoming posts, but think of this as a taste of how college administrators “problem-solve.”

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old cyborg

Over all the posts I’ve written about brain-machine interfaces and their promise for an everyday person, one the key takeaways was that while the idea was great, the implementation would be problematic because doctors would be loath to perform invasive and risky surgery on a patient who didn’t necessarily need said surgery. But what if when you want to link your brain to a new, complex, and powerful device, you could just get an injection of electrodes that unfurl into a thin mesh which surrounds your neurons and allows you to beam a potent signal out? Sounds like a premise for a science fiction novel, doesn’t it? Maybe something down the cyberpunk alley that was explored by Ghost In The Shell and The Matrix? Amazingly, no. It’s real, and it’s now being tested in rats with extremely positive results. Just 30 minutes after injection, the mesh unwound itself around the rats’ brains and retained some 80% of its ideal functionality. True, it’s not quite perfect yet, but this is a massive leap towards fusing our minds with machinery.

Honestly, I could write an entire book about all the things easy access this technology can do in the long run because the possibilities are almost truly endless. We could manipulate a machine miles away from ourselves as if we inhabited it, Avatar style, give locked in stroke victims a way to communicate and control their environment, extend our nervous systems into artificial limbs which can be fused with our existing bodies, and perhaps even challenge what it means to be a human and become a truly space faring species at some point down the line. Or we could use it to make video games really badass because that’s where the big money will be after medicine, after which we’ll quickly diversify into porn. But I digress. The very idea that we’re slowly but oh so surely coming closer and closer towards easy to implant brain-machine interfaces is enough to make me feel all warm and fuzzy from seeing science fiction turn into science fact, and twitch with anticipation of what could be done when it’s finally ready for human trials. Oh the software I could write and the things it could do with the power of the human brain and a cloud app…

[ illustration by Martin Lisec ]

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lab mouse

Let me start this post with something seldom seen on this blog, a personal story. Just a couple of years ago, yours truly was doing a mixed martial arts drill. My opponent had at least 100 lbs. on me and as he tried tackling me, as was his job, physics and gravity let him power through a stance that was supposed to stop him from flipping me onto my back. Felling myself slide, I did what I was trained to do and improvised. Digging in my toes and dropping my weight as low as possible, I slipped out of his grip, pivoted, and managed to flip him over my shoulder and on his back. As he quickly rolled to get up, I managed to catch him with one hand digging into his neck and the other tearing at a tricep, setting myself up for a knee to his jaw. The trainer called time, we let each other go, and he stood up as I straightened myself out. Less than a minute later, it hit me. Every other drill would have to be done with a vicious, shooting pain in my back. After a long, exceedingly painful hour, I was laying face down on an urgent care exam table.

Movies often make feats of superhuman strength look easy, and although I had just pulled off a movie-worthy move, reality quickly stepped in to show me my place. On rainy days, my back is whiny, and if I walked around all day, I have to grin, bear it, and try not to reach for painkillers. I absolutely love doing MMA, but the last several months until I was urged to stop for a while had been supported by compression gear, Vicodin, and muscle relaxers. One of these days, I hope that my back heals up just enough to get back to fighting and if there was a therapy which could fix my back with little more than a 30 minute IV drip and one injection, I’d happily sign up for it, much like journalist Tyler Graham did when receiving stem cell therapy for his shoulder. There was a catch of course. The procedure Graham tried is still unproven, and the evidence of what it’s able to do is purely anecdotal. Patients are paying a lot of money to go to SoCal, have their fat processed by a doctor to induce it to turn into adult stem cells, and have it injected back into the site of tissue damage to seemingly miraculously fix whatever’s torn or worn out.

And that’s really the problem here. How do stem cells do what they do? We don’t know. There are plenty of ideas and trials are ongoing to figure out just how to control these cells’ restorative powers because the potential is revolutionary, to put it mildly. But because stem cell therapies a lot of doctors offer today are a crapshoot, it’s not entirely impossible that your treatment will do nothing at all as it’s attacked by your immune system as dangerous mutant cells to be killed for the sake of your health, or, even worse, result in a painful, malignant tumor. Both scenarios are known to have happened in the lab and in the field, and until scientists get a really good handle on how to perform stem cell treatments, it’s probably not a good idea to have one. This is really a textbook case for why we need basic science rather than maverick doctors willing to turn you into a human guinea pig for a substantial fee. Personally, I’m glad that Graham feels better and hope that he’s one of the lucky ones who’ve been helped. And while I understand his decisions, and appreciate that he was very lucid and skeptical of the whole thing, I won’t follow suit.

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