Sunday, October 30, 2011

Living Buildings

Scientists are working on some pretty cool stuff in the field of synthetic biology. It may be possible for us to have buildings that can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to heal themselves, and even glow. CNN explains more in their article, which I recommend you read.


No post this week, midterms are coming up. School may be wonderful, but it sure isn't doing much to help this blog.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Synthetic Life

The very phrase "synthetic life" or "synthetic biology" is quite intriguing in and of itself. I have always found the idea of man-made life fascinating. Creating specific DNA from scratch is the ultimate goal of genetic engineering. "synthetic biology refers to the design and creation of components of biological systems not found in the natural world as well as the redesign and fabrication of existing biological systems.” This quote was taken from the National Cancer Institution synthetic biology workshop in an article from To be more encompassing, I will define synthetic biology as the search to be able to design and build biological systems to process information, manipulate chemicals, fabricate materials or structures, provide energy, create food, and to maintain and enhance general health and the environment.
Researchers sometimes create DNA from scratch

One of the major uses of synthetic biology is to help us understand natural biology. We make observations and then create theories of how things might work, but how can you test if a certain gene really does what you think it does? Synthetic biology offers an answer, you recreate that gene using what you know, and see if the behavior of the creature that you put it in, usually a bacteria, matches what your theory expects. Measuring the differences between theory and experiment also goes along way to making new and more accurate theories. Of course, synthetic biology isn't only used for experimentation. As I mentioned before, synthetic biology will ideally be able to provide anything from information processing to cleaning up and bettering our environment. One of the major forces driving this research is the quest for a cure for cancer. In theory, an engineered cancer killing bacteria would be able to identify and then live within cancer cells. There, they would complete a wide range of goals in order to kill the cancer, from competing for resources to releasing toxins. Then, after the cancer had been killed off, the bacteria would die off as well, so as not to harm the patient. Engineered bacteria like this are already being tested in mice, but these are just preliminary tests, a cure is still a long way off. 
T-cell attacking a cancer cell

Synthetic biology might also help us to create cheaper and cleaner fuels. We could create bacteria that consume waste and produce a substance that could be used as fuel. Or we could further alter plants to make better ethanol producers. Any number of things can be done with this technology.
Joule Biotechnologies wants to use bacteria and CO2 from the atmosphere to create fuel.

Synthetic biology could even help us to stop, and even reverse, global warming. We could use synthetic organisms to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and turn it into fuel or even solids that we could use to pave our roads.
Sequestered carbon probably won't look like this carbon brick, but you get the idea.

Of course, with any technology like this, there will always be critics. One of the major critics has been ETC Group, they have repeatedly called for more regulation on synthetic biology and even for it to be stopped all together. The critics concerns are largely centered around safety and ethics. There is the fear that this technology could fall into the hands of someone with malicious intent. Being able to manipulate and create life to ones will is a very powerful thing, and so critics argue that terrorists or aggressive nations could use this to create horrible pathogens that would take out large population areas and would be resistant to all forms of medication. There is also the fear of the lack of biodiversity. Genetic diversity offers a strong benefit because it means that a disease won't be able to wipe out every member of a specific species, some members of that species would be naturally immune or resistant. We already have this problem when it comes to agriculture. Many plants are just clones, so if a disease wipes out one plant, it wipes out all the others, and thus a crop is lost. With synthetic biology, the fear is that genetic diversity would decrease even more, and that pathogens could wipe out large portions of our food supply.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the ethical concerns. Every time humans alter nature, there is always the fear that we are trying to "play god". Many people believe that we should live with what we've been given and stop messing with the natural way of things.
Some of these concerns are valid, if a little far fetched, but they cannot be allowed to stop us from continuing this field of research. With every new technology there is always the possibility that it will be used to do harm, it is unavoidable, but progress is just too important to be halted by fear. Synthetic biology could cure cancer and stop global warming, it is too important of a field to be allowed to stop. While I agree that the critics have a point, I don't think that we should necessarily go along with what they propose. Though a little regulation might go a long way.
Professor Rabinow at UC Berkeley is a critic of synthetic biology research.

If technology proceeds as it has thus far, it isn't hard to imagine a world where cancer has been eliminated and pollutants are being turned back into usable fuel thanks to synthetic biology. Man has come a long way in their scientific quest, and synthetic life is the next step. I say hats off to those researchers working to improve our lives.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Faster Than Light Follow Up

A while back there was the announcement that neutrinos had been observed traveling faster than light, which you can read about in my post. New after this fantastic claim, almost one-hundred scientific papers have been written on the topic. A scientist from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, named Ronald von Elburg, thinks he's solved the problem. He calculated the relativistic motion of the GPS satellites used. When this was taken into account, the error produced almost exactly compensated for OPERA's observations, meaning that neutrinos might not actually travel faster than light. You can read about it in an article from

Three GPS satellites must be used to triangulate a position.

As another side note, I will most likely post during the weekends while my schedule remains like it is.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Plasma Rockets

Comments are often made that the future is already here, and plasma rockets are a testament to that idea. These futuristic devices have not yet been used in actual space flight, but they have already been tested, and are well on their way to finding themselves aboard the next deep space rocket.
Test of a plasma rocket thruster.

The point of a plasma rocket engine is to greatly decrease the time that it takes to get from earth to another planet, like Mars. Using conventional rockets, it can take years to get something to Mars, but using these plasma engines, we might be able to get a craft to Mars in a little over a month. This is amazing because it would keep astronauts from being exposed to too much radiation, as well as solving the logistic problems associated with being in space for several years.
Being in space for years requires bulky craft like this

Plasma rockets are not capable of accelerating nearly as fast as conventional rockets, but they have the advantage that they can accelerate for far longer, and much more efficiently. The general idea is that you use magnetic fields to direct plasma, and thus get thrust. When you are in the vacuum of space, with minimal gravity to slow you down, you can use plasma engines to continually accelerate your craft to extreme speeds, faster than any conventional rocket could ever hope to travel. For this reason, plasma rockets are mainly being looked at as a means of deep space travel.
Rendering of the VASIMR plasma rocket. This rocket has already been successfully tested.

On a side note, I've obviously been having trouble posting. Things are fairly demanding, and I have no idea when my schedule will let up, but as soon as it does, I'll post as often as possible.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why do we go to space?

We all know that space flight is ludicrously expensive, so why do we do it? As unlikely as it might sound, spaceflight could very well be essential to our continued survival as a species. This planet won't last forever, after all.
Genesis space probe

NASA alone has sent up hundreds of scientific space probes and manned shuttle missions over the years. Skeptics of the validity of such space programs invariably point out the lack of any significant instantaneous benefit to society as a whole, but this idea is incredibly short sighted. The main argument that is usually made in defense of space exploration is one of pathos. I agree that it isn't necessarily the most useful argument objectively, but it works. Ever since man first looked up at the sky he has dreamt of touching the stars. It is that ever present urge to explore and to look around the corner, to truly know what's out there. This is an admirable trait of humanity, a trait that has managed to guide us to what we have become today. Curiosity is what makes man great. 
Space exploration is the very symbol of human ingenuity. We evolved on this planet, we have no biological means to leave this tiny little ball, but through our intellect we have managed to touch other worlds. How can an argument like this not pull on your heart strings, at least a little?
Nebulae like this are some of the most beautiful things in the universe

I often find that an argument from logic is more effective. It is foolish to say that there is no reason to develop space technologies or to travel to space, we'll have to eventually. Earth cannot sustain us forever, it has limited resources and we've already begun to destroy it with pollution and general poor care. It will eventually become necessary to look beyond our planet to find the necessities for a modern society, but how can we do that if we haven't developed the technology? We've already seen that it takes a long time to advance in space, it's been 53 years since the NASA space shuttle program started, and look how far we've gotten. If we decide to just worry about earthly problems, we will be entirely unprepared when we finally do have to leave our little rock. That's another problem with the argument against going into space. Sure it sounds good to say "lets focus on more pressing issues" but the problem is that we will never run out of "pressing issues". Society is just one crisis after another, if we don't find time to dream about the universe beyond our planet during the multitudes of everyday crises, then we'll be doomed to stay on this planet until it can no longer sustain us.

In the end, it's all about thinking of the future. Yes, it may be hard for the average person to see the daily benefit of a space program, but it's not the daily benefit that ultimately matters. If we give up on space, then we give up on our dreams, and our hope.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Private vs. Public Sector Space Development

I have just finished with a two day debate tournament discussing the merits of private and public space development. These past two days I have been bombarded with arguments from both sides, ranging from economic benefits to the dreams of the people, and what I took from it is that choosing one or the other is a false dichotomy.
This competition all took place at the University of Northern Iowa.

If we take NASA as our prime example for the public space industry, we see a long history of successful space flight. The competitors arguing for the public sector ran with this. Private space industries are quite new, and thus they haven't created a history that they could reference. For 53 years NASA has been sending animals, people and robots into space, while the private sector has only managed to achieve some preliminary test launches.
NASA has managed 135 successful space shuttle launches.

NASA is an amazing organization, but it's history is far from impecable. It's space shuttle program was meant to launch about 1,500 rockets, but over all these years, only 135 of these launches have happened. In addition to all of the money sunk into this organization that failed it's goals, there was also a loss of life due to NASA. We all remember the disastrous Space Shuttle Challenger. In this tragic incident, all seven crew members were killed. Failings like these certainly should not discourage us from space exploration, but they sure give a lot of ammo to people arguing for private sector space development.
The Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after the launch of it's 10th mission.

The main argument for private sector space development is from the side of capitalism. Competition between companies and the motivation to earn money spurs innovation. This has become somewhat evident already, even though private space industry is so new. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is 6 times more cost effective than the old NASA space shuttle launch system. Government organizations don't send up rockets to earn money, so they don't have the same level of motivation. For the U.S. government, NASA is more a point of pride than a means to sustain themselves.
Launch of the Falcon 9 rocket

Corporations do have their failings, just like NASA. As it is right now, corporations are entirely dependent on funding from the public sector. NASA and the United States Air Force have contracts with SpaceX and Boeing that are keeping their space programs alive. Without these public contracts, private space industry couldn't exist. Sending things into space is just too expensive for the public market to be able to sustain it. Another fear is that private companies wouldn't be safe. Incidences like the BP oil spill really don't make corporations look good. Private industry is in the business of making money, so they often cut corners to save some money. The fear is that they might do this while designing the next generation of rockets, and people would die.
It took 3 months to clean up after this result of corner cutting.

After all I've been through, I've decided that the optimal situation would be for both the private and public sectors to work together. The private sector is much more motivated to advance and would make space more accessible to citizens, but it is fragile and subject to the market. The public sector doesn't necessarily advance as fast as the private sector, but it is much more stable and can ensure that humans continue to explore space. If both sectors work on the same goal, they will cover much more ground and can ensure the survival of humanities dream to touch the stars.