Month: January 2017

STEM Stories: DNA Occupy Mars Learning Adventures

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY LYNE LUCIEN/THE DAILY BEAST

PROMETHEAN

You May Not Like Technology But It Likes You

Science and the digital world have overhauled our world, but the stakes just got higher: Now technology wants to remake you, using everything from the internet to stem cells.

SCOTT REARDON

01.21.17 9:01 PM ET

In Greek mythology, Prometheus taught man how to farm. But when he gave man fire, the gods felt he had gone too far. And so as punishment, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock where every day an eagle would come and eat his liver, which would regrow because he was immortal.

Prometheus’s story is about mankind’s dominion over its world and how much power is too much. But counterintuitively it is Zeus, not Prometheus, who many artists and writers in the last thousand years have sided with. The story is relevant today because humanity is at a turning point, and two opposing forces are locked in a war that is just beginning to come into being. On one side are our innovations and the power that comes with them, and on the other side is the fact that when it comes to us ourselves, there seems to be no innovation.

For tens of thousands of years, technology has been directed outward—on the world at large. Now, for the first time in human history, technology has reached a point where it can be directed inward—back on its creators. Technology has found something new it would like to change: Us.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Colorado performed what they thought would be an unremarkable experiment on lab mice. They injured the mice’s limbs and injected them with stem cells to heal the damage. Then something strange happened. The muscles in those little limbs nearly doubled in size and strength. Not only that, the muscles stayed that way for the life of each mouse, defying even the aging process itself. Essentially the researchers had accidentally created a race of “super-mice.”

Another experiment in 2001 involved injecting human stem cells, of all things, into the brains of aging mice. Soon after, the mice began to perform better on the Morris water maze test. In other words, the stem cells had made them smarter.

When people think of stem cells, they usually think of a potential cure for diseases like Parkinson’s. But there is another, potentially far darker, use for stem cells, and that is on people who are perfectly healthy. It is this application, fundamentally changing the human body, that gave me the idea to write my novel, The Prometheus Man.

We’ve all heard stories about a mother who’s able to lift a car off her child as her body mainlines adrenalin. Imagine using stem cells to triple the size of a person’s adrenal gland. You’d produce something on par with one of those people who are so zombified on PCP that they get shot three times and still manage to beat up six cops. The military uses for such a technology, the parts of the human body that could be “improved,” pass through your mind like something from a sideshow in a bad dream.

And we haven’t even gotten to the most lethal part of the human anatomy: the brain. There’s a fixed amount of space in our skulls. Theoretically by growing the parts of the brain you want enhanced, like the part that controls reflexes and coordination, you could also shrink the parts of the brain you want diminished, like, say, the part that contributes to a person’s remorse.

Bear in mind things need not actually play out this way in the real world. As I attempted to capture in my book, it is often the attempt itself that is the true source of horror.

The 20th century saw the innovation of weapons of mass destruction. It also saw innovations in ideology that cheered the destruction of 200 million people, roughly 8 percent of the world’s population, in wars and oppression. But the technologies in their infancy today take things in the opposite direction. By augmenting our bodies, they increase our ability to commit more intimate—and thus more covert—violence. They take us back to our roots. And they do it at a time when wars aren’t fought by equals on a battlefield. They’re often quick attacks—over before most people know about them—where the goal is to inflict maximum despair not on the target but on the people viewing at home.

But it doesn’t end there. Technology can weaponize the human body, but with the internet, governments and other actors have the ability to go after the mind.

The internet is the greatest source of data on the human spirit in history, and it’s about to go even deeper with virtual-reality. People’s hopes and dreams, their fears, their hatreds, it’s all right there. And over the last decade, we have witnessed the rise of something perfectly designed to make use of it: algorithms. Algorithms regularly outperform human analysts on Wall Street. They also make more accurate diagnoses of mental illness than psychiatrists. The algorithms are so much more effective than the doctors that the doctors underperform even when they’re given the results of the algorithm.

Algorithms are getting so good at predicting human behavior that they have the power to identify not just undesirable urges and interests but the activities that predict those undesirable urges and interests. Serial killers, terrorists, dissidents—it’s highly likely that their online habits cohere around some common patterns of behavior. Theoretically we could understand the direction of their lives better than they understand it themselves. And once you understand something enough to predict what it will do, you can control it.

Yet intervention isn’t the real goal. The real goal is to go much further. It is to alter something fundamental to who we are: our experience of reality.

Research is uncovering patterns in our most primal needs that can be exploited. If that sounds paranoid, consider Robert Cialdini, PhD. Dr. Cialdini wrote a bestseller, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, about the ways others play on our programming to create impressions that aren’t true and compel behavior that isn’t in our interests. The stated goal of his book was to free us from this manipulation, but this ideal didn’t stop Dr. Cialdini from becoming an adviser to the Obama campaign. Obama’ objective merits were evidently insufficient on their own. The good doctor felt the candidate’s presidency was so thoroughly in your best interests that he had no qualms about using the dark arts to place his thumb on the scales of your mind.

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There’s a conclusion here. People start out simply wanting to understand reality, but in truth they always hunger to change it.

But Dr. Cialdini was targeting something voluntary: voting. Consider, by contrast, the Reid technique, a nine-step algorithm of sorts that the FBI uses to pressure suspects during an interrogation. The Reid technique has been tested and refined on tens of thousands of suspects, but it has a bug. It produces false confessions. In other words, the technique is so effective it causes innocent people to sign away their freedom, just to make it stop.

The Reid technique, at the height of its powers, creates a false reality in the suspect’s mind more powerful than the fact-based reality outside it. Forget changing someone’s body. The Reid technique achieves the most fundamental change of all. And it is an innovation of perhaps the most frightening kind of violence, the kind that gets us to hang ourselves.

Manipulating our bodies, manipulating our minds—these are pretty scary things. In response, there are those who believe the ethical issues raised by these new technologies can be resolved through debate. But when have we ever done that before? Nuclear weapons could destroy the human race, and yet they still came into existence. Strike that. It was rational for some countries to bring them into existence. That says something pretty stark about us. That says that the larger truth may be the scariest thing of all: we’re not really in charge. It is us—our morality, our virtue—that lags technology, not the other way around. Maybe there was a reason that Zeus didn’t hash things out with Prometheus, but simply put a stop to him altogether.

I love to read things that were written long ago—centuries ago, even thousands of years ago. I’ll tell you what got the hook in my mouth. I realized that many of these writers were just like me. And I felt this … connection. Because it meant the things that frustrated me and fascinated me weren’t unique. They were a part of what it means to be alive.

But there’s a corollary to this. If someone who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago is just like me—and also you, assuming you’re as retrograde as I am—then that means to a large degree we have stayed the same. Yet in the meantime, aided by technology, our power grows. Think about what that means. Technology doesn’t just shrink the world to our convenience. It is magnifying what’s inside us. And in freeing us from a hard-scrabble existence where we have to work 12-hour days to survive, it is giving us room to express our deepest selves.

Our deepest selves, though, are deeply problematic. For the last 50 years, the developed world has experienced unprecedented peace, prosperity and technological comfort. And this is the result. In the U.S., one in four women is taking a prescription drug for mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, life expectancy isn’t increasing. It’s just dropped. Data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 25 percent of men age 25 to 64 don’t work full-time, and most of them are no longer looking for a job. You would expect people to have become less violent. Instead, starting in the ’70s, there was an explosion of violent crime, which was eventually brought under control only by incarcerating the highest percentage of our citizens of any country in the world. Meanwhile, according to the General Social Survey, from 1972 to 2006, women rated themselves less and less happy each year, as by almost every objective measure their lives improved.

Because we are more free from hardship than anyone before us, you would expect us to be healthier, wealthier, and wiser. But in significant ways, we have become the opposite. Why? Because we’re flawed. Because our deepest selves want things they perhaps were never meant to have. And for many of us, prosperity has simply given us room to go to pieces.

The world, it turns out, isn’t infinitely progressive. It’s mean-reverting, and not due to the impersonal factors of randomness or scarcity, but because of the most personal factor of all: us.

There are those who believe that people are so flawed that society must step in and control them with vast amounts of regulation, i.e., with force. But there’s a limit to this, and we can see it by looking at Europe. Europe, with its giant welfare/regulatory states, has higher unemployment than the U.S., lower GDP growth, far less technological innovation, and fertility rates that can only be described as self-repeal. Every problem the U.S. has, Europe has it 20 percent worse. And the funny thing about all that regulation? In Europe, the informal economy, i.e., the part that doesn’t pay taxes or obey the law, is bigger than it is in the U.S., much bigger. So instead of making people more moral, the attempt to control them has only driven them underground. At a certain point, idealism breaks itself on the reality it is attempting to bend.

The Europeans have attempted to take the risk out of life. Instead they’ve taken the life out of themselves.

What emerges from all this, and what’s so amazing about the world, is that life is something we just can’t win. It seems there will never be a war to end all wars, enough wealth to end all poverty, or a perfect order to end all disorder. And there will never be a formula for the human spirit. Experts can’t solve us. We can’t solve us. That thing technology is magnifying, the gravity holding it all together, is the thing we control least of all.

Joe Kennedy once described his children as “hostages to fortune.” I think of my own hostages to fortune, a tough little two-year-old boy and the girl currently incubating in my wife. The world may have its problems, but it really is a wonderful time to be alive. One thing, though, is certain. As technology and prosperity begin to enhance not just our stuff but us ourselves, the future will increasingly be one of our own creation. The problem is that we seem to be the biggest variable of all. And that variability is something we never have been able to suppress or engineer away. That variability, in fact, seems to be a large part of what it means to be alive.

As for Prometheus, Hercules eventually came and broke his chains. Mankind, it seems, will always find a way to set him free.

Scott Reardon is a graduate of Georgetown University and Northwestern Law. He currently works at an investment management firm in Los Angeles.The Prometheus Man is his first novel.

Teaching and Learning Garden

Dr. Jose Barbosa, loading up produce.

This year, students in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) have been able to get their hands dirty while putting down roots in the community – literally!

The UTC Teaching & Learning Garden began this past spring, taking students out to learn about raising food in an urban environment. In total this year, the Garden was able to raise 2100 pounds of produce that was donated to the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

“And that’s pesticide free during an extremely difficult summer without rain. The students are learning more than they could have imagined. More than any of us could’ve imagined,” said Dr. Joe Wilferth, UC Foundation Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The last harvest of the year, approximately 400 pounds of produce, was delivered to the Community Kitchen in time for Thanksgiving.

“They had quite a Thanksgiving feast!” Wilferth said.

UTC student Chloe Dente

The Teaching & Learning Garden is more than just a community garden, however. The Garden is a hands on learning space that addresses topics that UTC students care about, like sustainability, gardening, local food economies, health and food production

Dr. Jose Barbosa, Associate Professor of Biology, Geology, and Environmental Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the primary faculty sponsor for the project, providing oversight and planning of the space. Most of the students who worked in the garden were earning class credit in Barbosa’s Urban Gardening classes. However, students not in Barbosa’s class also volunteered.

“The garden is open for academic use to faculty and students all across CAS. In the future, faculty are invited to approach Dr. Barbosa or me if they wish to integrate the garden into their coursework,” said Wilferth.

Wilferth looks forward to the opportunities for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work both within CAS and across the campus that the Teaching & Learning Garden provides. Approximately 125 students in Art, Biology, English, Environmental Science, Political Science, and Sociology all participated in the project since spring.

“The garden may be used by specific courses across the CAS as it exemplifies experiential and hands-on learning. It could be expanded in the future to include courses and experiential learning opportunities in other colleges on our campus—e.g., courses in other colleges that focus on food production, nutrition, health and wellness, environmental literature, as well as the sociopolitical and socioeconomic factors involved in food production and food quality,” Wilferth said.

A bountiful harvest of radishes.

The Garden is located behind the outfield wall of Engel Stadium, just around the corner from the Value Lot. This past March, the folks in Facilities donated their time and resources to clearing the land, which wasn’t previously in use, for the Garden.

“This is an ideal space because of its proximity to campus. The shuttle service can take students to and from the garden. Class meetings wherein students visit/work in the garden will not require additional time, nor will the students’ academic schedules be interrupted,” Wilferth said.

This year, all of the produce to come out of the Garden went to the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, but in future years some of the food may also end up in students’ stomachs.

“In the future, we are considering ways to have something like a farmers market on campus where the proceeds might go to support student travel and undergraduate and graduate student research,” explained Wilferth.

The Chattanooga Community Kitchen would still receive at least a third of the harvest.

The Environmental Task Force, which oversees the “Green Fee” funds, supported half of the garden’s costs this year.

“This first year, of course, was the most expensive year simply because we had to get the garden going. We had to purchase tools, a storage facility, and more,” said Wilferth. “Other offices around campuses committed funds, too. Significant support came from both the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity and from the Vice Chancellor for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. In the end, this is a relatively cheap project that has potential for a big impact. We’re doing something exciting here. We’re literally growing!”

Farewell to NASA’s General Bolden

 Farewell to NASA’s General Bolden:   Kids Talk Radio Space Science News

 

Ivor & General.jpg

In 1964, a high school junior dreams of attending the US Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland but he faces some major obstacles.   He is African American in ‘Jim Crow’ South Carolina and he has no political sponsors. Undaunted, he writes to President Johnson asking for his help and, as it would happen, LBJ has just launched a program to recruit minorities for the military academies. The president dispatches a recruiter to South Carolina.

Charles Bolden goes on to become a Naval Academy graduate, a Marine jet pilot, a major general, a four time space shuttle astronaut and NASA’s Administrator from July 2009 until January  2017.

Because of my association with Nichelle Nichols I was fortunate to have several wonderful encounters with “General Bolden” like the one captured by photographers at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC.  One of our last conversations was about Nichelle and I flying to the “edge of space” aboard the 747 Jumbo Jet carrying SOFIA, NASA’s airborne telescope. I wanted to leverage the notoriety of the flight as a way of inspiring young people to star gaze; Bolden responded by asking NASA’s entire education department to assist me in my endeavor. I never saw so many names cc’d on an email chain. I was truly overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed can be used to describe NASA when Nichelle Nichols recruited the first African American and female astronauts in 1978—and that Bolden was among those who she pursued! Ultimately, he decided to take her advice and applies for astronaut training two years later and the rest is history.

Because Bolden considered Nichelle a friend and mentor, NASA wanted her to be a part of their official farewell video to their boss. I was honored to be present when Nichelle recorded her funny and heartfelt farewell.

General.jpg

NASA is losing a friend and mentor –and also a mensch.  Thank you for your service, general sir!

Ivor

Bolden and Deputy Director, Lori Garver in video salute to Nichelle Nichols in 2010

The man in the black suit is Ivor Dawson.  He is the owner of the Traveling Space Museum in Los Angeles California.  From time to time he collaborates with Bob Barboza producing school workshops in STEM and Star Parties where the community can come together to learn more about space science.   Ivor is a fantastic presenter and he is loved by his audiences.   For more information about STEM and STEAM++ projects visit http://www.KidsTalkRadioLA.com.