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Archive for February, 2012

Synthetic Biology: Playing God?

What originally started as a short viewing of a documentary about spider goats soon breached me to an entirely new world revolving around synthetic biology. What I know about biology, which is very little to begin with, being more on the physics side and all, has completely been overturned. No more are the images of lab coats crouching over microscopes or reading books after books about bacteria, diseases, or other technical details that I find too hard to remember. I am at awe at what is going on in this field. To my understanding, synthetic biology is the creation of cells by means of simply downloading a program containing the DNA of those cells. In 2010, Craig Venter created the first synthetic bateria, CYNTHIA. While she is a simple bacteria, being a one-cell organism, she was not created from another cell, but from a computer program.

Well, let me at least describe the process. In layman’s terms, Venters would take bacteria cell, copy the DNA from that cell and put it on the computer. He’d take another cell, throw out the DNA for that one so that it’s essentially an empty cell. After doing that, a physical copy of the DNA from the first cell is printed (in liquid form) and inserted into the empty cell. The incredible thing is that these cells also have the ability to reproduce. So essentially, he has created life. Something like this could essentially take up to 10 minutes, depending on your ISP. Before anyone gets excited, so far, what does work are simple cells and does not go as far as creating humans – though some might argue that vitro might as well be synthetic biology – there are some incredible advances in that area. One of the programs that are being tested right now has to do with cancer cells.

In pseudo code form:

If cancer cell, destroy;

Else, go away.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as that but what is happening so far is that people are now able to download these programs and use for whatever is needed – as long as the program with the desired function exists, of course. On one side, this field could create an entire industry. Going back to the spider goat, the short story for that is a goat is given DNA from spider silks  so that in their milk, there will be proteins from the spider which can then be used to create the silk. Well, that’s where you can go with synthetic biology. On the other hand, where is the line? At what point do people say “That’s enough” because now those scientists are playing God? Religion aside, spider goats being milked is not a particularly painful process as providing milk is a natural process, but then this opens up another world for which animals could be manipulated for other purposes, some of which are not always painless.

My original stance on this was straight up “Go for it” because there can be so many things that could work to our advantages by synthesizing cells. If there are programs that could repair dying cells, imagine how fast we would heal from something such as an infection or cold or any certain illness. On a more personal level, when I think of my adorable chihuahua having DNA’s for a silk spider put in her without much of a choice, it’s hard not to feel a little violated. To add to more of my indecisiveness, I’ve always been advocate of scientific progress, especially in appreciation for wild theories that may not have come to light if scientists had not defied societal standards for it – while I won’t go so far as to support Nazi experimentation on people in regards to testing for head injuries and the cure for pneumonias – we would not know what we know today.

So is synthetic biology in a sense, playing God? Yes, but you can’t deny that there are some beneficial development going on.

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Carl Sagan: Voice of Reason?

 “Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds.”

–          Carl Sagan, as Mr. X in Marijuana Reconsidered (1971)

Anyone who knew of Carl Sagan would make the association of his role in being the proponent of SETI or a prominent astronomer who contributed much of his time to NASA with information about Mars and Venus. In addition to that, his speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery highlighted his position on nuclear disarmament. There are still his traces to literature today with the published pieces of Contact (also produced into a film in 1997) and Pale Blue Dot, amongst many other pieces such as The Dragons of Eden which won a Pulitzer prize. According to Spangenburg, Sagan was born a Jewish in 1934, prior to the horrors of World War II and his youth was sparked with an interest in science, particularly in stars. Cherished by his Jewish mother, who believed her son would fulfill her dream of attaining a career in the knowledgeable field of science that she could not accomplish because of her social status both as a Jew and as a woman, it was no surprise that Sagan went on to study astronomy and devote his life to research in physics.

His role with SETI has invoked some debate and rebuttals between Edward Mayr and him have led the field of radio astronomy as a means to contact intelligent extraterrestrial beings into a boom. Sagan remarked that with the amount of stars available in the galaxy (addressing the Drake equation at this point), the solar system which surrounds them is bound to have at least one Earth-like planet. The use of radio astronomy to send signals into space would serve as an adequate tool to reach intelligent beings like ourselves who are able to create and utilize technology. On the other hand, Mayr responded that the likelihood of intelligent life in the Milky Way responding is very improbable from a biological standpoint, as even the trait of high intelligence (as seen by the use and creation of tools by humans) is not heavily promoted even on planet Earth. The speciation events occurring through the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s life did not immediately bring forth intelligence as a factor that was necessary to survive, so such a trait was an evolutionary fluke that happened to change the course of development for the planet. In addition to that, Mayr also remarked on the likelihood of SETI’s success by noting that the organization does not have a long range for which they can scan such vast skies at any time. The final response from Sagan ended with a reminder that the ends do not have to be reached by the same means, suggesting that even the microbials on Mars have a chance at achieving high intelligence. He added that in the animal kingdom, aside from homo sapiens, chimps also use and manufacture tools for future usage. Today, SETI is one of the largest organizations devoted to their mission, building more telescopes and scanning more of the skies at a time. (Sagan)

Sagan’s superstar reputation was most highlighted by his contribute to the Golden Records that was carried on the Voyager. As a message to possible intelligent beings outside of Earth, Sagan used the records as a message in a bottle, assembling 115 images and sounds to represent Earth. What made him a household name, however, were not just his contributions to astronomy, but the TV show featuring him called Cosmos, in which he expounded on the beauty of the planet and what it meant to be an Earthling as well as being part of the universe. What is less known about the man is the lifestyle he led that might be considered controversial to some. While it was not surprising to find that some of the more influential figures in history such as Bob Marley, Sigmund Freud, and even our very own president Obama in his youth (“When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”) (CNN Clip Re: Obama), it would be slightly off-putting to find that a humanitarian figure such as Carl Sagan would indulge in cannabis in his past time. 

Does this lifestyle make his work less credible? According to the article written in Marihuana Reconsidered, Sagan has started smoking in 1959, ten years before writing said article, which, if one takes in consideration the “bad rap” regarding marijuana, gives his work a dubious quality as to whether or not his cognitive functions have been impaired at that time. Sagan claims that his usage of the drug gave him insights into “social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one [he is] generally known for.” (Sagan)

Studies conducted revolving around the use of marijuana varied around the observations of its effects on the cognitive mind, its usage as a medical herb, its purpose as painkillers, etc. For purposes of this article, the studies regarded are revolved around the effects of the cognitive minds. One study conducted in 1996 by Harrison Pope and Deborah Yurgelun-Todd on college students who were marijuana users showed that those who used lightly had less cognitive impairment than those who used heavily. The impairment mostly focused on the attention to details, lack of short term memory, as well as a reduced learning capability. Another study revolving around the difference between long term marijuana users and short term users, resulting in the predictable answer that long term users performed poorly on cognitive tasks in regards to memory, learning, timing tasks, etc.  At first glance, these studies seem to spell doom for the credibility of Sagan’s work – if he was not attentive during his thoughts, how can one trust his work as a reputed scholar?

Not so fast.

While there are studies pointing the impairment of cognitive activities, there is a possibility that his use of the drug played a significant role in his creative life. According to Sagan, marijuana “improved [his] appreciation for art, a subject which [he] had never much appreciated before.” His works, Contact (1985) and Pale Blue Dot (1994), amongst many others, helped inspired wonder and awe for both the universe and the planet Earth – reminding people that humans are unique in both their evolutionary history but also the idea that they are predominant in the evolution of Earth’s history. His arguments as a proponent for SETI propelled the area of research forward, after having co-found the Planetary Society, which has more than 100,000 members today, eager to find extraterrestrial life.

On a more technical level, he helped solved the conundrum revolving around Venus’s greenhouse effect and its impact on the planet’s temperature in 1961 as well as confirming that Mars was actually devoid of life and dustier than the earlier presumption that it once had life and vegetation. In addition to that, he has opened up a field of exploration regarding habitable moons, most notably Saturn’s in spite of their current temperatures. Ironically, he is an opponent to UFO as a sign of intelligent life.

So cannabis user or not, it is no question that Sagan has been a significant figure in the history of popular science, particularly astronomy and physics, when it came to stirring interest or appreciation in the cosmos. Without his contribution, there might not be progress in knowledge regarding Venus and Mars. His debate on the nuclear policy, gearing towards nuclear disarmament, has called the world to attention the importance of becoming aware of the destruction that is becoming addictive to man. Most notably, his speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, ending with the words: “Our challenge is to reconcile, not after the carnage and the mass murder, but instead of the carnage and the mass murder. It is time to act.” (Safire 685)

Is Carl Sagan the voice of reason? This author’s findings have concluded that reason does not necessarily reside in the field of science or even a clean history of drug usage, but also in compassion for mankind and the need to instill hope in its survival. Sagan, as the voice of reason, has inspired wonders not only in what it means to live on Earth in the boom of the technological age, but also the beauty of the stars. His works is a gentle reminder, when looking at SETI’s lack of progress, that not every single species is able to use tools and reach out to the farthest crevices of the universe.

Works Cited

CNN Clip Re: ObamaCNN Clip: Obama. Youtube.com. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpBzQI_7ez8&gt;.

“The Golden Record.” Voyager – The Interstellar Mission. NASA. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/goldenrec.html&gt;.

Pope, Harrison G., and Deborah Yurgelun-Todd. “The Residual Cognitive Effects of Heavy Marijuana Use in College Students, February 21, 1996, Pope and Yurgelun-Todd 275 (7): 521 — JAMA.” JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, a Weekly Peer-reviewed Medical Journal Published by AMA. JAMA, AMA, 21 Feb. 1996. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/275/7/521.short&gt;.

Safire, William. “The Potential Self Destruction of the Earth, Carl Sagan.” Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. New York: Norton, 1992. 683-85. Print.

Sagan, Carl. “Carl Sagan on SETI – Explore the Cosmos.” The Planetary Society. Planetary Society’s Bioastronomy News, Mar.-Apr. 2001. Web. 07 Feb. 2012. <http://www.planetary.org/explore/topics/search_for_life/seti/sagan.html&gt;.

Sagan, Carl. “Mr. X.” Marihuana Reconsidered. By Lester Grinspoon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1971. Print.

Sagan, Carl. “The Abundance of Life-Bearing Planets.” Planetary Society’s Bioastronomy News 7 (7 Nov. 1995). Print.

Solowij, Nadia, Robert Stephens, Roger Roffman, Thomas Babor, Ronald Kadden, Michael Miller, Kenneth Christiansen, Bonnie McRee, and Janice Vendetti. “Cognitive Functioning of Long-term Heavy Cannabis Users Seeking Treatment, March 6, 2002, Solowij Et Al. 287 (9): 1123 — JAMA.” JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, a Weekly Peer-reviewed Medical Journal Published by AMA — JAMA. JAMA, AMA, 02 June 2002. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/287/9/1123.abstract&gt;.

Spangenburg, Ray, and Diane Moser. Carl Sagan: A Biography. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009. Print.

Rhetorical Motivations

When it comes to unifying the people towards a solidifying group in the midst of confusion, there has to be some comforting elements to the speeches and addresses deployed by the speaker. In Bush’s case, the use of epideictic rhetoric uses the abstract concepts that appeals to our basest desire to “do good” in spite of the age old inherent belief that people have a tendency to do the opposite.

 

In Bush’s speech in particular, he calls for the protection of our freedom against those who endanger said freedom. The attack on America was the attack on the deep rooted land of the country and to allow such attacks to go by unpunished would be heretical to our inherent characters as being patriots. The need for protection lends to the preseveration of the common good, which is defined in that context as freedom and democracy. What is important to realize is that with the use of epideictic rhetoric, Bush was able to motivate the audience by painting a picture of a world in which exists the battle between good and evil. He lays out the definition for what it means to be the preserver of freedom, an American, and thus placing the people into the context where it’s not optional to want to preserve the common good of America, but a responsibility.

 

While it is one thing to motivate beliefs by painting a picture in which that belief is thriving and supported, in a positive light, there must be a reason for that belief to be raised. In this case, the 9/11 attack brought such confusion and insecurity after the violence that people are looking to the most comforting thing to hold onto. How does one cling to the belief of being an American when that is broken down by a group of people who unknowingly infiltrated the system? Bush uses televisuals, as a picture is worth a thousand words, to place into context why patriotism, in times of hardship, is more important than ever. If it is not upheld, then the future of the common good is endangered.

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