Monday, April 7, 2014

The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions

Book Review: The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions by Freeman J. Dyson (Oxford University Press 1999)

Perhaps this one is a bit outdated but it is an interesting series of lectures given at New York Public Library by the Professor Emeritus of physics at Princeton University. He has done much research and development work in physics, astronomy, and biology. Michio Kaku refers to him as “a legendary figure in the sciences.” It is a good overview of the interface of science and society. He discusses science and ethics and the implications of technology. Dyson’s earlier predictions of the future have been off as he admits but he does offer some new ones that are quite fascinating – especially the ones having to do with space travel and inhabiting other worlds. Solar energy applications, the possibilities of genetics, and the networking power of the internet are the main “tools” examined. In this book he tells stories of scientific discoveries, how they happened, and how these discoveries illuminate the process of science.

Dyson makes a distinction between a theory and a model. A theory may have more direct application in the real world but may be less predictable. A model is basically a simplification and lends itself to general predictability. Models generally precede theories in science. Dyson’s goal in these lectures was to explain how science and technology works to non-scientists. He considered (in 1999) the sun, the genome, and the internet to be the driving forces of our scientific future.

Dyson gives some stories where science and tech came to the rescue such as in advances in microwave transmitters for radar detection during WWII developed by John Randall with his cavity magnetron. Later he also developed the X-ray crystallography that would be used to develop the first pictures of the X-ray diffraction of DNA which would lead Crick and Watson to determine the double helix structure. Randall also developed microwave spectroscopy which revolutionized atomic physics by giving vastly more detail to the fine structure of atoms. He talks about those physicists at Los Alamos like Richard Feynman and Robert Wilson who switched from war time to peace time particle physics. In both cases it is science in development of technology to solve practical problems.

“Science originated from the fusion of two old traditions, the tradition of philosophical thinking that began in ancient Greece and the tradition of skilled crafts that began even earlier and flourished in medieval Europe. Philosophy supplied the concepts for science, and skilled crafts supplied the tools.”

Craft industries change with the times depending on what products are needed and desired. He notes that the building of computers began as a craft industry emerging from the craft of electronics. Software development, he says, is also basically a craft industry. Even using software creatively is a craft. Nowadays we have 3D printing! Another example he gives is biotech companies sampling for DNA libraries. He thinks the two most important scientific craft industries and most widespread at the time (1999) were software and biotech. He notes again that both new tools and new concepts can spur new scientific revolutions. Dyson favors gadgetry over theory and notes that it is tools more often than concepts that drive the revolutions in science, though both are necessary. He gives plate tectonics as an example of a concept-driven scientific revolution. Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift was ignored for fifty years by the then prevailing dogma of geology until the 1960’s when the conceptual framework provided by plate tectonics was adopted to account for the drift of continents. He notes that prevailing dogmas and orthodoxies in science do exist and can hold back discoveries as it did in that case. He also considers the social and political aspects of the sciences.

Dyson mentions the synthetic virus as a possible scientific tool. The idea is that viruses can be designed to avoid healthy cells and only attack malignant cells so that as a therapy it could replace surgery or chemotherapy.

Dyson tells the story of Alexander Wolszczan’s discovery of the first two planets beyond the solar system through indirect methods and orbiting what was at the time thought to be an unlikely star to host planets. He gives this example as showing how science works when it works well. Wolszczan later thought he discovered a third planet but it was found to be a false signal due to interference from the sun’s rotation – so even good researchers make mistakes. Once the means were worked out others found ten other extra-solar planets within five years.

He tells the story of Fred Sanger who mapped out the bases of the genome of DNA. Sanger discovered that gene sequences could be read in different ways – coding for one protein in one frame and another in another frame. The virus he was studying thus was found to have overlapping genes. Dyson compared it with the musical notation of a violin duet written by Mozart where the notes were played forward by one person and backward by the other as they faced each other reading the same notes – one top-down, the other bottom-up.

Dyson mentions two of the biggest science projects of the time: the human genome project and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Lately I have heard that the now completed  human genome project did not yield as much information as hoped. The sky survey is a detailed digital map of the northern hemisphere sky. He compares the two projects noting that the genome project was forty times as expensive as the sky survey. Exploratory science is only sustainable if the costs are reasonable so researching better and cheaper methods of mapping the genome may have yielded better and faster results in the long run than expediting the time frame of finishing the project as the politicians mandated. Gene sequencing is slow and in order to map more genomes in a reasonable amount of time the speed factor must be increased by a hundred or a thousand, says Dyson. I am not sure if there have been improvements in the last 15 years. Dyson notes that traditionally astronomers have had a closer relationship with their tools than biologists, which could be a factor in devising mapping methods of their respective territories.

He talks about the new astronomical tool of gravitational tomography which is similar to how X-ray tomography, or a CAT scan works. Gravitational tomography is used to detect invisible mass such as that of remote galaxies. Closer objects can also be detected by this method (called microlensing). Objects that pass in front of or behind others (causing the seen objects to brighten and darken) at regular intervals can be detected on this basis. The tool that made this possible is digital image processing. Microlensing is also used to look for planets. This tool is not horribly expensive and so can be utilized by many astronomers. On-line communication between scientists and observatories has also streamlined processes. Dyson speculates about new tools such as a desktop DNA sequencer and a desktop protein microscope. Apparently, membrane protein molecules are generally too large to be analyzed by x-ray diffraction. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the atomic force microscope can do some of the work but each has limitations.
Knowing protein structures (at the time structures of only about 5% were known) could have big implications in medicine to determine how viruses attack cells. Dyson thinks medical people and biologists should concentrate more on tool development as do the astronomers.

In 1985 Dyson predicted the three most important technologies for the 21st century would be genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and space travel. As of 1999 it was only genetic engineering that was forging ahead. Space travel and AI have done poorly and AI may have unforeseen limitations. Space travel seems to have cost limitations. In 1999 he replaced these two with solar energy and the internet.

He talks about the influence of technology on social justice. From the printing press to public health, clean water, sewage treatment, antibiotics, and vaccinations – technology has protected both rich and poor equally and has homogenized society a bit in this way. Household appliances have revolutionized housework so that wealthy people do not generally rely on servants as they once did. Technology can also impede social justice. He notes weapons proliferation, the bureaucracy, costs, and lack of personal attention in modern healthcare, and inequitable access to hi-tech communications technology as examples. Dyson makes a case for technology and ethics to work symbiotically so that social justice is accounted for in technological models. Solar energy and universal internet availability can both help alleviate rural poverty, he says. Small scale solar energy has proved to be quite applicable to poor rural populations in laces like India and parts of Africa.

Dyson speculates a bit afar when he talks about “energy crops” – crops genetically engineered to produce energy from the sun. With the current potential problems and distaste for GMOs this is not likely to happen any time soon. He also mentions the possibilities of genetically engineered microbes that consume and recycle waste.

He makes some interesting observations about space travel and the possibility of life on Mars when it was warmer in the first billion years after the solar system was formed. During that time meteorites from the planets (Earth and Mars in this case) were falling on each other’s surface quite frequently compared to now – so that life on one planet could theoretically be transferred intact to another. He also mentions the moons of Jupiter such as Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Io, which are thought to have surface ice and possibly warmer oceans beneath the surface. Very recently (a few days ago) I heard an NPR piece about a moon of Saturn known for geysers that is now reasonably considered to have a quite large warm ocean beneath the surface that is heated by tidal heat – the tides being caused by the gravity of the planet and the other moons as they pass. This was further defined by measurements from the space probe Cassini that is orbiting now.
He speculates rather afar again about plants that could be genetically engineered to grow greenhouses around themselves. He notes that the spadixes of certain plants raise their temperature temporarily (making them partially warm-blooded) presumably to attract pollinators in a cold time of year. Colonies of greenhouse-making plants could make bio-domes of a sort on otherwise uninhabitable planets. This would require designing and maintaining symbiotic communities and oxygen, carbon, and water cycles. Such bio-engineered warm-blooded plants could certainly aid the colonization of currently uninhabitable worlds.

He discusses the necessity of cost containment in space travel. He mentions some new idea about propulsion that could potentially make it much cheaper to escape the earth’s low orbit. Laser propulsion is one idea. He goes into detail about this and some other possibilities. All could potentially launch larger payloads into higher orbit. He predicts much cheaper missions to space with much greater payloads in the next 50 years (35 to go). He thinks people will begin to migrate to space around 2085! He suspects there will be decades of unmanned missions before manned missions and that advances in biology and biotechnology must precede manned space exploration and colonization. He recommends distinguishing short-term and long-term goals of space travel and planning better. Will we go to Mars, Europa, other moons of Jupiter or Saturn, or to asteroids or even comets? Dyson’s speculative depiction of colonizing small comets in the Kuiper Belt near Neptune was interesting. There are many of them with a total surface area of massive size. Ice is the surface. It would be easy and quick to go from one to another. Some could be tethered and joined together. They have slow rotational speeds (compared to asteroids). He also notes that the science of planet protection may develop from enterprising space exploration. Collisions of asteroids and comets to planets may be devastating and if we could learn to nudge these bodies through new propulsion technologies we could avoid immanent impacts. With say a hundred year time frame the power required to deflect an object would be minimal (there would be enough solar power to spare as far away as the Kuiper Belt to do it).

Dyson thinks the most important surprises of the next fifty years will come from the genome and the internet. He talks about reprogenetics – removing harmful genes and inserting healthy and advantageous genes. Of course, there are ethical and social justice issues with such happenings. Such a process could split up humans into altered and non-altered species, kinda like GMOs and non-GMOs. Of course, it could also become universally available and automated so that cost would not be an issue. Reprogenetics could thus accelerate the process of speciation where humans could potentially split into many different species. Faster speciation means more rapid evolution would also occur. He mentions the biologist Ursula Goodenough who noted that in higher organisms only two classes of genes are programmed for rapid mutation: the immune system and the sexual mating system. The immune system needs to respond rapidly to invading bacteria and viruses. The sexual mating genes need to mutate quickly to raise genetic barriers to populations – which is nature’s way of making new species. Reprogenetics is putting up such barriers so that desired speciation can occur. 

Dyson notes the 1997 loss by chess champion Gary Kasparov to computer, Deep Blue, as a kind of turning point where humans acknowledge the greater power of the machine to do certain things now related to mental strategy rather than just physical work. The power of the computer continues to revolutionize science in myriad ways. He also mentions the power of networks (such as the internet) to mature from their embryonic forms into more and more useful forms. He envisions the computer and the human working together in a creative symbiosis. Interestingly, he notes that evolution has always relied on a balance between competition and symbiosis. He says we need to keep this balance in our networks of machines – whatever that means.

Light reading but a fun book of science and speculation.

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