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Tell The FDA: Support Personal Genomics April 30, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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For those that don’t know the FDA is currently considering regulating the nascent personal genomics industry.  Composed of star-ups like 23andme the industry is at the forefront of the personalized medicine revolution.  The idea currently is to take a look at a person’s genetic code for any predispositions to known ailments but the potential is obviously far greater.  Unfortunately the FDA is currently in the midst of determining the extent of regulations over this still burgeoning field.

Now I’m not the type of person who reflexively hates any attempt to impose regulation on the free market (quite the opposite actually) but in this case I stand against the government.  It still unclear what form the regulations would take but it seems that they would involve restricting how a person could access the information they receive, likely requiring them to go through a clinician.  On the surface this doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that the medical industry is completely unprepared to deal with this, that it would raise prices at a crucial point to the industry and, most importantly, there is no real point to it.  There is no evidence that giving people access to this sort of information possess any risk (and if someone can show otherwise I’ll eat my hat).

If you want to tell the FDA what you think then you only have a little time left.  Go to their website and let them know that this sort of action is exactly the wrong thing to do at this point in time.


Building A Transhuman: Aquatic Apes April 28, 2011

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As of today I am officially certified as a scuba diver.  Though ostensibly I’m doing scuba for school work and career preparation there are very important secondary reasons for I have pursued this cert; namely because scuba diving is a fucking awesome experience.  The first time you experience the sensation of breathing underwater is a moment on par with you first kiss and the first time you read Kurt Vonnegut; it will stay with you for the rest of your life.  The science of scuba has progressed quite a bit over the past 50 years to the point where anyone who is in relatively good shape can, with a simple training course, know what it feels like to be an aquatic mammal.

That being said as I was sitting on the sea floor today about 5 meters below the surface waiting for my fellow trainee’s to complete their skills testing I began to wonder about the limitations of scuba.  At that depth I had barely 30 minutes of air before I had to be at the surface.  Even with my suit, gloves, boots and hood I was freezing after only a few minutes on the bottom.  Though my fins and BCD allowed me to move far more easily then I otherwise would have I was still about as graceful as an elephant seal on an ice rink.

So how can this be improved?  How might humans redesign themselves to be more adept under the water?  In other words how might we begin to build a transhuman?

And so begins what I hope will be a continuing series on this blog: Building a Transhuman, asking the question of how might we use coming technologies to expand the boundaries of human ability?  Before we get to much farther lets define some terms.  A transhuman is generally defined as a being that possess abilities, whether mental or physical, which exceed even the most highly trained human.  In addition I will add that a transhuman must not possess an ability that is less than the most highly trained human.  In other words any enhancements that offer great ability in a certain area but are detrimental to other areas, such as fins which make it easier to swim but harder to run, will not be considered.  Finally, I will be focusing only on biological enhancements for the purposes of this blog.

So how might we build an aquatic human?  First and foremost lets talk about air.  Obviously any discussion of aquatic lifestyles must being with the question of how we are to breath.  Other mammals on returning to the water have evolved enhanced lung capacity and flourish by simply holding their breath for long periods of time.  This would certainly be the easiest solution as it would require no new parts, only needing to increase lung volume and efficiency, and holding your breath is something everyone knows how to do anyway.  The other option of course is gills which offer benefits and disadvantages of their own.  Being able to breath under water would allow for increased depth and duration of dives and of course eliminate the possibility of drowning.  Of course it would also require an entirely new set of equipment that would need to be worked into both the current respiratory system and the cardiovascular system.  In addition if we desired to go swimming in salt water we would have to contend with problems of water loss due to the concentration gradient created by the difference in salt ions.   Both options are going to have trade offs and which you prefer probably comes down to personal taste.  I myself favor gills both for the advantages stated and because of the second thing we need to discuss: buoyancy.

Any diver can tell you that controlling your buoyancy in the water is the most important skill you can master as proper buoyancy allows you to maintain or alter your position without expending energy.  Most fish achieve this through the use of a swim bladder; a gas filled organ that they can inflate or deflate much in the same way a diver does their BCD.  Animals which lack this often get by with large fat deposits such as lipid heavily livers (in sharks) or large amounts of blubber (marine mammals).

Without a doubt I believe that a swim bladder is the way to go if we want to build an aquatic transhuman.  Large stores of fat do have uses beyond buoyancy such as maintaining energy reserves and providing insulation but out of the water they do little more than weigh us down.  As I said at the beginning any enhancement that causes an ability to become worse than the average human defeats the purpose and won’t be considered.  It wouldn’t even be that difficult (relatively speaking) since our bodies already have a couple of organs designed to be filled with gas; our lungs.   This is the other reason I suggested gills in the section above.  Filling our lungs with air creates positive buoyancy and having to hold our breath while underwater is going to affect our ability to maintain our position in the water column.

Finally we come to locomotion.  There are two main ways we could go about this; lets call them the dolphin way and the frog way.  In the dolphin way we would fuse the leg bones into a single structure, forming a tail, while our arms could either be left alone or developed into flippers.  In the frog way the limbs would more or less retain their current shape except for the hand and feet, which would be designed to be larger and webbed to maximize surface area.

Both of these shapes have advantages.  The dolphin way clearly has the advantage in speed, endurance and pretty much every other physical trait while under the water.  There’s a reason the vast majority of free swimming ocean life all have roughly the same shape (compare fish, cetaceans and the extinct Icthyosaurs to see three different evolutionary lines of more or less the same shape.)  However this body type is really only of use in the water and becomes a significant burden on land.  As such you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I favor the frog way.

So there you have it.  I intend to make this sort of thought exercise a regular event so be sure to check in periodically to see what’s up.  In the mean time while I think I’ve sketched a pretty good outline of how to build an aquatic transhuman I know I’ve left a lot out and there’s probably lots of things I haven’t even considered.  Feel free to add your own ideas and musings.

First Synthetic Neuron Created April 25, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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This story is a few days old at this point but its worth talking about anyway.

Engineering researchers the University of Southern California have made a significant breakthrough in the use of nanotechnologies for the construction of a synthetic brain. They have built a carbon nanotube synapse circuit whose behavior in tests reproduces the function of a neuron, the building block of the brain…

Carbon nanotubes are molecular carbon structures that are extremely small, with a diameter a million times smaller than a pencil point. These nanotubes can be used in electronic circuits, acting as metallic conductors or semiconductors.

“This is a necessary first step in the process,” said Parker, who began the looking at the possibility of developing a synthetic brain in 2006. “We wanted to answer the question: Can you build a circuit that would act like a neuron? The next step is even more complex. How can we build structures out of these circuits that mimic the function of the brain, which has 100 billion neurons and 10,000 synapses per neuron?”

Where to even begin?  The idea of an actual functioning synthetic neuron is a holy grail in neuroscience.  The applications that a device like this presents are enough to make even an ardent transhumanist like me feel a little giddy.

Lets start with some near future applications.  Mentally controlled electronics are already at a fairly mature stage with more than one successful demonstration of plugging a person’s brain directly into an electronic interface.  So far this technology has been primarily used to provide quadraplegics the ability to manipulate items within their environment such as controlling a computer mouse with their thoughts.  However, the surgery to install the necessary device, which is not what you’d call compact size, is quite invasive.  One could imagine a synthetic neuron implanted into the brain being not only more efficient in its performance but also being far less disruptive  to the patient.

In addition it is easy to see the kind of impact this could have on the field of prosthetics.  Far from the way they are usually portrayed in science fiction modern prosthetics are pale simulacra of actual biological limbs.  There are a few reasons for this but one of the big ones is that prosthetic users do not have direct mental control over their artificial limbs.  Often times the technology is shockingly primitive simple: an arm amputee using their shoulder to push buttons on their prosthetic to move the limb.  Even the good ones however (i.e. the really expensive ones) have a major drawback in comparison with biological limbs in that they are unable to transmit sensory data back to the brain.  An artificial arm has no way of warning you when you stick it in the fire.  To possess the sensory abilities of the human body will require imitating or rebuilding the afferent nervous system in the prosthetic, something which an artificial neuron would be perfectly suited for.

Of course quadraplegics aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit.  Imagine being able to plug your brain directly into your computer.  At first this may simply being able to manipulate it with though, typing a paper or surfing the internet without ever touching the keyboard, but the possibilities expand from there.  A synthetic neuron would by definition function much in the same way our biological ones do; storing information, sending impulses and so on.  With our brains now hooked up to the internet imagine being able to download any information you want without the need for old fashioned learning.  This would literally be right out of the Matrix.

Finally we come to the mother of them all; creating an artificial brain.  Why not right?  If we can create a synthetic neuron then there is no reason why we could not hypothetically create an entire brain.  At this point we have achieved one of the great visions of the transhumanist movement with the possibility of mind uploading.  Take your brain, scan its state, recreate its data in digital form, then upload your mind to an electronic substrate.  True there are some tricky philosophical and technical issues surrounding this idea but no one can deny its importance in the visions of many transhumanists.

Now of course it must be said that everything I just mentioned is many years off and in some cases may not be possible at all.  But if it is possible then this is the first necessary step we need to take.

New Treatment Uses Nanofibers To Aid In Wound Healing April 18, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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I’ve been hearing about the potential of nanomaterials in medicine for some time now so it’s nice to see it finally showing some practical applications:

The nanofibrous hollow spheres are combined with cells and then injected into the wound. When the nanofiber spheres, which are slightly bigger than the cells they carry, degrade at the wound site, the cells they are carrying have already gotten a good start growing because the nanofiber spheres provide an environment in which the cells naturally thrive…

To repair complex or oddly shaped tissue defects, an injectable cell carrier is desirable to achieve accurate fit and to minimize surgery, he says. Ma’s lab has been working on a biomimetic strategy to design a cell matrix — a system that copies biology and supports the cells as they grow and form tissue — using biodegradable nanofibers.

Pretty darn cool, though I’m still waiting for my nanotech blood cells.

Transhumanist Media: Transcendent Man April 17, 2011

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Ray Kurzweil is probably going to die.  There, I said it.

To say that I have been anticipating the release of Transcendent Man, a documentary about the life and ideas of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, would be a gross understatement.  Since I heard this movie was in production I have been counting the days till its release.  Now the time has come and I can finally say that I was not disappointed.

At its core this movie is an exploration of Kurzweil’s ideas.  Concepts like the law of accelerating returns and Kurzweil’s obsessive life extension supplement program get plenty of screen time.  All the while Kurzweil sits calmly in his interview chair, often staring directly at the camera and speaking to the audience like a professor to his class, and calmly explains why most of us will live to see the most profound event in the history of humanity.  Kurzweil is not what you’d call a dynamic speaker.  Indeed its somewhat amazing how he can make ideas that sound like something Philip K. Dick would have dreamed up after a night of hard drinking seem so…boring.  In a way though this is actually to the films benefit.  By taking what will strike most people as just bad science fiction and presenting it through the prism of the ever rational Kurzweil the movie disarms any knee-jerk reaction to dismiss it outright.

Of course whether or not you stay with it will largely depend on how you view Kurzweil. The movie manages what I didn’t think was possible, simultaneously making him seem more and less than the human computer that he has constructed as his public image.  A large portion of the film involves Kurzweil explaining how the death of his father, a composer who died of heart disease, severely affected him and in many ways drove his obsession with technology and futurism.  It humanizes him in a way that I’m sure will surprise many who only know him through his writings.  Of course in exploring Kurzweil’s relationship with his father it gives Kurzweil time to explain his desire to use advanced nanotech and synthetic intelligence, as well as a vast store of his father’s writings, to create a copy of his father’s persona; in essence, bring his father back to life.

At that point, and more likely well before, I think many people will mentally check out of the film.  Ideas like bringing back the dead in some new form are still too out there for a large portion of the population to accept as a possibility, even a distant one.  For better of worse Kurzweil has largely become the face of the transhumanist movement and as such many in the general public take Kurzweil’s personal beliefs as indicative of the broader philosophy.  Now I’m not saying this totally a bad thing, after all a charismatic spokesman can be a powerful boon to any burgeoning movement but it does mean that the fortunes of transhumanism in the public eye largely rise and fall with Kurzweil.  Thankfully the film is wise enough to include other voices within the community.  People like Ben Goertzel and Kevin Kelly (who actually denounces him as behaving like a modern day prophet) show both the intellectual scope of the movement and remind people that not all of us follow in Kurzweil’s footsteps.

Another feature of the film that stuck with me is how while Kurzweil spends plenty of time explaining how we can achieve godlike powers, immortality and reincarnation he never really explains why we should want this.  While the answer may seem self evident, and I certainly think we should want this, the impression I get from Kurzweil is that for all his drive he really hasn’t considered the why.  More importantly I get the impression he doesn’t care about the why.  At times he comes across as little more than a man driven to thumb his nose at death for taking away someone he quite clearly loved very deeply.

Finally the film also makes it apparent just how certain Kurzweil is in his own predictions.  There is no room for doubt in his worldview, no possibility that he may turn out to be wrong.  He dismisses his opponents criticisms as nothing more than ill informed opinions, claiming that they simply haven’t thought out the problem enough.  There is an arrogance to Kurzweil that is off putting no matter how polite and genial it is.  This of course isn’t even mentioning the fact that not all of his predictions have panned out (though you won’t hear him admit that) or that his supplement program is based on some very selective readings of medical journals.  In this regard I return to the sentence I opened this article with.  To paraphrase a person from the film, its amazing how all these wonderful developments will occur just in time to save the people who are now dreaming of them.

Thankfully agreeing with Kurzweil is not necessary for enjoying the film.  Whether you’re an ardent transhumanist, a Neo-Luddite or a complete neophyte you should see this movie if you can.  Like him or not Kurzweil’s ideas are shaping the world.  Unless you want to be left behind you better try to keep up with him.

Transhumanist Media: New Deus Ex: Human Revolution Ad April 13, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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If you’re a gamer you should be excited about Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  A prequel to the original Deus Ex, otherwise known as the BEST FUCKING GAME EVER, the Deus Ex HR continues in the tradition of the series by featuring an open-ended approach to completing objectives, RPG elements in the form of mechanical augmentations and labyrinthine conspiracy laded plots worthy of William Gibson.

If you’re a transhumanist you should be excited about Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  A complex and intelligent examination of the possible effects of widespread use of both physical and mental enhancement technologies on individuals and society as a whole in the form of what is sure to be a massively successful and widely played game.  Forget Transcendent Man.  If transhumanism is going to break into the mainstream its going to be through outlets like this.

(Side note: Don’t actually forget Transcendent Man.  Its a wonderful movie.)

As can be expected in the age of the internet a big upcoming release like DE:HR has a big viral marketing campaign behind it.  In this case it comes to us in the form of a website for Sarif Industries, a fictional corporation in the game specializing in the development of mechanical augmentations.  The website has been up for awhile but they have just posted a new fictional advertisement for the company.  You can watch it here.

Pretty damn awesome if I do say so myself.  What I like about it so much is how real it feels.  Strip away all the bionic arms and the eyes that can take picture, which coincidentally I now totally want, and this could easily be any number of the commercials we see today for weight loss drugs, plastic surgery and any other “make yourself better” products.  As such I can easily imagine something like this actually being produced in the near future as augmentation technologies start to become more widely spread.

The game comes out August 23 so if you’re a transhumanist or a gamer than mark your calender.  And if you’re both then start counting the seconds brother.  Its going to be a long four months.

Future Farms: Indoor Greenhouses Could Feed The World April 11, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Stuff like this sends tingles up my spine.  A group of Dutch researchers are attempting to show the feasibility of growing crops indoors as a new method of feeding the world’s growing population.

Meeuws and three other Dutch bioengineers have taken the concept of a greenhouse a step further, growing vegetables, herbs and house plants in enclosed and regulated environments where even natural light is excluded.

In their research station, strawberries, yellow peppers, basil and banana plants take on an eerie pink glow under red and blue bulbs of Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs. Water trickles into the pans when needed and all excess is recycled, and the temperature is kept constant. Lights go on and off, simulating day and night, but according to the rhythm of the plant — which may be better at shorter cycles than 24 hours — rather than the rotation of the Earth.

As someone who has tried, with mixed success, to grow my own food hydroponically I always get excited when I see attempts to scale this technology up.  The potential of urban farms (or farmscrapers) to provide cheap, organic and local produce to city dwellers is inspiring, especially considering the inefficient and destructive nature of modern agriculture.

The big barrier right now to seeing the tech go mainstream is the start up costs of the equipment and the cost of providing light to the plants (required for anything other than a single layer greenhouse.)  But as mentioned in the article costs for LED’s are coming down and as they drop the feasibility of urban farms grows and grows.

To Stop Climate Change Scientists Propose Blocking Out The Sun (No, Really) April 9, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Science.
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Okay lets get a few things out of the way.  Yes, climate change is happening.  The average temperature of the earths atmosphere has been rising quite steadily for…well for as long as we’ve been measuring it.  Yes, we probably have something to do with it.  Atmospheric CO2 has been rising with remarkable steadiness is at least the 1950’s (I chose the 1950’s since that’s when the Keeling Curve measurements began) and that is almost certainly contributing.  Yes, we are now at the point where only a rather drastic restructuring of our society and economy would bring levels back down to where they need to be.

If we assume that these assumptions are correct then we are left with only one conclusion: we’re kind of screwed.  The chance of any substantial changes occurring either at the political or the local level at this point in the game are rather small.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that humans generally do not take action on matters with long term consequences until well after its too late.  This conclusion has driven many scientists and politicians to consider alternative solutions to our problem.  What if instead of changing our entire way of life we could come up with a simple technological fix to solve all our problems, thus deluding us into thinking we can continue our ultimately unsustainable lifestyle indefinitely?  Hence, geoengineering.

Geoengineering appeals to people on multiple levels.  As already stated it allows us to continue our current way of life.  It appeals to our vanity by proposing that our ingenuity and genius can overcome any problem.  There’s just one little problem; none of the proposed projects have a chance in hell of succeeding.

Its said that in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king.  Well in the kingdom of crazy geoengineering ideas one idea has come out ahead simply by being less crazy than all the others: blocking out the sun.  No, really.

“There’s the `slippery slope’ view that as soon as you start to do this research, you say it’s OK to think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about,” said Steve Rayner, co-director of Oxford University’s geoengineering program. Many geoengineering techniques they have thought about look either impractical or ineffective…

Those techniques are necessarily limited in scale, however, and unable to alter planet-wide warming. Only one idea has emerged with that potential.

“By most accounts, the leading contender is stratospheric aerosol particles,” said climatologist John Shepherd of Britain’s Southampton University.

The particles would be sun-reflecting sulfates spewed into the lower stratosphere from aircraft, balloons or other devices – much like the sulfur dioxide emitted by the eruption of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991, estimated to have cooled the world by 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F) for a year or so.

Now I want to stress that when it comes to geoengineering I hold no animosity towards the scientists investigating its efficacy or dangers.  This is research that needs to be done unless we want to charge blindly ahead once the danger has come and we have no other choice and good scientists like these people seem to be understand both the practical challenges and the limits of scientific certainty (hint: you are never, ever, EVER certain something will work.)

My problem is that all that scientific skepticism is lost on the public.  To hear this reported on in some circles you’d think it was out panacea, our magic bullet.  “Don’t worry about climate change, we’ll just dump some iron into the ocean and everything will be fine,” and that idea is being exploited by politicians who know damn well that the easiest way to not get elected is to ask people to suffer a little bit now in order to prevent suffering later (e.g. Jimmy Carter.)

Rather than being easy solutions every currently proposed project stands to be both ridiculously expensive, at least partly ineffective and potentially dangerous.  Just as an example lets take blocking out the sun.  While I don’t know the costs off the top of my head (I doubt anyone does) I can only imagine that seeding the stratosphere with aerosol particles would be a massive undertaking.  Keep in mind that since clouds tend to disperse we would need to be constantly reseeding them in order to maintain the cloud cover.  This process would need to be continued until we had managed to bring our CO2 emissions down to a safe level, something which would likely take decades at the least.

Next lets talk about effectiveness.  I’ll grant that increasing cloud cover  would probably lower global temperatures by a fair amount.  Unfortunately it would do nothing to the CO2 already present in the atmosphere.  Unless emissions were leveled off simultaneous will the seeding then as concentrations continue to rise we would need ever more and more cloud cover to counter the increasing effects.  Furthermore it would do absolutely nothing to counter the other big threat of climate change: ocean acidification.  As CO2 dissolves into the sea water it will naturally lower the pH of the world’s oceans with potentially devastating consequences for ocean life.

Lastly there are significant risks to injecting aerosol particles into our own atmosphere.  Let’s not forget that the widespread use of CFC’s, a type of aerosol released by many industries at one time, led directly to the weakening of the global ozone layer and the still-present holes in the layer above Antarctica and the Arctic.

Posts like this make me very angry at myself because when I finish them I always come across as a loom-smashing Luddite demanding we all return to the stone age.  Its not that I think these are idiotic ideas outright only that with a little effort and resources, certainly less than would be required to actually pull off one of these projects, we could largely avert the threat of climate change and render the entire field of geoengineering moot.  Whether we take the necessary steps or not remains to be seen and while I’ve never been optimistic about humanity’s ability to engage in long term planning I haven’t given up hope on us yet.

Private Space Firm Developing Most Powerful Rocket Since Apollo April 5, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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And so it begins.  Those who follow the subject no doubt are already aware that as of this year NASA will be retiring its shuttle fleet, that the American space agency has no replacement vehicle waiting in the wings to take over and as such will be requiring outside help if it is do continue exploring the cosmos (or low earth orbit as the case is).  Though the Russians will most likely take over in the short term the plan for awhile has been to contract out to private agencies for most of the grunt work, the idea being that this will allow NASA to get back to doing science.  Hence:  SpaceX.

The Falcon 9-Heavy is a beefed up version of the vehicle the firm will soon use to send a robotic cargo ship to the space station.

The new rocket should be capable of putting more than 53 tonnes (117,000lb) of payload in a low-Earth orbit – more than twice that of the space shuttle…

Mr Musk said the vehicle could put in orbit a few hundred km above the Earth a mass equivalent to “more than a fully loaded Boeing 737 with 136 passengers, luggage and fuel”.

“That’s humongous,” he told reporters during a media conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC.

“It’s more capability than any vehicle in history apart from the Saturn 5 [Moon rocket]. So, it opens up a range of possibilities for government and commercial customers that simply aren’t present with the current lifting capacity.”

If what they are saying pans out then this sounds like exactly what the government is saying its looking for; a stellar “pickup truck” to perform the dirty business of actually getting people up there.

Here’s the thing though.  NASA was created with a very specific goal in mind; namely to beat the Soviets into outer space and beyond.  For many decades it operated amazingly well with that goal and though it wasn’t always successful it pushed human knowledge and technology in ways previous generations could quite literally never have fathomed.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union though, and really since the end of the space race, NASA has been searching for a purpose.  Talks of establishing bases on the moon or on Mars have all fizzled out for the simple fact that politicians won’t finance a project with no real economic (we’ve found gold on the moon!) or political (beat those damn Ruskies!) benefits.

Now with the private space companies beginning to take over the space craft industry NASA has one less purpose to its existence.  Sure we can all go on and on about how the shuttle program never worked as intended and in many ways was a financial boondoggle but while it was active it was one of the few things that drove the agency.  Without that what exactly does NASA have? The Hubble?  Its arguably one of humanities greatest achievements but it doesn’t require a whole agency.  Missions to Mars?  I’ll believe that when I see it.  The Space Station?  Lets not even go there.  Without a grand vision driving the agency many will begin to question, rightly, what the purpose of NASA in this day and age really is and with the government constantly shooting down NASA’s attempts to create a grand vision (again, see missions to Mars) the loss of the shuttle fleet looks less like a new beginning and more like the beginning of the end.

Well, whether I like it or not private industry is coming to outer space.  Whether or not this will shake NASA out of the stupor they’ve been in for the past two decades or signal its end as a relevant player in the exploration of space remains to be seen.


Oil Producing Bacteria: More Biofuel Hype April 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Oh for crying out loud.  Another group is publicizing research about using microorganisms to make petroleum.  This time its out of the University of Minnesota and funded by the Department of Energy.  This time the twist is that the team is using a two step process involving two types of bacteria to make the fuel.

The U of M team is using Synechococcus, a bacterium that fixes carbon dioxide in sunlight and converts CO2 to sugars. Next, they feed the sugars to Shewanella, a bacterium that produces hydrocarbons. This turns CO2, a greenhouse gas produced by combustion of fossil fuel petroleum, into hydrocarbons.

Okay, this is the third bacterial biofuel story I’ve commented on in the last two weeks so let me take this opportunity to summarize my position.  I am supportive of this kind of technology.  It’s an elegant answer to some of our current energy problem and could provide a sustainable source of fuel well after fossil fuels become to difficult to extract.  It’s an attempt to look beyond petroleum and utilize technology to meet our growing needs and for that I applaud it.

That being said it is not, I repeat NOT, a final solution.  Oil usage is only going to increase in the future, especially if techniques like this can make it cheaply, and as such our addiction to oil will only be strengthened not broken by this technology.  More importantly though is the fact that no one involved with this research seems to understand its implications for climate change.

“There is enormous interest in using carbon dioxide to make hydrocarbon fuels,” Wackett says. “CO2 is the major greenhouse gas mediating global climate change, so removing it from the atmosphere is good for the environment. It’s also free. And we can use the same infrastructure to process and transport this new hydrocarbon fuel that we use for fossil fuels.”

Let me be blunt.  This does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Every molecule taken up by these bacteria will be released right back as the fuel is burned.  At the very best if we managed to switch over all current oil use to this kind of production (not likely) we would stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at a new, higher baseline.  The climate will continue to warm, the oceans will continue to acidify and we will continue having to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

What this technology is, and what people need to realize it is, is a stopgap measure.  It will buy us time to come up with a real solution to our problem but is not a solution itself.  That solution needs to involve two things: transitioning to a type of energy that is completely divorced from the carbon cycle like wind, solar or nuclear and finding a way to take up atmospheric CO2 and hold it in an inorganic form that will not cycle through the environment.  Without fulfilling those criteria we will not solve our problem, only delay it.