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Small science

"Small science" Continued...

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

"We come with the experience of knowing how difficult it was, and knowing that things we thought were going to be easy were harder," Mr. Lanza said. "I know there is no 'A to Z' in one step."

Cancer research notoriously disappoints scientists and patients. Treatments that make perfect sense in theory fail in reality. The role of telomeres in cancer is a perfect example. Telomeres are like ticker tape printed with a repeating sequence of DNA, wrapped around the ends of every chromosome. Each time a cell divides, a little bit of the ticker tape is torn off. When the chromosome gets to the end of the ticker tape, it stops dividing.

Not surprisingly, cancerous cells usually have an abundance of the enzyme that makes telomeres, telomerase. Telomerase stops the ticker tape from tearing, so cells do not know when to stop dividing. Until 1999, many scientists thought getting rid of excess telomerase would cure cancer.

But when they tried the theory in mice, the telomere-deprived creatures still got cancer. Ron DePinho, a researcher on the experiment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, called the results mind-bending. They spawned an arm of cancer research devoted only to understanding exactly what telomeres and telomerase do.

"The bottom line is that it is really complex," he said at the time.

The case of the missing telomeres also explains the disconnect between nano-scientists-like Mr. Lanza-and nano-prophets, those who predict nanotechnology will bring about a utopian future.

In 2001, the National Science Foundation and other government agencies convened a meeting of nano-prophets to divine the ways nanotechnology could improve the human body and mind in the next 10 to 20 years. The meeting headlined representatives from the government, private sector, and academia, including Mihail Roco, a senior government adviser on nanotechnology, and Phillip Bond, undersecretary of commerce for technology.

After the meeting, the NSF published a 467-page document, "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance." It has been called both the scariest and the silliest government report ever printed.

Its authors predicted that in the next 10 to 20 years, nanotechnology would allow a broadband connection between the human brain and machines. It would enable new sports, art forms, and means of communication; allow the human body to resist stress, sleep deprivation, disease, and aging; and find ways to exploit the resources of the moon, Mars, or approaching asteroids. In short, nanotechnology will solve all the world's problems.

"The 21st century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment," Mr. Roco and another science adviser claimed in the report's introduction. "It may be that humanity would become like a single, distributed and interconnected 'brain.'"

The European Commission and the German Parliament criticized the U.S. report (called among nano-techies the Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno, or NBIC report) for being overly futuristic without considering societal and moral issues. In its own report, the German Parliament noted its bias toward a pseudo-scientific movement called transhumanism. Transhumanists believe science, including nanotechnology, will help humans transcend their mental and physical limitations, including pain and death.

"These ideas have bled into mainstream science technical thinking," says Nigel Cameron, director of the Center on Nanotechnology at the Chicago-Kent College of Law. Mr. Cameron works to bring together transhumanism's critics to voice their concerns. He cites the work of Kevin Warwick as one reason to take transhumanism seriously.

Mr. Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading in England, claims to have connected his central nervous system to a computer during a 2002 experiment. Doctors implanted a tiny electrical sensing device in a nerve in Mr. Warwick's left arm. The sensor sent and received signals between his central nervous system and a computer. According to Mr. Warwick's university website, the implant allowed him to control a mechanical hand with his own thoughts and movements. He also sent neural signals to a simpler implant in his wife, who felt sensation in her arm as a result.

Mr. Warwick explained his worldview in a 2000 column in Wired: "I was born human. But this was an accident of fate-a condition merely of time and place. I believe it's something we have the power to change."

Mr. Cameron points to Mr. Warwick's experiment as evidence the human-computer connection envisioned in the NBIC report could happen. But will it?

Although the NBIC report's authors made recommendations on government policy, there is little evidence they had much influence. The subsequent act that established the NNI instead requires research on the social, legal and environmental concerns about "enhancing human intelligence." Nowhere does the act, or the initiative's strategic plan, list civilian human enhancement as a priority. (Department of Defense research on human enhancement for soldiers was ongoing before the NBIC report came out.)

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