Posts Tagged ‘genetic engineering’

Radio 4 Programme on DNA and Art

June 25, 2020

Radio 4 are also broadcasting next week what looks like an interesting programme on art and poetry based on DNA science. It’s titled The Art of Now: Recombinant Rhymes and DNA Art. The blurb for it in next week’s Radio Times simply says

Anna McNamee meets the artists and poets collaborating with genetic scientists to create work inspired by biotechnology, examining the connection between DNA and art.

Some genetic engineers and biotech scientists have already used their skills to create works of art. Way back in the ’90s a group of such scientists created specially genetically engineered organisms. This included a cactus that had hairs instead of spines. Later on another pair of scientists created a jacket made out of living skin. I’m not sure whether these creations were art, or simply monsters created by people with twisted morals and a perverse aesthetic sense.

If you want to listen to it, the programme’s on at 11.30 am on Thursday, 2nd July 2020.

Prof Simon on the Technology of Blade Runner that Exists Today

November 7, 2019

This is another fascinating video from Professor Simon Holland. As I said in an earlier blog piece, November 2019 is the date Ridley Scott’s SF classic Blade Runner is set, based on the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Prof Simon here examines some of the technology that has now been developed, which is similar to that of the movie. This includes robots, flying cars and ‘a polaroid which allows you to see round corners’.

He begins with robots, stating that most of them have been developed by the pornography industry. These are the Real Dolls, androids which have been designed to look like real women. There’s a few photographs of these, shown with their owners or manufacturers. Mercifully, both have their clothes on. But some have also been developed by the military, and these, Prof Simon says, comparing them to Blade Runner’s replicants, are scarier. The robots shown at this point are the humanoid – roughly – and quadrupedal machines developed by the American firm, Boston Dynamics. A gun-toting humanoid robot shows its shooting skills in a range out in the deserts. Despite being repeatedly struck and pushed over by a man with a hockey stick, the robot manages to hit its target. When the pistol it’s using runs out of ammo, they throw it a rifle, which it catches with both hands and then proceeds to use. Another humanoid robot is shown carefully walking along a stony path simulating rough terrain, while one is also shown trying to pick up a box while another man with a hockey stick knocks the box away and tries to knock the robot over.  The quadrupedal robots include the Big Dog machine and related robots, which got their name because they look somewhat like headless mechanical dogs. Big Dog was designed for carrying equipment, and one is shown with four saddlebags walking around trying not to be forced over. Two lines of similar machines are shown pulling a truck.

The ‘polaroid that sees round corners’ is also shown, and it appears to be a mobile app. He also shows photographs of a number of flying cars that have been developed. As for the taxis on demand that appear in the movie, he quips that he’ll just call Uber.

But he also raises the important point about why our expectations of the future are inaccurate. He argues that it’s because we’ve forgotten how very different the world was back in the 1960s when the book was written. This is shown through another set of photographs of the fashion of the period, though I think they come more from the 1970s. Certain the pic of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John from Saturday Night Fever does. He goes on to point out how we have technology that was unknown when he was growing up – computers are everywhere and cursive handwriting a thing of the past. We evolve into the future, rather than making quantum leaps into it. He also cheerfully observes that he shares a Blade Runner obsession with his younger, near-lookalike, Adam Savage.

At the end of the video he examines an interesting photo he’s been sent by a viewer. This is a photo of the Earth from space, with a mark that looks like a UFO. But it isn’t. Unlike today’s digital cameras, those used by the astronauts used photosensitive film, which could get marked and spoiled by dust. This is what’s happened to the photo here.

Prof Simon is a genial, entertaining host, and it’s fascinating that some of the technology featured in Blade Runner is being developed. Scientists and engineers have been working on the flying cars since the 1990s, and one of the tech firms has said that they intend to put them into service as flying taxis next year. This seems unlikely. Critics have pointed out that the noise generated by their engines would be colossal, making their use very unpopular. Living in a city in which they were in general operation would be like living in an airport. The SF artist and book illustrator, Jim Burns, also comments on one of his paintings, which show such cars in use, that there are prohibitive safety aspects. What about accidents? Nobody would like to be around when it starts raining bits of aircar and body parts.

The robots we’ve developed are different from Blade Runner’s replicants, which are artificial, genetically engineered creatures, and therefore biological rather than simply technological. We’re nowhere near creating anything that complex. The military robots instead remind me of the machines from Robocop and the ABC Warrior from the ’90s movie, Judge Dredd, in which Megacity 1’s toughest lawman was played by Sylvester Stallone, as well as the robots in Chappie, which came out a few years ago. Despite the very impressive sophistication of these machines, however, they mercifully aren’t as intelligent as humans. This means we don’t have to worry about the world of 2000 AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’ or the Terminator movies becoming reality quite yet. But even so, watching these machines walk, move and shoot is disturbing, demonstrating their lethal potential and efficiency as fighting machines. Looking at them, I think the fears many scientists and members of the lay public have about them as a potential threat to the human race are justified.

Israel, the Nazis and the Condemnation of Racial Intermarriage

February 27, 2019

A little while ago I wrote a piece about how the Raelians’ original design for their embassy in Jerusalem was becoming increasingly accurate as a symbol of the increasingly fascistic nature of the Israeli state and its persecution of the Palestinians. The Raelians are a new religious movement, a sect that believes its leader and founder, Rael, real name Claude Vorilhon, was contacted and given a message for humanity by space aliens. These extraterrestrials, according to Rael, are the Elohim, one of the names for the Lord in the book of Genesis in the Bible. According to Rael, these aliens are due to return to Earth, where they will bring about a new age of peace and prosperity. Under their guidance, only certified geniuses will be allowed to rule, and all the menial work will be done by a specially genetically engineered slave race. The Holy City was chosen as the site of their embassy because that’s where Rael and his followers expect the Elohim to land and establish their centre of power on Earth.The society’s belief in ‘geniocracy’ – rule by the intelligent – has left it open to accusations of fascism. An accusation that probably wasn’t helped when they chose this as the design for their embassy in Jerusalem.

Yes, you’re seeing this correctly: it is a swastika in a Magen Dawid, a Star of David. And no, I don’t know why they chose this design. I suspect it’s because Rael, like a number of other new religious movements and occult sects since the 19th century, may have been impressed and drawn on eastern spirituality. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the swastika is a symbol of good. It also used to be like that over here before the rise of the Nazis. I think there’s even a town of Swastika in Canada, or there was.

Obviously, this didn’t go down at all well with the Israelis, who were justifiably and understandably outraged. The Raelians were forced to change their design, which is now a nice swirly galaxy in the Star of David instead.

But the symbol nevertheless suits the Israeli state, as it becomes more racist and Fascistic. And that Fascism has become blatant with Netanyahu’s new choice of coalition partners. A few days ago, the dedicated Jewish anti-Fascist and anti-Zionist, Tony Greenstein, blogged about how Netanyahu had made the Otzma Yehudit merge with another far right party, Jewish Home, which represents the settlers, so that they could join his wretched Likud in a governing coalition. Otzma Yehudit’s name means ‘Jewish Power’ in Hebrew, and they are Jewish Nazi party. It’s led by Michael Ben Ari, who takes his ideology from Meir Kahane’s wretched Kach, which was outlawed as a terrorist group. Kahane and his followers demanded the following

– Revocation of non-Jewish citizenship.
– Expulsion of non-Jews from Jerusalem and eventually Israel.
– The eventual imposition of slavery on Arabs and other non-Jews.
– Prohibition of contact between Jews and Arabs, including sexual relations.
– Segregated beaches.
– Prohibition of non-Jews living in Jewish neighborhoods.
– Forced dissolution of all intermarriages.
In 1988 Kach was banned by the Israeli Supreme Court when it looked like gaining four to eight seats in the Knesset.
Greenstein notes that not only did this come straight out of the Nazis’ vile Nuremberg Laws, but it also did little more than codify existing Israeli legislation.
See: http://azvsas.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2019-02-24T12:39:00Z&max-results=7
Since 1948 successive Israeli governments have tried to forbid intermarriage between Arabs and Israelis. Mixed marriages are not recognised by Orthodox Judaism, the religion of the Israeli state. Which is one of the factors contributing to the outrage a little while ago when a couple of Israeli celebrities, who were respectively Jewish and Palestinian, got married, with the Jewish partner converting to Islam. Greenstein has also revealed on his blog that a number of municipalities in Israel are so keen to stop relationships between Jews and Arabs, that they are running courses in conjunction with the local police and religious organisations to discourage Jewish women from going out with Palestinian men.
The Nazis were also concerned to prevent intermarriage between Germans and those of what they considered to be inferior races, such as Poles and other Slavs. They were most fervently against gentile and Jewish Germans intermarrying. And the Jews also weren’t alone in being forced to wear identifying marks, in their case the Star of David. The Nazis developed a system of badges for the prisoners in the concentration camp, which identified the offence for which they were incarcerated. Gay men notoriously wore a pink triangle. The Gypsies, I think, were forced to wear a brown one. Red triangles were worn by socialists, Communists, Anarchists, other political dissidents and Freemasons.
See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_concentration_camp_badge
There were also identification badges for ‘Jewish race defilers’. Men had to wear this
While women were identified by this badge
Clearly this represents the Nazis’ criminalisation of racial intermixing and the shaming of those, whose only crime was that they were Jewish married or in a relationship with a non-Jewish German. I also wonder if it was also foisted on non-Germans, who were incarcerated because of their marriage to a Jew.
But the Israelis are also attempting to discourage intermarriage between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, and if Otzma Yehudit get their way, such liaisons will be criminalised. In which case I wonder if those convicted of such crimes will also have to wear similar vile symbols. 

Rush Limbaugh: Evidence of Flowing Water on Mars Is Leftist NASA Plot

August 20, 2017

Here’s another right-wing gasbag, who should lose his radio show. In this clip from two years ago – 2015 – host Sam Seder of The Majority Report comments on Rush Limbaugh’s pronouncements about signs of flowing water on today’s Mars by NASA. NASA announced that they had found evidence that water still flows today on the Red Planet at the right season. The space agency states that this is a survivor from the period, 3 billion years ago, when the planet was much warmer and wetter than today, and a great ocean may have covered the entire northern hemisphere. The discovery is of immense importance in the search for possible life elsewhere in the solar system.

This is science, but it’s too much for Rush Limbaugh, who sees a conspiracy where there is none. NASA is part of the leftist plot to delude the world into believing in global warming, and this announcement, he goes on to suggest, may be part of it. He ridicules his producer, Sneedley, who was excited and enthusiastic about NASA’s announcement. Limbaugh then declares that he is a ‘big time science guy’ who gone past ‘science 101’. He then goes on to cast scorn and suspicion about the announcement. It’s part of some leftist plot being pursued by the agency, but he doesn’t quite know what yet. But it’s probably about global warming. Soon, he predicts, they’ll announce that they’ve found a graveyard.

Limbaugh’s a Republican broadcaster, who’s been a fixture of American right-wing radio since the 1980s, loudly applauding Ronald Reagan and ranting about how the ‘Leftists’ are trying to destroy his country. In the clip, Seder and his co-hosts and producers ridicule Limbaugh not only for his scientific ignorance – what, pray, is ‘Science 101?’, as well as the way he has openly sneered at and belittled his producer.

They then conclude the programme by further mocking him. They imitate Obama’s voice to declare that Islam is the one true religion. The Martians rejected this, which is why they were hit by a devastating drought. That’s why Obama is going to declare shariah law, and have a child from every White family in the mid-West sold into slavery in the Middle East.

This is to poke fun at Limbaugh, and the stupid, paranoid opinion amongst many American Republicans that Obama is a secret Muslim advancing the plans for an Islamic takeover of the US.

The clip shows much of what’s wrong with the American right’s attitude to science, their massive ignorance, which they think shows how perceptive they are, and their stupid paranoia about ‘leftists’. Which in this case, means anything and anyone, who isn’t as crazily right-wing as they are.

I’ve put up several pieces here about the possibility of life on Mars, and the use of certain genetically modified organisms to terraform the Red Planet. I know that several of the readers of this blog have science backgrounds and similar interests. I’ve put this up because I thought people might like to see just how stupid and ignorant Limbaugh, and by extension, his audience, is about this whole issue.

Firstly, as Seder points out, when NASA made the announcement they said it was about the state of Mars 3 billion years in the past. It’s nothing to do with global warming.

Absolutely correct. Planetary scientists now believe that there was a period during the early history of the solar system, when Mars was warm and wet. I think the National Geographical mentioned this when they did a piece on Mars in the 1980s or ’90s. It’s also discussed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic SF novel about the colonization of Mars, Red Mars.

What killed Mars was not global warming, but global cooling. Mars has no tectonic plates, and so it is theorized that the planet’s atmosphere was not renewed through releases of gases released from its rocks through geological forces. Over millions or billions of years, the atmosphere evaporated into space. The surface pressure is about 5 milibars – that of a laboratory vacuum. Without an atmospheric blanket to focus and increase the sun’s light, the planet cooled. Without atmospheric pressure to sustain it, water rapidly sublimates into vapour on the Martian surface. What water has survived is locked up in the ice caps, and may be as permafrost below the Martian surface.

Mars has never been cited as a warning of the dangers of global warming. That’s always been Venus. Venus lies closer to the Sun than Earth, and so has suffered runaway global warming as ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide was released from its rocks. The result of this is that the planet is covered by a permanent cloud layer. Surface temperatures reach something like 400 degrees C, the rain is sulphuric acid, and its surface pressure is enough to squash a human flat. If you want an example of how different the histories of Mars and Venus are, go have a look, or read, the chapter ‘Blues for a Red Planet’ in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Sagan was a major believer in the threat of global warming, and in that episode of his epic science history blockbuster, explicitly drew a parallel between Mars’ fate and that of our own world, if we don’t cut carbon emissions.

As for finding a graveyard on Mars, some scientists have speculated on the possibility that we may find fossils of the creatures that may have lived on Mars, far back in ancient geologic time. There are also serious scientists, who have suggested that we should look for evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilisations in the planets of our solar system. Our solar system lies in a part of the Galaxy, where the stars are an average of a single light year away from each other. That’s a short enough distance for an advanced civilization to make the difficult journey across interstellar space to another solar system. And the solar system is so old, about 4 billion years if not more, that it is statistically likely that intelligent life has arisen elsewhere in our Galaxy. And just as the Earth orbits the Sun, so the Sun orbits the centre of the Galaxy, taking 225 million years to complete one revolution. This is long enough for our Solar system to have come close to one of those other stars, harbouring alien life.

So signs of an extraterrestrial civilization may well exist on Mars. However, Mars has been dead for so long, that it’s unlikely that there exist any remains of an indigenous Martian civilization on the planet’s surface. In their entry ‘The Surface of Mars’, subtitled ‘Desert’, in their book Catalogue of the Universe, astronomers Paul Murdin and David A. Allen write

If once great cities stood here, they have crumbled to unrecognizable shapes. If trees bowed before moist zephyrs, they have returned to the dust whence they rose. If aircraft landed here, they too have vanished, or been buried beneath unknown depths of sand and rocks. (pp. 205-6).

Not all scientists are convinced that the features NASA suggested was evidence of flowing water were actually produced by it. Others believe that the marks on the surface may instead be produced by the release of other chemicals in liquid form from the underlying rock.

But if liquid water still flows on Mars, albeit it occasionally, not only does it augur well for the possible survival of some life, even if only primitive bacteria, but it also makes the planet more hospitable for possible colonization.

NASA’s claim to have found evidence of surface liquid water was therefore immensely exciting. And Limbaugh’s producer, Sneedley, was actually absolutely right to be excited about it. It’s his host, Limbaugh, who’s ignorant. And dangerously so.

No-one expects ordinary people to be experts on science. Science has advanced at such a rate that it’s too much for many ordinary people to keep update with scientific advances, some of which can be very arcane to laypeople.

But we do need people to be reasonable well-educated. And especially about threats to the planet, like global warming. It’s why there’s a need for good scientific writers and broadcasters to explain the issues clearly.

Limbaugh with his stupid denial of global warming, and his paranoid suspicion that NASA is part of some larger ‘left-wing’ plot, is actually doing the opposite. He’s disparaging real science and trying to keep people ignorant in order to promote his own, extreme right-wing views.

He’s also a danger on racial issues. A day or so ago I reported that Trump had cut funding for FBI and Department of Homeland Security initiatives against White racist terrorism. This included a charity, Life After Hate, that helps former Nazis leave these organisations without being attacked by their fellow stormtroopers. It’s a real danger. Matthew Collins, one of the founders and leaders of the anti-racist/ anti-religious extremism organization, Hope Not Hate, had to migrate to Australia in the 1990s after he appeared in a documentary exposing the violence of the NF and BNP. Obama had given $400,000 to the charity. He would have funded them sooner, but he was prevented from doing so by the ravings and possible denunciation by Limbaugh.

It’s debatable, however, how long Limbaugh will actually carry on. Far from being the influential Republican spokesman he thinks he is, his radio station in recent has been haemorrhaging sponsors and advertisers. His ratings have fallen to the point, where fewer people listen to him than to College radio stations with the range of only one or two miles. The only thing keeping him on air is money from Republican and similar extreme right-wing think tanks. If they pull out, he’s off the air.

American Scientists Plan March against Trump

January 28, 2017

After the massive numbers of people involved in the women’s marches against Trump held around the world last weekend, American scientists are also planning to organise their own demonstration against the Orange Caudillo in protest at his disastrous environmental and health policies.

In this video, TYT Nation’s Jeff Waldorf discusses a report in Forbes’ discussing the formation of the new group of scientists planning this march. The group has it’s own internet page, and in five days its members grew from 200 to 200,000 +. The group says it will include non-scientists as well as scientists, and is intended to advocate the greater involvement of science in government. It’s purpose is to defend climate science, evolution, and alternative energy. Waldorf states that he too believes strongly that science should be more involved in government. He also quibbles with the phrasing in the Forbes’ article, taking issue with the magazine’s description of the scientists as ‘believing’ in the environmental damage caused by the fossil fuel industries. Waldorf argues that scientists’ in these areas don’t believe, because they have proof that oil pipelines, such as DAPL, can rupture, creating massive oil spills and environmental destruction.

Waldorf also argues that, although he understands why people in America’s coal country wish to retain the industry for as long as possible for the sake of their jobs, renewables are now becoming cheaper than oil for the first time. It’s time to move from the horse and buggy to the automobile, is the metaphor he uses. He also notes that 75 per cent of Trumps’ own supporters are also in favour of solar and wind power, and natural gas. Waldorf himself is not in favour of natural gas, as it’s still a fossil fuel, with the environmental problems that poses. At the moment, the movement is still in the planning stage, but hopes to issue a mission statement soon. In the meantime, they state that a government that sacrifices science to ideology is a threat not just to America, but also the world.

I wish the scientists the best of luck in their campaigns against Trump’s attack on climate change and green energy. I think, however, Waldorf has a rather too optimistic view of science. There’s quite a debate in the philosophy of science over what constitutes ‘proof’. In one view, articulated by the great philosopher of science, Karl Popper, science advances through falsification. You can’t prove a particular theory. What you do instead is show that other explanations are false. In many areas of science, the observable effects of experiments, may be tiny and ambiguous. This is why scientists have developed very sophisticated statistical methods for sorting through their observations in search of factual evidence that will support or disprove their theories. Thus, at the risk of nit-picking, it might be fairer to say that climate change and environmental damage by the fossil fuel industry is far better supported by the available evidence, than the minority view that no such change or damage is occurring.

I also think you have to be careful about relying too much on science to solve social problems. The British philosopher, Mary Midgeley, in one of her books pointed out that in some areas, what is needed is a social and industrial solution to a particularly issue, rather than scientific innovation. For example, it could be argued that in the struggle against world hunger, what is needed is not new, genetically engineered crops which produce vast yields, but better transportation methods and infrastructure to supply people with the food that has already been grown.

Despite these very minor quibbles, it is true that orthodox, respectable science in the above areas has been under attack for a long time to serve powerful interests in the fossil fuel industries. Trump this week imposed gagging orders preventing scientists and government workers in the Environmental Protection Agency from revealing their findings. Climate change is happening, and is a real danger to America and the globe. But this awareness frightens the Koch brothers and their wealth in the petrochemical industry. So they, and millionaires like them, are spending vast sums to keep the facts from ordinary peeps. America’s scientists are right to challenge this. Let’s hope their march in support of proper science goes ahead and is well-attended.

Florence on Terraforming Mars Using Existing Microbes

January 2, 2017

One of the pieces I put up yesterday was on a paper by two scientists in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, discussing the possibility of terraforming Mars using genetically engineered microbes. Florence, one of the commenters on this blog, used to be a microbiologist, and was extremely interested in the exploration of Mars and the prospect for finding life there. She commented that there are already anaerobic microbes that can exist in comparable conditions on Earth. She felt that the experiments carried designed to detect life on the Red Planet were very inadequate. She wrote

There appears little need to create GMOs for terraforming. We already have the real deal here on earth. Back 3.6 billion years ago, when first life is thought to have arrived/ developed / etc there wasn’t an oxygen based atmosphere. It was anoxic, and the first organisms (the archeao bacteria) were very sensitive to oxygen, and there are still many that find oxygen toxic. These are still found in many places including the human gut! Some microorganisms developed oxygen tolerance and that allowed them to use new food sources, and they began adding oxygen to the atmosphere. These organisms then used this evolutionary advantage to evolve and diversify. When I studied anaerobic bacteria the main problems were sensitivity to oxygen – very difficult to remove from all materials prepared in the standard lab – and the slow growth rate (making the rapid generation of results for research funding cycles pretty difficult).

http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_03/extremo.shtmlhttp://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_03/extremo.shtml

Then there are the organisms that can grow in both aerobic and anaerobic environments. These are the ones that would be useful in terraforming if the aim was to develop a breathable atmosphere for humans and other animals. These live on very basic nutrients of sulphur and iron containing minerals, plus water. I think the “red” planet would be a great place to find these organisms, and vee may not even need to send ours over, but to stimulate the environmental conditions that would allow the planet to terraform itself. I recall the so-called search for life on the early Mars probes left me speechless – they were just totally inappropriate. But that’s can other story! Thank you for reminding me of the whole area of microbial life here and across the solar system! Happy New Year, too!
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354702https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23354702

The paper discussing the use of GEMOs to terraform Mars did mention that some existing microorganisms had been considered, such as a variety of cyanobacteria.
Looking through the index of papers published in the Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Mars Society: August 13-16, 1998, edited by Robert and Linda Zubrin, I did find one paper by James M. Graham and Linda E. Graham on terrestrial microbes on Mars. This was ‘Physiological Ecology of Terrestrial Microbes on a Terraformed Mars’, published in the third volume of papers. Unfortunately, I don’t have that volume, and so I really don’t know anything about the paper or its conclusions, just that it exists.

As for the inadequacy of the instruments aboard the Viking probe to detect life on the Red Planet, Dr. Heather Couper and the late Colin Pillinger also believed that they were too limited to disprove the existence of life in that part of the cosmos. Heather Couper is an astronomer, writer and broadcaster, who’s written a series of books on astronomy. A few years ago I heard her talk about life on Mars at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Before she began speaking, she asked her audience how many of them believed there was life there. Only a few people put their hands up. She asked the same question again at the end of her talk, after she had explained the problems with Viking’s experiments, and the evidence for life. That time the majority of people put their hands up.

Dr. Colin Pillinger, who was a scientist with the Open University, also made a very strong case for life on Mars, life he hoped to find with the Beagle Probe. One of the ways life could be detected was through its waste gases, like methane. The Beagle Probe carried just such a detector, and Dr. Pillinger said, ‘So if a bacterium farts on Mars, we’ll find it.’ He was another speaker at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, and was well worth hearing. Sadly, the Beagle Probe was a disastrous failure. Rather than soft-landing, it crashed on to the Mars surface, and was destroyed.

Despite this, I still have immense respect for the man. He and his team seemed to be fighting a lone battle to send a British probe to explore the issue, and I am deeply impressed by the way he and his fellow scientists were able to mobilise public support, including celebrities like the artist, Damian Hurst. I got the impression that his team were rushed, and it may well have been this that caused the mission’s failure. But I don’t fault the man for trying, and I think he did a grand job in taking on British officialdom and winning a place for the probe aboard the Ariane craft, when the British authorities didn’t appear to be at all interested, at least, at the beginning.

It’s sad that he failed, but he was genuinely inspirational in pushing for the project. I hope that it will not be too long before someone else sends another, better probe to Mars. And I think we need more scientists, and science educators like him, who can pass on their great enthusiasm for their subject.

British Interplanetary Society Paper on Terraforming Mars with Microorganisms

January 1, 2017

Yesterday I put up a couple of articles on terraforming the various planets of the Solar system, including Mercury, Venus and Earth’s Moon, as well as Mars. There have been a couple of really interesting comments posted to them. Florence, one of the great people, who read this blog, stated that she was a microbiologist. She was very much looking forward to working on microorganisms for Mars, but unfortunately that, and much of the rest of the space programme, vanished.

As well as Carl Sagan’s suggestion in the 1960s that blue-green algae could be used to create a breathable atmosphere and Earthlike environment on Mars, a number of scientists have also suggested using microorganisms to terraform the Red Planet. Twenty years ago the American Astronautical Society published a series of papers, edited by Robert M. Zubrin, about the colonisation of Mars, From Imagination to Reality: Mars Exploration Studies of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society: Part II: Base Building, Colonization and Terraformation (San Diego: Univelt 1997). This included a paper, ‘Genetic Modification and Selection of Microorganisms for Growth on Mars’ by Julian A. Hiscox and David J. Thomas.

bis-mars-terraforming

The abstract for this paper reads

Genetic engineering has often been suggested as a mechanism for improving the survival prospects of terrestrial microorganisms when seeded on Mars. The survival characteristics that these pioneer microorganisms could be endowed with and a variety of mechanisms by which this can be achieved are discussed, together with an overview of some of the potential hurdles that must be overcome. Also, a number of biologically useful properties for these microorganisms are presented that could facilitate the initial human colonisation and ultimately the planetary engineering of Mars.

After an Introduction, in which they state that the terraformation of Mars could be a two-stage process, with the construction of an Earthlike environment by microorganisms being the first, they then proceed to the following sections:

2. Selection of Bacteria for Mars The Search for a Marsbug, which discusses the suitability of terrestrial microbes for the process, such as the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiops and the extremophiles, which occupy of extreme environments here on Earth;

3. Genetic Engineering – A simple Matter of Cut and Paste;

4. Genetic Modification and Selection;

5. Gene Expression, with subsections on

1) Survival Properties – Tolerance to Peroxides; Osmotic Adaptation; UV Resistance; Tolerance to High Intracellular Acid Concentrations; Endospore Formation;

2) General Properties, with further subsections on photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and denitrification;

6. Uses of GEMOS and Some Speculations,

and then finally the conclusion and acknowledgments.

The conclusion reads

The introduction of microorganisms on Mars will greatly facilitate colonisation, both during initial attempts and in establishment of a stable ecosystem, either in enclosed habitats or at the end of ecopoiesis or terraformation. During the initial stages of ecopoiesis climatic conditions on Mars will be limiting for most terrestrial microorganism. By using genetic modification and directed selection under simulated Martian conditions, it may be possible to greatly enhance the survival capability of microorganisms during the alteration of the Martian climate to more clement conditions. Such microorganisms could be used to facilitate any planetary engineering effort. For example, they could be used to release Co2 and N2 from putative carbonate and nitrate deposits.

The genetic alteration of microorganisms will not be so much of a problem of introducing foreign genes into the organism but more a matter of understanding and controlling the regulatory pathways for the expression of such genes. However, such understandings will provide valuable insights into genetics, not only for increasing the productivity of microorganisms on Mars but possibly for Earth.

I’ve got very strong reservations about genetic engineering and modification, but here there is a strong case if it can be used to bring life to a sterile world. Assuming, that is, that Mars does not already possess life. In a way, the article’s ironic. Over a century ago, H.G. Wells had a germ, the common cold, destroy the invading Martians in his book, The War of the Worlds. Now terrestrial scientists are discussing using such organisms as ways to creating a living environment on the Red Planet.

China Aims at Probes to the Moon and Mars

December 29, 2016

Another space story.

The I newspaper yesterday reported that China is aiming to send probes to the far side of the Moon and Mars, and with an unstated further aim of landing a man on the Moon. The article by Louise Watt, entitled Beijing Joins Space Race with Plans to Explore Moon and Mars ran

China has laid out plans to become the first country to soft land a probe on the far side of the Moon, by around 2018, and launch its first Mars probe by 2020.

“To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build china into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly,” read a White Paper released yesterday listing the country’s space strategy for the next five years.

It says China aims to use space for peaceful purposes and to guarantee national security, and to carry out cutting-edge scientific research.

The document points to the growing ambitions of China’s already rapidly advancing space programme. China places great emphasis on the development of its space industry, seen as a symbol of national prestige that will raise the country’s standing in the world. Although the White Paper does not mention it, China’s eventual goal is to land an astronaut on the Moon.

While Russia and the United States have more experience in manned space travel, China’s military-backed programme has made steady progress in a comparatively short time.

The White Paper reiterated China’s plans to launch its first Mars probe by 2020, saying that it would explore and bring back samples from the Red Planet, explore the Jupiter system and “conduct research into major scientific questions such as the origin and evolution of the solar system, and search for extra-terrestrial life.”

There is also an inset panel providing a little snippet of further information.

Since China conducted its first crewed space mission in 2003, it has staged a spacewalk and landed a rover on the Moon in 2013 – the first time humans soft landed anything on the Moon since the 1970s. (p,. 22).

I say good luck to them. The Apollo moon lands are now nearly 50 years in the past, and I really believe that it’s high time we sent people back out into space to explore the planets. And some western space scientists and writers have been predicting for well over a decade now that China might just be the nation to do it. The quantum physicist and SF writer, Stephen Baxter, wrote a piece in Focus magazine speculating that the Chinese may be the first nation to send a person to Mars in the next decade or so, and wrote a fictional scenario in which the first person to step out onto the Martian surface is a female taikonaut from the Middle Kingdom. The SF author, Paul McAuley, wrote a novel, Red Dust, set on a future, Chinese dominated Mars with an ecosystem created through genetic engineering, to tailor creatures specially adapted for conditions on the Red Planet. nd a decade or so before then, 2000 AD in its future war strip, The V.C.s, also portrayed a Mars settled by the Chinese.

I wish the Chinese every success in their peaceful exploration of the Solar System, and hope that this will encourage the other developed nations to expand their space programmes. The Chinese space programme will be a challenge to the American space programme, but the potential benefits of space travel, exploration and colonisation are far too important to be monopolised by any one nation.

Pro-NHS Political Comment in Paul McAuley’s ‘Something Coming Through’

December 27, 2016

something-coming-pic

One of the books I’ve been reading this Christmas is Paul McAuley’s Something Coming Through (London: Gollancz 2015). McAuley’s a former scientist as well as an SF writer. Apart from novels, he also reviewed books and contributed short stories to the veteran British SF magazine, Interzone. He was one of the writers who created the gene punk genre, sometimes also called ‘ribofunk’. This was the genetic engineering counterpart to Cyberpunk, where, instead of using computers, individuals, criminals and corporations used genetic engineering to redesign new forms of life, or spread invasive memes throughout the population to control the way people thought. Back in the 1990s he was one of the guests on the BBC Radio 3 series, Grave New Worlds, in which computer scientists, writers and artists talked about the transhuman condition. This was back when everyone was talking about cyborgisation, and the potential of contemporary technology to produce new varieties of humanity. Apart from McAuley, the guests also included J.G. Ballard and the performance artist Stelarc, who has personally explored the implications of cybernetics for the human body in a series of performances. In one of these he had a mechanical third arm, operated through electrical signals picked up through the stomach muscles. He also gave a modern music performance, in which he was wired up to the internet via galvanic stimulators. A search engine then went about finding images of body parts on the Net. When it found one, that part of the body was electronically stimulated so that it moved. There were also booths in three cities around the world, where participants could also press buttons to move Stelarc via electric impulses. Apart from Kevin Warwick, the professor of robotics at Warwick university, is the person who’s come the closest to being Star Trek’s Borg.

McAuley’s Something Coming Through and its sequel, Into Everywhere, follow the fictional universe he created in a series of magazine short stories about the alien Jackaroo and their impact on humanity. Following a short period of warfare, including the destruction of part of London with a nuclear bomb by terrorists, the Jackaroo turned up and declared that they wish to help. These aliens bring with them 15 artificial wormholes, which act as gateways to 15 worlds, which the Jackaroo give to humanity. Humanity isn’t the only race that the aliens have helped, and the worlds they give to humanity are covered with the ruins and artefacts of previous alien civilisations, now vanished. The Jackaroo themselves are never seen. They interact with humanity through avatars, artificial beings that look like human men. These have golden skin and features modelled on a number of contemporary celebrities. They’re also bald, wear shades, and dress in black track suits. Their motives for helping humanity are unclear. They claim they just want to help, and that it is up to humanity themselves how they use the worlds they have given them. But they are widely suspected of having their own agenda, and despite the protestations of non-interference they are suspected of subtly manipulating humanity.

Accompanying the Jackaroo are the !cho, another alien race, who are equally mysterious. They move about the world in opaque tanks supported on three skeletal legs. Nobody has ever managed to open one up, or scan the tanks using X-rays or ultrasound. It is, however, widely believed that the !cho are sentient colonies of shrimp. Their motives, and their relationship with the Jackaroo, are also unknown.

Something Coming Through follows the adventures of Chloe Millar, a researcher for a company, Disruption Theory, in London, and Vic Gayle, a cop on Mangala, one of the Jackaroo gift worlds. The objects and ruins left from the Jackaroo’s previous client civilisations can be highly dangerous. Some of them are still active, despite the many thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of years of abandonment and decay. These can infect humans with memes, algorithms that alter psychology and behaviour. The strongest, most intact of these become eidolons, artificial entities that can take possession of their human hosts. Disruption Theory is a company specialising in researching the effects of these memes as they break out to infect people in Britain. This often takes the form of small sects, whose leaders speak in tongues, uttering nonsense as they try to put in human terms the alien concepts running their consciousness. Millar, the heroine, is investigating a couple of orphaned Pakistani children, who have apparently been infected by an eidolon from one of the gift worlds. Out on Mangala, Vic Gayle is also investigating the murder of a man, who has recently arrived aboard one of the Jackaroo’s shuttles.

Unlike much SF, the book doesn’t indicate how far in the future the story’s set. This is, however, very much a world not too far from the early 21st century of the present. The political structures are much the same, with the exception that the gift worlds are under the control of the UN. People still work in recognisable jobs, and shop and purchase the same brands of clothing. Complicating relations with the Jackaroo is a British politician, Robin Mountjoy and the Human Decency League. The League objects to contact with the Jackaroo as a danger to the dignity of the human race. Their leader, Robin Mountjoy, is described as being ‘in his mid-fifties, a burly man with thinning blond hair and a florid complexion, dressed in an off-the-peg suit. Although he was a multimillionaire, having made his fortune constructing and servicing displaced-persons camps, his PR painted him as a bluff, no-nonsense man of the people whose common sense cut through the incestuous old boys’ networks of the Westminster village’. (p. 51). The League isn’t strong enough to form a government of its own, and so has gone into a coalition with the Conservatives. While Mountjoy is clearly fictional, he does seem to be inspired by Nigel Farage and UKIP, with Britain attempting to gain independence from smooth talking mysterious aliens rather than the EU.

One of the other characters is Adam Nevers, a cop with the Technology Control Unit. This is the branch of the British police tasked with protecting the country from dangerous alien technology. Nevers is described as coming from the entitled upper ranks of society, who go straight from university into high ranking jobs. Which looks to me very much like a comment on the privileged upbringing and expectations of absolute deference and entitlement from certain members of the British upper classes.

Apart from the social and psychological disruption caused by alien contact, this is also a world wear the NHS has finally been privatised. McAuley shows the practical impact this has people’s lives. Without the safety net of state healthcare, people are dependent on their employers to help pay their medical bills, or borrowing money from friends. In his acknowledgements, as well as the many other people who helped him with the book, McAuley also thanks ‘the NHS for life support’. (p. 375). Which suggests that he’s also suffered a period of illness, and is very much aware how much he and everyone else in the country needs the NHS.

I liked the book for its convincing portrayal of the world after sort-of personal contact with an alien civilisation, and the frontier societies that have emerged as Mangala and the other gift worlds have been settled and colonised. I was also fascinated by McAuley’s description of the alien life-forms, and the archaeological exploration of the remains of the planets’ previous civilisations for the technological advances these artifacts offer. I was also drawn to it as it offered a different take on the old SF trope of alien contact. The appearance of the Jackaroo is described as an ‘invasion’, but it’s not really that. The aliens have a ‘hands off’ approach. They haven’t conquered the Earth militarily, and political power is still exercised through traditional human institutions and parties, like the UN and the Tories. Nor are they more or less at our technological level, like many of the alien races in Star Trek, for example. We don’t form an interplanetary federation with them, as they are clearly extremely far in advance of humanity, which is very much the junior partner in this relationship.

It’s not really a political book, and really doesn’t make any overt party political statements. With the exception that rightwing xenophobes would probably form a party like UKIP to join the Conservatives against pernicious alien influence, just like the Kippers under Farage came very much from the right wing, Eurosceptic section of the Tories. But its comments on the class nature of British society does bring a wry smile, and its advocacy of the NHS is very welcome. It doesn’t preach, but simply shows the fear the characters have of sickness or injury in its absence.

And with all too real terrestrial morons like Daniel Hannan, Jeremy Hunt, Dave Cameron, Theresa May, Tony Blair, Alan Milburn and the rest of the right-wing politicos, who have done and still are doing their best to undermine the health service, such comments are badly needed throughout the British media.

Monbiot’s List of the Corporate Politicos in Blair’s Government: Part One

April 23, 2016

Chapter six of George Monbiot’s book, Captive State, is entitled ‘The Fat Cats Directory’. The book is about the way big business has wormed its way into government, so that official decisions and policy reflects their interests, not those of Mr and Mrs British Public. In the ‘Fat Cats Directory’ he lists the businessmen and senior managers, who were rewarded with government posts by Tony Blair in May 1997. The list gives the name of the businessman, their ‘previous gluttony’ – a summary of their corporate careers, and ‘Subsequent Creamery’ – their posts in the British government. Those lists are:

Lord Marshall of Knightsbridge.
Chairman of British Airways
– President of the Confederation of British Industry

– Put in charge of Gordon Brown’s energy tax review, and helped promote the government’s campaign against the Millennium Bug, even though his 1999 holiday brochures told customers that they wouldn’t be responsible for any problems caused by computers malfunctioning due to it.

Ewen Cameron

President of the County Landowners’ Association
Owner of 3,000 Acres in Somerset
Opponent of rambling.

Chairman of the Countryside Agency, concerned with tackling the right to roam, social exclusion in rural areas, and someone, who has very definitely contravened the Countryside Agency’s rules on the maintenance of footpaths.

Lord Rogers of Riverside

Architect of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on greenbelt land
Architect of Montevetro Tower, London’s most expensive building.

Chairman of the government’s Urban Task Force.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

Chairman of J. Sainsbury Plc
Chairman of the Food Chain Group
Principal backer of biotech company Diatech
Funded construction of the Sainsbury Laboratory for research into genetic engineering
Replaced skilled jobs with unskilled shelf-stacking.

Minister in Government’s department of trade and industry
Minister with responsibility for science and technology
As science minister, led Bioindustry Trade Delegation to US
Ultimate control over Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Chairman of the government’s University for Industry.

Lord Simon of Highbury

Chairman of BP
Vice-Chairman of European Round Table of Industrialists
Under his direction, BP assisted the Colombian government in forcing peasants off their lands, and imprisoning, killing and torturing trade unionists. Gave money to the 16th Brigade, notorious for murder, kidnapping torture and rape.

Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe
One of the ministers responsible for implementing the ethical foreign policy.

Jack Cunningham MP

Adviser to agrochemical company Albright and Wilson (UK)
Member of Chemical Industries Association lobbying for deregulation of pesticides.

Secretary of State for Agriculture
Chair of Cabinet Committee on Biotechnology.

Sir Peter Davis

Chairman of Reed International, which made 900 workers unemployed.
Chief Executive of Prudential Corporation Plc, company most responsible for miss-selling pensions.

Appointed by Treasury head of New Deal Task Force.

John Bowman

Director of Commercial Union, which possibly miss-sold 7,900 pensions.

On the board of the Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority.

Lord De Ramsey

President of Country Landowners’ Association, sold part of his enormous Cambridgeshire estate for house building, and in doing so destroyed a pond of Great Crested Newts. Lobbies against regulatory burdens on agriculture. Grew genetically modified sugar beet on his land for Monsanto.

Chairman of Environmental Protection Agency.

Paul Leinster

Director of SmithKline Beecham (SB) Plc, which polluted streams in Sussex and Gloucestershire. Previously employed by BP and Schering Agrochemicals, part-owner of bio-tech company AgrEvo, which was publicly shamed for breach of environmental regulations for growth of GM crops.

Head of the Environment Agency’s Environmental Protection Directorate.

Justin McCracken

Managing director of ICI Katalco, responsible for a long list of plants polluting the environment with carcinogens. In 1999 it was listed as the worst polluting company in Europe, responsible for pouring 20 tonnes of hormone disrupting chemicals into the Tees. Also allowed 150 tonnes of chloroform to escape into groundwater at Runcorn. From 1996 to 1997 Friends of the Earth recorded 244 unauthorised pollution incidents from its Runcorn plant.

Regional General Manager, Environment Agency, North-West Region.

Dinah Nicols

Non-executive director, Anglia Water. In 1999 it was prosecuted six times for pollution.

Director-General of Environmental Protection at the Department of the Environment.

Ian McAllister

Chairman and managing director of Ford UK. The company was a member until December 1999, of the Global Climate Coalition, lobbying against attempts to reduce carbon monoxide emissions.

President, Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which has lobbied against the Department of the Environment’s standards on ozone, lead and sulphur dioxide pollution from cars. Also lobbied against European directives against exhaust gases, removal of lead from petrol, and forcing motor manufacturers to install catalytic converters.

Chairman of the Government’s Cleaner Vehicles Task Force.

Chris Fay

Chairman and Chief Executive of Shell UK, the British company with the most controversial environmental record due to pollution incidents in Britain and in the Niger Delta.

Executive director of BAA Plc, attempting to double size of Heathrow Airport.
President of the UK Offshore Operators Association, oil industry group responsible for lobbying against environmental regulations.

Chairman of the government’s Advisory Committee on Business and the Environment.

Brian Riddleston

Chief executive of Celtic Energy, an open-cast mining corporation which destroyed the Selar Grasslands Site of Special Scientific Interest in Wales, wildflower habitat and home of extremely rare march fritillary butterfly.

Member of the Government’s Countryside Council for Wales.

Graham Hawker

Chief executive of Welsh utilities company Hyder, which sp0ent £42.2m on making people redundant, and only £700,000 on research and development. Opposed windfall tax on privatised utilities.

Chair of the New Deal Taskforce in Wales

Martin Taylor

Chief executive of Barclays Plc. Multimillionaire manager of company which made 21,000 redundant in ten years to 1997.

Lord Haskins

Chairman, Northern Foods Plc. Member of Hampel Committee on Corporate Governance. This was criticised by Margaret Beckett for failing to recommend ways for companies to regulate themselves.

Chair of the government’s Better Regulation Task Force.

Peter Sainsbury

Managing director for Corporate and External Affairs, Marks and Spencer.

Head of Better Regulation Taskforce’s Consumer Affairs Group, whose duties include consumer protection. This decided that voluntary measures and ‘consumer education’ were better than regulation.

Geoffrey Robinson

Director of Central and Sheerwood plc, property owned and chaired by fraudster and pension raider Robert Maxwell. C&S merged with Robinson’s TransTec, to form Transfer Technology Plc. Company later collapsed.

Paymaster General.