Archive for February, 2012

A Matter of Image

February 19, 2012

What will aliens think during their first visit to our planet?

 When I go to someone’s home, my first impression of them is what I see when I get out of my car. If this is a person I don’t know, then a tidy yard, well maintained home and bright and inviting entryway gives me the impression that this person has it together, and is probably well organized, and successful. On the other hand, a cluttered yard, rundown house, and dark entryway gives the exact opposite impression. Worse yet, if you add in the risk that an occasional car might zip by and crash into your vehicle, you probably won’t even want to stop long enough to say hello.

 So what would aliens think about us when our front yard, the space around our planet, is cluttered with thousands of city-bus-size-or-larger derelicts zipping along at up to 17,000 miles-per-hour? Would they really want to park their interstellar spaceship near our planet when there’s a chance a wayward piece of junk the size of a satellite might plow into them at any moment?

 It’s not like people aren’t working on the problem.

 The Swiss Space Center at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne has created a small $11 Million prototype satellite called CleanSpace One. In terms of space projects, $11 Mill is cheap. This mini-satellite basically gloms onto a large object and changes it trajectory until it burns up in our atmosphere.

 Even better, Star Technology and Research recently received $1.9 million from NASA to work on the ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator. The contraption would reportedly “de-orbit” a piece of space junk by capturing it with a net. Unlike the CleanSpace One, which is destroyed along with its objective, the ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator, would not reenter the atmosphere with its prey, but continue on to pursue the next piece of space junk.

 The term “prey” is key to a major problem with this technology because you have to consider the paranoia of most governments capable of launching such a device. After all, any satellite capable to de-orbiting space junk, can also do the same to an active satellite. Will we, or any Earthly government be comfortable with another country launching a handful of these predators and attacking their sovereign property, even if it is junk? Trust is needed here, and it will be hard to come by. After all, which of our planet’s countries have promised one thing, but done another? Maybe a third, neutral party needs to be assigned this task.

 If there is intelligent life out there, we have to assume they are also looking for us. If they manage interplanetary travel before we do and drop by for a visit, will they think we are a forward thinking people, capable of contributing to the galactic community, or see us as trailer trash?

 Take a look at our front yard.


Defense or No Defense

February 18, 2012

Scientists recently discovered a way to manipulate the DNA (or more specifically RNA) of a virus to make it even more dangerous. Though both many scientists and many of the general public demanded that the results be banned from publication, the smart move may be to do just the opposite.

What is the biggest argument against making this discovery public? Well, duh, some of you may be saying, some crazy terrorist group will undoubtedly use this knowlege to create a super virus and wipe out civilization as we know it.

That is something to consider, but let us look at it logically.

First, could an Osama Bin Laden-style maniac with unlimited financial resources build a lab capable of doing this? I’m going to turn this question on its head and ask: When they do, what are we going to do about it?

I ask this, because I will tell you right now, it is possible, but not probable, for anyone with enough funding and the right scientists, to do this. How can I say this? If you have to ask this last question, you have not been paying close attention to the news reports. Let me refresh your memory. Two groups of scientists, (The Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.) working independently, came up with this process at the same time. Could a third group of scientists, whether afunded wittingly or unwittingly by a crazy person, come up with a way to do this? Yep. In fact, even if the Erasmus Medical and U of Wisconsin scientists hadn’t done what they did, it is obvious that someone, somewhere would have eventually done so. Even worse, the world’s most effective terrorist (and I use that term loosely here) is Mother Nature herself.

Think about it. Where did the H1N1 virus come from, or the influenza epidemic of 1918, the bubonic plague, small pox, malaria, or cholera epidemics? I can assure you, it wasn’t a mad scientist, bent on humanity’s destruction. Up to this point in history, all of the deadly plagues came not from some sterile lab, with groups of scientists working around the clock to create it, but in fact they were produced in the messy, uncontrolled bellies and blood streams of our own bodies. (or inside animals with physiologies similar enough to ours.).

So back to my original question: what are we going to do about this dangerous situation? The beauty of genetic research is that if you modify the genome of a virus to make it deadly, you know how to destroy it. By continuing and expanding the research, we allow the scientific community to develop a defense against this stuff, whether natural or manmade. If something deadly pops up, whether naturally or artificially created, we stand a better chance of building a defense quickly. Without this research, the next pandemic might well kill millions or even tens of millions before someone stumbles on a defense. The rate of death is exacerbated by our ever increasing level of mobility, where an infected individual can travel between states, across our country, or around the world before the person even knows he/she is ill.

In my mind, this is the issue: do we hide this information and pretend that no one else will succeed in doing this again, or should we be proactive, using this research to develop a way to defeat these killers before they spread around the world.