It is Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, so what better topic than a creepy story?
The first one that comes to mind may be Frankenstein.
It is important to remember that Frankenstein was the creator not the creature. He was attempting to do something wonderful.
Mary Shelley created the story in 1816 during a rainy stay in Geneva. There are two tales as to how the book came about; one was that the poet Lord Byron proposed that all the guests write a “ghoulish” tale, and another is that the work came about due to the death of individuals close to her.
However the story came to be, it is a science fiction story that starts with good scientific intentions.
While Mary Shelley’s book was considered to be the first of its genre, there are many stories where the science while being developed with good intentions has a tendency to escape and create havoc. Michael Crichton has penned several novels building on this theme, think Jurassic Park, or Westworld, or Prey.
But, these stories intrigue, hold the promise of what if, and excite the mind.
What was once science fiction, traveling to the moon, or being able to create a drug that will cure a disease, or creating a device that will allow you to see what is happening the body or being able to take a waste and create useful materials, or being able to see someone while you talk with them on a handle held device, are now everyday realities.
Jules Verne, Issac Asimov, and Gene Roddenberry created works of the possible and sparked the curiosity of many and as a result, have allowed many to explore the possible.
Today, there are scientist that are making some of those initially impossible ideas become reality. Think of what is happening in many areas of chemistry, biology, and physics. Today, we are using biological processes to create fuels, think of ethanol production. We have learned to harness nature’s own chemical factory, E. coli, a micro-organism. By careful selection and modification, E. coli can produce a variety of chemicals including some important pharmaceuticals.
According to a paper published in 2016 in the Journal Microbial Cell Factories which can be found in the National Library of Medicine’s public databases, over 650 protein drugs have been approved worldwide using cell factories. These “factories” while predominately E. coli, also include, yeasts, insect cells, and mammalian cells. The drugs have been used as for treatments of growth or clotting disorders, cancers, diabetes, and malaria.
Jay Keasling of the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology indicated that it takes an estimated 5,000 – 10,000 compounds have to be introduced into the discovery pipeline for every single successful drug.
And, by using these cell “factories,” the process of synthesizing potential drug candidates and can be done faster, greener and cheaper than traditional synthetic methods. Hence, making it possible to test more candidates or even tailor treatments to a specific individual.
It isn’t just drugs. Individuals who are working on the technical challenges related to going to Mars are using similar methods to produce polyester materials that can be used as building materials. Synthetic biology techniques have been used to develop sensors that can be used to monitor environmental or medical conditions.
And, it has been interesting to follow some of the science surrounding autonomous vehicles.
Recently, there was a story about how engineers have to code the software for the vehicles to make certain decisions. For example, how is the car going to react to the unexpected, such as a person stepping into traffic, or what to pay attention to next to a road, i.e. is that a deer or a squirrel?
In the interview, the engineer told a story about the programmers working in Europe did not account for the kangaroos in Australia. Thus, pointing out that the programming is only as good as the human that is behind it. So, as we advance, we need to be aware of some of the pitfalls that may occur.
We need those science fiction writers to help us think of the possibilities as well as the potential consequences.
Editor’s Note: This is a series of science-related articles by author Frankie Wood-Black, Ph.D., REM, MBA, to appear in the Mid-Week section of the Ponca City News. The author currently runs her own environmental consulting firm based in Ponca City, Sophic Pursuits Inc., and also serves as a Physics Instructor and the Director for Process Technology at Northern Oklahoma College.