Friday, December 29, 2006

The erosion of free will ...and freedom

The Economist has an interesting—yet awfully frighteningarticle on how neuroscience is challenging the concept of free will. The piece starts with this example:
IN THE late 1990s a previously blameless American began collecting child pornography and propositioning children. On the day before he was due to be sentenced to prison for his crimes, he had his brain scanned. He had a tumour. When it had been removed, his paedophilic tendencies went away. When it started growing back, they returned. When the regrowth was removed, they vanished again. Who then was the child abuser?
Indeed, it's not such a stretch (and science is continuing to close this gap) to think of any behavior as simply a product biochemical reactions. So, then, if someone commits murder, was it really an act of free choice, or is faulty brain chemistry to blame? Where do we draw the line? By far the most frightening part of the article was this (having seen Minority Report several years back, this gave me chills of déjà vu):
At the moment, the criminal law—in the West, at least—is based on the idea that the criminal exercised a choice: no choice, no criminal. The British government, though, is seeking to change the law in order to lock up people with personality disorders that are thought to make them likely to commit crimes, before any crime is committed. (...) Such disorders are serious pathologies. But the National DNA Database being built up by the British government (which includes material from many innocent people), would already allow the identification of those with milder predispositions to anger and violence. How soon before those people are subject to special surveillance? And if the state chose to carry out such surveillance, recognising that the people in question may pose particular risks merely because of their biology, it could hardly then argue that they were wholly responsible for any crime that they did go on to commit.
Yikes. I actually worked for one of the biotech companies that was bidding, several years ago, to provide plastic storage tubes for the UK's Biobank Project, and I remember the whispers of my co-workers who, at that point, seemed a little paranoid to me. "Someday they'll use the DNA to track us, or to discriminate," they said. Now they don't seem so paranoid. Add to that the fact that the UK recently passed a law allowing clubs and bars to fingerprint their patrons, and you've got a 1984-esque scene unfolding just over the Atlantic Ocean. How long before it reaches the US?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Molecular biology: A science of exceptions?

Humans function as well as we do because we are adept at identifying patterns. Without this ability, we would be lost trying to understand such a complicated world. When it comes to understanding ourselves and our biology, then, we assume that patterns exist, and in our search we have found them: we have uncovered many "rules" (take, for instance, the central dogma of molecular biology) from which we have learned a tremendous amount.

But it seems that as time passes, we also find more and more exceptions to our "rules." Last year, French scientists found that RNA, not just DNA, can pass genetic information from generation-to-generation, contradicting (or at least not conforming to) Mendel's laws. Each day we learn more about the significance of epigenetics, the heritable effects that come not from the sequence of genes but from other characteristics and effects, including environmental ones. And finally, just last week, scientists uncovered that "silent" gene mutations, so-called because they do not affect the sequence of amino acids in a protein and thus were thought to have no effect, actually do have a significant effect on the performance of a protein.

Certainly it's the exceptions that we hear about, but I can't help but wonder if, in the future, we will find that biology presents us with more exceptions than conformers to the rules we think we have found.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sagan Blog-A-Thon

Today, which marks the 10th anniversary of Carl Sagan's death, was also host to a one-day commemorative Carl Sagan Blog-A-Thon. Organized by fan Joel Schlosberg, the event invited bloggers worldwide to write today about Sagan, his work and his influence. I'm sorry I couldn't participate in this celebration—I spent the day flying across the country to be with my family—but here is Schlosberg's promised blog meta-post featuring links to many of the entries.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Sentenced to death

I'm sad to report that the six medics who were accused of deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV in Libya have been condemned to death this morning, according to the Wall Street Journal, despite scientific evidence published in Nature that gave them a strong alibi: the HIV subtype that infected the kids was known to be present and spreading locally before the medics even arrived in the country in 1998.

You can read more about the history of this issue in Declan Butler's blog (he is a senior reporter at Nature) and also at Scienceblogs. My heart goes out to the medics and their families.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sound familiar?

Well, folks, it's happening againanother education-related evolution lawsuit. This time, a 15-year-old student is suing her local education committee because her 10th-grade biology textbook teaches evolution in a way she finds religiously offensive.

This lawsuit, however, is not happening here in America. It's happening in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Her school principal's reaction? He thinks she has no serious religious beliefs. "It seems to everyone that this is stupid and serves no purpose," he said in televised comments. "Pupils and teachers are more amused than concerned about it."

If that's true, and the lawsuit has nothing to do with her religion, then I can't help but wonder if she got the idea from media coverage of our country's infamous Dover trial.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Hydrogen's not the answer ran an interesting (and very understandable) article on Monday downplaying the idea of a hydrogen-based economy, based on the conclusions of the European Fuel Cell Forum's Ulf Bossel. As quoted in the article, Bossel says,
“More energy is needed to isolate hydrogen from natural compounds than can ever be recovered from its use...Therefore, making the new chemical energy carrier form natural gas would not make sense, as it would increase the gas consumption and the emission of CO2. Instead, the dwindling fossil fuel reserves must be replaced by energy from renewable sources.”
Hydrogen is a bad idea, Bossel says, because of the high cost and low efficiency associated with electrolysis (the process required to make hydrogen from water), transport, and storage. You can read more of Bossel's thoughts on the issue here. Bossel's solution? We need an electron economy, he says, in which energy is distributed by electricity using the shortest route possible. Because such a system would not be bogged down by energy conversions — like from physical to chemical and vice versa — it would be far more efficient than a hydrogen system, he says.

p.s. Sorry I've been AWOL for a while. I'm back now...and I'm a MASTER! Yes, I just finished my degree. Yay!