Nanotechnology: The message matters

A recently conducted study brings a warning to technophiles who think that the facts are all that matter when informing a group of people about a new technology. The fact of the matter is that the message matters more.

In their article “What drives acceptance of nanotechnology?” (Nature Nanotechnology), the Cultural Cognition Project and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies reported that, when presented with balanced information about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, a diverse sample of 1500 people who were largely unfamiliar with nanotechnology became deeply divided regarding its safety as compared to a group not shown such information.

The dividing line was cultural: “People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe,” said Kahan, the lead author of the study, “while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.”

Seeing that people respond so differently to the same information has caused many experts in the field to call for risk-communication strategies that take these findings into account. In this way, they hope to prevent a nanotechnology “culture war”:

“The message matters,” said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology.

The purple prose of suspended animation

Esquire magazine features an article on scientist Mark Roth and his research into “suspended animation.” As the website title “The Mad Scientist Bringing Back the Dead…. Really” indicates, this is not supposed to be a detailed account of Ikaria’s recent advances in induction of depressed metabolism but a sensationalist piece on mad scientists. Although the piece states that “Ikaria’s first suspended-animation product” has “completed Phase 1 trials in Australia and Canada” and is “being tested on humans, to make sure it’s safe” it remains to be seen if this technology involves major advances in rapid induction of depressed metabolism in humans or offers just another treatment option for various hypoxic-ischemic conditions as the press release (pdf) seems to indicate.

The article misses a number of opportunities to set the record straight on the proper use of terminology and prevailing definitions of death. The ability to resuscitate an organism from circulatory arrest, depressed metabolism, or suspended animation implicates that the organism was not dead to start with. This is not just a matter of semantics. The phenomenon of death is surrounded by many cultural and religious taboos and the difference between saying that we can  bring back the dead instead of  observing that recent advances in science and medicine requires us to redefine our definition of death  is not a trivial matter. Most religious people do not object to cardiopulmonary resuscitation or hypothermic circulatory arrest because they do not believe that a patient who is resuscitated in such medical procedures was (temporarily) dead. The word death should be reserved for a condition in which integrated biological function cannot be restored by either contemporary or future technological means.

Increasingly, the phrase “suspended animation” is thrown around to describe a number of distinct phenomena ranging from modest drops in metabolism to complete metabolic arrest. If the word  is taken literally, however, only complete metabolic arrest constitutes real suspended animation. Such a state cannot be achieved in humans by the use of hydrogen sulfide (or its injectable derivatives) and requires either the use of extreme cold such as practiced through vitrification in cryonics or the use of advanced nanotechnology in warm biostasis.

Popular reports on recent developments in “suspended animation” do not carefully distinguish between the results obtained with hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide in C. elegans and mice and its applications in humans. Until more detailed information is available on the use of these substances in large animals or humans it should not be assumed  that rapid pharmacological induction of depressed metabolism in humans is a clinical possibility.

Eric Drexler launches Metamodern blog

Molecular nanotechnology pioneer and cryonics advocate Eric Drexler has launched his own blog called Metamodern: The Trajectory of Technology. This is what we can expect:

In this blog, I’ll discuss current progress in science and technology, often with a specific perspective in mind: how current progress can contribute to the development of advanced nanosystems. This system-building perspective often highlights research opportunities and rewards that might otherwise be missed. As the topics come up, I’ll be suggesting research objectives that seem practical, valuable, and ready for serious pursuit.

However, like Engines of Creation, this blog isn’t intended to be “about nanotechnology”, but about broader issues involving technologies that will bring global change. Social software and the computational infrastructure of society are high on the list.

In his first post Drexler talks about the data explosion and the scientific method:

Tradition demands that science always be hypothesis-driven: First, try to guess the truth, and only afterward collect experimental data to test whether the guess predicts the results. Indeed, this has been termed “The Scientific Method”. The new data-driven approach suggests that we collect data first, then see what it tells us. This becomes practical when experimental methods can amass enormous amounts of data, enough data to test more hypotheses than any mortal scientist could conceivably imagine.

Eric Drexler has received a fair amount of uninformed and some informed criticism over the years. It is therefore encouraging to see Drexler making his presence known online.

HT Overcoming Bias

Richard Dawkins on fashionable nonsense

The Dutch psychologist Piet Vroon once opined that philosophy has lost much of its relevance because it  has lost touch with the (natural) sciences. Although philosophers associated with logical positivism and critical rationalism made great efforts to discipline the practice of philosophy by encouraging logical thinking and verification (or falsification), so far their efforts must be considered a failure, as evidenced by the fact that their scientific perspective is usually classified as just another school of thought within contemporary philosophy. A symptom of this development is that we often see the word “philosophy” substituted for “opinion.” It should not be surprising, then, that many life extensionists are greatly skeptical of disciplines like bioethics. As a general rule, when all is said and done, and the “learned” rhetoric has been dissected, there is not much left other than the philosopher’s personal opinion.

This 2007 review by Richard Dawkins’ of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont  reminds us how much pretentious unscientific nonsense is circulating among “intellectuals.” Although the examples of continental philosophy that Dawkins discusses represent the extreme regions of academia, a lot of philosophy and “social science” that is dominating contemporary intellectual debate, and informing public policies, is still miles away from the disciplined approach to science that thinkers like Alfred Ayer and Karl Popper advocated in their writings.

Whereas the natural sciences have mostly remained sane because of the strong link between experimental science and practical applications, such mechanisms are often absent in the social sciences.  And to the extent social science is “applied,” the question of what constitutes success is (necessarily) arbitrary. This situation is further aggravated by the fact that many social scientists and philosophers are sheltered from market mechanisms and real accountability.

Scientific skeptics have sometimes been criticized for focusing too much time on phenomena such as parapsychology, astrology, tarot reading and UFOs at the expense of more widely shared superstition such as mainstream religion. Similarly, concerned scientists tend to focus on fashionable nonsense such as postmodernism and  post-structuralism at the expense of more widespread ideas such as the epistemological problems in most social science or the extreme “blank slate” view of human nature that informs most public policy. Most people may not believe that astrologists can predict the future, but we seem to have fewer problems when similar claims to knowledge are expressed by social scientists and economists.

Gender differences in stroke treatment and prevention

Over the years, experimental science has developed a standard protocol for the testing of medical hypotheses using animal models which calls for the use of males only. Why? Because no laboratory scientist wants to deal with those pesky female hormones. Female hormone fluctuations are viewed as just another variable to be controlled (generally by excluding females altogether) — all the better for making interpretation of results simple and straightforward.

But, as common sense might dictate, it turns out that results from male-only animal models often give a less-than-accurate view of the whole picture when this research is translated and applied to treatment of disease in humans. Why? Because, as most people without a doctorate in physiology can tell you, physiological gender differences exist. Is it any surprise, then, that disease treatment and prevention should also be prescribed with these physiological differences in mind?

And so the buzz for the past few years in the medical community is the astonishing fact that stroke treatment and prevention are not the same in men and women. In labs that have recently begun to investigate these differences, drugs that were found to protect male brains against stroke in animal models did nothing to protect female brains. The major message behind all this press: doctors cannot continue to apply one-size-fits-all prescriptions for stroke prevention and treatment.

The real fact is that it is even more complicated than a “simple” physiological difference. Traditionally, cardiovascular disease has been viewed as a “man’s disease” (men have about a 19 percent greater chance of stroke than women). Accordingly, studies have found that women are less likely to receive prescriptions for blood pressure medications or be advised to take aspirin, both of which have been shown to reduce stroke risk. Strangely, women are less often treated after having a stroke, even though they appear to respond better to acute stroke treatment (such as tissue plasminogen activator) than men. So while men do indeed have more strokes, women are still more likely to die from stroke.

Women are also at increased risk if they take birth control pills, use hormone replacement therapy, have a thick waist and high triglycerides, or are migraine sufferers. And, contrary to anecdotal evidence, women appear to be less likely to go to the hospital at the first sign of stroke symptoms.

Oregon Health and Science University is at the forefront of research into gender differences in medicine, having developed the first research institute of its kind, the OHSU Research Center for Gender-Based Medicine. Given that Oregon recently ranked 46th out of 50 states for incidence of stroke deaths among women (as reported by Making the Grade on Women’s Health: A National and State-by-State Report Card, 2007), there is obviously a need for gender-based medical research to save the lives of women at increased risk of cardiovascular and other disease.

Experiment made on the mummy

As documented in David M. Friedman’s The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever, Lindbergh and Carrel considered the human body a living machine made of replaceable parts. A major reason why Carrel was interested in developing and refining equipment to perfuse isolated organs is because he believed that this would allow damaged tissue to be repaired outside of the body and ultimately substitute new organs for diseased organs. His ultimate objective was to conquer death itself.

In The Immortalists, Friedman writes about one experiment that should leave no doubts about Carrel’s personal commitment to the scientific conquest of death. When Lindbergh supervised the packing of Carrel’s property after his death they found:

..a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy the surgeon had tried to revivify  in 1925. (“A small hole was made in the abdomen of the mummy about 3 cm. from the right iliac spine. The skin was hardened and very tough,” Carrel wrote of his failed experiment.)

Without seeing the complete notes of these experiments, it is not possible to say what Carrel’s  specific intentions were. Although our knowledge about the ultrastructural effects of different preservation techniques has greatly improved since Carrel lived, it is hard to imagine that a  brilliant scientist like Carrel seriously believed in resuscitation of the 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy. Perhaps his objective was more modest and involved recovery of material for cell and tissue experiments, an objective that would not have been unrealistic considering the recent reported findings of clonable DNA in an Egyptian mummy.

Carrel’s notes of this experiment, called “Experiment Made on the Mummy,” are included with his papers which remain at Georgetown University’s library in Washington DC.

The black operating room of Alexis Carrel

From David M. Friedman’s The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever:

The initial stages of these studies were performed in Carrel’s operating suite, which the two men now entered. Lindbergh had never been in an operating room before, and this one defied his expectations. The floor, walls, and ceiling were painted black. The only source of illumination was a large skylight situated directly above the operating table, which was black as well, as were all the storage cases and cabinets in the room.

“Too much light inhibits the activity of the brain,” Carrel said, anticipating Lindbergh’s question. “Surely you’ve noticed that the world’s great civilizations have formed far above the equator, where there is much less direct sunlight than in tropical regions.”

Carrel told Lindbergh that black walls cut down on glare–no small worry when one is operating on tiny blood vessels. He also said that black surgical gowns were better than traditional white ones at illuminating dust, the elimination of which was an obsession for Carrel, who insisted on the highest standards of sterility and cleanliness in his operating rooms.


Cryonics sets example for emergency medicine

One of the most neglected aspects of cryonics is that its procedures, and the research to support them, can have important practical applications in mainstream fields such as organ preservation and emergency medicine. Contrary to popular opinion, cryonics does not just involve an optimistic extrapolation of existing science but can set the standard for these disciplines. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what cryonics, and cryonics associated research, has been doing over the last 25 years.

The most striking example is the progress in vitrification as an alternative for conventional cryopreservation. Although the idea of eliminating ice formation at low subzero temperatures has been discussed since the beginning of cryobiology, vitrification as a serious research agenda was largely driven by the demand for ice-free preservation of the human brain. Over the last decades this research has culminated in the development of the least toxic vitrification agent to date, 21st Century Medicine’s M22.

The contributions of cryonics to mainstream science and medical practice are not confined to cryobiology. Researchers Jerry Leaf and Mike Darwin made impressive progress in the formulation of bloodless whole body organ preservation solutions to resuscitate dogs from ultraprofound hypothermic temperatures, an intervention that is increasingly being recognized as essential to stabilize trauma victims. In the mid 1990s, Mike Darwin and Steve Harris conceived and developed the idea of using liquid breathing with perfluorocarbons as a method to induce rapid hypothermia. They further validated a multi-modal medications protocol to resuscitate dogs from up to 17 minutes of normothermic cardiac arrest without neurological damage.

Although progress has slowed considerably in the non-cryobiology research areas over the last 10 years, it is encouraging to observe that some of the procedures that are routine in cryonics  stabilization protocol  are starting to catch on in mainstream emergency medicine practice as well. For example, contemporary cryonics stabilization protocol has been strongly shaped by the idea that the best strategy to limit brain injury after cardiac arrest is to combine a number of different interventions: cardiopulmonary support, induction of hypothermia, and administration of circulation-supporting and neuroprotective medications.

It is therefore very encouraging to learn that the Wake County EMS group in North Carolina has achieved impressive results in treating out-of-hospital cardiac arrest victims using a protocol that closely follows elements of current cryonics stabilization protocol. Systematic implementation of immediate induction of hypothermia, continuous compression CPR, and the use of an impedance threshold device (ResQPOD) produced an almost 400% improvement in survival and vast improvements in neurological outcome. A PowerPoint presentation about their experience and protocols are available at their website.

Such real world outcomes do not only inspire confidence in the procedures cryonics organizations can use to protect patients from brain damage after cardiac arrest, it should also serve as a wake-up call to relaunch an aggressive research agenda to push the limits of hypothermic and normothermic resuscitation. In absence of this, it will only be a matter of time before cryonics activists can no longer claim that “we did it first.”

HT Mike Darwin

Facing death with Epicurus

James Warren is to be complimented for writing a thorough and persuasive book on Epicurean thinking about death. In Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics, Warren offers a detailed review of Epicurus’ view that “death is nothing to us.” His treatment of Epicurus’ critics should be considered a success for the following three reasons. The author has a genuine understanding of  the Epicurean philosophy with all its nuances. Second, unlike many philosophers, Warren devotes a lot of time to presenting the arguments of Epicurus’ critics in their most charitable form, sometimes even raising novel potential objections, before refuting them. Finally, although the author allows for the possibility that the human fear of death may be hardwired, and even an evolutionary advantage, he stands out among other philosophers in not have a strong desire to refute Epicurus, a trait that negatively affects a lot of the literature on Epicurus.

Because the Epicurean view on the fear of death is often misunderstood, the author distinguishes and reviews four interpretations of the argument in the first chapter, Fears of Death:

1. The fear of being dead.
2. The fear that one will die, that one’s life is going to end.
3. The fear of premature death.
4. The fear of the process of dying.

In the following three chapters the author thoroughly reviews three different themes in the Epicurean tradition: the argument that death cannot be a harm because if we do not exist we cannot  experience the deprivation of things that life offered, the argument that since we do not consider the period before we existed as a harm we cannot claim that the period after we exist is a harm, and the argument that death cannot be premature or prevent a person from having attained a complete life. The chapter on premature death is of particular interest to life extensionists because it discusses the issue of immortality  from an Epicurean perspective, briefly contrasting Bernard Williams‘ argument against immortality with the Epicurean tradition.

Because Warren ultimately does not find Epicurus’ critics persuasive, he devotes the final chapter to the question of what living an Epicurean life would imply. An important reason for exploring this issue is to explore the argument that even if the Epicurean view on death is correct, it would lead to consequences that few are willing to accept or are highly impractical. The author singles out two issues: would it be incoherent for an Epicurean to write a will (as Epicurus himself did) and the desirability of prolonging one’s life.

Most reasons for executing a will are rejected as inconsistent with the Epicurean tradition but a notable exception is made for a line of reasoning that finds a rational reason for writing a will in the value of strengthening one’s relationship with friends during life:

…the knowledge that a friend will leave certain items in a will to another may ensure the continued assistance of this future beneficiary during the remaining period of the testator’s life. The beneficiary reciprocates in advance, as it were, for the goods which he has been pledged and will receive when the other dies.

This argument in favor of writing a will may have broader implications. If an Epicurean has reason to be positively involved with the fate of people who may be still alive after him, a related argument could be made that he could also be concerned about future generations because of the effect of overlapping generations. If such an argument is possible, the Epicurean view that we can neither experience good nor bad things  after we cease to exist can be reconciled with dispositions such as protecting the environment or contributing to causes that do not have a chance to succeed during a person’s lifetime. By doing so we are signaling our disposition to cooperate, reap the benefits of cooperation, and respect justice as mutual advantage.

If we should not fear death, why prolong life? Here Warren is at greater pains to reconcile Epicurus-style reasoning and a wish to remain alive. But as the author admits, perhaps one obstacle for such a reconciliation is the “highly debatable” Epicurean view that pleasure cannot be increased beyond the absence of pain, a view that seems to be at odds with both  personal introspection and empirical observation. It  may not be  incoherent to believe that death cannot be a harm but prolonging a life that is an (overall) positive experience is desirable.  Some variants of this argument, however, would run into the objection that comparing the value of existence and non-existence is nonsensical because the latter cannot be experienced. As a matter of fact, the obvious point that death cannot be experienced is one of the central tenets of Epicurean thinking. Does that just leave the Epicurean with the position that he “will simply continue to live with no sufficient reason  either to kill himself or to want to survive until tomorrow?” It is clear that this issue would benefit from some smart analytic thinking. Further benefit may be obtained  by seeking an answer to the question why the “intellectualist stance on the emotions” that informs Epicureanism  seems to contradict human psychology as it has evolved.

Brownian motion and nanotechnology

Brownian motion started when Robert Brown looked into his microscope and observed that pollen suspended in water moved around in a continuous random motion. Wanting to rule out some “vital life force,” Brown also  investigated dead things such as sand and metals but he observed the same jittery motion. The dead danced as well. Or perhaps the Epicureans anticipated the phenomenon of Brownian motion in Lucretius‘s scientific poem On the Nature of Things:

Observe what happens when sunbeams are admitted into a building and shed light on its shadowy places. You will see a multitude of tiny particles mingling in a multitude of ways… their dancing is an actual indication of underlying movements of matter that are hidden from our sight… It originates with the atoms which move of themselves.

The writer Mark Haw has been so fascinated with the phenomenon and history of Brownian motion that he decided to write a book about it called Middle World: The Restless Heart of Matter and Life. This accessible introduction covers the history of Brownian motion, the “mesoscopic” middle world between the (sub)atomic world and the world of “large” objects,  taking us from the puzzling observations of Robert Brown to its relevance for the upcoming science of nanotechnology. Commenting on the challenges that the middle world, where “objects simply cannot  stand still,” presents to Eric Drexler’s vision of  “hard” nanotechnology, the author observes:

Matter in the middle world does things differently.  You could insist on modeling your machines after the macroworld and finding chemical ways to achieve that. But why not use the fantastically rich range of things that matter does in the middle world to come up with whole new ways of solving engineering problems? Why not profit from unavoidable restlessness? We know it can be done: life has already done it.

Although published 3 years earlier than Haw’s book, Richard Jones picks up this very theme in his excellent book Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life. This book presents a more technical treatment of Brownian motion and other nanoscale phenomena that an advanced nanotechnology simply cannot work around.  But instead of resisting the unruly world of randomness and sticky objects, Jones proposes to embrace these phenomena as the most obvious road to build nanoscale devices. Although the author does not completely dismiss the “top-down” Drexler approach, he strongly prefers to use the bionanotechnological tools that nature has provided and to improve upon them. He also introduces an approach called “biomimetic nanotechnology” that would involve “the copying of the principles of operation of biological nanotechnology, but executing them in synthetic materials.”

Since August 2004, Richard Jones also publishes a blog that reports on the future of nanotechnology  and has featured informed critiques of the Drexlerian vision of radical nanotechnology and Singularitarianism.