The New Space Age

October 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

As our world moves further and further away from the space fervor of the Cold War, increasing doubt is cast on the ability of government programs such as NASA to propel us into the new space age. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe a government program wasn’t meant to take us where no man has gone before. The government, which (theoretically) serves the people, doesn’t really have any motivation to invest money into space programs. Even though funding NASA is already a tiny fraction of the United States federal budget, the unfortunately common view is: “Why waste money on space when there are problems on Earth?”. Enter space entrepreneurs.

If anything, the recent proliferation of popular interest in space is an indication that this dream hasn’t died yet. Stagnated? Yes. But still breathing. Recent films such as Gravity and The Martian are notable for their portrayal of space as almost mundane. Sure, it’s exciting and full of danger. But both plots hinge on the premise of humans casually exploring our solar system. Well, not very casually. Still, there is no faster-than-light travel, no alien species. It’s a future that isn’t difficult to envision.

Real-life Iron Man, Elon Musk, decided to take matters into his own hands. In the early 2000s, Musk made a substantial part of his initial fortune by merging his online money-transfer service with a similar company, forming PayPal. When the company was sold to eBay, he made $180 million. This he almost immediately invested into creating a new company called SpaceX, with the goal of basically colonizing Mars. Actually the goal is to revolutionize the cost of space travel to propel humanity towards becoming a multi-planetary species. Same thing.

Besides founding SpaceX, he also founded Tesla Motors and SolarCity, all roughly two years apart, with the ambitious aim of creating a sustainable future for humanity. None of these sound like particularly safe investments, so it’s not surprising he almost went broke around 2008. The survival of his companies seemed largely based on luck.

It took SpaceX a while to get off the ground (literally). Not only is starting up a company incredibly difficult, this one also necessitated the building of a functional rocket. The first three attempted launches crashed and burned (also literally). With only enough funds for one more launch, it would either work or the company would have to shut down.

The launch was successful, of course. And it prompted NASA to give the guy a $1.6 billion dollar contract to carry out about 12 launches for them. So far SpaceX has carried out 23. It is one of four organizations to launch spacecraft into orbit and bring them back down, the other three being federal agencies: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (US), the Russian Federal Space Agency (Russia), and the Chinese National Space Administration (China).

So what does the future hold? For Musk, 1 million people on Mars. At first glance the idea is insane. Let me amend that statement. Objectively, the idea is insane. But that’s precisely the reason that private companies are necessary. There is no way that any government would invest significant funds into colonizing Mars. Luckily, there are some crazy, potentially genius, entrepreneurs who are willing do to so. And with the current state of environmental problems on Earth, with the ceaselessly growing population, this may just end up saving our species for a little bit longer.

-Confused Vulcan

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What Do We Sacrifice For “Perfection”?

September 29, 2015 § 1 Comment

It looked like any other hospital waiting room. Well, any other hospital waiting room in the year 2050. I’ve been told that you weren’t kept behind bars like a common criminal. I’ve been told the doors didn’t always have locks on the outside. Hell, I’ve even been told the rooms had chairs to sit in. . . . I’m pretty sure most of those are myths though. I guess it really doesn’t matter how the rooms might have been though. I’m here now and that is all that really matters.

Eventually they come for you. You don’t know when it will be. You just don’t know . . . but they come eventually. People leave one by one. Where they go I can only imagine, but I guess I will find out soon enough. No one really seems to be nervous and I guess they don’t really have a reason to be. We aren’t here voluntarily. We don’t have a choice, an escape, an alternative. You just accept your fate as it comes.

There was a general trend in the room. None of us looked old than five or six and most of us had obvious defects. You were snatched up as soon as something seemed off with you. For some they were born lucky. Infants with a clear disorder were treated on the spot. They won’t even remember the treatment. Not all of us were so lucky. The boy across from me sat drooped over in his wheelchair. His legs looked frail and thin.

He will walk soon enough. Everything will be fixed soon.

How I found myself in this mess was entirely different. You can’t tell something is wrong with me just by looking at me. The moment I was born my parents could sigh in relief that they would never have to turn their child over to the state. I am more sorry for them than I am for myself as I sit here. I’m an anomaly. It all started when I was three or four and I insisted I was a girl. “But Michael, you’re my baby boy,” my mother would insist. She would force trucks and army men into my hands to play with. She dressed me exclusively in blue. She put me in karate and never let me have girl friends. I was defective.

But medicine can fix all of that now. I am told that after the surgery I won’t even remember wanting to be a girl. I will be my mommy’s strong little man after all.

And with that, they came for me.

——————————————————————————

            I deliberately chose something that would offend or shock. Being transgender is not a defect. It is not something inherently wrong with the person. It is not something to treat. So why did I chose the issue of being transgender as the main driving force of my narrative?

To make you think and question.

Medicine and genetic research has come leaps and bounds from where it began. Thus far, the progress has been something that I support wholeheartedly. Stem cells have incredible potential to change the world. Finding a foolproof cure to cancer would revolutionize the world. But where do we draw the line?

Something I think about is where genetic engineering must stop. My fear is not so much what we as human beings can create, but rather how we choose to use that technology. My greatest fear is that we find ways to change things that are simply hard to understand or not the “norm.”

I have incredibly strong friends who have a wide variety of sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities, you name it. They are the strongest people I know and I know that they wouldn’t change who they are if given the chance. Nothing is wrong with them. They are unique and beautiful. But as someone who loves them all deeply and unconditionally, I fear that less tolerant people will try to change them. I used to paint my friend’s nails at sleepovers just to take it off in the morning before returning home. Thankfully, Claire*  was able to transition to the person I had always accepted her to be when she moved out of her house. I know her parents would have changed her to accept being male, the sex she had been born with, if given the chance.

I hope I did not offend you, but I do hope I shocked you. We need to think about the limits to genetic engineering. Not the scientific limits, but the moral and ethical limits. Just because something may be possible, doesn’t mean we should necessarily do it. I don’t really know where we should draw the line in the sand, but I hope we can start the dialogue.

Maybe this story can be the pebble that creates waves.

*Name changed for privacy. 

  • S. Jamison

Manifest Destiny in the New Frontier

September 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

Americans have always been a curious lot.  We have felt this desire to “boldly go where no man has gone before” from the time of the late 19th century when the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was coined, an idea reflecting our belief that we were destined to explore and colonize the new realm of the wild west, to the mid-20th century when we declared space as the “final frontier” and proceeded to conquer and explore that frontier to the best of our abilities, becoming the first nation to put its citizens on the moon.  However, contrary to our grandparents’ belief, space was not the “final frontier,” but rather another frontier still awaits us, ready for exploration and new discovery; a frontier not around us, but inside of us: our own genes.

We have come a long way from simple Mendelian Genetics and are now at the point where we can manipulate DNA in many different ways: inducing somatic cells to re-instate their undifferentiated form creating induced pluripotent stem cells, splicing genes of one organism into another creating chimeras, implanting favorable genes into crops with genetic engineering technology, and much more.  And even after all of this discovery, there is still so much we have yet to determine, so much unchartered territory left to explore.  Within our genes lie the secrets of our personality and the template for our appearance; but our genes also hold our genetic diseases and predispositions, oncogenes that can induce the formation of tumors and mutations that can lead to fatal diseases like Huntington’s Disease.  Within our genes lies the code that makes us who we are in every positive and negative way, serving as the unchanging template that ultimately steers our life.  But what if we could change this template? What if we no longer were forced to serve as slaves to our genes but rather could manipulate them for the better?

Human genetic manipulation is a frontier many have been afraid to touch for years due to a host of ethical issues. However, developments have still occurred.  Now, the technology is available for the groundbreaking research to occur, and the ethics of the idea seems to be the only thing holding us back.  Recently, the CRISPR Cas-9 protein, found in bacteria and used as a kind of immune system against viruses, has been brought up as a potential genome editing protein we could use in prenatal gene therapy.  Prenatal gene therapy is a medical procedure where a genome editing protein with high specificity, such as CRISPR, is implanted into an embryo and used to either remove or correct a mutation that would lead to a terrible, and likely lethal, genetic disease within a child.  Performing gene therapy on an embryo rather than a child already born would be very advantageous because the embryo has much less cells necessary to target and the cells that receive the therapy will eventually divide into other cells that will all contain the corrected gene.  Such therapy could be used to correct genetic diseases so that a child is born healthy and further, if the disease was originally heritable the next generation would also not be subject to that disease.  With this technology, we could eliminate Huntington’s Disease from the population just as we eliminated smallpox.

However, without proper research, it is impossible to make such miracles a reality.  Many can easily see how great the benefits of human genetic manipulation would be, but become squeamish when research is actually going to be done and argue that the costs will be too great and that even once we have this technology that it is a “slippery slope” until it is used for the wrong things.  Ultimately, these are risks we are going to need to take.  The ultimate benefit human genetic manipulating technology would have on future generations outweigh any initial costs associated with research.  It is not like we are very long away from great breakthroughs anyways; with research unimpeded it is likely we would be to the point where there were little to no real costs or great failures within a few years.  And with proper regulation, the “slippery slope” will gain more friction and we will stay closer to the original therapeutic goals.  Also, Once the technology is more established, it will become cheaper and more readily available, just as computers did.  Did you know that the first human genome cost $7 billion to sequence and today we can sequence an entire genome for just $1000?  As more research is performed and more technologies invented, cost decreases, so the idea of socioeconomic inequalities in gene therapy and related genetic medicine will eventually become null.

Even with all the benefits of further genetic research, still many people find that they just have a negative feeling in their stomachs even still when it comes to the idea of manipulating the human genome.  Tell me though, if you found out that your unborn daughter was going to die before she turned twenty of a fatal genetic disease, would you not want to help her and give her the full life she deserved?  If you found out your son was going to suffer from a condition that required him to constantly revisit the hospital and limited his ability to live his life to the fullest possibility, would you not want to give him a chance to live an unimpeded life that he could enjoy to the fullest?  If you found out that you were a carrier for a recessive genetic disease, not knowing whether your partner was a carrier as well, would you want to have to worry about your children having that disease and possibly choose to refrain from having children or would you rather continue with your plans for a family knowing that no matter what your child will be healthy?

Genetic manipulation is what allows for there to even be a choice in each of the scenarios above.  Right now, many people are faced with only one option, and it is not the better of the two.  We could change lives and save lives, but the stigma against this great technology is preventing such.  Such an opportunity would not have been presented were we as a human race not to take advantage of it.  We have a manifest destiny in the new frontier of genetics, and it is about time we started properly exploring.

-CRW

Always Eat Your Meat

September 11, 2015 § 1 Comment

Once upon a time ahead

The world began anew

The animals we’ve known were dead

Homo sapiens vanished, too

Our kind may have disappeared

But others still remained

One race was brutish, to be feared

The other, not the same

The first ones-Morlocks, they were named

Had bodies white as milk

They hunted flesh, were beasts untamed

And wore no clothes, no silk

The others—Eloi—had few faults

When it came down to looks

But—they didn’t work at all

And had no care for books

All they did was lounge around

And pick their teeth all day

But far below, under the ground

To Morlocks, they were prey

For Morlocks, though they looked like apes

And (likely) smelled like feet

They disregarded greens and grapes

And settled for Eloi meat

See—they were smart, you understand

Had culinary taste

The Eloi, on the other hand

Lived off of gross health shakes

So to the untrained eye, it seems

The Eloi’s lives are neat

But you and I can clearly see

That they have no meat

So when the future does come near,

It may be not be so bleak

Just remember to contribute to society, eliminate classism and get off of your aristocratic high horse

And always eat your meat.

Bushra Rahman

Aliens of Vastly Different Size

November 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

The world of science fiction has no lack of first encounter stories, and the idea of bizarre alien life forms is definitely an idea that has been explored extensively.  There have been stories about aliens who are different colors than us, aliens who have different organs than us, aliens who think differently than us,  and sometimes even aliens made of a different type of matter than us.  However, one assumption that we always seem to make about alien life forms that we would encounter is that they are close to the same size as us.  I would love to see a science fiction story written about intelligent aliens who are a vastly different size than us, so different that communication is difficult or impossible.

The aliens that we encounter could be miniscule, and much smaller than any life form we are familiar with, but still incredibly intelligent.  They could roam the seas of some distant planet which are like galaxies to them.  Or, more interestingly, we could be the miniscule life forms, and the galaxies that we are roaming could be small seas or lakes to a much larger life form.

We could encounter aliens who are the size of planets.  They might roam the solar systems and galaxies through the void of space, not needing air to breathe, only stars to feed on.  They might appear to be ordinary planets from our point of view, when really they are incredibly intelligent beings.  They  might be able to manipulate the light that comes from them to get rid of all detectable traces that might make us think there is intelligent life there.

Or, the aliens we encounter could be even larger than planets.  They could be as large as galaxies.  There could be some race of creatures that was born in the Big Bang, and that now roams the Universe, appearing to be just a normal galaxy, but actually being a highly intelligent life form.  They might feed on other galaxies.

In any of these cases, it would be extremely difficult to recognize these aliens as life.  They would appear to us to be just another part of the Universe and nothing extraordinary.  Or if they were miniscule, they might escape our notice altogether.  And even if we did manage to recognize them as life, we would have no guaranteed way of communicating with them because not only are they completely alien and unfamiliar with human languages, but the vast differences in size would assure that our forms of communication were qualitatively different.  In all it would be quite a confusing experience to encounter such aliens.

-PJ Jedlovec (pjjed) (B7)

5 Opening Lines

October 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

1. It had been three centuries to the day since the last man died, taking with him the last Y chromosome the world will ever know and leaving behind nothing but a sea full of estrogen.

2. The shuttle took off with loud bang, propelling Xander on his mission to yet another Galaxy on the outskirts of the Universe, and he could not help feeling the same loneliness that had plagued him ever since he started this desperate search for Catalina.

3. Chartzx had fallen in love with many women before, but none quite as humanoid as her.

4. The past has always caused the future, the future can sometimes cause the past, and the present is always being caused by both, but nothing could cause Caleb to understand this week’s quantum theory homework, no matter what he tried.

5. “The ratio of clones to humans is simply too high for us to sustain this kind of rapid population growth!”  I exclaimed, much louder than I had intended to.

-PJ Jedlovec (pjjed)

Songs for the Road

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hi, 7 year old Angie!

Being 7 years old is the best! Do you like big kid school? The bus lady is nice and gives free popsickles.  Brozzor beats you up sometimes but is a great older brozzor and takes good care of his sister. You will hear him play pretty violin songs.  Mommy and Daddy will buy you your first violin soon!  Zou lao shi is your teacher and makes you cry sometimes.  But you will love that violin song by that dead guy! It will make you have fun at lessons for the first time.  You bring the tape to music class.  Everyone hears it and you will be so happy!

Your big kid freind Helen does dance and you will want to do it too! You start jazz class and dance in scary sparkle clothes.  But you have lotsa fun at your first recital.  You never understand what the dance song says but its happy and you like it!  All of the parents clapped for your class too.

Have a good day!

Love,

Angela

P.S. “Lasagna” is called la-sah-nia. “Lozenges” are not the same thing.

P.P.S.  “Graze” is spelled G-R-A-Z-E.  Remember that for the 4th grade spelling bee.

P.P.P.S. There are lotsa big kid words later in this letter.  Read them when you are a big kid too!

Dear 13 year old Angie,

Wow, your finally in middle school at Powdersville now.  Miss Parker should have taught you how to use commas by now, but you forget where they go, sometimes.  Don’t feel too mad when you have trouble with them during English class!  She loves all the bunnies you draw anyways.

Make sure you spends lots of time with Danielle, Carrie, and Ashton, just in case you go to Southside High instead of Wren High.  You must be really happy right now! You won’t belong with any click but will instead try and be friends with everyone.  You’ll be super hyper around people like Danielle.  Just a suggestion- you can fit inside her cello case, so try riding it around the music room sometime.  Around this time, you’ll also be graduating from the Repertory Orchestra to the older kids’ Carolina Youth Symphony (CYS) violin section.  Remember when you heard the CYS play the Nutcracker Suite a couple years ago? I still remember how hyper you were.  I think everyone in the theater could hear you stomp your feet along with the conductor.  Get excited because you can finally play that piece during Christmas!

Don’t crush on Albert too hard.  The only reason you really like him is because he has brown hair. Isn’t that a little weird?  Also, remember that you’re supposed to actually dress up for the 8th grade dance. Don’t run away from the guy who asks you to dance, too!  He’s actually pretty nice.

Bye bye,

Angela

Greetings, 17 year old Angie, 

You’ve really grown up now, haven’t you? I can’t believe you’re finally applying to colleges and starting your last year at Southside.  Here are a couple things that you have to know:

Grades are not everything. You have been pretty hung up on getting 100’s in your classes; however, remember that these numbers are trivial.  Trust me, you won’t even remember what 90% of those tests were like when you get to college.  Letting go of dance for academics was definitely a big mistake, so don’t do the same for track and orchestra.  Never take the things you love for granted.

Appreciate friends. Don’t freak out (although I know you will anyways) but the first semester of senior year will be very difficult for you. Emotionally. Judy, Sravya, Reina, and Nidhi are some of the most beautiful friends imaginable, so don’t blow off opportunities to hang out with them just because you have a biology test.  That’s really lame btw.  But first and foremost, never stop appreciating and loving your friendship with Gary. You guys will listen to tons of cheesy, K-pop music, but you’ll definitely remember those jam sessions the most.  Just remember that life can be unexpectedly short.  Don’t scoff at his crazy career dreams, but take some of his optimism for yourself.  He’ll change you for the better.

Signing off,

Angela L. (Blog 5)

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