Science & Technology: Notes from the Underground

Real Life: science, research and technology

Jan 13, 2000 at 2:06 pm

Hello? Is anyone out there?

I've been in my underground bunker since New Year's Eve. My watch stopped, I ran out of beans and now I don't know what day it is. I just took inventory, and all I have left is three gallons of water, half a pound of sharp cheddar and 146 AA batteries.

I don't think I planned very well for this. I will leave today. I'm trying to prepare for the destruction that might face me above ground, but there isn't much I can do except eat some more cheese.

I wonder if there's anyone up there.

I hate New Year's Eve anyway. Everyone waits until midnight, sings the first two lines of "Auld Land Syne," vomits, falls over, gets back up and lurches home for 16 hours of bed rest.

And I hate Dick Clark, too. There's something supernatural about him.

New Year's Eve is often spent reminiscing, when instead we should be looking to the future and resolving to make the world a better place. Just take a moment to imagine some of the developments we might welcome in the future. For, when next we stand on the brink of a new millennium, our world will have little in common with this one.

Some of the predictions seem obvious. OK, OK we'll cure AIDS and cancer. Yes, sure, all the cars will fly. But what of some of the stranger possibilities?

For instance, scientists are constantly extending our knowledge of the biological causes of aging. Studies indicate that the aging process occurs as the body simply becomes less efficient at chromosomal and cellular replication and tissue repair. Future therapies, alongside the eradication of other common causes of death, could result in a tremendous increase in life expectancy.

Think about it. The Romans built a fairly impressive empire at a time when the average male life expectancy was about 25 years. In 1990, the lifespan of an American male was approximately 72 years. Within the next millennium, this might be increased to 200 years or more.

There will be old people everywhere. The whole country will look like Florida — but without the palm trees. HMOs will not cover age treatment, considering it a cosmetic therapy. Legislation to limit the number of old people and the strain they place on the economy will be quashed by the 262-year-old senators voting on it. There will be uproar if anyone has the energy for it.

The next millennium will also be an era of genetic manipulation. Recent polls show that many Americans either don't care or don't know the extent to which of genetic information already occurs. For instance, some species of cod that live in Arctic regions combat the extreme conditions with a gene that helps them produce a kind of biological antifreeze. Scientists have already taken this gene and inserted it into the genome of strawberries so they also will produce the antifreeze protein and survive storage at lower temperatures.

And no one cares. Well, it all sounds a little fishy to me. Get it? A little fishy?

But if we look beyond the fishy strawberries, we can already glimpse a world in which children born with congenital defects are a distant memory. To what extent will we allow the DNA of our children to be manipulated? Will we be able choose their gender? Their IQ? Will we be able to ask for a son with blue eyes or a daughter who won't need braces? I hope so, because I don't want a son who throws like a girl.

Cryogenic technology also will benefit as scientists elucidate methods of freezing tissue without causing excessive damage. Such advances will have effects on health care, disease management and even the way we view our own mortality. Most importantly, if the rumors are true, cryogenics will finally allow Walt Disney to rise like Lazarus and assume the presidency of this great country. And we all want that.

The future also will be defined by man's interaction with machines as scientists continue to delineate the human brain and improve the capabilities of computer systems. Already, an English computer scientist has had a computer chip implanted in his arm that recognizes and interprets the patterns of certain brain waves. In recent experiments, he has wired an electronic door that responds to messages from the chip in his arm. He simply thinks about opening the door and the chip recognizes the corresponding pattern of brain waves and opens the door. This is pretty amazing stuff, but it's still only an indication of the possibilities in this field.

Space is another issue. The existence of extrasolar planets that might be similar to Earth has re-ignited dreams of jumping ship and starting all over again on virgin soil. Such planets, with their Earthlike temperatures and the possibility of water in liquid form, present a much more inviting alternative to the colonization of Mars with its sub-zero climate and thin atmosphere.

So, by the time the next millennium rolls around, we will have shrugged off the ties that bind us to this galaxy. In other words, we will be dropping our crap and filth all over the universe instead of just a little blue globe in a spiral arm of the Milky Way. Don't it make you proud to be an Earthling? It sounds a little unlikely, but it's probably not as far-fetched as some of the other suggestions on this page.

Listed above are only a few of the possible changes to consider, and there are many more. Some will be realized, some will not. But these are among some of the most obvious. I haven't even mentioned vast armies of cloned warriors, men having babies, Big Brother's watchful gaze, time travel or any number of ridiculous ideas that also might be achieved.

Most importantly, the future will be determined not by what we can do but by what we should do. It will be a millennium dominated by bioethics more than any other single thing.

As we enter this new era, and I leave my bunker with a block of cheese as my only weapon, we can be sure of only two things: The human spirit will prevail, and so will Dick Clark.

Still, I suppose it's good to know there are some things we can always depend on. Now, if I can just remember where the door is ...

Chris Kemp is a research scientist who lives and works in Cincinnati. Contact him at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, OH 45202 or e-mail him at [email protected]