Monday, February 14, 2011

Human breeding programs

I'm reading the book "The Science of Dune" right now.  It's a very intriguing collection of essays from scientists of many backgrounds which discuss certain aspects of the Dune saga as they are related to modern science and possible future science.  I've read so far about the possibility for synthetic eyes, about the use of hallucinogenic drugs and if we'll ever have a hallucinogen which also extends life, about the possible biology of the sandworms of Dune, and about the actual physics of the dunes of Arrakis.

The most recent essay I've read was from Carol Hart, Ph.D., concerning the human breeding programs of the Bene Gesserit in the Dune universe.  This society of women with prescience were conducting a 90 generations long breeding program to produce the universe's sueper being, the Kwisatz Haderach.  Of course, for those who've read the book know, the super being Maud'Dib came a generation early and had the unforeseen side-effect of being independent and uncontrollable by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood.

The author of this article does a fantastic, if brief, job of highlighting the fact that we humans have spent the better part of the past 15,000 or more years domesticating wolves to make our household dog, and now we breed dogs for all kinds of traits (some of which, like in the case of the smash face pugs, is really bad for the animal but makes people think it looks cute).  However, we have not been as careful in our own breeding.  Many people will have children regardless of their own genetic pitfalls.  It makes me wonder, if at some point in the future we will need to start directing human breeding so that our species can continue to evolve.  What if we seek to colonize Mars or travel beyond our solar system.  Might it be better for us to selectively breed the type of people who will be biologically optimized for the psychological stress of space travel, or for stronger defense against radiation damage, or even for the ability to breathe less oxygen and still perform well?  This question definitely jumps deep into the realm of bioethics.  Any thoughts?


Sunday, February 13, 2011

The University Rover Challenge

Last summer I traveled with my buddy Ryan Kobrick ( down to the desert in Utah to help staff the University Rover Challenge (URC).  The URC is an annual international competition hosted by the Mars Society where teams of university/college students compete in Mars-rover style tasks using rovers that the teams have designed and built at their home institutions.  It was great to be a part of the competition.  I'll be heading out there again this coming summer for the 5th annual event.  Should be an awesome time.  I'm sure we'll have some great teams once again.  This time I hope to take some people along with me to make sure we can really get things set up quick and keep the competition rolling smoothly.  I'll be sure to take lots of awesome pictures and share them with all of my friends online.

Clip from Ames Research Center on Astrobiology

Saturday, February 5, 2011

"This thing is older than mommy!"

This past Monday evening, I drove down to the Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy in Colorado Springs to share my love of astrobiology with some middle school students and their parents.  The Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy had been a failing middle school, when the Space Foundation stepped in and gave the school a purpose: to teach children the basic american middle school curriculum, using aerospace as a tool for inspiration.  The school is doing much better now.

The Festival of Science is kind of like a symposium for local people involved in the sciences to communicate with students from the school.  There was an astronomical society there, a robotics group, the Cheyenne mountain zoo, the girl scouts, the boy scouts, and several other presenters who had hands on activities and displays to get the students thinking about science.  I went down on behalf of the CU Astrobiology Club.  I also brought two members of CU-SEDS so they could share some cool stuff with the students.

At my Astrobiology Club table, I had some information about the Arecibo radio message that was sent to the M13 star cluster in 1974, a picture of organic molecules found in space, a picture of the ALH84001 meteorite and a micrograph of the debated "martian" in that meteorite that was announced in 1996.  I also had a Giant Microbe version of the "Martian Life" (pretty much a stuffed-animal worm), and I had one of my chondrite meteorites.  It was fun to talk with middle school students about extraterrestrial life and show them some of the things I had brought.

The best part of the evening was when a mother and three young children walked up to my table.  I was talking to the mother about my meteorite, informing her about the current theory of how our solar system formed, and so I told her that my meteorite likely formed over 4.5 billion years ago.  She took in her hand and showed it to her children saying, "Look guys, this thing is older than mommy!"  One of her children went wide-eyed.  I started laughing pretty hard.  She looked at me and said, "I have to put it in their perspective".  I guess everything really is relative when it comes to our understanding of our universe around us.