Monday, December 17, 2007

Science Fictions meets Science Reality

Two recent articles in the Washington Post have piqued my interest. One was about a jet of radiation from a black hole blasting a nearby galaxy. According to the story:

The smaller galaxy is being transformed by the radiation and the jet is being bent before shooting millions of light-years farther in a new direction.

"What we've identified is an act of violence by a black hole, with an unfortunate nearby galaxy in the line of fire," said Dan Evans, the study leader at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. He said any planets orbiting the stars of the smaller galaxy would be dramatically affected, and any life forms would likely die as the jet's radiation transformed the planets' atmosphere.

Wow. Can you imagine this as a sci-fi action adventure? "An intrepid band of space explorers goes on a mission to stop an evil black hole from irradiating the peaceful galaxy of Xandra (the galaxy in question is named 3C321, but that's not going to elicit much viewer sympathy...).

The other story was about synthetic DNA on the brink of yielding new life forms. The article details the newest accomplishment of genetic engineering--the creation of life forms using artificial DNA:
Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome -- a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to "boot itself up," like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.

So far, the result is only single-celled organisms--but the article raises the issues of what sorts of organisms will be created, how will they be contained and who will own the rights? The term "genetic machine" is used conjuring up images of replicants ala Blade Runner. Or at the very least, The Blob.

While we might not jet around in flying cars or vacation on Venus or be able to use a transporter to dematerialize and rematerialize ourselves and avoid rush hour traffic on the 405, these are amazing times we are living in.

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