Saturday, 12 February 2011

The 4% Universe

The 4% Universe: Dark matter, dark energy and the race to discover the rest of reality by Richard Panek

Times, 12 February 2011

For Galileo seeing was believing. When in 1609 he learnt of the Dutch invention of the telescope, he quickly constructed his own. With no reason to think there was anything to find, he searched the night sky and found that there was far more to the universe than meets the naked eye. He saw that the Moon had mountains, the Sun had spots and he observed the phases of Venus. With the discovery of Jupiter’s moons, Galileo found hard evidence that not all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth. In March 1610 he published, The Starry Messenger, his report of what he had seen. All 500 copies were sold within a week.

Four centuries later Galileo’s successors know that they cannot see, even using their dazzlingly variety of modern telescopes, an astonishing 96 percent of the universe. The tiny fraction that is visible to their fine-tuned instruments is the stuff that we and all the countless planets, stars and galaxies are made from. Get rid of us and of everything else we’ve ever thought of as the universe, and very little would change. ‘We’re just a bit of pollution,’ one cosmologist says. We maybe irrelevant, but the rest of reality has been dubbed ‘dark’ and for the American science writer Richard Panek it ‘could go down in history as the ultimate semantic surrender’. For this is not ‘dark’ as in distant or invisible, but ‘dark’ as in unknown - for now at least.

Yet what is known is that almost a quarter of what can’t be seen is something called dark matter. Although its very nature is a mystery, its presence is discernible through its gravitational effect on the movement of galaxies. Without dark matter the astronomical data doesn’t make sense.

From a derelict iron mine in Minnesota to mountaintop observatories, at a pace that would shame many a thriller writer, Panek tells the story of the quest to unlock the secrets of dark matter and the particles that make it up. These weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs, have proven so elusive that the possibility that two were detected in November 2009 caused great excitement.

Dark matter is less than half the tale Panek wants to tell. For three quarters of the unknown universe consists of an even stranger substance called dark energy. Its existence was inferred, once again, from the circumstantial evidence gathered by astronomers measuring what could be seen. They didn’t need Sherlock Holmes to remind them that after eliminating the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth.

In the late 1990s two rival teams set out to collect data on distant supernovae in an attempt to determine the rate at which the universe was expanding. It was assumed that the pull of gravity would act as a break on the pace of expansion. To their disbelief they found that space-time was being pushed apart faster than ever before. Something was overwhelming the force of gravity to drive the expansion. Dark energy was winning the cosmic tug-of-war.

With a future Nobel prize at stake, disputes and arguments over who did what and when were inevitable. Parek provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of science in the raw as alliances are forged and friendships strained. There is a new universe to explore and the latest experiments reveal it is 13.75 billion years old and made up of 72.8 per cent dark energy, 22.7 per cent dark matter and 4.5 per cent ordinary matter. These numbers are ‘an exquisitely precise accounting of the depths of our ignorance,’ says Panek. ‘It’s 1610 all over again.’

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Culture Under The Microscope

Culture Under The Microscope
The Visceral Exhibition @ The Science Gallery, Dublin.

Independent, 10 February 2011

What is Life? It's a question that the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger tackled in three famous lectures given at Trinity College, Dublin. The first, on 5 February 1943, was heard by an audience that included the entire Irish cabinet led by Éamon de Valera.

Schrödinger is remembered today for making vivid the weirdness of the quantum world with his famous cat-in-the-box thought experiment. Schrödinger's cat is neither dead nor alive but exists in a superposition of states until we open it and look. Yet when his Trinity College lectures were published they became influential in persuading many young physicists that Schrödinger's methods might solve some of the problems in the developing field of molecular biology. James Watson and Francis Crick cited the book as a key inspiration for the research that led them to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

"Schrödinger with his mythical 'semi-living' cat, could be described as a pioneer of BioArt," says Dr Michael John Gorman, the director of Dublin's Science Gallery, which is also located in Trinity College. His tongue is firmly in his cheek as he accompanies 40 people on the short walk from his gallery to the Schrödinger Theatre, to discuss what life is. This is one of the many activities surrounding the gallery's latest exhibition, Visceral: The Living Art Experiment.

"BioArt" was a term coined in 1997 as a number of artists abandoned paints and brush in favour of cells, fragments of DNA, proteins and living tissue. Visceral, a month-long exhibition uses new technologies, tissue and neural engineering to explore the question "what is life?" People may be put off by some of the 15 works, some of which use human tissue as book covers or retinal cells to project film. Gorman admits there is something a little queasy about creating artworks from living tissue. "The very idea of tissue-engineering becoming an art form makes us squirm," he says. However, Visceral is all about provoking the sort of instinctive gut reaction that Gorman hopes will gets visitors asking questions about the ethical implications of manipulating living material and what we mean by "living".

The exhibition's curator, Oron Catts, believes that the "logic that drives things like nanotechnology, synthetic biology and even things like neuroengineering needs to be scrutinised and explored by people other than just scientists and engineers". It was one of the reason that Catts helped to set up SymbioticA, an artistic lab dedicated to a hands-on engagement with the life sciences based at the University of Western Australia in Perth.

"Our interest is in life," says Catts, "not only art or science." Yet the exhibition demonstrates the depth of the potential of interactions between art and science. For Gorman, nothing illustrates this better than Silent Barrage, the largest work on show. The product of a collaboration between Neurotica, a group of five artists, and Dr Steve Potter of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, its a cutting edge piece of neural engineering. It consists of an array of robotic poles hooked up to neurons from the brains of rats in Potter's lab.

The array responds to the way visitors move through it and sends signals back to the neurons. These neurons then fire, making the robotic poles shudder up and down. Depending on the amount of audience activity, the neurons can undergo what is called a "barrage" – when they start firing in a chaotic fashion. This is exactly what happens during an epileptic seizure. With epilepsy affecting over 450000 people in the UK alone, it is hoped by the scientists involved that the data collected might lead to a better understanding of the process by which cells are calmed and seizures mitigated. And its not the only exhibit that promises something scientifically tangible.

The battlefield of Kathy High's Blood Wars is a Petri dish with the combatants being the white blood cells drawn from two different people. After a few hours slugging it out, one set of platelets will have destroyed the other. The "winner" of each cellular battle goes on to fight another participant. The concept may sound sinister to some with concerns about eugenics, but it is in an ingenious attempt to engage in the age-old debates surrounding traits inherited through blood.

Catts says that cell lines create a form of immortality since they can live beyond the life of the donor. I'm reminded of the story told by Rebecca Skloot in her bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Known to scientists as HeLa, Lacks died in 1951 but her cancer cells were taken without her knowledge and became one of the most important tools in medicine. The Vision Splendid, a work by Alicia King consists of two sealed glass jars, connected by tubes that contain nutrients and cultured human tissue. The cells were those of an unknown African-American girl aged 13. You're left wondering who owns the stuff our bodies are made of. If that worries you, then Catts offers a way to ease your troubles.

The Semi-Living Worry Dolls by Catts and Ionat Zurr are a modern version of the famous Guatemalan worry dolls constructed out of degradable polymer on which cells are grown in micro-gravity conditions. You can whisper your troubles to them through a microphone as they eventually replace the polymer completely, transforming the piece from fabric to tissue.

With the Irish general election rescheduled for the closing date of Visceral on 25 February, there's a rumour going around that the Silent Barrage installation may be able to predict the outcome – if political candidates are willing to present themselves to the cultured rat neurons in person.

Friday, 4 February 2011


Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball

Guardian, 5 February 2011

The award of the Nobel Prize, when it came in October 2010, was long overdue. By then there was more than three decades' worth of growing evidence to back up the claim of two British men. Around 4 million people, none older than 33, were living proof of their pioneering work in developing the technique of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Sadly for the gynaecologist and surgeon Dr Patrick Steptoe, who died in 1988, the Nobel isn't awarded posthumously. Therefore the sole recipient was the physiologist Professor Robert Edwards who at 85 was too ill to travel to Stockholm to collect the prize in person.

Since the birth of Louise Brown on 25 July 1978, IVF has helped and offered hope to some of the 10% of all couples worldwide who suffer from infertility. Yet the birth of the "first test tube baby" at Oldham General hospital outraged many for being the product of an unnatural interference by scientists in the creation of a human being. Repeatedly having to fend off charges that he was playing God, Edwards once complained that the early public response to IVF was conditioned by "fantasies of horror and disaster, and visions of white-coated, heartless men, breeding and rearing embryos in the laboratory to bring forth Frankenstein genetic monsters".

Philip Ball, who in Critical Mass explored how one thing leads to another, points out in his latest book, Unnatural, that traditionally the "natural" end of sex is procreation since the latter requires the former. However, religious objections to IVF, Ball argues, invoke this reasoning in reverse: the natural beginning of procreation is sex – not sex in terms of sperm meets egg, but in the anatomical sense. Hence, Ball's interest in exploring what lies beyond the "this bit goes in here" method. The result is a fascinating and impressive cultural history of anthropoeia – the centuries of myths and tales about the artificial creation of people.

Ball explores what these fables reveal about contemporary views on life, humanity and technology as modern science has turned the fantasy of making people into reality. From the homunculus of the medieval alchemists and the clay golem of Jewish legend to Frankenstein's monster and the babies in jars of Huxley's Brave New World, Ball ranges far and wide to show that the idea that making life is either hubristic or "unnatural" is a relatively recent one.

Until the Enlightenment, it was widely assumed that it was possible to make lower forms of life. For example, a process called bougonia in which bees were created using the carcasses of dead oxen was once accepted as fact. It was only in the 19th century that "spontaneous generation", the belief that life could spring forth from inanimate matter without the need for seeds, eggs or parents, was finally discredited. If there were any doubts about such practices, explains Ball, then they were about the quality and character of "artificial life" – was it inferior, equivalent, or better than "natural" life?

The ultimate "unnatural" act is the artificial creation of humans, since it challenges the conviction that we are God's chosen. Yet Ball makes a persuasive case when he suggests that the response of the medieval mind to the idea of artificial human life was very different from the horror it now typically engenders. This indicates that feelings of revulsion about these "unnatural" creations are not inevitable.

The prefix "un" was only attached to acts that were deemed reprehensible because they were contra naturam, against nature. However, people in the middle ages saw nothing intrinsically wrong in creating human and other forms of life. The problem for them was rather, as the 12th-century Muslim scholar Averroes said, that organisms made by art were like alchemist's gold, a kind of fake. In short, any "unnatural" creation lacked a soul.

Doubts about the possibility of an artificial person having a soul are still with us, though given a modern spin. The fabricated being is denied genuine humanity. He or she is thought to be soulless: lacking in love, warmth and human feeling. This same failing is now imputed to human clones – 21st-century reincarnations of Frankenstein's monster, as the very term carries connotations of spiritual vacancy. A skilled practitioner of the book-length essay, Ball can also be wonderfully succinct: "'Soul' has become a kind of watermark of humanity, a defence against the awful thought that we could be manufactured."

Debates about the pros and cons of human embryo research, cloning and the like require a focus on issues that are rooted in the particularities of our time and culture. Ball's thoughtful book is a reminder that as we try and deal with how to enable and assist people into being, we need to understand and then conquer our fears surrounding the very idea of making people.