Age-defying creams and lotions, esoteric herbs and elixirs, botox and plastic surgery, what do they all have in common?
None of them will actually increase your lifespan. Usually, they're
snake oil. At best, they improve external appearance without actually
extending life. We deserve better, and we'll need it if we want to live
longer than the typical four score and ten years.
The first thing to realize is that nature doesn't specifically want us to die...
On Friday, June 27th, leading scientists
and thinkers in stem cell research and regenerative medicine will gather in
Los Angeles at UCLA for Aging 2008 to explain how their work can combat
human aging, and the sociological implications of developing rejuvenation
Aging 2008 is free, with advance registration required.
UCLA Royce Hall
Friday June 27th | Doors open 4pm
405 Hilgard Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90024
This special public event is being organized by the Methuselah
Foundation. Dr. Aubrey de Grey, chairman and chief science officer of the Methuselah
Foundation, said, "Our organization has raised over $10 million to crack
open the logjams in longevity science. With the two-armed strategy of
direct investments into key research projects, and a competitive prize to
spur on competing scientists' race to break rejuvenation and longevity
records in lab mice, the Foundation is actively accelerating the drive
toward a future free of age-related degeneration." The Methuselah
Foundation has been covered by "60 Minutes," Popular Science, the Wall
Street Journal, and other top-flight media outlets.
This year's surveyed beekeepers reported a total loss of 36.1 percent
of their honey bee colonies, up 13.5 percent from the previous year.
The crisis of the vanishing bees is worse and proceeding faster than
anyone imagined it might.
That's from a blog article by Russ George of the Ecorestoration Foundation in San Francisco. Although no one knows for sure the cause of this catastrophic collapse of bees and colonies, he points out a likely suspect:
Our emission of the hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 from burning of fossil fuels has filled our and the bees atmosphere with a concentration of CO2 40% higher than in the previous century. . .
Every feature of form and function in bees focuses their evolution on living and managing with a slightly high CO2 level common to their hives -- but not so high as our present air.
Bees manage their social lives around CO2 in their colonies; and, when CO2 rises just a few percent above normal levels they exhibit what had, until now, been a workable and wonderful response.
First, they begin to fan their wings to circulate air through the colony and then, if that fails to lower the CO2 levels sufficiently, workers begin to sacrifice themselves one by one, flying to a lonely death. Curiously, 80 years ago bee scientists noted that CO2 was the controlling factor in bee colonies. Later scientists observed that bees exposed to high CO2 become incapable of performing their normally incredible navigation skills and become lost bees.
How bad could the situation get? Russ George warns:
Should our bees go extinct in as few as ten years, as many experts
suggest, so go the majority of our most loved and nutritious human
foods, including many of our fruits, vegetables, oil crops, clovers and
alfalfas for our livestock and a more. Bees pollinate one sixth of all
flowering plants and about 400 agriculture plants. As one expert put
it: without bees you had better love gruel, for that is what will
remain for us.
Sounds very bad, even alarming -- maybe too alarming, but maybe not.
Many other signs point to an impending ecological crisis:
An international team of scientists surveying the waters of the continental shelf off the West Coast of North America has discovered for the first time high levels of acidified ocean water within 20 miles of the shoreline, raising concern for marine ecosystems from Canada to Mexico.
Researchers aboard the Wecoma, an Oregon State University research vessel, also discovered that this corrosive, acidified water that is being "upwelled" seasonally from the deeper ocean is probably 50 years old, suggesting that future ocean acidification levels will increase since atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have increased rapidly over the past half century.
"When the upwelled water was last at the surface, it was exposed to an atmosphere with much lower CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels than today's," pointed out Burke Hales, an associate professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University and an author on the Science study. "The water that will upwell off the coast in future years already is making its undersea trek toward us, with ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide and acidity.
"The coastal ocean acidification train has left the station," Hales added, "and there not much we can do to derail it."
Scientists have documented unusual dead zones, or low-oxygen water conditions, off the coast of the US Pacific Northwest.
"We’ve seen six in the past six years, and none before that. It’s surprising to see this in an area that is usually so rich with oxygen, and all of the conditions for life." That’s Jane Lubchenco, marine biologist at Oregon State University. She said most dead zones are caused by nutrient pollution from fertilizer runoff. "But the dead zone that we’re seeing in Oregon and Washington is different, because it’s not connected to runoff of nutrients from the land, but instead is a result of changes in the upwelling of nutrients from the deep sea.
The excess nutrients take up all the available oxygen in the water, suffocating ocean life. . . Lubchenco believes the dead zone is driven by changes in coastal winds, which may be related to climate change. "In the summertime this disaster strikes. In winter, the system returns to normal. And so things begin to recover, but just when they’re starting to recover, then next summer rolls around and another devastating impact — the system is getting hit every summer. So we have very real concerns that the long term consequences are not going to be good ones."
Plant life covering the surface of the world's oceans, a vital resource that helps absorb the worst of the "greenhouse gases" involved in global warming, is disappearing at a dangerous rate, scientists have discovered. . .
Whether the lost productivity of the plants, called phytoplankton, is directly due to increased ocean temperatures that have been recorded for at least the past 20 years remains part of an extremely complex puzzle, says Watson W. Gregg, a NASA biologist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., but it surely offers a fresh clue to the controversy over climate change. According to Gregg, the greatest loss of phytoplankton has occurred where ocean temperatures have risen most significantly between the early 1980s and the late 1990s.
Coral reefs will be the first global ecosystem to collapse in our lifetimes. The one-two punch of climate change that is warming ocean temperatures and increasing acidification is making the oceans uninhabitable for corals and other marine species, researchers said at a scientific symposium in Spain.
And now other regions are being affected. Acidic or corrosive waters have been detected for the first time on the continental shelf of the west coast of North America, posing a serious threat to fisheries, Richard Feely, an oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told attendees. "Surface waters off the coast of San Francisco had concentrations of carbon dioxide that we didn't expect to see for at least another 100 years," said Feely. . .
Temperature rise and acidification are putting one of the planet's key ecosystems at great risk, Feely warned, "This is a very real biological threshold beyond which species will simply cease to exist."
Coral reefs support about 25 to 33 percent of the oceans' living creatures. Some one billion people depend directly and indirectly on reefs for their livelihoods. Sea birds and many species of fish would be affected by the loss of reefs, said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a marine scientist at the Centre for Marine Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia.
When CO2 in the atmosphere reaches a concentration of 450 to 500 parts per million (ppm), the oceans will mostly be too acidic for corals to grow. Warmer ocean temperatures of just one or two degrees above normal can not only can cause coral bleaching but also make corals vulnerable to even lower levels of acidification, said Hoegh-Guldberg.
CO2 is at 384 ppm currently and rising very fast as nearly every country's emissions continue to grow. Worse, new research suggests the oceans themselves are no longer absorbing as much CO2 as they once did. Stabilising the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at less than 450 ppm now looks to be impossible. "We are witnessing the end of corals as a major feature in the oceans," Hoegh-Guldberg said.
If you're wondering what you can do about all this, here are a few suggestions:
In the late 1980s, there was a dramatic step-like drop in the amount
of snow falling in the Swiss Alps. Since then, snowfall has never
recovered, and in some years the amount that fell was 60 per cent lower
than was typical in the early 1980s, says Christoph Marty at the Swiss
Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos. He has
analysed snowfall trends spanning 60 years and adds that the average
number of snow days over the last 20 winters is lower than at any time
since records began more than 100 years ago.
future of winter tourism in the region is looking grim. "I don't
believe we will see the kind of snow conditions we have experienced in
past decades," he says.
It's hard say whether this marks any kind of tipping point in terms of
climate change, says Marty. "But from the data it looks like a change
in the large-scale weather pattern," he adds.
The invasion of gigantic Burmese pythons in South Florida appears to be
rapidly expanding, according to a new report from a University of
Florida researcher who’s been chasing the snakes since 2005.
The new document follows the February release of a U.S. Geological
Survey climate map that showed — based solely on climate, not habitat —
pythons could potentially survive across the lower third of the United
These particular snakes pose little danger to humans, but their rapid expansion in Florida does illustrate how changing climatic conditions can influence either the decline or the ascension of various species.
Polar bears are endangered, but snakes are thriving. Malarial mosquitoes are likely to appreciate warming conditions, while many trees, birds, and fish will be severely threatened.
Rising CO2 output --> increased global warming --> climate change chaos --> shifting snowfalls --> damaged economies --> social disruption --> need for solutions --> molecular manufacturing.
Recognition of past change, especially when seen as exponentially accelerating, can help condition people to accept that nanofactory technology may arrive sooner than many observers expect, and that preparation therefore should begin immediately.
It takes the viewer exponentially outward from a picnic in a park -- first one meter, then 10 meters, then 100 meters, etc. -- to show humanity's place in the universe, and then reverses the process, going inward by powers of ten to look inside the human body and finally inside individual atoms.
But what happens if we try a similar mental exercise with time instead of space?
Let's go back in time by powers of ten -- beginning with one year, then 10 years, then 100 years, etc. -- and after that we'll go forward. For simplicity, we'll use the year 2000 as our starting point.
Ten years previous, which doesn't seem like much, until you consider that this puts us before the invention of the World Wide Web and therefore before Web sites, before widespread use of email, and -- GASP! -- before Google.
One hundred years earlier than 2000, and now we're back in the horse and buggy era, before the invention of the aeroplane, before radio, before TV, before plastics!
One thousand years back, and total human population is about 5% of what it is now. It's the Middle Ages. Existence in many parts of the world is Hobbesian -- poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Ten times further back, and we find the earliest glimmers of human civilization. Agriculture is beginning simultaneously -- perhaps as a result of global climate changes -- in the Fertile Crescent, in China, and in Mesoamerica.
It is perhaps around this time that human language first developed, and it is also thought to be around this time that Homo sapiens began to migrate out of Africa (the two events may be related).
One million years ago (mya). No modern humans yet, but several hominid species exist alongside one another in East Africa. One of them was your direct ancestor.
Again, ten times further back, and we're in the Miocene era. Ramapithecus, our probable progenitor, is just evolving, likely from the Dryopithecus line. Giraffes, deer, and cattle are emerging too, along with seals and walruses. Many other animals already have roughly their present form.
The Cretaceous era, the time of the dinosaurs. Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus Rex roam the land. Pterodactyls rule the sky. Continents are in different places than we know them, with North America still connected to Eurasia, South America just splitting apart from Africa, and India yet to ram into southern Asia.
One billion years ago, it's the Precambrian, a shadowy time of which we know remarkably little. No land plants or animals yet exist, and, in fact, the first complex multicelled life forms are still perhaps 400 million years away. It's a good time to be a bacteria.
Moving back ten times further, and there is no Earth, no Sun, no Solar System. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, seems to have formed very early -- along with the oldest galaxies in the universe -- but our star and the planet we live on will not come into being for another five and a half billion years.
Time, as we know it, does not yet exist, nor does anything else. Our universe, which is the only one we know of, appeared approximately 13.7 billion years before the present. Hence, the phrase "100 billion years ago" has no real meaning.
OK, now let's go the other way, starting in the year 2000 and moving forward, by powers of ten.
Only two years from now, so we can probably guess pretty closely what it will be like then. But here's a good thought question: What would surprise a person from the year 2000 most about the year 2010?
End of our current century and start of the next. Should we expect as much change going forward 100 years as we saw when going back the same distance? Or perhaps much more?
Are you able to imagine, with any degree of confidence, what humans and human societies will be like a thousand years from now? I'm not.
Does the species Homo sapiens still exist? Have we changed beyond all recognition? Have we destroyed ourselves, or been wiped out by one of many possible existential threats?
Another ten times further into the future. At 10-5 human language was just emerging. What may emerge between now and a hundred millennia from now?
One million years forward. Earth still exists in its present form -- unless, that is, posthumans have used technology to alter it beyond recognition.
Your guess is as good as mine.
Earth will still be here, presumably, although the continents will have drifted a bit.
By this time, the Sun will be about 10% brighter than today, meaning Earth is much warmer than now. Again, this is unless we or some other super-advanced intelligent civilization has taken control of our Solar System's development.
Oops, no more Earth, probably. The Sun has ballooned into a red giant and then shrunk again to a white dwarf. If Earth has not been swallowed up completely, it will likely be just a crispy cinder.
The universe keeps expanding, galaxies racing ever farther apart, activity winding down.
Ditto. To say what might become of humans or any other form of intelligence at this point is pure speculation.
Assuming we live in an open universe, and unless someone or something intervenes, this is when the protracted "heat death" of the universe is expected to begin.
We've skipped past 25 powers of ten because it takes a loooong time for things to happen in this stage of the universe's slow decline. By this time, though, planets, stars, and galaxies are no more, as all protons have decayed.
Skipping ahead another 60 exponents, this is the darkest of dark ages, when black holes -- the only things remaining in the universe -- begin to evaporate.
Photons are all that is left.
Turn out the lights, the party's over.
[UPDATE 26 MAY 08: Changed years moving backward from 10-x to -10x]
Over 200 years ago, Adam Smith proclaimed, "I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." Rather, he asserted that when any given business owner or consumer "intends only his own gain, [he] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." Thus, in "pursuing his own interest," he will be "led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention."
Endless innovation has now generated a series of demands that are starting to overwhelm the market. [Paul] Roberts depicts the global food market as a lumbering beast, organized on such a monolithic scale that it cannot adapt to the consequences of its own distortions. In a flexible, responsive market, producers ought to be able to react to a surplus of one thing by switching to making another thing. Industrial agriculture doesn’t work like this. Too many years—and, in the West, too many subsidies—are invested in the setup of big single-crop farms to let producers abandon them when the going gets tough.
"Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen. The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. The problem is global and the response must be a collaboration on a global scale." Delivering the Royal Economic Society (RES) public lecture in Manchester, ahead of next week's world summit on climate change in Bali, Sir Nicholas said targets and trading must be at the heart of a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "The problem of climate change involves a fundamental failure of markets: those who damage others by emitting greenhouse gases generally do not pay," said Sir Nicholas.
Between a quarter and a third of the world's wildlife has been lost since 1970, according to data compiled by the Zoological Society of London. Populations of land-based species fell by 25%, marine by 28% and freshwater by 29%, it says. Humans are wiping out about 1% of all other species every year, and one of the "great extinction episodes" in the Earth's history is under way, it says. Pollution, farming and urban expansion, over-fishing and hunting are blamed.
In a fast-growing, fast-changing, globalized world, is the invisible hand of the market failing us?
From food production and distribution, to global warming and climate change, and to drastic declines in wildlife, the leading indicators are ominous.
Obviously, these are all huge problems, and each is a difficult challenge on its own. Then consider that each one of them interacts with the others, usually making them worse. Moreover, any proposed solution to one problem must be assessed not only for its particular merits and costs, but also for its secondary effects on other problems.
Makes your head hurt, doesn't it?
We believe that a combination of scientific research, technological advances, and new systemic paradigms will be required. Relying only on market solutions, or only on strict government-imposed regulations, or only on the intervention of powerful new technologies is unlikely to result in a successful outcome. The market, civil society, and governing bodies all have a role to play, and each must be fully engaged in healthy collaboration with the others.
It wasn't market forces that landed a man on the moon; and it wasn't market forces that led France to build a nuclear
energy infrastructure that now enables it to generate some 75% of its
entire energy needs from nuclear power (just an example of what energy
policy can do; let's not get into a discussion here of nuclear energy,
though). But somehow, the leading political and industrial forces in
the United States – together with China the largest emitter of
greenhouse gases on the planet – think that a task so fundamental and
massive as fighting global warming and environmental pollution should
mostly be left 'to the market'. Unfortunately, it’s just a matter of
economic reality that 'the market' will not invest in new energy
technologies on a large scale until existing ways of producing energy
become more expensive than producing alternative energies – which at
the moment they aren't.
As is the case with almost all emerging technologies, government
initially lends a helping hand before the technology becomes a viable
commercial proposition and the market takes over (remember how the
Internet got created?). In the case of future clean energy
technologies, it appears that this 'helping hand' needs to be massive
and swift. It's not so much that clean/green tech wouldn't develop over
time on its own. But it's against the backdrop of accelerating global
warming that it becomes a top priority that requires massive public
resources. . .
Without going into the ideological discussion as to whether global warming is man-made or not – shouldn't we be doing anything humanly possible anyway to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to reduce the catastrophic effects of a warming planet?
There are basically four ideological camps that compete with each other in proposing the best solutions: At one end of the extreme are environmental groups that argue that we need stringent environmental laws and heavily tax all greenhouse gas emissions. At the other end are free-market proponents who believe that an unregulated capitalist system will self-correct and that industry will develop the necessary technologies and become 'green' over time because it’s in their own interest. In between there is a smorgasbord of – mostly uncoordinated – activities by state and local governments, grassroots campaigns, investors and entrepreneurs to provide small, local and partial solutions. And finally, there is a broad but loose coalition of scientists, interest groups and governments who propose that the best way out of our climate problems is massive international agreements (such as the Kyoto protocol) where governments voluntarily agree (or not, as is the case with the U.S. and China) to reduce harmful gas emissions by certain amounts within specified timeframes.
While European countries have shown that a mix of all of the above works in moving their societies away from oil and towards renewable and clean energy sources, it is far from being enough to slow down the carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere.
Realizing that existing solutions are not good enough, there is a small but growing number of voices that, in contrast to heavy regulations or the hope for self-regulating markets, propose a third way out of the energy crisis. Akin to the Apollo Program that landed a man on the moon, they put forward the idea of a massive, publicly-funded and technology-led project that will result in breakthrough technological solutions that can be implemented on a large scale and in a relatively short time.
I've already quoted quite a lot of this strong op-ed piece from Michael Berger. I won't include the excellent summaries he provides of nanotechnology's potential role in creating clean energy, helping with energy storage and transport, or in reducing consumption (I suggest you read it all), but I will add this excerpt from his conclusion:
There is no doubt that nanotechnologies could provide the solutions to
our energy problems, not today, and not tomorrow, but with a massive,
coordinated and international effort, a 10-20 year timeframe seems not
Today's various national nanotechnology programs fund
their vast hodgepodge of research initiatives more from a viewpoint of
basic research (or, in the case of the U.S., military wish lists) than
with a focus on commercial implementation – in the process scattering
funding resources by trying to cover each and every potential
Instead, the leading dozen or so nanotechnology nations should get
together and commit to a concerted and massively funded 10-year program
to develop commercially viable, clean energy solutions based on
nanotechnology. Rather than have bureaucratic government departments
oversee the effort there should be a new agency – much like the can-do
organization that NASA was in the 1960s – to drive this effort forward
in close cooperation with academia and industry.
Note that Michael is asking for a coordinated international effort, much like what CRN has called for. Note also that the program he proposes does not focus specifically on molecular manufacturing. We have little doubt, however, that with the vastly increased research and development entailed in this plan, atomically-precise productive nanosystems (the immediate forerunner to desktop nanofactories) would be a logically expected outcome.
How much would it cost? Michael suggests $100 billion as a reasonable budget. That's very close, in fact, to what the U.S. spent on the Apollo program in the 1960's -- about $135 billion in today's dollars. A lot of money, yes, but when spread over a decade and with several countries contributing, it's quite affordable.
Why should we do it? One good reason is clean energy production, as discussed above. Another is beginning to ameliorate the effects of climate change. Additional benefits include answers to growing water and food shortages, reductions in poverty, and major medical breakthroughs, to name a few. Finally, if we are able to organize an international collaborative effort that achieves molecular manufacturing before anyone else, this benign monopoly could help us avert the dangers of a nanotech arms race.
We hope this idea will gain momentum in the months and years to come. The longer we delay, the more we'll miss out on the opportunities, and the further we'll have to go to catch up on the growing problems we see around us every day.
Once the program does get started, we'd strongly urge that a major amount of funding and effort -- preferably equal to the amount spent on technical R&D -- is dedicated to understanding all the implications of nanofactory technology and preparing for its introduction so as to minimize the risks and maximize the positive outcomes.
That doesn't stop dreamers from dreaming, though, and some of them are actually building those fantasies, though for what exact purpose may not always be clear.
On his Wired blog, Bruce Sterling alerts us to another proposed project that certainly fits the sky-high fantasy category: a two-mile high, million-occupant, "innovative green design concept" offered by architect Eugene Tsui.
Designed to withstand natural calamities, Ultima Tower
is highly stable and aerodynamic. Rather than spreading horizontally
the structure rises vertically from a base with a 7,000 foot diameter -
inspired in part by the termite’s nest structures of Africa, the
highest structure created by any living organism...
It goes without saying that those who strive to maintain the status quo are the most immoral of all. To them the great sin is to question the prevailing order. Yet every great thinker, every great artist, every great religious teacher did just that.
Since founding CRN five years ago, we've been concerned that the
unprecedented power of molecular manufacturing and the potential for
exponential proliferation of nanofactory technology may make it
essential to create an international administration to regulate it.
Half a decade later, have global political conditions changed in any
way to make this outcome seem more likely?
We have seen a shift in general acceptance that the progress of
nanotechnology development will lead eventually to a powerful new
technology that might transform and disrupt society in many ways. But
does that recognition get us any closer to actually being able to
design and implement a "single, trustworthy, international
administration" to oversee responsible use of molecular
Two recent trends make us cautiously optimistic. . .
That's an excerpt from CRN's latest column for the popular Nanotechnology Now web portal. We hope you'll read all our columns, offer feedback, and tell others about them too.