Archive

Archive for the ‘Blog Post’ Category

Is The Universe A Hologram?

Maybe.

The holographic principle is a property of quantum gravity and string theories which states that the description of a volume of space can be thought of as encoded on a boundary to the region—preferably a light-like boundary like a gravitational horizon. In other words, all of three-dimensional reality can be described as a two-dimensional sheet or surface of information that extends to the limits of the observable universe – what theoretical physicist and string theorist Raphael Bousso calls “a universal relation between geometry [surface area] and information” in space-time.

So what makes at least some theoretical physicists think that the universe may be a hologram, or at least be best described as a hologram.

It all starts with black hole physics. When an object becomes part of a black hole, two things happen. First, information about that object is lost. Second, the surface area of the black hole’s event horizon (the point at which the gravitational pull becomes so great as to make escape by both matter and energy impossible) grows. The first fact appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics, since one of the lost details was the object’s entropy, or the information describing its microscopic parts. But the second fact offered a way out: if entropy must always grow, and a black hole’s surface area must too, perhaps for the black hole they’re one and the same, and information is somehow stored on the horizon.

The beginning of the attempt to resolve the black hole information paradox within the framework of string theory, Charles Thorn in 1978 developed an approach to string theory based on the idea of string bits, observing that string theory admits a lower-dimensional description in which gravity emerges from it in what would now be called a holographic way. Then in 1993, Gerard t’Hooft proposed what is now known as the holographic principle. Quantum mechanics starts with the assumption that information is stored in every volume of space. But any patch of space can become a black hole, nature’s densest file cabinet, which stores information in bits of area. Perhaps, then, all that’s needed to describe a patch of space, black hole or no, is that area’s worth of information. t’Hooft argued exactly that – that the information contained within a region of space can be determined by the information at the surface that contains it. Mathematically, the space can be represented as a hologram of the surface that contains it.

In 1995, Leonard Susskind a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, combined his ideas with previous ones of ‘t Hooft and Charles Thorn in a paper suggesting that the entire universe might be a hologram in which people are just seeing a projection of the real thing. Susskind suggested that the entire universe could be seen as a two-dimensional information structure “painted” on the cosmological horizon, such that the three dimensions we observe are only an effective description at macroscopic scales and low energies.

In 1997, theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena proposed a model of the Universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well-established physics. Called the anti-de Sitter/conformal field theory correspondence, or AdS/CFT correspondence In this model, the mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos where there is no gravity.

Maldacen’s model did two things: it solved apparent inconsistencies between quantum mechanics and general relativity, and it provided a way to translate back and forth between the two. Unfortunately, while Maldacena made a compelling argument, it was a conjecture, not a formal proof.

Now, two papers have come out demonstrating that the conjecture works for a particular theoretical case. In two papers posted on the arXiv repository, Yoshifumi Hyakutake of Ibaraki University in Japan and his colleagues now provide, if not an actual proof, at least compelling evidence that Maldacena’s conjecture is true.

In the first paper, Hyakutake computes the internal energy of a black hole, the position of its event horizon (the boundary between the black hole and the rest of the Universe), its entropy and other properties based on the predictions of string theory as well as the effects of so-called virtual particles that continuously pop into and out of existence. In the second, Hyakutake and his collaborators calculated the internal energy of the corresponding lower-dimensional cosmos with no gravity. The two computer calculations match.

It’s important to note that the papers don’t suggest that our universe is a hologram. The computations describe a universe with ten dimensions in the realm of the black hole and a single dimension universe when calculating characteristics of a gravity free two-dimensional universe. It does, however, suggest that what can be calculated using different dimensional universes could one day be calculated for our own, and is one more step showing that the holographic principle could be useful in understanding the universe.

References

Aspect, A., Grangier, P., Roger, G. (1982), “Experimental Realization of Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen-Bohm Gedankenexperiment: A New Violation of Bell’s Inequalities”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 49 (2): 91–4.

Maldacena, J. M. The Large N Limit of Superconformal Field Theories and Supergravity. Adv. Theor. Math. Phys. 2, 231–252 (1998).

Hyakutake, Y. Quantum Near Horizon Geometry of Black 0-Brane. arXiv:1311.7526 (2013).

Hanada, M., Hyakutake, Y., Ishiki, G. & Nishimura, J. Holographic description of quantum black hole on a computer. (2013).

Maldacena, J. (1998). The Large N Limit of Superconformal Field Theories and Supergravity. Advances in Theoretical and Mathematical Physics 2: 231–252

Susskind, L. (1995). The world as a hologram. Journal of Mathematical Physics 36 (11): 6377–6371

t’Hooft, G. Classical N-particle cosmology in 2+1 dimensions. Class. Quantum Grav. 10 (1993) S79-S91.

t’Hooft, G. Cosmology in 2+1 dimensions. Nucl. Phys. B30 (Proc. Suppl.) (1993) 200-203.

t’Hooft, G. The evolution of gravitating point particles in 2+1 dimensions. Class. Quantum Grav. 10 (1993) 1023-1038.

t’Hooft, G. Canonical quantization of gravitating point particles in 2+1 dimensions. Class. Quantum Grav. 10 (1993) 1653-1664.

Thorn, Gordon. String Representation for a Field Theory with Internal Symmetry, (with Roscoe Giles and Larry McLerran), Phys. Rev. D17, 2058-2073 (1978)

See you next year!

We sciency fictiony writery types are taking our customary midwinter break. We’ll be back soon, we promise! We hope you enjoy your own winter activities, whatever they may be (or summer activities, if you’re south of the equator).

My Clone Sleeps Alone

“As you must have guessed by now,” the man took over, “I am, we are, clones of a single individual. Some two hundred and fifty years ago, my name was Kahn. Now it is Man…I am over ten billion individuals but only one consciousness…No other humans are quickened, since I am the perfect pattern.” Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

In nature, some plants and single-celled organisms produce genetically identical offspring through a process called asexual reproduction. In asexual reproduction, a new individual is generated from a copy of a single cell from the parent organism. For example, water hyacinth produces multiple copies of genetically-identical plants through a process known as apomixis, or asexual seed formation.

Archaea, bacteria, and protists reproduce asexually by binary fission, where a cell divides giving rise to two cells, each having the potential to grow to the size of the original cell. Finally, some plants, invertebrates (such as water fleas, aphids, stick insects, some ants, bees and parasitic wasps), and vertebrates (such as some reptiles, amphibians, fish, and few birds) reproduce using parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction where an unfertilized egg develops into a new individual in the absence of the male gamete.

Natural clones, also known as identical twins, occur in humans and other mammals. Natural clones are produced when a fertilized egg splits, creating two or more embryos that carry almost identical DNA. Identical twins have nearly the same genetic makeup as each other.

But when most people think about cloning, they think about scientists cloning animals, especially Dolly the cloned sheep. Few people understand that scientists have been working on cloning for over 100 years.

History

The first cloned animals were created by Hans Driesch, a philosopher and biologist who cloned a sea urchin in 1891. He took a two-cell sea urchin embryo, shook it apart, and showed that each cell developed into a complete individual, refuting the then prevalent idea that if the cells from a two-cell embryo were separated, each could create only half a creature. Then in 1902, embryologist Hans Spemann used a hair from his infant son as a noose to constrict the egg of a salamander into a dumb-bell shape, with the nucleus in one half and only cytoplasm and other cellular material in the other, pioneering the process of nuclear transfer. In this process, the nucleus is removed from an egg, and replaced with the nucleus of an older donor cell. A new clone – a genetic copy of the donor – forms when the egg starts to divide.

In 1951, a team of scientists in Philadelphia working at the lab of Robert Briggs cloned a frog embryo, taking the nucleus out of a frog embryo cell and used it to replace the nucleus of an unfertilized frog egg cell. Despite claims in 1977 by German development biologist Karl Illmensee that he had cloned three mice (never independently replicated), and the claims of author David Rorvik in his 1978 book “In His Image: The Cloning of a Man” that the world’s first human clone had been born (a claim later admitted by the publisher – but not Rorvik – to be a hoax), no progress was made until 1986, when two teams, working independently but using nearly the same method, announced that they had cloned a mammal. One team was led by Steen Willadsen in England>, which cloned a sheep’s embryo. The other, led by Neal First in America, cloned a cow’s embryo.

On July 5, 1996, Dolly, a Finn Dorset lamb, was born at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, cloned from a frozen mammary cell from another adult sheep. The team that created her, led by Scotsman Ian Wilmut, hoped to create an animal whose cells were genetically young again, rather than prematurely adult. When Dolly was euthanized nearly six years after her birth, concern was raised that her progressive lung disease was caused because her cells were already old; she also had premature arthritis. Over the course of her life, Dolly gave birth to four lambs, proving clones can reproduce.

In 1997, Teruhiko Wakayama and Ryuzo Yanagimachi of the University of Hawaii created Cumulina the cloned mouse. She was cloned from cumulus cells (cells which surround developing egg cells) using traditional nuclear transfer, a technique now known as the Honolulu Technique. The nucleus was taken from the cumulus cell and implanted in an egg cell from another mouse. The new cell was then treated with a chemical to make it grow and divide. The scientists repeated the process for three generations, yielding over fifty mice that were virtually identical by the end of July, 1998, with a success rate of 50:1, compared to the Roslin Institute’s technique (used to create Dolly) which had a success rate of 277:1.

Cloning Today

Cloned animals have showed up in a variety of places in the past few years. In 2007, South Korean scientists produced drug-detecting dogs that are clones of a prized security dog named Chase. Because only 30 percent of natural-born sniffer dogs can normally pass the required training, researchers hoped cloned dogs would significantly improve this rated. In 2011, it was reported that all of Chase’s clones passed the required training.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled in 2008 that meat from cloned animals is safe to eat. Currently, two U.S. companies, Trans Ova Genetics and ViaGen, offer cloning services to cattle breeders.

In 2007, two clones (Show Me and Shawnee) from the mare Sage, awarded “best playing polo pony” at the 1997 International Gold Cup, were born. Earlier this December, polo superstar Adolfo Cambiaso rode Show Me in the championship match of the Argentine National Open, which his team La Dolfina won. Polo horses are hard to find and extremely expensive. Each world-class rider may have dozens, the best of which may cost more than $200,000 each. Cambiaso teamed up with Alan Meeker of Crestview Genetics, a Texan firm, to clone eight of his mounts. Although polo’s various governing bodies approved clones for competition, no clone had yet been tested in a match prior to this, since polo horses seldom compete until they are five years old. In June 2012, the Fédération Equestre Internationale lifted a ban on cloned horses, making them eligible for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Cloned racehorses aren’t popular because the U.S. Jockey Club, with which horses must register to race in North America, bans cloned horses.

Finally, there is a growing interest in cloning extinct species. In 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists used frozen skin to clone a bucardo, or Pyrenean ibex, a subspecies of Spanish ibex that went extinct in 2000. Unfortunately, the clone died minutes after birth. Researchers will make another attempt using the 14-year-old preserved cells from the last animal, which was named Celia. Celia’s cells have been frozen during the last 14 years in liquid nitrogen, and if the cells prove to be intact, an attempt to clone embryos and implant them in female goats

In Australia, the genome of an extinct Australian frog has been revived and reactivated by a team of scientists by implanting a “dead” cell nucleus into a fresh egg from another frog species, although none of the embryos survived beyond a few days.

One of the questions being raised about such cloning is whether such cloning techniques “bring back” an extinct species, or just create a new one that looks exactly like the old one. At a TEDx conference in Washington DC sponsored by National Geographic, scientists and conservationists met to discuss the so called ‘de-extinction’ of a number of species, as well as the ethical, moral and technical questions of doing so. According to one of the conference organisers “That remains to be seen. It is one reason to do the research: is the genome the species? The answer will vary from species to species. De-extincted plants should flourish as if they’d never left, if suitable pollinators are still around. But if California condors had gone extinct, it’s unclear if they could be brought back fully, because the young rely on parental training.”

References

Broad, William J. Court Affirms: Boy Clone Saga Is a Hoax.” Science, Vol. 213, July 3 1981, p.118-119.

Broad, William J. Publisher Settles Suit, Says Clone Book Is a Fake. Science, Vol. 216. April 23, 1982. p.391.

Cloned Horses Allowed in Olympics. ABC News. Posted Jul 12, 2012 7:39am. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/07/cloned-horses-allowed-in-olympics/. Retrieved 12/14/2013.

Culliton, Barbara J. Scientists Dispute Book’s Claim That Human Clone Has Been Born. Science, Vol. 199. March 24, 1978. p.1314-1316.

Gurdon, J.B., & Byrne, J.A. (2003) The first half-century of nuclear transplantation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA100, 8048-8052.

Digging in odd corners

I like to explore the odder bits of biology: deep sea worms that get their energy from symbiotic bacteria which in turn make food from hydrothermal seeps without any help from solar energy, photosynthetic sea slugs, mysterious undersea creatures.

But here’s one that was new to me: fungi that eat gamma radiation. No really. We think of fungi as decomposers, if we think of them at all, breaking down dead plants and animals to keep the carrion from overwhelming us. But some fungi have melanin in their cell walls, the same pigment responsible for human coloration. These black fungi grow faster in the presence of gamma radiation.

The initial clue came from observing that these black fungi were thriving at Chernobyl, and trying to figure out why. Scientists tried growing them with and without gamma radiation, and studied the chemistry of melanin to discover whether it could be working kind of like chlorophyl does in photosynthesis. And yes, it might be. Not everyone is convinced: other scientists think the melanin is purely protective.

The idea that fungi could be getting energy from gamma radiation via melanin has a couple of science-fictional implications. First and most obvious is that humans could raise black fungi in space, exposed to radiation. But we have melanin too: what if we too could get energy from gamma radiation? Wouldn’t that be neat?

Is it or isn’t it?

Comet ISON, I mean. It went whizzing around the Sun on (US) Thanksgiving, and fizzled, thus ending the hopes of amateur astronomers like me for a December show.

XKCD comic

Except it didn’t, quite.

This ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory timelapse image shows the bright comet heading in, and something heading back out. (Remember that a comet’s tail points away from the Sun no matter which way it’s going.)

soho_c3_timelapse_new_0

While it looks as if ISON won’t be visible, watching the science unfold over the past few days has been utterly fascinating. Most people don’t get to see data come in and science happen nearly real-time, being exposed only to the articles written after everything is known. This blog post especially highlights the joy and frustration.

Karl Battams writes there:

And I just want to end on this note: not long after comet ISON was discovered, it began to raise questions. Throughout this year, as many of you who have followed closely will appreciate, it has continued to confuse and surprise us. For the past few weeks, it has been particularly enigmatic and dynamic, in addition to being visually spectacular. This morning we thought it was dying, and hope was lost as it faded from sight. But like an icy phoenix, it has risen from the solar corona and – for a time at least – shines once more. This has unquestionably been the most extraordinary comet that Matthew and I, and likely many other astronomers, have ever witnessed. The universe is an amazing place and it has just amazed us again. This story isn’t over yet, so don’t stray too far from your computer for the next couple of days!

Phil Plait has done his usual good job summarizing the ups and downs and ups and downs of ISON-watching, with his post from yesterday offering video and analysis.

David Levy famously said, “Comets are like cats: they have tails, and they do precisely what they want.” Definitely.

Even through my disappointment, I’ve found the real-time science a lot of fun to watch: the data coming in, the changing interpretations, the frantic scientists trying to figure out what to say to the inquiring public. More science-fictional scientists should behave like this!

Of robots and the connectome

Science fiction, by (almost) default, deals with the concept of “life as we do not know it”.  This is of course, the idea that life can include forms that may be fundamentally different from our own.  It is well-known that life is a notoriously difficult concept to define.  That said, a lot of progress is made each day on trying to determine all the possible paths that this phenomenon can take.

As science fiction fans, it is entirely possible that the first example of life as we do not know it that we ever heard about was robots.  The very word robot means “servant” and it seem that it was used for the first time in 1921 by the Czech writer, Karel Kapek in his play R.U.R, short forRossum’s Universal Robots”.

By far, the most interesting type of robots are the ones endowed with artificial intelligence.  We are all familiar with the most famous SciFi robots, from the robot in the iconic 1956 movie “Forbidden Planet” (nicknamed “Robbie”, although the phrase “Robbie the Robot”  was used before in science fiction stories) to Star Trek’s Data to the humanoid Cylons from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.

The great Isaac Asimov was probably the first to come up with a plausible mechanism to build artificial human-like intelligence.  He imagined positronic brains, as opposed to electronic brains.  This concept was extensively borrowed in many later science fiction series and stories.  For example, did you see the movies “Bicentennial Man” starring Robin Williams and “I Robot” starring Will Smith?  These two stories are Asimov’s originals…

The topic of robots, especially intelligent ones is fascinating and merits a post of its own.  However, I would like instead to talk a little bit about what would it take to create a true example of artificial intelligence.

Intelligence in general is a broad term that can be defined in multiple ways, a little bit like consciousness.  However, the general accord is that whatever human consciousness or intelligence may be, they are a direct result of the architecture of the human brain.

A recent trend in neuroscience is to talk about mapping all the connections in the human brain, an effort called the human connectome project.  Basically, the idea is to map all the connections of the 100 billion neurons of the human brain (no, there are no 86 billion neurons in a human brain; don’t even get me started… What? You still want to know what I think about it?  Ok then, look here, here and here).

The connectome idea is very interesting and will be a wonderful tool to try to understand ourselves as well as for understanding a wide variety of neurological conditions (psychiatric conditions are by definition neurological as well, just so you know).  This will, without a doubt more than a blessing to those of us who care of a mentally ill loved one or those of us who are going through it ourselves.

As wonderful as this dream of a connectome is, even though imaging technology is advancing, we still do not have the optimal tools or the computer power to completely map these connections.  Moreover, not every important aspect of brain function is directly related to its physical circuitry.  To say that a physical map of a brain says all that there is to say about it is a little bit like saying that a map of a shopping mall tells you how all about how it works.  The real and complete picture of how a shopping mall works must include all the multiple activities within each store that are not accounted for in the “map”, as well as many related aspects like whether the manager of a particular store contacts the main offices to solve an issue, etc.

To make things even worse, there are many aspects of neuronal transmission that are controlled by processes that work beyond the direct neuron-neuron connections, of which I hope to talk about in a future post.  Also, there is the matter of the sheer physical complexity of a typical brain.  For example, 100 billion neurons, each one with an average of 30,000 contacts (synapses) with other neurons; you do the math (hint: it is a BIG number).  This fact, added to all the extraneuronal events that happen to make it work, makes even a simulation of an actual brain a tall order at our current level of technology (don’t get me wrong, it WILL happen, just not as fast as the hype states…).  In fact, about simulations and models, if you want to see some of my thoughts about it go here and here.

These are not the rumblings of a “bah, humbug!” guy.  There are other people taking a critical look at the connectome concept.

Let me finish this post with a couple of thoughts about the brain (which were generated by my very own brain… (:-D)…).

The human brain is oftentimes called the most complex structure in the known universe and rightfully so.

This being said, there are a couple of little details that one must not lose sight of.  (1) The brain is a biological construct, crafted by evolution and (2) the average speed of nerve transmission is in the order of 55 miles/second.  Fast enough, huh?

However, an electronic computer, which will inevitably be the “ancestor” of a robot brain has two very -and I mean VERY- important advantages; it is rationally designed and it works with a speed close to 186,000 miles/second.

Yes, light speed; the very speed limit of the universe itself.

I would not discount electronic brains just yet.

Slide1

Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Wanna take a look at my blog, “Baldscientist”?  Click here.

If you want to know more

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positronic_brain

http://www.syfy.com/battlestar/

http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/

http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v13/n12/full/nn1210-1441.html

Put Your Head on My Shoulder

Head transplants have been a staple for science fiction stories for a long time, from the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Pierce Brosnan and/or Sarah Jessica Parker having their head attached to a Chihuahua in Mars Attacks! to the movie Futurama: Bender’s Big Score, where Hermes is decapitated, then has Bender obtain an earlier version of his body and do a head transplant using Torgo’s Executive Powder. But how possible is a head transplant? And if it could be done, what are some of the implications?

In a paper published in the June issue of open source journal Surgical Neurology International, Dr. Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group says he knows how to perform a complete human head transplant. According to Canavero, the transplant will work if surgeons can successfully link the spinal cord to the head by fusing severed axons, the nerve cells that transmit information to different neurons, muscles and glands. “The greatest technical hurdle to such endeavor is of course the reconnection of the donor’s and recipient’s spinal cords. It is my contention that the technology only now exists for such linkage.”

Surgeons would begin by cutting the cooled spinal cords with an “ultra-sharp blade” (the GEMINI procedure), then put the recipient’s head into a “hypothermia mode” for around 45 minutes between 12°C and 15°C (the HEAVEN process). Canavero belives that such a short time would create virtually no neurological damage. Cut axons would then be reconstituted using molecules such as poly-ethylene glycol (used in areas ranging from industrial manufacturing to pharmaceutical products) or chitosan.

Dr. Canavero has made headlines by using electrical stimulation to awaken a car accident victim who’d been in a persistent vegetative state for two years.

In June of this year, Dr. Jerry Silver of Case Western Reserve Medical School and a team of scientists at Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic successfully restored connectivity in rats whose spinal cords had been completely severed. In the study, the researchers used a chemical that promotes cell growth along with a scar-busting enzyme to create a more hospitable environment for the nerve graft at the injury site.

Although the rats didn’t regain the ability to walk, they recovered a remarkable measure of urinary control, a function that many spinal cord injury patients rank as one of the most important to regain following injury. Canavero argues that such recent advances in reconnective technology give scientists reason to believe the procedure he outlines will be successful in humans. Dr. Silver disagrees.

“It’s light years away from what they’re talking about,” he said. Silver’s research involved single rats, not connecting the spinal cords to heads of other rats. In these experiments, Silver explains, the animals are still able to breath, and their circulation is left intact. “It’s complete fantasy, that you could use [PEG technology] in such a traumatic injury in an adult mammal,” Silver says. “But to severe a head and even contemplate the possibility of gluing axons back properly across the lesion to their neighbors is pure and utter fantasy in my opinion.”

It may be fantasy, but Canavero is hardly the first to look at the possibility of human head transplants.

Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov was a Soviet scientist famous for his experiments in organ transplants during the 30s and 50s. In 1960, he published the first scientific monograph on transplantology, titled “Experimental transplantation of vital organs.” It was a seminal work, starting transplant science as we now know it. He was the first to perform a successful coronary bypass, the first to transplant an auxiliary heart into a warm-blooded animal, and the first to transplant a working heart and lungs into a living animal. But he also transplanted dog heads and upper bodies onto other dogs, effectively creating two-headed dogs.

In 1954 he created the first transplant in a lab on the outskirts of Moscow by grafting the head and forelegs of a smaller dog, Shavka onto a bigger dog, Brodyaga. Both initially survived the procedure and could see and move around independently, but died four days later. None lived for more than 29 days, and they inevitably died because of the tissue rejection. You can see photos from a LIFE magazine article in July, 1959 that documented the surgery. You can also watch video of one of the operations.

Then in 1970 a group of scientists from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine led by Robert J. White, a neurosurgeon and a professor of neurological surgery inspired by the work of Vladimir Demikhov, transplanted the head of one rhesus monkey onto another’s body. The operation was so successful that once awake, the first transplant subject even tried to bite a doctor. Canavero cites White’s experiment as the first successful primate head transplant, writing that, “The monkey lived 8 days and was, by all accounts, normal, having suffered no complications.” White himself referred to it as a “whole body transplant.” (You can see a two-part interview with Dr. White with some snippets of footage of the operation here and here, and more footage of the surgery here.)

Despite Canavero’s description, Dr. Silver. who was a part of Dr. White’s transplant group, remembers it differently.

“I remember that the head would wake up, the facial expressions looked like terrible pain and confusion and anxiety in the animal. The head will stay alive, but not very long,” the Case Western Reserve University neurologist told CBSNews.com. When doctors attempted to feed the re-connected head, the food fell to the floor. “It was just awful. I don’t think it should ever be done again.”

Even if such a transplant could be done, it would be fraught with ethical issues. Canavero estimates the procedure would cost about $13 million, likely placing such an operation out of the reach of all but the wealthy. He adds that a risk could develop whereby people with adequate funds try to secure the bodies of healthy young individuals on the black market and have them transplanted by dishonest surgeons.

Then there’s the philosophical questions. Dr. Christopher Scott, a bioethicist and regenerative medicine expert at Stanford notes “What is the donor and what’s the recipient? We all have an idea of personhood, right? Of what a person is. You know, a baby or a human becomes a person. And this procedure turns it on its head. Is this a person that the body belongs to, or the person the head belongs to? It’s a chimera, a hybrid person. …Those are some of the deeper questions that we should have a real discussion about.” And what if the body recipient has children? Should we attach a living man’s head to a woman’s body, or vice-versa?

I suspect head transplants will be the fodder of science fiction stories for some time to come.

References

Berko, Lex. Meet the Late Dr. Robert White, Who Transplanted the First Monkey Head. http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/dr-robert-white-transplanted-first-monkey-head. Retrieved 11/15/2013.

Canavero S. HEAVEN: The head anastomosis venture Project outline for the first human head transplantation with spinal linkage (GEMINI). Surg Neurol Int 2013;4, Suppl S1:335-42.

Canavero S., Massa-Micon B., Cauda F., Montanaro, E. Bifocal extradural cortical stimulation-induced recovery of consciousness in the permanent post-traumatic vegetative state. Journal of Neurology, May 2009, Volume 256, Issue 5, pp 834-836.

Elliot, Danielle. Human head transplant is “bad science,” says neuroscientist, CBS News, July 2, 2013 http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-205_162-57591862/

Konstantinov IE. At the cutting edge of the impossible: a tribute to Vladimir P. Demikhov. Tex Heart Inst J 2009;36(5): 453–8.

Langer R.M., Vladimir P. Demikhov, a pioneer of organ transplantation. Transplant Proc. 2011 May;43(4):1221-2. doi: 10.1016.

Lee et al., Nerve Regeneration Restores Supraspinal Control of Bladder Function after Complete Spinal Cord Injury. The Journal of Neuroscience, 26 June 2013, 33(26):10591-10606.

Mangels, John. Cleveland researchers restore bladder control in rats with spinal cord injuries. The Plain Dealer, June 25, 2013. http://www.cleveland.com/science/index.ssf/2013/06/cleveland_researchers_restore.html

Northoff G. Do brain tissue transplants alter personal identity? Inadequacies of some “standard” arguments. J Med Ethics. 1996 Jun;22(3):174–180.

Seeing the Future

I imagine that very nearly all of the readers of Science in My Fiction are familiar with the Star Trek: The Next Generation character Geordie Laforge and his VISOR.

20131014-194414.jpg

The VISOR scans the electromagnetic spectrum, then transmits its information to the brain of the wearer via the optic nerve. Something very similar was approved for sale earlier this year. The Argus II uses a video camera to capture the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, then processes that information and transmits it wirelessly to an implant on the user’s retina. The device only works for those suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that damages retinal photoreceptors, but leaves the rest of the retina.

The Argus II is extremely crude compared to the VISOR, but nonetheless it allows people with limited or no vision to perceive light and dark at sufficient resolution to find doors and locate objects, restoring basic visual function. The company making the Argus II is actively working on developing improved models with greater resolution and better sensor configurations.

Someday maybe they’ll even come up with something as good as science fiction.

Things we don’t know

This is over a year old, but I just ran into it: alien-seeming life forms right here at home. By which I mean 5000 feet below the surface of the ocean, which is an alien environment anyway.

But see for yourself. This video was taken alongside the leg of a drilling platform.

This image of the seamonster came from a NPR blog about how the creature was identified. The picture is neat enough, but watching the thing move is fascinating.

20130925-191536.jpg

But what is it? After some puzzlement, experts believe it’s a giant jellyfish with the lovely name of Deepstaria reticulum. How could they tell? One sharp deepsea expert spotted and recognized its gonads. (it’s all about sex, as usual.)

I can envision something just like that floating through the dense atmosphere of a gas giant planet, or undersea on an ocean planet far from here. Physics and chemistry are the same everywhere: some aspects of biology must also be familiar, or no more unfamiliar that something that lives so close to us, but nearly unreachably far.

Ka-boom!

Former contributor Monica Young is now the web editor for Sky & Telescope, and she passed along this story earlier this summer, saying “Actually, a lot of our stories bring science fiction to mind, but this one specifically mentions the impact rate currently going on at the Moon and Mars – something that would directly affect lunar and Martian colonies.”

We may get to watch it happen in October 2014.