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EDITORIALS / OPINION
It is a measure of visual acuity. It was a popular TV news program. It is also the year Mars was first touched by a human. It is the year the United States lost its technological edge, its pride in leadership and exploration.
By 2020, the United States’ economy had spent too many years fluctuating between extreme lows and mediocre progress. Attempts by every President and Congress to address the problem had done little. Military spending had increased, and the short-term effects had kept the economy going, but military spending does not have any positive long-term effects. It is not an investment in the future; it does not improve infrastructure, education, health care, technology or knowledge of our solar system.
There was a significant improvement during the Clinton administration, when both president and legislators cut government spending and waste, and concentrated on reducing the national debt. Of course, all of this effort was for nought, considering the money spent during the next administration on the invasion and occupation of two countries simultaneously. The cost in human lives was great, but the devastation wrought on the U.S. economy was greater.
Subsequent administrations tried once again, to tackle the ailing economy. Greater money than ever was authorized by Congress to jump start a recovery. The hemorrhaging loss of jobs stopped, but new jobs were slow to materialize. Taxes were cut again and again, but still the effects on the economy were slight. The national debt continued to grow. Politicians clamored for more war, for greater military spending, as if shaking our military might at the world was enough to save us. It wasn’t. Taxes were cut again. Few in the U.S. realized that we had already lost our way. A country that had grown great through exploration and innovation no longer had such goals. There was no vision to inspire us to grow, to innovate, to change. Fear of terrorism still dominated our lives, as we gave into the very purposes of terrorist attacks: to inspire fear, to focus almost exclusively on defensive and offensive capabilities, at great expense to ourselves.
Meanwhile, although the rest of the world was having similar problems with economic disasters, they had learned, from the United States, not to give in to despair and ennui. In the 1960s, in the United States, despite an economy-busting war in Vietnam, we had a space program dedicated to landing on and exploring the moon. Despite the costs of running that war, and investments made in social programs, we still found the time and money to land on the moon, to explore it, to participate in building Earth’s fist space station. Spin-offs from our space program gave us new technologies, and inspired ever greater innovation. We had pride in our country, in our goals, in our technology, and in our education system. All wanted our country as a whole to succeed, to grow, and to become the best.
In Australia, in Asia, and in Europe, people still believe in setting inspirational goals. One of them was the continued human exploration of space, the idea all but abandoned by the U.S. They worked tirelessly to send human beings into space, to move beyond our small lunar satellite to the planets. They mined near-Earth asteroids, and then they put mankind on Mars. To be accurate, the first footprints made on Mars were female, but humankind had reached another planet, and far sooner than near-sighted politicians and educators in the U.S. had envisioned. Cuts to the operating budgets of NASA crippled plans to land on Mars; the goal was pushed farther and farther back, until 2037 was the earliest possible date for a U.S. Mars attempt. Innovation was taken away from government, and left to private citizens. This was admirable in it’s reliance on capitalism and entrepreneurism, but investors were loath to invest the money necessary to reach near-Earth asteroids, Mars or the other planets in our solar system. Robots landed on Mars, the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and several asteroids, but the start-up money necessary to successfully mine, transfer, and process elements from the asteroids just wasn’t available to the few wealthy individuals who believed in the work.
Ferrying people into low Earth orbit did little to inspire the kind of creativity and wonder of the 1960’s space program. In fact, the role of the U.S. became little more than support for the efforts of other countries to grow their space programs. We needed their assistance just to maintain our own system of communication, defense, and navigation satellites. The information gleaned by our robotic exploration programs did much to advance Earth’s reach into space, but the U.S. reluctance to finance human exploration and establish base camps crippled our efforts to reap any benefits from our investments. The second space station went into operation without the participation of the United States. When China established their first moon base in 2020, we scoffed at the idea, claiming it was unimportant and insignificant. We knew that we would soon reach Mars. We just needed a little more time. Our economy wasn’t up for the task of massive spending on the establishment of bases in space. Unfortunately, despite their own economic woes, Australia, the European Union, and Japan followed suit by establishing bases on the moon, and set up processing facilities for the material coming from Chinese asteroids Ni and Hao.
Still, the U.S. goals were robotic exploration, and perhaps a 2037 Mars landing. But we no longer had the guts to compete in any space race. Our politicians, right and left, wanted to focus on growing our economy through artificial means, believing that all would fall into place as soon as we cut taxes far enough, as soon as our government no longer had the burden of investing in social programs, education, health care, or the worry of caring for the aged. And still, we invested heavily, not in innovation, infrastructure, or space, but in war. It has been argued that we had no choice but to support Israel in their devastating attack on Iran, but, after, all, we were the ones who had advocated, and indeed, proven (to ourselves) that preëmptive strikes were perfectly justified in the name of security. The staggering costs of supporting Israel in their jihad crippled us far worse than anything we’d ever done. Significantly, NASA’s budget was cut further, and private enterprise could not pick up the slack as our economy spiraled ever closer to ruin.
The joint Soviet/Asian/Australian/EU Mars venture electrified the world in 2030. Not only had they landed on Mars before the United States thought possible, but their joint base was now the center of technological innovation. The newest methods of sub-surface mining, extrapolated from their earlier work with asteroids, provided not only the water necessary to make life on Mars possible, but also those rare elements on Earth that were nearly depleted and too costly. Cheap rare-earths and precious metals flow outward from several asteroids as well as Mars now, providing the means for each of those countries to grow exponentially.
The United States will reach Mars one day. We’ve passed our 2037 goal now, and there is the promise that we will reach Mars by 2050, and begin the reap the benefits thereof. In the meantime, food riots continue. We lack the national will to spend money on space exploration when so many are hungry and homeless. Even if martial law is lifted soon, as promised, we may never see the grandeur of our country restored. We have fallen too far behind. We are safe and secure behind our borders for now, although few people around the world any longer seek to cross our borders legally or illegally. We lost our edge, our will, our purpose.
Archive for the ‘2000s’ Category
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on April 23, 2012
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on April 2, 2010
The synthesis order from Dr. Jella’s lab was taped to my lab door when I arrived, even though I was early. Science marches on, without regard for working hours. After flicking on the lights, I dropped my lunch bag on my desk in the rear of the lab, under the sealed windows that let in light, but no air. I turned my PC on. I wanted a cup of coffee. I wanted to sit quietly for a few minutes, playing Solitaire. But, I had unfinished orders from the day before, as well as these new orders. I’d be lucky to synthesize all of ’em by days end. A long day ahead of me, probably ’till 7:00 pm.
I typed the first sequence into the machine: ACGCCCTATTACGACGAAGTTAC. I could synthesize four pieces of DNA, or RNA simultaneously. It would take almost four hours for the DNA Synthesizer to complete four oligonucleotides, then I could start the next four. Hopefully, they would finish in time to let me start another four before I went home. Those would run overnight.
I finished entering all the code letters for all of the syntheses, checked the level of the liquid reagents at every bottle position, and started the Pre Run. Solenoids clicked on and off as current was applied to each one, moving a magnetic rod back and forth to allow the flow of gas or liquid for each step of the syntheses. Click, click-click, click, click-click, click, click, click, and occasionally the whoosh of gas as regulators adjusted the pressure of ultra high purity nitrogen that pushed all the liquids around. After all the lines were purged of air and old liquids, and fresh liquid flowed from each reagent through all the lines, I started my first batch of the day. I was happy that I’d had the machine upgraded from the original two-position one. I’d never have been able to get this much done so quickly.
I went for coffee, brought it back and sat idly in front of my PC. I took a few sips while I stared out the window at a clear blue New Mexico sky, then got to work. I entered the sequences I was making into my database, so I could keep track of them for billing purposes. My lab was not directly funded by any grants or stipends. I had to bill each researcher for the work I did, and then they paid me out of their grants. It wasn’t a hard job. The machines did most of my work, synthesizing DNA, or occasionally some RNA. The RNA was tricky, as it required careful handling and sterile conditions. There are enzymes that destroy DNA and RNA, but of the two, the RNA enzyme, RNAase, was the worst. If contaminated with RNAase, the RNA I made would be useless, experiments ruined. Time and money would be wasted. I would lose credibility. I was very careful in my work.
Besides the work synthesizing, I had other jobs: two of which were either synthesizing proteins or sequencing them. In sequencing, the machine took each protein apart, one amino acid at a time and pumped it past a detector to identify it by its characteristic wavelength. I didn’t have any orders for protein synthesis today, fortunately, because the process consumed a lot of time, and required constant monitoring. The final step in protein synthesis involved the use of a dangerous, highly corrosive acid in gaseous form: HF, or hydrogen fluoride. HF is used to etch glass. Due to its insidious nature, it can splash undetected on your skin, and slowly eat its way to the bone. I hated working with HF. People using it had lost arms, eyes, lungs and some had died. I had to prepare a super cold bath of dry ice and methanol to cool the gas into liquid form for use. When I opened the valve on the HF bottle, everything had to be ready: I wore a special apron made of acid resistant material over my lab coat, and wore similar gloves. I had a special clear shield over my entire face, and the apparatus for using the HF gas was shielded behind a glass-sashed fume hood. In theory, the gas flowed into my collection vial, liquefied, and cleaved my synthesized protein off of the glass beads it was attached to as part of the synthesis protocol. Then it flowed through a trap of strong base to neutralize the acid.
The first time I had tried the procedure, my boss at the time had worked with me. Dr. Latif was from an Arabic family, but had grown up in Trinidad, been educated in England, and had worked for the Mayo Clinic. He was an interesting guy, full of stories about his parents and Trinidad. Oddly enough, we were the same age, and liked the same kind of music, rock ‘n’ roll and Motown. I needed music playing to get me through the day. In today’s world, an iPod would have sufficed, but in those times, the music came from my radio/tape player and coworkers needed to like the same music for that to work. Dr. Latif and I were suited up in our protective gear, and we switched on the gas. All looked well at first. The gas was cooling into liquid form, and flowing through the simple apparatus. Suddenly the plastic container of strong base began to implode. It made no sense. We had followed all the instructions perfectly, and the pathway of gas was clear. For some reason, it was back flushing, collapsing the trap. We couldn’t just shut the gas off, because we feared the trap would either backflush into our protein mixture, or worse, rupture, spreading gas and caustic base all over the place. Without losing our cool, we increased the pressure of a secondary gas, simple nitrogen that also flowed through to help keep the HF moving. We opened the exhaust stopcock all the way. Success. The plastic trap re-inflated.
After the experiment was over, we both let out of sighs of relief. The danger had been very real. We laughed too. We were the only ones who knew the danger. If the HF gas was released, and even if we’d gotten away safely, that floor of the building would have been in danger. Likely the entire building would have to be evacuated and sealed off. We’d have needed a HazMat team, police and firemen. It would have been a mess and created havoc. We worked out our own procedure after that, and never had any further episodes.
Today, my first four oligonucleotides were finished synthesizing, and I took them off the machine; they would require a minimum of five to eight hours heating to be ready for purification next morning. I was readying the machine for the next set of orders when Dr. Jella rushed in. He looked anxious. He wanted to know if his DNA was ready. I almost laughed. Even if I had synthesized his orders first, it would still require heating and purification. I told him that I could put his order ahead of the others I was about to start, and explained the time constraints. He was so anxious looking that I told him that if it was for a critical experiment, and he needed it right away, I could stay late, even work all night to have it ready for him by morning. He thought about that for a bit, but shrugged his shoulders, saying, “No, that’s alright. I can wait until tomorrow. It’s not, uh, not for anything real important.” Turns out it was, but he didn’t want anyone to know what he was working on.
Later, I found out that reporters had been cold-calling various researchers, pumping them for information for a story. Dr. Jella was working on the newly hot disease: hantavirus. The disease had flu-like symptoms, and people in New Mexico had died within days of showing symptoms of what everyone thought was a cold or flu. A test for hantavirus was needed as soon as possible. Researchers were working across the country to develop such a test. Dr. Jella had the idea of creating a kit, using synthetic fragments of single-stranded hantavirus DNA. If he had told me what it was for, I’d have gladly worked overnight. As it was, research is a highly competitive business. Researchers across the country, especially at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, where also racing to develop a test. Whoever developed an effective test first would not only get recognition, but would be able to grab new research money to continue their work. Dr. Jella didn’t want word to get out of the specifics of what he doing. Someone else could take that information and receive the credit, not to mention future grant money to research other diseases. Basically, his job and life’s work was on the line.
I arrived for work an hour early next day, and purified Dr. Jella’s oligos first. Needless to say, he was at my door soon after. “Are they ready yet?” he asked, somewhat breathlessly, like he had run up the stairs. I told him they were synthesized, and purified, but I would need another two hours, at least, to dry them down. A lot of water is used in the purification protocol, and I used a freeze-drying apparatus to evaporate all of the liquid. That made it easy to reconstitute the DNA to the desired concentration for experiments. He looked very disappointed, but I promised him I’d bring the DNA to his lab as soon as it was ready.
Later, I found out that he was using the DNA I had synthesized for the hantavirus kit. It worked, and his kit is now used to detect hantavirus. I got a mention in the paper he wrote describing the experiment.* That was unusual. Most of the work I did went unacknowledged. Sometimes the lab itself was mentioned. Most of the time, I went about my days synthesizing, sequencing, analyzing, purifying, and running the lab itself, buying materials, and billing the researchers. They paid me. It was a good living.
*(Rapid and specific detection of Sin Nombre virus antibodies in patients with hantavirus pulmonary syndrome by a strip immunoblot assay suitable for field diagnosis).
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on January 2, 2010
I happened to notice that today’s date, in the standard US nomenclature, is a palindrome: 01022010, if reading as January 2nd, 2010. That is the way most of us speak of the date in English in this country. Of course, it is sometimes written another way, as the 2nd of January, 2010. Under that convention, today’s date is 02012010, not a palindrome at all, and confusing. Of course, under that secondary convention, the palindrome for this year would be the 01 of February, 2010, or 01022010, but that dating convention leads to far more numerous palindromes. I prefer to use the first convention, by which the last such palindrome date was October 2nd, 2001, and, which is more interesting, the one before that was August 31, 1380!
Of note are these: October 10, 1010 (not a palindrome), although January 1st, 1010 was; December 12, 1212 is an interesting repeating two-digit number also, but, again, not a palindrome; and November 11, 1111 (now, that was quite a date!). Perhaps people don’t consider 11111111 as a palindrome?
So, assuming today is the palindrome for 2010, then one question that would arise is: when is the next such year? Obviously, it occurs on November 2nd, 2011; 11022011. However, no such date palindrome occurs again until 2020: 02022020. For those who put a lot of faith into numbers, it may mean something. It means nothing of importance to me, but, still, I find it interesting to note that our 12-month, approximately 30-day cycles yield such rare sequences of numbers.
This would all be so much simpler is there was only one conventional way to write a date. So, I’m looking forward to February 2nd of 2020, the first date in 1010 years that is unambiguously a palindrome by any convention, even one that puts the year first.
Is the next dual-use, unambiguous one after the year 2020 in March of 3030? There is, of course, Sept. 22, 2290, an ambiguous palindrome (It’s either 09222290 or 22092290), and October 3rd, 3001, (it’s either 10033001 or 03103001). Another 1010 years? I leave that to you, but I believe there is such a date. Tell me if you think you know what it is. There’s a hint in this post.
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on January 14, 2009
I watch so many, many movies these days. The TV is useless for much of anything else. I don’t know what I see in the movies. I like to escape, of course, but that is less appealing than it used to be. There are so many stories to see, ideas to hear, intrigues, and mysteries, and wonder. Still, I find it hard to sit still for movies anymore. I wander off and read, or check my email or auctions or Word Press stats, or play solitaire, and watch some more. It’s not so much the movies themselves, but that I am restless again, as restless as I was in 1973 and 1975 when I rode away from jobs and family and stability. I rode away the first time, but came back and tried again. In 1975 I rode away for good.
Movies seem to have relevance sometimes, but I am tired of extrapolating them into the myriad ways that they reflect my own life, or comment on it, or condemn it. They’re not as much fun as they used to be for me. Neither is my job, and my life, which once had purpose. It’s time to return to the carnival. We, most of us, speak of running away to join the circus, and that’s what I did so many years ago, although it turned out to be a carnival: no animals, well, live ones anyway. There were always the two-headed goats and five-legged cows, but they were actually in jars of formaldehyde, which you would only find out after you paid your money to see ’em. The marks always lined up to see those kind of things, and the painted signs outside always made it seem like the animals were real, and just inside. But, a carnival doesn’t put on animal shows, just people shows. Mostly it’s all “punk” kiddie rides and ferris wheels, and all the other mechanized thrill rides, with music blaring from giant speakers. No big top, no tents really. Lots of trucks, motor homes, and trailers. And electrical generators, of course. Need power for all that stuff. All those lights. All those popcorn “poppers” and games-of-chance “joints”. Try your luck, but you’re really buying cheap fluff. Hotdogs and ice cream and sodas. Eat and spend. Eat and spend. The real American dream. Carnies epitomize our values – buy low, sell high. Maximize profits. The ideal is to get the most for the absolute least you must provide in return. Provide thrills and escapism; promote gluttony for empty calories. Cheap thrills.
When I left the carnival, I realized that much of the world around me was the same, even Universities. It’s all sleight of hand, and manipulation, and cheap thrills. Education, sure, it’s important, but secondary to research grants that pay the bills. Stationary carnivals. My brain is tired from trying to keep it straight.
I went back to work, and finished college. I pay my bills, I eat a lot. I watch movies. I marry and divorce and marry and divorce again, and buy and spend and work and buy and spend. Cheap thrills. I am viewed as more respectable than a carny, but the differences are slight. Some towns only sit in one place, some move around, but we stay the same either way.
I can’t imagine I’d really want to work a carnival again. But, traveling is always good. Hiking? Bicycling? The physical activity is liberating. As you put distance behind you, it feels like a new world, a new beginning, and you can’t go back. All that walking or biking would be a waste if you went back. But, one doesn’t have to travel in the opposite direction to go back. I’ve been back to visit, but I live 1675 miles away. Where would I go away to now?