Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Slaves to our Bodies
Life can be going along swimmingly one day only to turn utterly miserable the next, and the change can be solely attributed to a change in health. The human body is a wonderful transport vessel for our respective journeys through life, but damage to the haul, engine failure, or a computer virus wreaking havoc with the operating system can make the trip a bumpy one. The vessel’s state of well-being can turn ugly due to mismanagement, making it prone to trouble, by choosing to smoke on deck or drink way too much while on duty. Most of the time, however, when the ship takes a turn for the worse, it is simply a case of bad luck: Unavoidable bad weather, an iceberg that appeared out of nowhere, or just the fatigue failure of an old part. These are sometimes referred to as acts of God.
With a background in Mechanical Engineering, the science that flows off of my tongue with the greatest ease is Physics. However, more than ever, today’s engineers and scientists are finding that the divisions between science’s three pillars (Physics, Chemistry, and Biology) are fading, with each discipline spilling over into the next. Fields such as chemical engineering, and biomechanical engineering are growing (particularly the latter) at a staggering rate. The most accomplished scientists of the twenty-first century will be those who see science as one great field without borders, and allow them to overlap and flow into one another where appropriate.
Let us look at the progression of the three scientific fields since the dawn of time. The big bang occurred roughly 13.7 billion years ago. For the first ten billion years, all can be explained with Physics alone (physical evolution). There were really only two chemicals in existence (Hydrogen and Helium) in our galaxy until some four billion years ago. This age of chemical evolution saw the periodic table fill itself in, and thus, to fully describe the Universe in this time domain, one would need Physics and Chemistry. Shortly thereafter, cells emerged, and so began biological evolution, when all three scientific areas of study must be employed to fully describe everything.
These three fields are not really so different. They all deal with the microscopic to macroscopic scales. Biology uses cell building blocks to create tissues, which lead to organs, which make up systems, and eventually constitute an organism. Chemistry begins with elemental building blocks, and on a larger scale, may constitute a cup of coffee or other liquid solution. Physics has a truly universal range, with subatomic particles (elementary particles such as electrons) on one end of the spectrum, and cosmological systems such as galaxies on the other.
The most compelling parallels I see today exist between Biology and Physics. Engineers have long tried to emulate biological systems when designing tools and technological gadgets. Spiders make excellent support structures for themselves both in material and geometrical constitution. Civil engineers can only dream of building a bridge as efficient as a spider’s web. Steel’s strength properties are impressive, but fall quite short of that of a web. The truss shapes used in bridges have, in some cases, been derived by our eight-legged friends.
There are countless examples in life of the beauty and engineering excellence of nature’s design. Engineers have long desired to build robotic equivalents of certain wonders of biology. In the best case, a pump would work as efficiently as the human heart, a robotic manipulator would be as dextrous as the human shoulder/elbow/wrist/hand/fingers system, and a computer would have the creativity of the human brain. In some cases, the engineering technology is approaching and even surpassing the biological equivalent. This occurred long ago if we consider the computational power of a cpu versus that of the human brain (with the exception of “Rain Man”). Many of today’s surgeons perform certain surgeries with the help of robotic manipulators whose hands don’t ever tremor, even if the doctor had a wine cooler with lunch.
Engineers are beginning to use an alternative thought process to solve a problem. Why try to redesign a pump with the same efficiency as a heart? Would it not be better to grow a new actual heart from some cells? Why use a less optimal design when the best current design beats within each of us?
If we are on the cusp of using biological parts to create mechanical tools, it seems a no-brainer that we ought to produce spare biological parts to service ourselves. For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would denounce stem cell research as a “bad thing”. With or without the support of every member of congress, the future of technological growth will be in the following fields: cell/tissue manipulation, DNA manipulation, and robotics. When these three fields are superimposed, we see the emergence of some life-altering technologies. These are the fields where investors ought to consider investing, and represent fields that young scientists ought to consider pursuing.
One ultimate result of combining our scientific ingenuity in the three pillars of science is that we may no longer find ourselves as slaves to our own bodies. When our parts fail, replacement parts will become available. The better we manage to understand our physiology, and the science that governs it, the more empowered we will become. Knowledge leads to power, and scientific growth is our greatest source of new knowledge. In my humble view, scientific knowledge is man’s greatest asset for improving the quality of life of future generations. Of course, the knowledge is only useful if it is acted on appropriately.
As an ailing patient, one can often feel powerless; a victim of imperfect biology. As the barriers between the sciences get broken down, new options for patients will surely emerge. To expedite this process, citizens ought to inform themselves of the science behind such developments, and encourage governments to support research in these emerging areas. It is the barrier between the public and science that causes inertia in technological growth.
What is the human body, but an optimized transport vessel? We service ships when they break down, and with medicine, we service the human body as required. The quality of the maintenance of the human vehicle will vastly improve as research in the above-mentioned fields continues. Perhaps, one day, single-point failures in the human body, like many cancers, will not lead to complete system failure. I am not proposing that human beings could or should live forever. But I do believe that the quality of our lives is related to our physical and mental health. Modern science will revolutionize many aspects of life, and the notion that we may no longer feel like slaves to our bodies when they break down represents one very promising and empowering revolution.