Live Blog: Telling the Stories of Science Panel Two — Fifty Years Ahead

5:37 — and that’s a wrap, folks.

5:33:  Lloyd — don’t wanta quantum laptop just yet (takes a lot of gear just to talk to 12 atoms.)

Sweet spot for qu computing–factoring large numbers, which could break all public key codes. (Talk about disruption.)

5:15: Q & A time:  Belcher and Sharp talk about the sense of science as both a search for basic knowledge and very much an applied endeavor…Lloyd notes that most of the big problems are more political than scientific, but that in the end you still have to do the science to produce any remotely plausible solutions.

Q: Question about whether or not nano materials or organic quantum computers are disposable.  Sharp responsds that the nice thing about biological systems is that they are all pretty much made of stuff (proteins etc) that other creatures can eat.  But it is very important to design in recycleabilty (sp?).

Q:  Issue of framing problems — are we aiming too low, as in, investing in cancer drugs that at best prolong life for a few months.  Seth Lloyd responds:  aiming low is not really a problem at MIT — different calculation at drug companies.  He believes that we should allocate more resources to people trying “crazy” stuff.  Primary leaps for society come from technology that arise out of fundamental research — see e.g. the transistor — and not from incrementalism.  Hence, need to prioritize basic research over the attempt to divine the right applied line to follow.

Sharp: it matters at the highest level who’s setting policy because, yes, framing a problem is crucial; if you have the right statement of the problem you can solve that problem… much harder otherwise.  His example: lung cancer may be best approached by cutting smokng — that might be the right way tof rame the issue.

Belcher: emphasizes the value of interdisciplinarity. Putting her next to engineers at the Koch Center changes her insights, and vice versa.  She remembers her own experience of getting funding despite her “crazy” idea of giving genetic info to a nonliving system.

Sharp adds: origins of molecular biology lie in physics.  People like Delbruck came into physics and disciplined people to look at the simplest organism and work out those problems.  Cross fertilization of ideas and techniques…

Q: are the lawyers going to muck up the future of these sciences?  Sharp’s answer: there is an enormous amount of litigation around the health sciences, and an enormous amount of regulation.  The motivation of the regulation is clear — but you do have to work through/around this reality.

Lloyd asks Belcher, “you’ve patented a gazillion things — what do you think about the IP system.” Belcher — doesn’t have any sense of having been slowed down by litigation.  Maybe material science is easier than say, software.

Lloyd patents everything reflexively — ever since he didn’t patent an idea in quantum computing because, he thought, it’ll never work…which it didn’t until a company in Vancouver dropped $100 million to make it work.  Ah well….

5:02: Lloyd now moves to the specific question of quantum computing.  A quantum computer is wher eyou store and process information at level of individual quanta.

Now we get a delightful introduction to wave particle duality. Lloyd’s aside: it’s a toss up between quantum mechanics and natural selection as to which has more confirmation — and thus isn’t it curious that both are routinely under attack.

This leads to an anecdote about pitching a quantum search device to Brin and Page in a meeting held in a hot tub.  Interesting times…

Lloyd not interested in quantum computing to beat Moore’s law, particularly; rather, Lloyd want’s to understand how information processing happpens, in say, Belcher’s photosynthesizing plants/and/or/nanosystems.

Photosynthesis: take a photon, have it absorbed by a chromophor; it creates and electron-hole pair (exciton — a particle of excitement) which has to hop through the photosynthetic complext until it gets to a reaction center..reaction center is abou 5% efficient, whilst transport is hugely efficient….99 %.  Turns out the transport system involves a quantum biological step as these electron-hole pairs “ooze” (Lloyd’s word) through the complex.

So need insight into quantum information processing to understand what’s actually going on as we speak.

4:46: And yes — my fingers and wrists hurt.  Belcher talks fast.  Now it’s Seth Lloyd’s turn.  His specialty, says my colleague Marcia Bartusiak “All things Quantum.” (She challengers her inner Terry Pratchett, I think.)

Seth Lloyd begins with a shout out to science writing. (Yay!)

Grant writing is advertising — Mad Men without the sex.

Science is a uniquely public form of knowledge, not to mention that the public in this country actually pays for most of it.

A rather small fraction of scientists are good at communicating to that public what they do…and so Lloyd is here because he thinks that what our grads do is great — with which sentiment I thoroughly agree.

Now the talk:  Predicting 50 years is a mugs game.  Agrees w. Sharp that one tends to overestimate what comes in 5 years, and can’t have a clue what will happen in 50 years.

So if the scale of the earth is 10^8 meters (equator to pole via the Paris meridian. to the size of a liter of water…and then down to the atom level — you get the rough equivalence — the number of atoms that fill a liter water bottle is the same as the number of liter bottles that could fill the earth…all this to give a sense of the scale involved in thinking in quantum and or nano terms.

If you think of size not as an absolute measure, but as in relation to the smallest component to which we have access — then a liter bottle has grown very large indeed in the last decade or so.

Key take away — none of this discovery could have been anticipated a decade ago; we had no way to tell what would transpire when we got down to that level.

So Lloyd channels James Brown for his prediction of what will happen in 50 years.  “I don’t know what will happen, but whatever it is will be funky!”

Thinking about Moore’s law…an extrapolation would say computers with single atom components could come around 2050 — except that’s what his group is doing now in quantum computing.

Talking Moore’s law — uncertain as to the details of its future course…but just thinking about the nanoscale discussions by Belcher and Sharp — we know that very funky things will happen as we travel down the slope of scale and speed.

4:39:  Belcher adds that the A123 products went from invention in 2000 to broad commercial use now.

Our whirlwind tour heads now to healthcare.  Cost is formidable 17% of GDP in US will soon go to health care.  Need now for minimally invasive diagnostics and treatment; new and better imaging; and more…nanoscience impinges on the whole sequence: nano probes can take measurements within single cells; nanoparticles are being used to perform rapid diagnostics for particular proteins.

Moving now to ideas about nanotreatment — if you can get nanoparticles with particular properties, can target cells very specifically for treatment.  Neat idea — a nanoparticle that can detect a tumor cell can signal other nanoparticles to deliver a drug or what have you to the cell.

Belcher’s own work is trying to take CO2 from emissions and turn it into building supplies, through an engineered yeast system.  Discusses promise of nanotech for water purification.

Last thought: can give DNA to manufactures; have engineered viruses to make batteries, e.g.

4:27 Say hello to Angela Belcher, MacArthur Fellow and nanotechnologist extraordinaire.

Future of science turns on interfaces: in 50 years won’t say “I’m molecular biologist or engineer ” or what have you — as the fields merge.

Her quesetion:  What does that non-living/living interface look like.  Can we impart to nonliving materials some of the exquisite properties or capabilities that life has.  Can you evolve properties of materials into the DNA coding that indivduals could pass on to their kids?

E.g. — what if you could grow batteries from a dna-located code in petrie dish.  Belcher cites the Feynman idea “plenty of room at the bottom.

Key idea is that nano isn’t just small, but that you can control atoms precisely, make the system do exactly what you want.

Belcher’s motivation:  want to do nano to make the world better/livable for her kids.  Because you can control systems at the atom by atom level, nano has such broad potential — tons of fields.

What’s happening at the nano scale — just in cells, see proteins, Ribozomes, Linear alpha helix collagen, DNA…lots of models for sophisticated functionality at nano level.

See e.g. Bawendi’s quantum dots that use nano properties for a range of properties.  Others are workign on self cleaning solar cells deriving insight from self cleaning lotus leaves that work at nano scale.

Bob Langer is watching how geckos walk up walls and is looking at ways to build better bandages.

Unifiying idea: look at what evolution has produced over millions of years and see what ideas one can steal.

Now Belcher turns to the energy issue; we see a chart look at energy production.  The chart makes it clear that production of renewables is not now close to keeping pace with future need…nanotechnolgy can impinge on the solution to problem, in applications that range from solar — with improvements in efficiency, processing, cost, self-maintenance.  Similarly nano can improve energy conservation (efficiency) — see, e.g. Bawendi et al. quantum dot applications to LED innovations.  Next up:  improvement in battery tech; in which the nano scale can play a significant role — see what’s happened w. MIT spin off A123 Systems.

4:14:  Sharp continues…He co-chaired a National Academy report committee on “A New Biology for the 21st Century.”

Major challenges identified there:  (1) Nearly a billion undernourished in the world i ’07 w. population growth going on:  how do we sustain that population.

(2) Human activities are stressing the environment from which that sustenance must derive…getting worse.

(3) Transportation fuels depend almost entirely on limited non-renewable resources.

(4) Healthcare, which is costly now, and will get more so: so how to make it more effective and cost-effective.

These are the issues that molecualr biology may and will need to address over the next 50 years.

So, what about  the food challenge.  Next revolution — molecular engineering of plants to grow in places and with a control of inputs not now achievable. Turns on genetically informed decisions, which include understanding biodiversity, systematics and evolutioanry genomics.  Think “analsyis fo crops as ecosystems.”

Bad news says Sharp:  we in the US invest trivially in this; center of gravity is in Europe; we just lost the best researcher in this field to UK.

Environment Challenge:

Need a comprehensive and quantitative (my emphasis) meausre of ecosystem services…molecular biology can contribut

Energy Challenge:

To meet hte renewable fuel standard 2022 goal — need 4x increase in ceonomical biofuel production…

To get there must approach biomass to biofuel production process as a systems/engineering problem.

Health Challenge:

We can sequence a genome now for $1,000:  have an incredible ability coming soon to approach your health from a genomic point of view.

Issue — you ahve to participate in this: have your genome on your iPad…If the goal is individualized health surveillance and care.

Some future goals: develop conceptual and technical capacity to monitor metabolome (new term to me — I like it) integrated phenotypic readout.

Many major diseases are already getting tackled death-rates down from cancer etc.  Big challenge: aging.  Sharp expects that in 50 years his grandson will expect to live into the hundreds, being active into his eighties and nineties….

That aging breakthrough, if it comes, carries with it all kinds of social, ethical and practical challenges.

Thus, says Sharp:  hold on to your seats.  Big change at the macro level is coming from revolution at the molecular one.

4:09:  What has happened here over 50 years: first, shifted MIT’s biology dept. from “food processing” to molecular biology — a shift aided by recruitiing Luria to come here.  In 1972, decided to add a Center for Cancer Research — which shifted emphasis from single cell approaches, and to take on the problem of fundamental processes of cancer in humans.

IN 1983, along comes the Whitehead, w. the challenge of understanding how single cells transform into 3 D structures of a complex organism; central problem to how biology works.

in 1993, MIT decided in which biology became a core requirement — a huge shift for the whole institute, as physical scientists and engineers now had to respond to biologically informed questions from their own students…so they had to learn biology to.

in 2000, came the neuroscience complex; followed by the Broad Institute in 2003, which brings big science approaches to biology…and last, the Koch Institute combines the cancer center w. engineers…to mark the latest stage of the evolution of life sciences as a practice at MIT.

MIT is now central to the cluster of life sciences research and industry in and around Kendall Sq. — by far the largest such complex in the world.

4:07: Sharp:  I knew Crick for many years, and had lunch with Watson just the other day — and I can assure you they had no idea what would come from that double helix at the point of discovery.

People overestimate advances in short range; underestimate it over 50 years.  So to get a sense of the scale issue — look at what’s happened at MIT over the last 50 years in molecular biology as a prelude for speculation on what’s to come.

The idea…there is a third revolution coming in a convergence of life sciences, physical sciences and engineering.

4:02:  Professor Marcia Bartusiak begins by highlighting both successful predictions — Arthur C. Clarke and satellite tech, e.g. — and less excellent ones, like the original IBM Watson’s declaration that the world market for computers might touch five.  First up, Nobel laureate Phil Sharp on molecular biology

3:58:  Just about to start the second panel in the celebration of ten years of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT.  The panel title:  Fifty Years Ahead: Imagining Nanotechnology, Quantum Computing, and Molecular Biology in 2062

Coming up:  talks from Philip Sharp, Seth Lloyd and Angela Belcher on molecular biology, quantum computing and nanotechnology, respectively.  (No promises as to the order.)

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3 Comments on “Live Blog: Telling the Stories of Science Panel Two — Fifty Years Ahead”

  1. […] Live Blog: Telling the Stories of Science Panel Two — Fifty Years … Share in social […]

  2. Stuart in Austin Says:


    If you want to get a solid feel for where we are in relation to the end of Moore’s law read Chips 2020 published by Springer.

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