Monday, January 21, 2019

"The Challenger Disaster" Movie

Perhaps the most widely studied case in the field of engineering ethics is the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger shortly after launch.  The cause was traced to solid-rocket-booster O-ring seals that became too stiff to work in the near-freezing temperatures of the January 28 launch.  Combustion gases leaking through the seal of a rocket booster during the stress of launch destroyed the craft and killed all seven crew members, including a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe. 

Investigations after the launch revealed that engineers working for Morton-Thiokol Inc., the contractor for the boosters, knew of the leakage problem before the launch.  One engineer in particular named Roger Boisjoly was convinced that it was too dangerous to launch in such cold temperatures, and argued desperately in the hours leading up to the launch for his company to withhold approval.  But NASA was under severe pressure to keep to its schedule of launches, and Morton-Thiokol managers overruled the engineers and approved it anyway. 

That is the raw material out of which Nathan VonMinden, an aerospace engineer and now film director and screenwriter, has fashioned "The Challenger Disaster."  I spoke with VonMinden about the film, which is scheduled for general video-on-demand release at iTunes and Amazon on Jan. 25, and he stressed that his film is not a space movie in the mold of "The Right Stuff."  Having previewed the film, I agree with him that if you're looking for a pleasant hour and a half of thrills and adventure, "The Challenger Disaster" is not your best choice.  But if you want to see the inner workings of a dramatic and suspenseful tragedy and how it hinged upon the personality of a single engineer, this is the film to watch.

Adam is the name VonMinden gave to the Roger Boisjoly character.  Eric Hanson portrays Adam as a man obsessed by the truth and incautiously careless about how he tells it to others.  In eight years of researching the movie, VonMinden learned that Boisjoly was not an easy person to get along with.  In this film, Adam almost single-handedly forces his engineering colleagues at Morton-Thiokol to set up a teleconference with engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which was in charge of the rocket design, and NASA officials at the Cape, who were annoyed to hear that someone at Morton-Thiokol was expressing doubts about the integrity of the system less than a day before the already-delayed launch.  Watching engineers almost coming to blows over a technical issue may seem over-the-top to some, but believe me, fights can happen among engineers over plenty of less serious issues. 

Even if you are pretty familiar with the basics of the story, as I was, the film is almost agonizing to watch as the launch time draws closer.  VonMinden raises the dramatic tension with TV clips of actual footage of launch preparations and other authentic incidents in this film, which has very high production values for a modest-budget independent work.  The focus is always on Adam:  his belief going in that the truth is always a sufficient argument (it's not, as it turns out), his doubts that he's done enough to stop the launch, and his retrospective descriptions of what went on in the hours leading up to the launch. 

The film is set in the form of flashbacks during a conversation Adam has with an attorney he is trying to interest in a lawsuit against his former employer (unsuccessfully, as it turns out).  For the most part, this format works, although I confess to being slightly confused when another lawyer was shown interviewing Adam and a co-worker after the launch.  It turned out that the second lawyer was prepping Adam in advance of the presidential investigation commission hearings. 

But you won't get lost during the flashbacks to the generally dark and even dingy surroundings of 80s-era engineering office cubicles, complete with vintage PCs and even a Macintosh SE-30 I spotted on one manager's desk.  VonMinden carefully chose settings that allowed the human drama to be the focus rather than expensive sets or CGI work:  offices, homes, and exteriors that could be anywhere.  Nevertheless, the generally underlit atmosphere symbolizes Adam's darkening mood as the critical conference call comes and goes, and the decision is made to launch.  After Adam drives home that evening, he just sits out in the driveway in his car until his wife comes and gets into the seat beside him.  The resulting scene is Bergmanesque in its intensity and silence, and is welcome in an era when decibel levels seem to be the main criterion for a film's popular success.

Later, during the  hearings that Adam and his fellow engineers attend, they come forward out of the audience and interrupt the proceedings after they hear a Morton-Thiokol manager lie about his knowledge of the seal problem.  After the hearing, a sympathetic commission member finds Adam and reassures him that there are whistleblowing laws to protect him from repercussions of his testimony. 

While it is never good to kick a man while he is down, I wish the film had taken time to show in more detail the intensity of the ostracism that forced the real-life Boisjoly to resign from Morton-Thiokol after his participation in the hearings made him persona non grata at work.  Although I'm unaware of any rigorous statistical studies of the fate of whistleblowers after they blow the whistle, my sense is that they always pay a heavy price professionally.  They are usually treated as traitors by their organizations, and find it less stressful to let go of a job that has become meaningless and find another employer, or even another profession.  For his part, Boisjoly made a new career out of giving talks to engineering students about his experiences.  In a brief scene toward the end of the film we see Adam doing just that, encouraging budding engineers to take their work seriously, because it can affect people you don't know in ways that you can't imagine.  But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. 

For a complex, historically accurate, and thought-provoking take on the Challenger disaster, I cannot think of a better medium than "The Challenger Disaster"  for conveying the seriousness of the emotion-laden decisions that have to be made at critical times.  It is not a fun movie, but it's a good one.  And I hope it does well in video-on-demand release, because engineers need to see it. 

Sources:  The film's distribution company, Vertical Entertainment, contacted me about "The Challenger Disaster" and motivated me to view the film and interview the director, who is based in San Antonio.  The film's trailer can be viewed at, and on Jan. 25 it should be available at numerous video-on-demand outlets such as iTunes and Amazon.  It will also have theatrical premieres in Houston on Jan. 22 and Dallas on Jan. 24.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Transhumanist Bill of Goods

Depending on your point of view, the intellectual movement (and now political party) that goes under the name of "transhumanism" is either a set of fringe beliefs held by a small number of people who can be safely ignored, or the leading edge of something that will completely transform human life as we know it.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between.  One of transhumanism's intellectual fathers is Ray Kurzweil, who coined the term "the Singularity" to mean the moment when artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and uploading peoples' minds into software converge to create a kind of Big Bang of superintelligent activity that will make everything everyone ever wanted come true, and will also render ordinary biological human lives obsolete.  Significantly, Kurzweil now holds a high-level position at Google, and other tech leaders such as Elon Musk have promoted transhumanist ideas.

Not satisfied with the Silicon Valley reins of power they already hold, the transhumanists have formed a political party and issued a Transhumanist Bill of Rights.  The first version (called 1.0, naturally) was delivered to the U. S. Capitol on Dec. 14, 2015.  Its subsequent fate did not make the news.  In a recent piece reprinted in the Human Life Review, Wesley J. Smith noted that version 2.0 contains enough wacky ideas to wreck the economy, violate fundamental religious freedoms, and erase the difference between people and machines. 

For a group that tends to ignore the past and live mentally in the future, the writers of the Transhumanist Bill of Rights clearly acknowledged some historical precedents.  The very title, Bill of Rights, comes from that 230-year-old set of amendments to the U. S. constitution of the same name.  Their preamble says they "establish" the Bill to "help guide and enact sensible policies in the pursuit of life, liberty, security of person, and happiness."  That phrase goes one better than Thomas Jefferson's in the preamble to the U. S. Declaration of Independence—he left out "security of person."  And at the very end, almost as an afterthought, in Article XV (25, to those of you who can't read Roman numerals), they incorporate by reference all the rights in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was enacted by the then-new U. N. in 1948.

Like the U. N.'s declaration, the transhumanist Bill is aspirational, not legally binding.  And here is where the vast differences between the U. S. Bill of Rights and this document show most vividly.  The people who gathered in 1789 to debate how best to carry their young experiment in democracy forward were elected leaders of a real nation.  In a sense that the transhumanists don't seem to appreciate, they held their future in their hands.  The fate of a country that they and their compatriots fought for, and many had died for, depended on the wisdom with which they reconstituted their republic, which at the time was suffering from serious problems.  Looking back, we can say that while they didn't do a perfect job—the canker of slavery would have to be removed from the body politic in a horrendous Civil War two generations hence—the constitution they forged has withstood the test of time. 

Contrast what those founding fathers did with what the transhumanists are doing with their Bill of Rights 2.0.  For one thing, the transhumanist Bill's direct effect on the actual politics of the nation has been nil.  Despite the window-dressing of Roman numerals and references to historic documents, the actual content of the Bill reads like something out of a speech at a Comic Con convention.  One can come closest to being able to predict the things most desired by transhumanists by imagining a teenage boy of exceptional intelligence but limited experience, and asking him what his ideal world would be like, given unlimited technological resources and a free imagination.  The answers might go something like the following:
Gee, well, nobody would be poor (Article XVIII:  "Present and future societies should ensure that their members will not live in poverty solely for being born to the wrong parents.").  And there wouldn't be any discrimination or prejudice (Article XVI:  "All sentient entities should be protected from discrimination. . . "), and everybody would be healthy (Article VII:  "All sentient entities should be the beneficiaries of a system of universal health care.").  And (snigger) there'd be plenty of sex (Article XII:  "All sentient entities are entitled to reproductive freedom. . . . ").  And college should be free (Article XX:  "Present and future societies should provide education systems accessible and available to all . . . ").  And we wouldn't have nutcases like Trump running the government (Article XXIV:  "Transhumanists stand opposed to the post-truth culture of deception.  All governments should be required to make decisions and communicate information rationally and in accordance with facts. . . .").

Maybe Kurzweil, Musk, and their fellow transhumanists are experts in their deep, narrow pursuits that require specialization in technical fields and a certain amount of leadership and management expertise.  But in politics, they seem to think that if you take some half-baked left-wing notions, mix them with some technospeak, put Roman numerals on them, and quote a few well-known historical documents, the public will come flooding to your door and ask to join.

On the other hand, perhaps we should read this document not as a step in a democratic process that involves persuading the sovereign public to accept one's ideas, but more as a manifesto of what an elite, powerful group of people plan to do once they manage to dispose of all the stupidity and traditionalism of the vast majority of people in the world and run the place the way they know (from their superior expertise) that it ought to be run.  Wesley Smith worries that transhumanists in power would establish a communist-like society.  And I think he is right.  If transhumanists by some means gained real power to implement their ideas, the totalitarian government that would result might very well end human life as we know it—and leave nothing in its place but some buzzing machinery that would run down faster than anyone expects.

Sources:  Wired published the Transhumanist Bill of Rights 2.0 at on August 21, 2018.  Wesley J. Smith's article "The Transhumanist Bill of Wrongs" appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of the Human Life Review on pp. 91-93, and was reprinted from the American Spectator.

Monday, January 07, 2019

But What If You Like Being A Nerd?

One of my Christmas presents was a book with the bemusing title Nerds:  How Dorks, Dweebs, Technies, and Trekkies Can Save America.  The author, David Anderegg, is a child psychologist who is concerned that the near-universal prejudice against nerds, especially in junior high schools, is depriving the nation of talented people who steer away from math, science, engineering, and other technical subjects even though they may like them and be good at them.  Why?  Because these about-to-be-teenagers are deathly afraid of turning into that social monstrosity called a nerd. 

In his examination of nerd-dom—its meaning, ramifications, and how preteens fear the nerd label even before they have a clear understanding of what it is—Anderegg says the bias against nerds is every bit as harmful as racial bias.  The days are long past when American schools would allow white kids to taunt black kids just because they were black.  But every day in schoolyards all across the country, popular kids use the word "nerd" to demean studious, high-performing, or otherwise eccentric classmates.  And those classmates accused of being nerds, especially if they are in the psychologically vulnerable age group around 8 to 14, quite often change their behavior to be perceived as less nerdy, even if it means purposely doing less math homework or dropping their interest in a physics science fair project.  And Anderegg rightly regards this as a tragedy.

I have more than a passing interest in this book, because I could have been literally the poster child for nerdism when I was that age.  In my senior year in high school, I became known as the Nerd Express for my habit of zooming as fast as possible from one class to another.  A photographer for the high-school annual stationed herself at a corner of a hallway where I was known to pass by at a certain time of day, and snapped a picture that National Lampoon could have used for their famous "Are You A Nurd?" poster of the early 1970s (back then the spelling hadn't been standardized yet).  Out of eighteen highlighted nerd characteristics their poster pointed out—things like high-water pants, plastic-rimmed glasses, and a slide-rule case strapped to my belt—I scored on about thirteen of them.  I can't remember exactly what my reaction was the day I saw that poster for the first time in a college dorm, but it was probably something as mild as, "So?"

You see, I wanted to be a nerd.  When my parents took me to the eye doctor at the age of ten and found out I needed glasses, I was thrilled.  All the smart lab-coated scientists in TV shows and science-fiction movies wore glasses, and I was tickled to be joining their ranks, even if it was only opthalmologically.  For whatever reason, I never felt inhibited by accusations of being nerdy or weird—I kind of liked being regarded in those terms, actually.  I hung out with a few friends that had similar interests, as my high school was large enough to have several kids interested in electronics and science.  And once I went to college, well, Caltech had probably the highest concentration of ages 18-to-21 nerds on the West Coast.  So I fit right in. 

Anderegg says that there is a spectrum of nerdishness ranging from hard-core types like me who do not give a flip about accusations of being a nerd, to a larger group of marginal nerds who are still trying to decide what their adult personalities will be.  He's not concerned about the small hard-core group who latch on to microbiology or mathematics at the age of eleven and plow straight on thereafter.  They will succeed no matter what their peers call them.

Instead, he's worried that the larger group of pre-teens who are naturally inclined toward math and other "harrd" subjects, as he puts it, will encounter so much flak in the form of nerd taunting and teasing, that they will drop their budding interests in technical subjects rather than suffering the slings and arrows of being called a nerd.  And he has more than one anecdotal incident gleaned from his child-psychology practice showing that this really happens.

His solutions to the problem involve a deep cultural change that one book alone will not achieve.  But it begins with the recognition that the nerd trope is not just a harmless and amusing label that we put on people who will always succeed in any case.  Especially for pre-teenage kids, being called a nerd can be a deeply disturbing and isolating thing, at an age when the pressure to fit in and be regarded as one of the crowd is intense. 

He calls on parents to avoid stereotyping other adults as nerds, because children will perceive attitudes that we may not fully understand ourselves.  Parents who are themselves nerds may need help in dealing with their children who get taunted as nerds, because as adults we tend to forget how serious and even painful peer interactions can be.  Even things as trivial-sounding as what kind of pants a boy wears to school can result in horrific social ostracizing, and sometimes a reasonable compromise does wonders for the child's outlook on life, even if it goes against a nerd parent's principles. 

Looking to the wider culture, TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and its progeny propagate the stereotype that brainy people are either ugly, socially inept, sexually unattractive, or a combination of the above.  It's hard to imagine how a society completely shorn of stereotypes would have much in the way of humor, but I see his point that a show whose basic presuppositions are based on the nerd stereotype doesn't help the situation. 

If we want more young people to enter "harrd" technically intense fields such as engineering, we can't keep sending them messages via the nerd trope that they are, by doing so, also dooming themselves to a sexless and socially isolated existence.  The next time you're tempted to use the word "nerd," especially around young people, think about what you're really saying and whether you really mean it.  The nerd you save may be your own.

Sources:  Nerds:  How Dorks, Dweebs, Technies, and Trekkies Can Save America by David Anderegg came out in hardcover in 2007, and the paperback edition was published by Tarcher/Penguin in 2011.  Thanks to my wife for finding it for me.  Googling "1970s poster image of nerd" will generally turn up a few copies of the well-known National Lampoon poster of the kid with greasy hair, a slide rule on his belt, and a bulging briefcase in his right hand.  That was me, all right.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Design Flaw Identified in FIU Bridge Collapse

Back on Mar. 15 of this year, a new pedestrian bridge across a busy highway running through the Florida International University campus suddenly collapsed, killing six people and injuring eight more.  The bridge was fabricated as a single long concrete truss consisting of upper and lower decks connected by a series of diagonal and vertical struts.  Trusses are familiar elements of steel-bridge construction, but there are special design issues involved in making a truss out of concrete.  And according to an update issued by the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Nov. 15, it looks like someone may have made a fatal error in part of the design.

When we blogged on this accident back in March, it was already known that some cracks had shown up at the north end where the northernmost vertical member and the adjacent diagonal strut went into the bottom deck.  At the time, the construction supervisors held a meeting about the cracks, but the NTSB has successfully prevented publication of the meeting minutes before their final report on the accident can be issued, which probably won't be till some time next year.  The Miami Herald reports that after the meeting, a construction worker was sent out to tighten tension rods inside the diagonal strut.  This worker appears to be the one who died when the bridge collapsed.

The modern civil engineer has abundant design resources at his or her disposal:  computer-aided modeling and stress calculations, three-dimensional visualization and planning tools, and other computational aids that take a lot of the former drudgework out of mechanical and civil engineering design.  Such aids have made possible many recent designs that would have been difficult or impossible to create using the old manual slide-rule and design-table approaches. 

But even with all the computer assistance in the world, the information about a given design has to be understood and checked by human beings.  That is why most public civil engineering projects must have their designs approved by a registered professional engineer (PE), whose stamp or signature appears on the drawings.  That stamp puts the reputation of the engineer on the line:  it is a guarantee that the design will do what it's intended to do. 

Long chains of reasoning and responsibility lie behind every decision to approve a set of drawings.  Those chains may pass from person to person, or from computer output to person.  Computer-aided calculations answer such questions as, "If this particular junction of a strut and a vertical member is under that kind of stress, will it be able to withstand the stress with a reasonable margin of safety?"  Given that the inputs to tried and tested software are correct, the software should give the correct answer, assuming that the person using the software knows how to use it and interpret the results correctly.  Furthermore, the chain of engineering integrity requires that when the PE responsible for the overall design, the person whose stamp of approval appears on the plans, asks underlings if this or that part of the design is good, the underlings must give an honest answer.  And the PE must trust that answer, or rather, the persons answering for the integrity of the plans.

In any human organization, there is always the possibility of error.  Sometimes errors can be traced to a particular person, and sometimes they can't.  The NTSB has made sure that all available sample materials from the wreckage of the FIU bridge were tested to see whether they met the minimum specified strength and other standards.  And so far the results are all positive, so it doesn't seem that the collapse can be based on defective materials. 

The death or injury of bystanders in a bridge collapse is a tragedy regardless of whether the accident could have been prevented or not.  But if a design flaw really is the reason for the collapse, it will be ironic that the design, which has been termed "unorthodox" in the Herald report, was before its installation a point of pride for FIU's civil engineering program, which specializes in accelerated bridge construction of the type that was used on this bridge. 

Back when universities were smaller and more personal institutions, engineering faculty members would sometimes contribute their professional expertise to campus projects, helping in the design of new buildings or consulting professionally with regard to campus technical issues.  The FIU civil engineering professors do not appear to have been personally involved in this particular design, however, other than to give their informal approval of the general approach and construction methods.  In fairness, many bridges have been successfully built using on-site accelerated bridge construction, which does not appear to be implicated in the collapse.  But in this case, it might have been a good idea to have qualified faculty members go over the plans, and they might have caught any errors that contributed to the collapse.

However, that is not the way most universities operate these days.  Each professor has his or her own irons in the research and teaching fires that are lit under them, and to ask one of them to stop what they're doing and check some plans for a new building or bridge would be regarded as an unfair imposition on their time, and rightly so.  They might reply that there are professionals being paid to do that, and they would be correct.

But when professionals are paid to do a job, it's up to them to do it right.  According to the latest update from the NTSB, someone (or possibly something, if we include computers) failed in that responsibility.  And physical objects are not forgiving.  The warning signs were there:  cracks in the location that subsequently failed.  We hope that the NTSB will use the embargoed meeting report to figure out what went wrong, not only in the original design, but also in the management process that led to the fatal decision to try tensioning the strut without stopping traffic underneath the bridge.  But until the final report on the accident is issued, this accident stands as a reminder to everyone who deals with technology that could kill or injure someone—a reminder that the lives of innocent people depend on how well you do your job.

Sources:  The NTSB update of Nov. 15, 2018 can be found at  I also referred to the Miami Herald report on the update carried at  My original blog on this accident at had an incorrect date for the accident, which has now been corrected.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Gatwick Drone Incident: Technology Outpaces Policy

Gatwick Airport is the UK's second busiest flight facility after Heathrow, and last Wednesday, Dec. 19, it was accommodating thousands of holiday travelers.  Around 9 PM, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, was sighted in the airspace dangerously near the airport's single runway.  Just this year, the UK prohibited drone flights within 1 km of airports, and this drone was well within that limit. 

No details are yet available about exactly what kind of drone it was.  But it was large enough (or its lights were bright enough) to be seen at night.  The airport authorities, acting with prudence, ordered a temporary shutdown in the hopes that the drone flight was an isolated mistake that could be dealt with quickly.  Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.  Shortly after flights were resumed, another drone was sighted.  Eventually, observers logged over 50 separate drone sightings, and the airport was shut down for a total of 33 hours before the last drone went away and flights were resumed.  As of Saturday, Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk, a couple living near the airport, were arrested in connection with the incidents, but as of Monday Dec. 24 they had been released without being charged.

Because Gatwick is a key hub in so many airline networks, the shutdown affected over a hundred thousand travelers and sent ripples in the air-transport system around the world for days.  Eventually, the authorities mustered military equipment capable of both locating and shooting down drones, but by that time the threat had ceased.

This incident raises a number of questions about what the proper policies of airports should be about drone sightings, about what regulations drone users and manufacturers should have to deal with, and how we are going to prevent copycat drone incidents like this in the future.  First, the policy question.

It looks like the UK is somewhat behind the U. S. in its regulation of drone technology.  For several years, the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required registration of ownership of drones (at least those above a certain size and capability), and laws are already in place restricting drone flights above certain altitudes and near airports.  The U. S. has had incidents of drones near airports, but no long-term shutdowns of major airports comparable to Gatwick. 

It's possible that the UK authorities erred on the side of excessive caution in ordering a total shutdown of the airport.  Depending on the size of the drone, they might have opted merely to warn pilots that there was a drone in the vicinity, as there are birds whose weight and consequent hazards to aircraft are comparable to that of a small drone, and it is rare to see airports shut down because of excessive bird flights over the landing areas.  But birds don't carry explosives, and terrorist fears were probably prominent in the decision to play it safe and simply shut down the single runway rather than run the risk of having a plane damaged or destroyed by a bomb-carrying drone.

That being said, what could authorities have done to prevent the drone pilot (or pilots) from flying their UAVs in restricted airspace?  Presently, not much, short of trying to shoot them down.  There is electronic fence technology available, but depending on the radio frequencies used by the drones, attempts simply to jam the frequencies typically used by drones could have severe unintended consequences, even possibly disrupting electronics that are vital to legitimate air operations.  And if the drones were pre-programmed to follow a set flight pattern, they do not even have to be in constant communication with the drone's operator to fly, and therefore jamming might not have done any good.

Going aggressive and trying to shoot the thing down is not that easy.  A drone at a distance of a kilometer or so is a very small target.  If a bullet or rocket misses it, that bullet or rocket is going to come down somewhere, and typically metropolitan airports are not places where you want bullets or rockets coming down at random.  So that's not a realistic option either.

The best long-term solution might be to build in something called "remote ID" that the world's largest drone manufacturer, DJI, suggested in a statement.  Remote ID would be a system whereby all drones would transmit their location, the pilot's location, and an identification code in real time.  If such a system were made mandatory, authorities could simply read the code and run over to where the pilot is and arrest him or her.  It's interesting that the biggest drone maker suggests such a thing, but obviously hasn't included it in their products yet, possibly for cost and performance reasons.  Low-end drones don't have GPS receivers and wouldn't be capable of remote ID, but maybe those types are not the most serious threat to places like Gatwick anyway. 

Even with such ID technology, a determined pilot could keep on the run and stay ahead of the cops long enough to cause serious disruption.  And chasing down more than one drone at a time could be hard.  Because drones can typically stay in the air for only half an hour before their batteries have to be recharged, the number of drone sightings during the Gatwick shutdown leads authorities to believe that several drones and operators were involved. 

The investigation continues, and it will be interesting to discover who did it and why.  In the meantime, the UK has had a rough wake-up call with regard to their policy on drones.  One hopes that they don't overreact with blanket bans on the devices, which are proving to be useful in a wide variety of commercial and amateur applications.  But we can't have major airports getting shut down at the whim of a few people with consumer-grade drones.  So the policy and regulatory environment, especially in the UK, will have to catch up with drone reality on the ground—or rather, in the air—to prevent such incidents in the future.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Has Human Gene Editor Been Edited Himself?

Dr. Jiankue He of the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, claims to have used a gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the genes of twin girls in order to make the babies resistant to the AIDS virus carried by their father.  When news of his experiment leaked out, scientists and governments around the world attacked him for doing what is widely viewed as an unethical experiment.  After Dr. He tried to defend himself at a Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong at the end of November, the president of Dr. He's university reportedly collected him and took him back to Shenzhen, and his whereabouts are presently unknown.  He is no longer answering his phone, his lab has been shut down, a company he founded has lost contact with him, and one report says he has been placed under house arrest. 

First, a little background.  It will be very little because biology and bioengineering is not my forte, to say the least.  CRISPR is an acronym for some DNA sequences that are found widely in cells, and these sequences are used with an enzyme in a technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to edit DNA.  So in the last fifteen years or so, we have gone from reading the human genome (the goal of the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003) to editing the genes of human beings—at least if Dr. He has done what he says he's done.

From a scientific point of view, his claims remain unsubstantiated, because he has not yet published anything about this particular experiment in a peer-reviewed journal.  He apparently intended to do so when news of it leaked out, and Dr. He decided to post information about it to forestall rumors.  What he posted did a lot more than that.

There's enough questionable ethical practices in this incident for several columns.  The most prominent one is whether Dr. He did wrong in deliberately manipulating the gene sequence of human embryos and then implanting them back in the mother to be born.  Nothing has been said about how many unsuccessful tries were made along these lines, but if this experiment was like others, the yield rate was probably very small. 

Besides that question, there is the problem of talking about controversial experiments prior to peer review.  We still don't have any verification as to whether Dr. He really did what he said, although he has a good track record in the field of previous genetics research in less controversial areas.  But given the nature of his situation, Dr. He probably did the least bad thing in releasing more information rather than just letting rumors run wild.

What is most interesting to me is the way the government of China has reacted to the firestorm of controversy.  Up to now, Dr. He has been treated like a golden boy, being allowed to study abroad at Rice and Stanford, receiving a coveted Thousand Talents Award to set up his own lab, and founding or being involved in six companies focused on commercializing aspects of his research.  Earlier this year he announced that he was taking a leave from his university position to concentrate on his commercial activities. 

But once news leaked of his alleged CRISPR/Cas9 experiment with the twins and criticisms began to mount, the weather changed fast.  China currently has no inconvenient encumbrances, such as the legal concept of due process, to delay rapid and decisive action on the part of its government.  So when someone high up in the power structure decided that Dr. He was no longer an asset, his fate was sealed.  It may be months or years before we find out exactly what has happened to him, but for now, his high-flying career appears to be at an end.  What the government gave, the government can take away, and apparently has.

There is an odd parallel here between what the Chinese government has done to Dr. He, and what Dr. He has reportedly done to the twins.  For years, he enjoyed the freedom to study at the best universities in the world, to follow his investigations into the secrets of the genome, and to speculate on commercial applications of his ideas.  But in a matter of weeks, it's been taken away, at least for the time being.

At least Dr. He had the opportunity to judge whether his experiment might land him in hot water.  He may have judged wrong, but he was free to refrain as well as to go ahead.  The twins—referred to in news reports only as Lulu and Nana—have had no choice whatsoever.  From the time they were born, they became participants for life in an experiment that was not of their choosing.  If what Dr. He claims to have done is true, they are the first human beings on Earth whose intrinsic genetic makeup came about not only through the volition of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors stretching back before the dawn of human history, but also through the deliberate mechanical technology of CRISPR/Cas9. 

Is this a tragedy?  A lot of people seem to think so.  Judging from the swiftness of the negative reactions heaped on Dr. He's head, most of them arose from what bioethicist Leon Kass calls the "yuck factor."  Some ideas and actions are just intuitively revolting to most people, and fiddling with a human embryo's genes fall into this category.  Given the magnitude of the opprobrium, the government of China saw a threat to their hoped-for reputation as a leader in rapidly advancing scientific fields such as biotechnology, and removed Dr. He from public (and maybe even private) view.  One researcher going a bit too far is disposable.  But China's long-term plans in this area are not known.

The more basic question raised by this research, and one that has not been addressed much so far in news reports on it, is whether human life is really distinct, set apart, or holy compared to other life.  If it is, then a whole array of things that are now legal and even praised in some circles, ranging from mix-and-match in-vitro fertilization to abortion, are highly questionable, to say the least.  If it isn't—if playing with human genes is no more harmful than what the Jesuit priest Gregor Mendel did to his bean plants to figure out the basics of genetics over a century ago—then I would ask, what's the big deal?  Once you've gotten over the shock of novelty, human gene editing will fade into the background and become just another way we mess with ourselves technologically.  I hope that never becomes the case, but unless we use this controversy to open up a wider inquiry into what the limits of biotechnology should be, I'm afraid we'll look back on Dr. He's case and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Sources:  The Australian Broadcasting Company posted a report about Dr. He's disappearance at  I also referred to a report of theirs on the experiment itself at 

Monday, December 10, 2018

Microchipping People: Convenience or Concern?

For some years now, we have had radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology available to make transponder chips small enough to be implanted into living beings such as dogs or people.  Almost no one objects to placing an identifying microchip in a pet, which in a legal sense is a piece of property like the sunglasses you might buy at a store.  But some lingering sense of the difference between humans and everything else gives us pause when we start talking about microchipping people. 

That sense hasn't stopped some four thousand Swedes from getting microchip implants, mostly from a startup called Biohax International.  It's interesting that Biohax's founder Jowan Ă–sterlund was at one point a professional body piercer, a profession which itself couldn't exist unless a segment of the population had already let down its guard somewhat concerning the idea of affixing pieces of metal to one's person. 

According to an NPR report, Swedes have high levels of trust for institutions such as their government, banks, railroad companies, and other organizations.  And microchipped Swedes are now able to use their implanted microchips instead of train tickets or credit cards for transportation, and can simply wave an implanted hand at a door-lock sensor instead of fumbling in a wallet for a pass card. 

A report in the Economist last summer mentioned something that often comes up in U. S. discussions of personal microchips:  a passage in the New Testament Book of Revelation about "the mark of the beast."  When the reporter asked Ă–sterlund about this concern, his reply was dismissive:  "people once thought the Beatles were the Antichrist."

Leaving such eschatalogical concerns aside for the moment, what are the other potential downsides of either voluntary or compulsory personal microchipping?   First, there is a privacy concern.  The memory capacity on such chips will only increase in the future.  Depending on what sorts of data are stored on the chip, for example medical information, you could inadvertently allow strangers to access your most intimate medical secrets.  With a wallet card, you can always refuse to show it to somebody or even keep it in a shielded enclosure to prevent unauthorized readings.  But if an RFID chip is implanted in the web of skin between your right thumb and forefinger (a typical location), the only way to prevent unauthorized access for sure seems to be wearing foil-lined gloves all the time. 

And there is another concern which is hard to express, but I'll try.  A person's identity cannot be realized in isolation.  That is to say, who we are is formed in the process of relating to other people.  I hold an appointment as a full professor at Texas State University.  But if somebody picked me up and dropped me off by myself on a desert island, my status as a full professor would become effectively void, because I would no longer be among the people who recognize me as such.  And so the ways by which we are recognized influences our own ideas about who we are.

We are already pretty far down the road I'm trying to describe, in that we are used to identifying ourselves by numbers, passwords demanded by all sorts of online systems, and by other impersonal means such as swipe cards and even biometric sensors.  In ways that are hard to quantify or even detect, but which I am convinced are nonetheless real, these impersonal or mechanical means of identifying ourselves do things to our self-concept—things that I am convinced are not that helpful.  But at least with passwords and biometric ID methods and wallet cards, these are all things that leave my bodily integrity alone. 

With a microchip, that bodily integrity is breached.  Now an actual physical part of myself, a foreign body, has become an essential part of my public identity.  And make no mistake, once people find out (and the technology allows) that one little implanted microchip can replace a fistful of wallet cards and a brain full of memorized passwords, they will become very popular, as many Swedes have already discovered.  And as night follows day, those chips will themselves become things of value—more valuable in some cases than the persons harboring them.  I am unaware that anyone has yet tried to extract another person's microchip under duress, but sooner or later, you can be sure it will happen, leaving the victim with a bloody hand and the thief with the victim's identity, at least until the victim can call a hotline and report that his microchip was stolen.  And Biohax had better start putting such a hotline system in place soon, if they haven't already.

I'll save my thoughts on the mark of the beast for last.  Christians who take the New Testament seriously, as God's word revealed to man, are nevertheless puzzled by the last book of the Bible.  Revelation is an example of a type of writing called apocalyptic literature (the Greek word for the book is "apocalypse") that was popular around the first and second centuries A. D.  It is highly symbolic, and unfortunately the keys to much of the symbolism have been lost.  So no one knows for sure who the two beasts are of Rev. 13, in which we are told that the second of the two beasts will require everyone who wishes to buy or sell anything to receive a "mark" on their hand or forehead. 

This is bad news for them, because in the next chapter we hear from an angel who says, "If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God's wrath," and it goes downhill from there, all the way to torment with fire and sulphur.   This explains the almost automatic and sometimes hysterical opposition from some Christian groups to any hint of a compulsory identification program that leaves marks or other things on one's body. 

I respect these concerns to the extent that I do not personally wish to have a microchip installed in my person.  But I don't necessarily agree with those who tell microchipped people that they're bound to be playing with fire.

Sources:  The National Public Radio report on Swedish microchipping appeared on the NPR website on Oct. 22, 2018 at  I also referred to The Economist website, specifically an article carried on Aug. 2, 2018 at