Monday, June 24, 2024

Medical Nanomachines: Potential Boon or Bane?


One of the more unlikely premises for a movie was the idea behind the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage.  A scientist who plays a crucial role in the Cold War is stricken by a blood clot, and his own invention—a way to shrink objects to microscopic size for only an hour—is applied to a submarine full of people who then travel through his bloodstream to save him. 


Science fiction has a way of becoming reality, and while nobody has yet figured out how to shrink people and submarines, a recent New Yorker profile of the work of chemist James Tour and his colleagues describes microscopic light-powered jackhammers that can penetrate bacteria cell walls. 


In the first place, living cells are fantastically complex machines in their own right, so there is nothing intrinsically new about tiny machines.  The innovation claimed by Tour and his team is that they have developed a way to control the action of tiny jackhammer-like molecules by irradiating them with a specific wavelength of near-infrared light.  The molecules have what are called plasmons in them.  The details are complicated, but basically the plasmon acts like a kind of molecular tuning fork that resonates at one particular wavelength.  When light of that wavelength hits the molecule, it absorbs a great deal of energy and begins to vibrate vigorously, punching a hole in the bacterial wall and initiating the bacteria's demise.  And in contrast to shorter wavelengths of light in the visible range, near-infrared light can penetrate an inch or two into the body, allowing access to fairly deep regions under the skin.


So far, no human tests have been done.  Some moth larvae in Tour's lab have been treated with molecular jackhammers to save them from a terrible death from MRSA bacteria, but that's about it so far.  Years of testing with increasingly complicated organisms—mice, pigs, and so on—lies ahead before any practical applications to humans can be expected.  And there may be some bump in the road ahead that will prevent this technology from finding any application in humans at all.  But so far it looks promising, and I'm sure Prof. Tour will have no problem finding funding for more research, and commercial applications too if he's interested.


The article's author Dhruv Khullar mentions that some researchers are concerned about the inherent dangers of molecular machines.  He describes the "gray-goo" problem posed by an early futurist, K. Eric Drexler, who speculated that if a nanomachine was programmed to turn every living thing into more of itself, it might infect the whole biosphere.  This reminds me of what happened to some goldfish my mother bought us when we were kids, after giving in to our continual begging for them.  The fish were fine for a while, but one morning we got up and instead of goldfish, there were just floating lumps of whitish gunk in the tank.  She got rid of the aquarium soon after that, and we never had any more fish unless they were cooked first.


Tour's devices don't seem to pose such a hazard, because without the special near-IR wavelength of light shining on them, they don't do anything.  So that seems to be a pretty safe way to control them, unless you start speculating about how you might sneak some molecular jackhammers into a victim's drink, and then take them into a room bathed with the requisite wavelength of near-IR light, which is invisible, of course.  And there you go with another science-fiction suspense film.


It seems to me that activities such as Tour's are pretty harmless compared to, for instance, tinkering with existing coronaviruses with gain-of-function research.  For whatever reason, nature has produced (or God has allowed, depending on your point of view) some really nasty viruses that use mechanical means to take over cells and turn them into virus factories, with the byproduct of making the host ill or dead.  I was unable to locate the details, but someone once told me that the rabies virus is precisely designed with a kind of spear that penetrates neurons to infect them.  So in developing his molecular jackhammers, Prof. Tour isn't inventing as much as he is co-opting a technique and powering it by other means, namely light waves.  And arranging things so that the molecules can't do anything without external illumination is a nice fail-safe feature that allows the researcher to exert control.


This work is only one example of the discoveries scientists and engineers can make when provided with enough resources and cultural favor.  Not every country in the world is hospitable to scientific research of this type.  And it takes money and smart people, which are both limited resources.  We should not take such activities for granted, because they don't happen automatically.  It's easy to assume that medical technology will just keep on advancing on its own without anybody other than the researchers paying much attention. 


But there is a big threat to all U. S.-government-funded research looming on the horizon.  While the U. S. has never experienced a fiscal crisis such as the one that struck Germany in the early 1920s, nothing says we are immune from it.  As interest rates rise and the population ages, two money sinks—interest on the national debt and entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare—threaten to take over the Federal budget and squeeze out just about everything else.  While private funding has increasingly taken up the slack vacated by declining government support for research, it's hard to imagine a healthy private sector persisting if the government has gone bankrupt. 


And such events are not that predictable.  Neither major political party currently has the intestinal fortitude to address this issue with anything near the seriousness it deserves.  As things stand, there is still enough research money available to support impressive efforts such as the things Prof. Tour and his group are doing.  But if we are to see any practical benefits from it, there are years of work ahead, work that somebody has to do and somebody else has to pay for.  Smart young people will have to decide that research is worth doing, and the public will have to decide that it's worth paying for, and worth having a fiscally sound government to pay for it.  So far, it's all working, but whatever can't go on forever eventually has to stop.


Sources:  The New Yorker of June 24, 2024 carried Dhruv Khullar's article "Small Wonder" on pp. 20-23.  I also referred to a Rice University post on Prof. Tour's research at

and Wikipedia articles on plasmons and molecular machines. 


Monday, June 17, 2024

Seeing the Unseen in "Inside Out 2"


I promise this is not going to turn into a movie-review column.  But the new Pixar release "Inside Out 2" does what it does so well that I think it deserves some positive attention, and without CGI-powered technology a movie like this simply wouldn't be possible.  The thing it does well is to turn dusty abstractions into solid-looking realities that are vivid, memorable, and understandable.  And that's not easy.


In case you missed both the original "Inside Out" in 2015 and this year's just-released sequel, here is the basic setup.  Riley is a young girl (pre-teen at first, just turned 13 in the present film) who faces some stresses in her life that by themselves are fairly common and unremarkable:  enduring a move from the Midwest to the West Coast, playing competitive hockey, and generally dealing with adolescent crises.  So far, so dull.  But you, the movie viewer, are privileged to see what goes on in Riley's mind.  Not her brain, her mind—that's an important distinction.


The "Inside Out" films are perhaps some of the most philosophically sophisticated and yet successful movies ever made, because they portray abstractions—the technical philosophical word is "concepts"—in a way that is not only accessible but entertaining to virtually anybody old enough to understand English (or whatever other language the foreign export versions are dubbed into).  In the first film, we meet Joy, Anger, Fear, and Sadness, each voiced by a top professional actor and matched by characters designed to remind you of their nature at every moment.  Sadness is a small, rounded, blue, bespectacled woman, and Anger is a stocky, bright-red guy who literally blows his top like a blowtorch at the slightest provocation. 


The conceit that inside our minds there is a tiny being at the "controls" of our body is an old one, and the Pixar writers show the various emotions at Riley's control panel, so that when Sadness takes over, we see Riley crying, for example.  The film vividly portrays metaphorical phrases such as "back of the mind," "train of thought," and "stream of consciousness" in ways that are both logical and funny as all getout. 


But the movies are more than just bad puns realized with millions of dollars' worth of digital graphics.  Lisa Damour, one of the psychologists who served as a consultant during the sequel's production, has written a book on the the anxiety epidemic that teenagers, especially girls, are experiencing these days.  Interviewed by Slate, she said that "Inside Out 2" can help teenagers and their parents understand that unpleasant emotions like anxiety are not simply bad and to be avoided at all costs, but instead have an important role to play as long as they don't completely take over. 


The Slate reviewer credits the original "Inside Out" with helping him change the way he relates to his own children, and the new film has the potential to do that and more for both teenagers suffering from anxiety and their parents trying to help them. 


I would go farther than simply saying that the movie can help teenagers and their parents therapeutically.  I would say that it's a strong proponent of realism in a culture that has embraced nominalism and idealism for way too long.


In under a thousand words, nominalism is the idea that there are not really ideas, just names.  And idealism starts from thought and tries to get to things afterwards.  Carried to their logical conclusions, these philosophies often terminate in nihilism, the belief that life has no meaning.  The Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor once said that because we "breathe in" nihilism in the modern world, we tend not to notice it, just as a fish doesn't notice it's in water.  But the tendency to reduce human life to only that which is scientifically verifiable—biochemistry and neural impulses, basically—is all around us, and probably lies at the root of manifold modern pathologies.


"Inside Out 2" flies in the face of all this by making non-material concepts such as emotions, memories, and the sense of self into concrete, visible, and even entertaining realities.  No, there is not really a little red-felt homonculus running around in my brain whenever I get mad.  But anger is a real emotion, as real as hatred, fear, or love.  And to pretend, as many scientists do, that anger is only a certain combination of neural activity and hormones is not just perverse, it's incorrect and incomplete. 


It's appropriate that Pixar is a division of Disney, because with such films Disney continues its tradition of making what I would call benevolent propaganda films for traditional family values.  Consider the title of "Whistle While You Work," a song written originally for the studio's 1937 animated feature "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."  The song's theme is what all responsible parents want their children to learn:  life is full of work, so you might as well enjoy it.  In dramatizing an emotional and ethical struggle experienced by the barely-teenage Riley that could take up many paragraphs in a learned treatise on the maturing of the concept of the self in adolescent girls, but doing it in a way that I hope millions of people will pay to watch, Pixar has done a great service in the cause of realism, philosophically speaking.


And historically, moderate realism has been the preferred philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as most other Christian denominations.  I seriously doubt that many of the thousands of people working on "Inside Out 2" consider themselves evangelists, and nobody is going to literally come to Jesus simply as a direct result of the film.  But anything that moves large numbers of people away from the nihilist world view and gets them to believe that abstractions such as anger, fear, and love are real things—in some sense, more real than the atoms we are made of—is preparing the ground for actual evangelism, whether the filmmakers realize it or not.  And for my money, that's a good thing.


Sources:  The article entitled "Inside Out 2 Takes On the Teen Mental Health Crisis.  Does It Suggest the Right Solution?" appeared on the website of Slate on June 14, 2024 at  Flannery O'Connor describes modern nihilism as a gas in a letter to "A." as quoted at  "Inside Out 2" is currently in U. S. release nationwide. 

Monday, June 10, 2024

I, Robot, Th. D.


For those unfamiliar with academic titles, Th. D. stands for Doctor Theologiae, a doctorate degree in theology.  So far to my knowledge, robots or algorithms have not yet been awarded any advanced degree, let alone one in theology.  But an article on the website of the journal of religion and society First Things got me thinking about how algorithms can distort our sense of the sacred.


Author Grayson Quay notes that many people subscribe to Bible phone apps that provide the user with a verse for the day.  The more popular apps evidently provide verses that have been shared or tweeted the most by the people using the app.  In this way, the well-known echo-chamber effect that has plagued recent political discourse so much has found its way into the spiritual lives of millions. 


The problem is that just because a verse gets tweeted a lot, that doesn't mean it's the best verse to read at a given time, or at any time.  The natural result of this process is that people using the verse-of-the-day app will see mainly verses that other people have felt like sharing. 


If you examine your own motives for sharing anything online, you will probably find desires such as to (a) impress other people with your perceptiveness or cleverness, (b) amuse other people with something you thought was funny, or (c) create a reaction that can be summarized as "Oh, ain't it awful."  None of these motives mesh well with Bible verses, at least not without some help.  One can make jokes with them, but they are generally humorous to the extent that they are not spiritual and vice-versa.


Quay claims that the popularity filter used by social-media algorithms will exclude everything that isn't of a feel-good quality.  For instance, I doubt that Psalm 137:9 will make it:  "Happy is the one who seizes your infants/ And dashes them against the rocks."  Imagine if the algorithm sent that to the mother of a newborn.  But if you try to remedy the situation by making the algorithm send verses truly at random rather than basing them on popularity, you're bound to get ham-handed incidents like that from time to time.


As ethical problems go, the comparative fatuity of Bible-app verses is not that serious.  But what is serious is the way we are turning over all kinds of things that used to be done by humans, into the unfeeling hands of what amounts to robots.  And we are doing it without examining the big changes that can result.


Every choice has a basis or cause behind it, and the basis has a philosophy.  If you make a Bible-verse app choose randomly from among a set of carefully selected verses that go through a long cycle, say lasting three years, you have what amounts to the Lectionary Cycle idea of public Bible readings used by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and a number of other liturgical Christian churches, who got the idea in turn from Jewish practices.  This system is based on the notion that the Bible is God's word, and we fallible forgetful humans need to be reminded of all of it from time to time.  It's a good system and has been used for hundreds of years.


On the other hand, if you go with the social-media approach and share only those Bible verses that have been shared or tweeted a lot already, you employ a philosophy that prioritizes hits and click volume.  If you're running an online business, that's the kind of philosophy to use, but popularity is not the exclusive or even main goal of Christian ministry or discipleship. 


While it's true that if you are so repellent that nobody listens to what you're saying, you will do nobody any good, even Jesus himself said things that proved so confusing or unpopular that he lost a good deal of what we would now call market share.  But under the assumption that Jesus made no mistakes in his ministry, those were the right things to say at the time.


This topic comes close to home, because for some years I have been choosing Bible verses to prompt a weekly discussion group of Christian faculty members at my university.  No, I have never picked Psalm 137:9 for the topic of discussion, although I think highly enough of my colleagues that they would probably get something good out of it.  My goal has been to choose verses that relate to issues or problems that Christian instructors commonly face.  We are humans first and instructors second, of course, so some of the topics just relate to our common humanity.  Some verses prove more successful at starting good discussions than others do, but success as such is not necessarily my goal. 


The point is that I try to customize the selections to suit my particular audience, and to challenge them as much as amuse or entertain or please them.  The operators of most social media dread true challenges to their audiences as the plague, because the metaphorical off switch is always handy, and once a subscriber drops an app, it hurts market share, which is the true bottom line for commercial apps, and possibly for many Bible apps too. 


In Acts 20:27, in his parting words St. Paul tells the Ephesians that he has given them "the whole counsel of God."  This says to me that he didn't hold back on the hard and difficult and challenging parts, as well as the reassuring parts of Scripture and teaching. 


The principle here is that we should listen to what is good for us, not just to what pleases us.  And that principle has a much broader application than merely to Bible-verse apps.  The customizing of news and other information to increase user engagement has been simultaneously one of the greatest innovations in commercial media, and one of the most insidious cultural shifts as well, a shift that has had widespread, profound, but largely invisible and hard-to-trace effects.  While church attenders have the Lectionary to counteract the effects of echo-chamber Bible apps, the rest of the world has surrendered happily to its echo-chamber world, and the world is suffering the consequences.


Sources:  Grayson Quay's article "Algorithmic Spirituality" can be found on the First Things website at 


Monday, June 03, 2024

Good News for America's Power Grid—Mostly


I've been rather negative in this space lately, partly because engineering ethics tends to focus on things that go wrong.  So today I'm going to write about something that the federal government is doing that is mostly right, or at least could turn out that way, depending on how it's done.


Last Tuesday, May 28, the Biden administration announced a federal-state initiative aimed at improving the nation's power grid.  Called the "Federal-State Modern Grid Deployment Initiative," it is a grab-bag of funded projects, coordination initiatives, and regulatory changes that share a common theme:  making the country's power grid more up to date and efficient. 


Twenty-one states are participating in this initial rollout, and all I'll say about that is that my native and current home state of Texas is not one of them.  Ever since World War II, Texas has operated its power grid more or less independently from the rest of the U. S., so it's not surprising that the state decided to pass on this opportunity for federal collaboration too.  But that won't keep Texas from doing the same sorts of things that are being encouraged by the initiative.


One item that caught my eye concerns a backing-off of environmental regulations.  It turns out that, according to the White House press release itself, if a power company wants to merely upgrade an existing transmission line longer than 20 miles, they have to suffer through submitting a detailed environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.  This sort of thing can take years, and this is one disincentive that has discouraged grid operators from upgrading their lines.  Well, as part of the grid initiative, the government is now allowing companies to do the "simplest form" of environmental review.  Whether they can put it on a postcard is unclear, but it looks like an improvement, at least on paper. 


Another part of the initiative encourages transmission-line operators to "reconductor" their lines, with financial incentives that up to now have been lacking.  If a given region needs more power delivered, a grid operator has two choices:  either build more transmission lines into the area, or upgrade existing lines with what are called "advanced conductors."  Traditional power transmission lines—the high-voltage ones supported on the big steel towers—consist of a core of steel strands for strength surrounded by aluminum strands that do the conducting.  Even at the low frequency of 60 Hz, most of the current flows on the outer regions of such a conductor, so the poorly-conducting steel in the middle doesn't cause too many losses, although it does contribute some.


Well, advanced conductor technology that is apparently a few decades old can increase the maximum carrying capacity of a transmission line.  The steel core is replaced by composite materials (carbon or ceramic fibers in some cases), and the plain round wire-drawn aluminum is replaced by annealed aluminum trapezoids, which somehow work better.  The overall result is that you can carry two to three times the maximum load with advanced conductors compared to the traditional ones.


Why haven't so-called "reconductoring" projects been carried out much until now?  Partly because of a perverse disincentive built into the funding structure of how electric utilities operate in the U. S.  Many funding formulas allow the companies to be reimbursed as a fraction of their total investment.  It's cheaper to reconductor an existing line than to build an entirely new transmission line, so up to now many grid operators have been choosing the more expensive route to maximize their allowed return on investment.  The federal grid initiative has money and regulatory features designed to even the playing field so that it will make more economic sense to replace older conductors with newer, more efficient ones, rather than cluttering up the landscape with new transmission lines over different routes, along with all the environmental hassles which new lines involve.


I suspect the Biden administration was hoping that its environment-friendly constituents were looking the other way during the announcement of this initiative, because most of the time it has pushed for more environmental regulation, not less.  But the whole thing is being sold as a big step toward the overarching goal of "tackling the climate crisis," meaning converting the grid to renewables.  And certainly we need more transmission-grid capacity to deal with the odd places that large lumps of power are showing up, mostly in the sunny, windy West, while most of the energy is needed in the soggy, cloudy North and East. 


Two critical technical issues were not mentioned in the press release for the initiative, although they may have been addressed somewhere in the fine print.  One is the vulnerability of our power grid to the unlikely but potentially devastating effects of either a strong geomagnetic storm or a nuclear-bomb-triggered electromagnetic pulse.  I understand that relatively simple and inexpensive measures could be taken now to make the grid much more resilient against such events, but as the power companies have no financial incentive to install them, they mostly haven't.


The other issue concerns grid stability.  It turns out that the typical solar or wind farm is a "grid-following" installation, in that it takes its cue from the grid's AC voltage and just follows along with it.  As long as such grid-following sources are a small percentage of the total power coming into the grid, there is no problem and the power gets used like any other source of power would.  But if too many followers crowd out the conventional spinning-turbine grid leaders, the whole grid gets unstable and is likely to collapse in the case of sudden shocks such as the loss of a large chunk of power.  There is a way to fix this:  to make renewable sources pretend to be spinning-turbine sources.  But it costs more, and nobody installing just one additional renewable source is going to want to spend that kind of money.


Perhaps such global concerns will come up in the coordinating meetings that the federal initiative will hold, and they'll address those issues too.  Even if they don't, it looks like this is a government initiative which is actually likely to produce solid benefits, even if it's technical and rather boring to the average citizen.  But engineers are used to being viewed that way, and these days I think we can use some low-drama good news in the public sector for a change.


Sources:  I referred to the White House news release issued on May 28 at,  a Nebraska Examiner article at, and an item on reconductoring in Forbes at