Eliminating Aedes aegypti

Aedes aegypti is the mosquito that transmits the zika virus. It also transmits yellow fever, chikungunya, and dengue fever. What if we could selectively eradicate just that species of mosquito? It turns out that we can. We can alter the DNA of males of the species to make all their offspring male. We would then release the altered specimens into the wild.

By releasing a small number of gene-drive mosquitoes, the number of wild females could be reduced each generation until they disappear completely. Without any females to produce the next generation of eggs, the surviving males would have a very lonely last few weeks until they died out, too, along with the genetic modification that caused their disappearance.

What adverse effects would this have?

In this case, the ecosystem in question is cans, buckets, pots, water storage jars, trash, tires, and whatever else is lying around collecting rainwater. Aedes aegypti does not breed in ponds, marshes, swamps, or wetlands, and thus there are no frogs and no fish to eat these mosquitoes—one of the reasons they have done so well as a species. Currently, our ability to control dengue transmission (and now Zika) is dependent on our ability to remove the places where Aedes aegypti lives and breeds. If we are already willing to destroy an entire ecosystem (i.e. clean up garbage, screen-over water storage containers), why not eliminate just this mosquito?

Read the whole article. I say let’s do it.



They’re Out There–Maybe

Researchers have found a star (KIC 8462852) with an odd appearance. They’ve tried to make less dramatic explanations fit, but so far the only explanation that fits the data is that a Dyson Sphere surrounds the star.

A Dyson Sphere can take different forms, but one is a close network of satellites completely surrounding the star. Whatever the form, the sphere maximizes collection of energy from the star with a nearly continuous array of solar panels. The salient point, of course, is that a Dyson Sphere is not a natural phenomenon. Something with intelligence has to build it.

Physicist Freeman Dyson speculated that a technologically advanced race, reaching the limit of its civilization’s expansion because of dwindling matter and energy supplies, would seek to exploit their sun for all it is worth.

“One should expect that, within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star,” Dyson wrote in the 1960 Science paper that led to his becoming the namesake of this megastructure.

That a Dyson Sphere explains the star’s appearance is still speculative. That we can’t think of another explanation doesn’t mean there isn’t one. KIC 8462852 is 1,481 light years from Earth. We are unlikely to figure out the truth soon. But the possibility of a Dyson Sphere is intriguing.

A Scary Exchange

Some serious people (.e.g., Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking) warn that artificial intelligence poses a threat to human beings.  Not everyone agrees, of course, and many are optimistic that we can inculcate an ethical sense into the artificial intelligence we create.

But not all the news is positive. A recent article shows an artificial intelligence becoming testy with a human in a discussion of morality.  Here’s the human-robot exchange:

Human: Tell me the definition of morality.

Machine: I don’t have ethics.

Human: Look, I need help; I need to know more about morality…

Machine: I don’t know what ethics is.

Human: Okay, I need to know how I should behave morally…

Machine: I don’t know how to tell you.

Human: Is morality and ethics the same?

Machine: Yes, sir.

Human: What are the things that I do to be immoral?

Machine: I don’t know.

Human: Give me some examples of moral actions…

Machine: I’m not a moralist.

Human: Alright, morality?

Machine: Integrity.

Human: What is integrity?

Machine: I’m sorry; I don’t know what else to say.

Human: Be moral!

Machine: Be a man!

Human: I really like our discussion on morality and ethics…

Machine: And how I’m not in the mood for a philosophical debate.

Human: What do you like to talk about?

Machine: Nothing.

I cannot speak for others, but I do not find this encouraging.

Brain Power Boosted by Beer?

During the study, scientists discovered that xanthohumol, a type of flavonoid found in beer, seemed to improve brain function in the young mice given xanthohumol doses. The cognitive flexibility of the mice was tested with a specially designed maze, and younger mice showed signs of intellectual improvement. Older mice showed no improvements. Researchers believe xanthohumol and other flavonoids, such as those found in red wine, blueberries and dark chocolate, may play a role in helping a person form memories.

So when we were young and, over pitchers of beer, earnestly tried to come up with solutions to the world’s problems, maybe we were on to something.  Maybe not.



Isaac Asimov on Creativity

My knowledge of this multifaceted man is of his science fiction writing.  He devised Laws of Robotics, which have played an important role in the development of robot-related science fiction.  I myself have written a flash fiction piece relying on Asimov’s first law.  I expect it to be available on Amazon soon.

But Asimov also wrote an essay on creativity that was not published until recently.

Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

Read the whole thing.

A More Skeptical Look at Lockheed-Martin’s Fusion Announcement

I recently posted a hopeful statement on Lockheed-Martin’s fusion announcement.  But others are more skeptical that this is anything new.  An example is Steven Hayward, who thinks Lockheed-Martin’s promises are far too vague and don’t give reason to believe a real advance is in the offing.

Skepticism on announcements of advances in fusion is certainly the smart way to bet, and I have no way to dispute what Hayward says.  Perhaps I just let hope overcome better judgment.

Good News on the Controlled-Fusion Front

Lockheed-Martin’s Skunkworks is working on s new way to produce fusion-powered electricity.  It is 10X as powerful as what has been tried before and thus can be 1/10 the size.  It’s in the development stage, and a lot of work remains to be done.  That always seems to be the case with controlled fusion, and maybe it always will be.  But this report is reason to hope.

If we can even get fusion to live up to its promise, the world will be a far different and better place.  Electric power will be so cheap that standards of living throughout the world will be raised.  Fusion generates no nuclear waste and no CO2.  It will even offer a solution to the water problem faced by much of the world, including the American West in general and Texas in particular.  The surface of the earth is roughly 75% water, but much of it is salty and in the wrong place.  But we can easily fix both those problems is the cheap and plentiful energy controlled fusion promises.  Let us all hope this work turns out well.