Bright and Dark

I read an article today that simultaneously made me very happy and very depressed. The article is this: “Iacocca picks a likely winner — for diabetes patients,” from the Boston Globe. It’s about how a former Chrysler executive is bankrolling research that has reversed type 1 diabetes in a first-phase human trial. An auto industry exec is involved because

when MGH [Mass General Hospital] went to the pharmaceutical industry looking for funding to research a pancreas-regenerating drug, “everyone said, ‘You’re reversing the disease. How are we going to make money?’ ’’

I am really excited, because Dr. Denise Faustman’s research team is planning the next phase of human trials, which means that in three years’ time there could be an established cure for type 1 diabetes. Just in time, too: I’m so skinny I’ve been having a hard time finding places to put my insulin pump’s infusion sets! And the curing agent is a vaccine that we’ve known about for 80 years, so there’s no question as to its safety – only its effectiveness – and it should be readily available!

(When I first heard about this research, I was a senior in high school and I immediately thought of the scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where Doctor McCoy completely restores a woman’s kidney function by having her pop a single pill. “What is this, the dark ages?” he proclaimed.)

But reading, in print, the attitude of the pharmaceutical industry puts a huge damper on that feeling. These corporations don’t want to cure my disease, because a cure would dry up one of their tens of thousands of reliable revenue streams and they would make slightly smaller profits. Hey, pharmaceutical companies, just in case you were wondering: you’re assholes.

This situation seems, to me, to be a clear-cut case of how unchecked corporations can act against a society’s best interests. As an experimentalist, I feel comfortable stating that capitalism, in general, is an economic system that is very successful at distributing resources and maintaining high standards of living. However, we have here a situation where an industry would rather spend its time and resources treating a potentially curable disease. This course of action wastes time, effort, and money, and causes pain and suffering of many individuals. Now, if you are both sufficiently pro-business and sufficiently heartless, you might argue that the treatment of diabetes is an industry that sustains a good number of companies and jobs – and that it is at least possible that the better course of action for American society is for me to keep on suffering so that those jobs and industries are maintained. It strikes me that we might as well get together a fund to pay those people to bang rocks together. My point in erecting that straw man is this: if pharmaceutical companies cure this one disease, then all the people working on treating that disease can push their efforts toward something more worthwhile. It’s not like the world has any shortage of disease.

I believe that situations like this are where government can play a major positive role. It’s not in a corporation or industry’s best interest to do something that would be in society’s or individuals’ best interests, and so an agency like the NIH could step in and provide funding for higher-risk, higher-reward research like Dr. Faustman’s. (Well, actually, in her case it seems like it’s just high-reward.) This is the reason why we have the NSF. It’s the reason why we have national laboratories. It’s why we have the NIF. It’s why we have NASA. So that, as a society, we can progress.

There’s another excellent reason for government to be a player in this area, too. Medicine is an arena populated by corporations and helpless victims. I can’t exactly vote with my feet and take my business elsewhere to get a cure for diabetes – I need insulin or a cure or I die. I don’t have any bargaining power over these companies. Similarly, people who go into emergency rooms aren’t scanning a McDonald’s-style menu of medical procedures, evaluating costs with what they would like to have – they are watching doctors and nurses bustle around them telling them what is about to happen next, and rooting for those doctors and nurses. Then, when it’s all over, the corporations step in to tell patients how much money they owe. There needs to be another force here, once that works for patients.

By the way, you can donate directly to Dr. Faustman’s lab at this link.

It’s How You Use It

A couple years ago, I was at a house party in Ithaca where I met a first-year grad student who asked me what I was studying.

“Aerospace engineering,” I said.

“Cool,” he replied. “Just don’t ever work for Lockheed Martin.”

(Ha.) I asked him why not. His answer: “They build weapons.”

This student was also extremely frightened of the “Big Dog” robot, which had just exploded onto the Internet in a series of awesome demonstration videos on YouTube. Why? “Just imagine what the military will be doing with that. They’re funding it, you know.” Did he have any specific examples or concerns? No. And I pointed out how invaluable such a robot would be in, say, rugged-terrain search and rescue or disaster response efforts. But none of that mattered, this student insisted, because the project received military funding. Somehow, in his mind, if the Red Cross shelled out millions for the development of Big Dog, it would be okay – but not if that money came from the US Army.

This attitude struck me as extremely naive. (And not just because this first-year was wearing a chai.) Some of the best work in science, engineering, and medicine gets funding from the military, because the military is naturally interested in those things. But I don’t think that means that even the pacifists among us should abandon all those lines of inquiry. You see, I believe in the adage that technology is neither good nor evil – it’s how we choose to use it that defines our goodness or evilness.

I have long since come to terms with the fact that many of the engineering challenges and scientific problems that I want to solve have both military and civilian applications. I want to, for example, land robots on Europa or Titan. Doing such a thing will require precision guidance and pointing systems – exactly the same kinds of systems that could control ballistic missiles or smart bombs. Some of the same technologies that let us aim the Hubble telescope precisely enough to image galaxies billions of light-years away can aim the airborne cannons on an AC-130. The rockets that bring astronauts to the International Space Station, a peaceful, collaborative venture between many nations, operate on the same principles and use the same fuels and control systems that go into ballistic missiles. The key difference in all of these cases is in where we, the human operators of such devices, point them to go.

To take an extreme example: the most devastating weapon we are capable of producing is the nuclear warhead. It is a terrible weapon, and nobody in their right mind would tell you otherwise. Some activists out there are so vehemently set against this weapon that they oppose all use of nuclear power and all refinement of nuclear isotopes. But here’s the thing: high-grade plutonium isotopes are what power all interplanetary probes to the outer Solar System! (Beyond about Mars orbit, sunlight is too weak for solar panels to provide enough power for a spacecraft.) Our country has stopped refining high-grade plutonium, and this is actually a big problem in the planetary science community. Again, I want my Europa and Titan landers…and I can’t have them without a stash of plutonium-238!

(For those astute readers who point out that Pu-238 isn’t weapons-grade plutonium, I would argue that the refining techniques are the same. And, for good measure, here’s one of the most peaceful people ever to walk the face of the Earth explaining a constructive use of the nuclear weapons themselves. Though nowadays we view that concept as not very practical, the next iteration might be antimatter-powered rockets capable of taking humans across light-years – but these would be even more destructive if used as weapons.)

In my doctoral research, I worked on new technologies for spacecraft. Fortunately for my moral ideals, flux-pinning interfaces for modular spacecraft are something that we had a hard time coming up with direct military applications for. Nevertheless, they may exist: we thought of looking for a way to develop a device that uses flux pinning to grab onto a target spacecraft without touching it – tractor-beam style. That I am sure that DARPA would be interested in. We did even end up pursuing that idea down a related, non-flux-pinning line to a small-scale proof-of-concept demo. (Our target application was rescuing derelict or malfunctioning satellites.)

Recently, I heard an Air Force colonel refer to GPS, which is a military-developed technology, as a “weapons system.” Now that I’ve gone from university research into the commercial spacecraft industry, I contribute to systems like GPS satellites, so this observation hits close to home. How many people out there using Garmins or iPhones or Google Maps would have thought that they were using something that the military considers to be a weapons system? GPS guides aircraft, boats, and cars throughout the civilian community. It gives researchers a powerful tool to advance geoscience. (Did you know that nowadays we directly measure continental drift speeds with GPS?!) And keep in mind that GPS is what gives us the capability for automated farm equipment to efficiently produce more food, or aid workers to reach remote destinations, or emergency responders to locate missing people and map out disaster zones. I am more than happy to contribute to those endeavors!

So, do we use our knowledge of particle physics to make the most devastating weapons the world has ever known, or do we use it to power the probes that will help explain our origins and find our place in the universe? For me, the answer is clear; but it is also clear that science isn’t necessarily good or evil. (Neither are scientists, for that matter.) Making it one or the other is entirely up to human decisions.

The Television Episode Experience

I finally got a chance to watch the episode of the National Geographic Channel’s “Known Universe” that filmed partly in my Cornell research lab. The episode is about how we currently build stuff in space, and how we might build more advanced or complicated structures in the future. Naturally, my flux pinning research fits into the “future” part of the show. And, at my research adviser’s suggestion, I was the guy on camera with the host. (Probably due to my propensity for putting research stuff on YouTube!)

This whole thing was a really interesting and fun experience for me. It all started with some idle speculation on space battles, which turned into one of Gizmodo’s hottest articles in December ’09, which ended up with a Nat Geo producer calling me on the phone. To my immense grad-student pleasure, he asked me what my research was about. And ta-da, our lab got featured on one of their shows!

Kids: let this be a lesson to you about what happens when you have thoughts and put them on the Internet in a blog!

We spent the better part of a month preparing equipment in our lab for the TV shoot, and an entire working day doing the actual filming, all for a five-minute segment in the episode. I have to say, I’m impressed with how well our topic got covered in such a short time, given how long I usually spend explaining it and how much material we spent filming! There’s a lot to be said for having professional editors who want to tell your story. If you caught the episode last Thursday (it will re-run soon; I believe tomorrow at 3 PM is one slot), you saw me show the host, Johns Hopkins physicist David Kaplan, three features of magnetic flux pinning that we feel could make it the basis for a future in-space construction technology:

"Known Universe" host David Kaplan pokes at one of our levitating magnets in the lab. (Photo Credit: ©NGC)
  1. Pinned magnets and superconductors can attract one another and stick together without physically touching. David best demonstrated this when he held a superconductor in one hand and a magnet in the other, and the magnet jumped across a distance of a foot or two to lock back onto the superconductor.
  2. This effect does not necessarily require any power or control inputs. I explained at one point during filming that, although we have to supply liquid nitrogen or power a cryocooler in order to get flux pinning to work on Earth, a spacecraft might only need to shield its superconducting elements from sunlight. (That detail didn’t make it into the final segment.)
  3. Flux pinning can not only lock structures into place, but it can also form the basis for reconfigurable multiple-module space structures that change their shape in response to changing mission goals. Our research group likes to think about morphing space telescopes, planetary orbiters, or solar power satellites, but there’s no reason why human-habitable space stations are out of the question! (If you provide flexible tubes for inhabitants to get from module to module, of course.)

Continue reading The Television Episode Experience


Next Thursday, 9 June, an episode of “Known Universe” will air on the National Geographic Channel entitled “Construction Zone,” about the ways humans build things in space – or might build them in the future. For a couple-minute segment about future space construction technologies, the host and crew came to my Cornell research lab and filmed a bit with me about my flux-pinning technology research!

I’m excited and nervous – excited, because this is my first real TV appearance, it’s all about the cool possibilities that could come from my graduate research, and I want to see how it comes out – but nervous, because as a researcher, I know what kind of story I want to tell about my subject, and I don’t know if it will come out the same way after editing. I know what footage we shot, but I haven’t seen the finished product yet!

For now, I can say this: I had a blast filming. Explaining the concepts to the host and doing demonstrations with him was a lot of fun. I think there was plenty of footage that made my research come across well.

The only downside is that I don’t have cable in my new apartment!