The Key to Surviving Space Radiation?

What do The Andromeda Strain, Project Hail Mary, and extremophiles have in common? If you answered survival, you’d be partly correct. The results of an experiment on the International Space Station may be the key to surviving space radiation. Or is it proof that life can (has) spread through the universe?

Image of the international space station in the blackness of space radiation with the blue arc of Earth beneath it

Radiation in Space

We’ve all heard about it. Scientists have studied its effects on meteors and rockets and astronauts for years.

Space radiation is made up of three kinds of radiation: particles trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field; particles shot into space during solar flares (solar particle events); and galactic cosmic rays, which are high-energy protons and heavy ions from outside our solar system.

NASA

This is of particular concern when astronauts travel beyond low Earth orbit. Space radiation may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases. On a trip to and from Mars, astronauts will endure at least fourteen months of radiation exposure. Depending on their mission, it may be many months more. Space radiation is of increasing concern here on Earth as the protective layers of atmosphere above us grow thinner.

Starting the Experiment

In 2015, the robotic arm on the International Space Station mounted three boxes of balls of extremophiles on a handrail. They stayed there, 250 miles above Earth, soaking up all forms of space radiation. They also endured the vacuum of space and extreme temperature swings as the station rotated in and out of the sunlight.

What are extremophiles?

Extremophiles are organisms that live in extreme conditions, such as in a hot spring or an ice cap or an under sea volcanic vent.

In the late 1960s, a microbiologist named Tom Brock discovered and identified the first extremophile in the Great Fountain region of Yellowstone. Since Brock and his colleague identified the microorganism, more and more extremophiles have been discovered. Microbiologists and astrobiologists have studied the organisms ever since. They estimate extremophiles have lived on Earth for more than forty million years. 

The Experiment

Three panels of the bacteria, Deinococcus radiodurans, arrived on the space station via a SpaceX rocket. 

According to smithsonianmag.com each panel contained two small aluminum plates dotted with twenty shallow wells for different-sized masses of bacteria. The largest of the masses, or balls, of bacteria was thinner than a millimeter.

They positioned one panel pointed down toward the International Space Station; the other pointed out toward the cosmos. Astronauts collected one panel after it was in place for a year and sent it back to Earth for study. They colleced the second panel and sent back after two years’ exposure. They collected the third panel at the end of the third year and sent it to Earth.

The results showed the outer layers of the balls, or masses, of bacteria died and while those inside survived. 

How’d The Cells Survive?

Image of the Milky Way looks like a "cloud" of stars, a highway across the night sky and it's hard to imagine how much space radiation is up there.

The articles I read implied the cells balled up into layers as a protective mechanism, an instinct, so to speak. In addition, this particular bacteria carries up to ten copies of their DNA (humans carry two). Having more DNA means they can churn out more of the proteins that repair cells damaged by radiation. 

What is the Meaning of This?

This finding suggests that life could transport between planets on a meteor or other space debris. Some speculate that it hints at the origin of life on Earth. Others speculate it could mean life transferred from Mars to Earth or other planets. 

Astrobiologists and microbiologist identified the parts of the bacteria’s genes that create the radiation-repairing proteins. Other scientists have identified various parts of human DNA that change due to living in space (in part due to astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space). 

The scientists don’t have all the answers yet. But they may have found the key to surviving space radiation making long-term space flights safer. Will it mean they trigger human genes to produce those radiation-damage repairing proteins? Or will they manipulate human genes to be more like the extremophiles and create a being suited for space travel similar to what happens in Man Plus by Frederik Pohl

Imagine you’re an astronaut and going to Mars is all you ever wanted to do. Would you allow scientists to turn you into an extremophile?

Image Credits

Top image NASA/Roscosmos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Last Image: by James Wheeler from Pixabay

Real Life or Science Fiction

How does science translate from the real world to the fictional world? In hard science fiction, the scientific elements of the story stay as close to reality as possible. The more speculative the science, the less “hard” the science fiction. Imagine that science we know is on one end of a sliding scale, we’ll call it reality. And we’ll place the far-fetched speculative science of a speculative fiction / science fantasy story on the other end. Sometimes what started as science fantasy slides toward science reality. That’s what happened to the rocket ships of Golden Age Science fiction. In my series, the Fellowship Dystopia, parthenogenesis is used to create female children. But is it Real Life or Science Fiction?

Illustration of Real Life or Science Fiction depicts two test tubes holding fetuses curled up inside, behind them appears to be images of two drops of magnified cells

Real Life Parthenogenesis

Parthenogenesis was discovered in real life by Charles Bonnet a Swiss naturalist, lawyer, and philosophical writer in the 18th century when he observed asexual reproduction in aphids. Parthenogenesis is a method in which a new individual develops from an egg (ovum) without fertilization from a sperm. This is a natural phenomenon in some animals like bees, wasps, ants, fish, lizards, and in some plants. 

In 1913, Jacques Loeb wrote Artificial Parthenogenesis. In it he discusses the history of spontaneous parthenogenesis (no human intervention) that helped lead to studies in artificial parthenogenesis including his own. A German born American pysiologist and biologist, Loeb experimented on unfertilized sea urchins (Arbacia) eggs.

Real Life Cloning

In 1952, Robert Briggs and Thomas King used nuclear transfer technology to clone tadpoles from adult frog donor cells. This same technique was used to clone Dolly the Sheep, born in 1996. 

Real Life External Uterus

Image shows a schematic of the way amniotic fluid enters a pump then filters before entering the biobag with the lamb in it. It also shows schematically how they attached the umbilical cord to and ran the lambs blood through an oxygenator and gave meds and fluids.Below the schematics are photographs of the lamb inside a clear plastic biobag one with pink skinned lamb the other with the lamb fully covered in lamb's wool ready for birth.This real life or fiction looks like fiction but is real life.

Researchers at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital announced they had created a biobag, an external uterine system used to support an extremely premature lamb in 2017. Their hope is to one day support extremely premature human babies until their lungs and organs are more developed.

Fictional Parthenogenesis

Cover of My Soul to Keep is a dark blue background with a lighter blue Fellowship Shield. Ontop of the shield is a two-D yellow and orange image of the Washington monument. At the point of the shield and the base of the monument the silhouette of a woman in a skirt walks toward the camera

In My Soul to Keep, book one of the Fellowship Dystopia, the reader learns about a pair of scientists who used parthenogenesis to create a human embryo from two eggs. They implant the embryo into a woman’s uterus in 1944. Under the care of the brilliant Dr. Locke and his assistant, Dr. Gallaway, embryo grew into a fetus, and after a normal pregnancy, a girl child was born. One success quickly became many successes.

The doctors claimed their research was to filter out genetic defects. They believed that unlike the better baby contests looking for perfect children, they would create a world where every child born would be genetically perfect. 

When the subjects of their research turned out to have a high propensity for out-of-control behaviors during their brief lives, the scientists discovered ways to influence those behaviors. Under their influence, they created a class of female assassins they called Azrael, the Angels of Death.

By the end of My Soul to Keep, the scientists have built an enormous experiment in ectogenesis…growing a fetus in an external, mechanical womb. Lots of mechanical wombs.

If I Should Die

cover of  the science fiction book If I Should die has a dark green background with a purplish Fellowship shield on it. On top of the shield is a two-D image of the Statute of Liberty in two tones of light green, at the point of the shield and the statue's base is the silhouette of a woman holding a gun and running toward the camera--

In If I Should Die, the second book of the Fellowship Dystopia, the reader gets to take a tour of the laboratory with the characters and learn a little more about fictional parthenogenesis. Of course, there’s more going on than the characters see…at least at first.

Of course, all the science in the Fellowship Dystopia is speculative or so-called science fantasy. Or is it? The slider is edging back toward the reality side. 

Real Life Parthenogenesis Impossible

In the mid-1980s, researchers attempted parthenogenesis in mice. They combined genetic material from two different female eggs, and created embryos they then implanted into a surrogate mouse. The implantation was successful, and the pregnancy seemed successful, but none of the embryos survived. Later experiments discover a phenomenon called genomic imprinting. They describe this imprinting as a kind of genetic tag in egg and sperm that are dormant, or shut off, until sperm and egg meet. This tag allows for normal development of the fetus.

When this imprinting process goes awry, kids can end up with inactive gene regions that cause miscarriages, developmental defects and cancer.”

Discover Magazine

Later experiments found that there are between 100 and 200 genetic tags. Researchers concluded that genetic imprinting prohibited parthenogenesis in mammals. 

Real Life Parthenogenesis Take 2

Then in 2004, Tomohiro Kono and colleagues at the Tokyo University of Agriculture in Tokyo, Japan, manipulated the nucleus of eggs from female mice, and created 457 reconstructed eggs. Two live mice were born. 

Kono and his colleagues hope that this achievement will help make animal cloning more efficient. 

In 2018, Wei Li and his team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing used CRISPER the gene editing technique and produced healthy mice from two moms.

The researchers created embryos with two genetic mothers (bi-maternal) and implanted them into surrogate mice. The offspring were born, lived to adulthood, and produced their own pups. Although Li’s first bi-maternal mice had growth defects, he and his team deleted another tag in the mothers’ genes, which allowed the bi-maternal offspring to experience normal growth. 

Li and his team also experimented with creating embryos from two male mice. Only two and a half percent of the embryos made it to term and less than half of one percent were born live. They didn’t make it to adulthood. 

Real Life or Science Fiction

While the science in the Fellowship Dystopia doesn’t exist today, it was fun to extrapolate the possibilities of what that might have looked like in an alternate history. If you haven’t read My Soul to Keep, book one of the Fellowship Dystopia, get caught up! If I Should Die, the second book in the Fellowship Dystopia series, goes on preorder starting May first.

Some speculate that some day real life science will use parthenogenesis to enable same-sex couples to have children genetically related to both parents. No worries. The ability to produce multiple live births from manipulated human ova or sperm is miles from any near future possibility. But what about a hundred years from now? Could we be producing genetically Better Babies? Should we?

Suppose you live in the future when parthenogenesis creates viable human offspring, would you opt for a son or daughter who’s your genetic duplicate?

Image Credit

Image of biobag by Partridge, Emily A., et. al, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Can Computers be Creative?

I use the word creativity a lot on these blog pages. I firmly believe that every living person is creative. The tragedy is that many people have their creative dreams crushed so hard they never recover. Ai-Da is an Artificial Intelligence machine that paints, writes, and gives presentations. Can a computer be creative? Will it further crush human creativity? Or will it expand human creativity?

Photograph of Ai-Da, a humanoid figure with a life-like head & face and robotic mechanical arms & hands standing next to one of her pieces of impressionistic art below which is a sign that reads Ai-Da Robot, the world's first ultra-realistic robot artist. But can a computer be creative?

What Is Creativity?

Before we can intelligently decide whether a machine can be creative, we need to define creativity. In “You Don’t Have to be an Artist” I use the Merriam-Webster definition of creativity. It’s imprecise and vague. Trying to define creativity is difficult. It’s one of those things we say, “I know it when I see it.” 

Margaret Boden OBE, ScD, FBA, a research professor of cognitive science, published The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms in 1990. Within that book, she offers a philosophical definition of creativity. 

Creativity is the ability to come up with ideas or artefacts that are newsurprising, and valuable.”

Margaret Boden OBE, ScD, FBA

Instead of asking the yes or no question “is that idea creative,” Boden suggests we ask, “how creative is it, and in just which way?” She also defines what she means by new, by surprising, and by valuable. 

What New Means

To define new, she distinguishes between psychological creativity (P-creativity) and historical creativity (H-creativity).

P-creativity involves coming up with a surprising, valuable idea that’s new to the person who comes up with it. It doesn’t matter how many people have had that idea before. But if a new idea is H-creative, that means that (so far as we know) no-one else has had it before: it has arisen for the first time in human history.”

Interalia Mag quoting Boden

What Surprising Means

In her definition, surprising has three different meanings. First, a surprising idea is something that is unfamiliar, or even unlikely. An unexpected idea, something that is part of a familiar idea but in a way you haven’t thought of before, is the second type of surprising. The third type of surprising, is the astonished reaction you have an idea you would have thought impossible before you saw/heard it.

Her definition and exploration of creativity is more complex than this and deserves a more detailed examination, but this definition will help us examine whether Ai-Da, an AI, is a creative machine.

Creative Artificial Intelligence

My first reaction to the idea of a creative artificial intelligence was an enormous surge of skepticism. 

 As human in appearance as Ai-Da, her jerky and distracting actions and her clear but halting speech annoyed me. I looked at her, listened to her, and dismissed her. She isn’t the creative one, it’s her human programmers, right? 

Then I applied Boden’s definition. Is Ai-Da’s art new? The answer is yes to both P-creativity and H-creativity. Is it surprising? Again, I’d have to answer yes. Is it valuable? That’s what I found questionable. Some people would pay money for the novelty of owning art by an AI. But was it valuable in any larger way? I was skeptical. 

I continued my research and discovered a different way to look at Ai-Da and my question, “can a computer be creative?”

The Intersection of Science and Creativity

Benedikte Wallace hates math. When she was growing up she loved art and dance and creative life. She also loved science. She saw math as an insurmountable wall between her two loves. And she despaired that she’d ever be able to find work in the intersection of those two. 

She says she’s still terrible at math, but she found a way. Wallace is a Ph.D. researcher at the RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Rhythm, Time and Motion at the University of Oslo.

She suggests a different way to approach my question.

She sees the computer as a creative partner, a tool. 

I think of and use my computer daily as a creative tool. Could it be a creative partner? I reluctantly agree that it could be.

Can Computers Be Creative

image of a human hand reaching with index finger forward on one side toward a robotic hand reaching in the same way toward the human hand on a black background with blue lines in a repetitive pattern that represent computers but can computers be creative?

Reducing an artificial intelligence machine like Ai-Da to the term computer is to dismiss it as an independent entity. I am a science fiction reader and author. So why do I dismiss Ai-Da as an independent entity? Because the idea makes me uncomfortable. Wallace uses terms that make me more comfortable. I can see Ai-Da as a creative tool to use. Except she is more than that. Just as I am more than the sum of my parts, Ai-Da is more than the sum of her numbers… more than her programming, even if it’s only a tiny bit more. Can computers be creative? Ai-Da is creative, but is she only as creative as her programming? Maybe. Perhaps her descendants will be more creative… and more accepted.

Can you see yourself collaborating with a future Ai-Da?

Can you see a future Ai-Da producing creative works like yours?

Nothing to Lose and Everything to Gain

In December 1967, fifty-three-year-old Louis Washkansky, a South African businessman, was dying. He had diabetes, chronic heart, kidney, and liver disease. By 1965, he had had three heart attacks and only about one third of his failing heart continued to function. All his heart doctors and tests confirmed he was dying. His doctors recommended he see the cardiac surgeon, Dr. Christiaan Neethling Barnard. Washkansky had nothing to lose and everything to gain. 

Image is an anatomical drawing of a red human heart with blue pulmonary arteries. Washkansky had nothing to lose and everything to gain. 

A New Procedure

Dr. Barnard told Washkansky and his wife about an experimental procedure. He proposed Washkansky become the world’s first human heart transplant recipient. For the procedure, Dr. Barnard would need the heart of a donor who died from disease or injuries that left the heart intact. The doctor would surgically replace Washkansy’s heart with the donor’s heart.

The doctor told Washkansky and his wife that the procedure had an 80% chance of success. Washkansky’s wife feared her husband would absorb the donor’s personality. She believed, as many, did that one’s soul rested in one’s heart.But Washkansky wanted to take his only chance. On November 10, 1967, the Chief of Surgery identified Washkansky as a potential heart transplant candidate.

The Preparation

Dr. Barnard’s team prepared Washkansky for the surgery. They swabbed his skin, nose, mouth, throat, and rectum to determine which bacteria lived on and in his body so he could be on the proper antibiotics. They washed him frequently with a disinfectant called Phisohex (hexachlorophene). And waited for a donor.

A Possible Donor

In late November, a young black man had a catastrophic head injury. Though the Chief of Surgery strongly recommended they avoid using a “colored” donor, the family was asked for permission for him to be a heart donor. Unfortunately, his heart was damaged and wasn’t suitable. Washkansky feared his chances of getting a new heart were slim.

December 3, 1967

A drunk driver plowed into twenty-five-year-old Denise Davail and her mother when they were crossing the street. Davail’s mother died at the scene. Davail had devastating head injuries. A neurosurgeon determined she was brain dead. A blood transfusion and respirator kept her heart beating. Doctors approached her father, who had been at the scene, and told him that there was a man in the hospital who was gravely ill. They told him it would be a “great kindness” if he allowed them to transplant her heart into this man. After a few minutes of contemplation, he told the doctors that if they couldn’t save his daughter, they should try to save that man.

Photograph of a surgical suite with six wax figures in green surgical gowns, what head wraps and masks--a recreation of Dr. Bernard and his team in the operating room

The Surgery

At one in the morning, they took Washkansky and Davail to surgery. Dr. Barnard, his brother, Dr. Marius Barnard, and a team of thirty surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and technicians implanted Davail’s heart into Washkansky’s body. Only the two Dr. Barnards had ever attempted a heart transplant before. And although the Barnard brothers had performed many transplants before, their only patients had been dogs. (Read more about Dr. Christiaan Barnard and his techniques.)

Surgical Success

Washkansky survived the surgery. He woke and spoke with his wife. 

On the fifth postoperative day, Dr. Barnard suspected Washkansky’s symptoms were signs of his body rejecting the donor heart. The doctors bombarded Washkansky with immunosuppressant drugs to prevent rejection of the donor heart. Unfortunately, this reduced Washkansky’s resistance to other illnesses. He came down with pneumonia. On the eighteenth postoperative day, Washkansky died.

Legacy

Image of Dr. Christiaan Barnard shortly after the surgery during a press conference. he is in a suit with a curtain behind him

Today, doctors across the world perform more than 5,000 heart transplants each year. Eighty-seven percent survive the first year. The average life expectancy after a heart transplant is a little more than nine years. All because a dying man took a chance on a doctor and a new surgery. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. 

Image Credits

Top:Image by Open Clipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Middle Photo: by TheSokks – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Last Photo: by Ron Kroon / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Second Woman to Win the Nobel Prize in Physics

Fifty-two years after Marie Curie, society believed women were unsuited for academic or scientific work. Maria Goeppert Mayer pursued her interests, anyway. And she became the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Portrait of Maria Goeppert Mayer, the second woman to win the nobel prize in physics

Early Life

Friedrich Goppert, and his wife Maria, lived in Kattowitz (now Katowice, Poland). Their only child, Maria Goeppert Mayer, was born on June 28, 1906.

They moved from Kattowitz when her father, a sixth-generation university professor, accepted an appointment as the professor of pediatrics at the University of Göttingen in 1910.

She claimed she was closer to her father because being a scientist; he was a more interesting.

Education

Only one school in 1921 Göttingen would prepare girls to take the university entrance exam, the abitur. It closed its doors a year before she would have graduated.

She took the university entrance exam, anyway. And passed the exam at 17 years old, a year earlier than most. Fewer than one in ten German university students were female.

Maria entered the mathematics program at the University of Göttingen. But changed to physics. It interested her more.

Her doctoral thesis explained her theory of two-photon absorption (aka excitation). Though there was no way to prove her theory then, she earned her doctorate in 1930.

Marriage & Career

American Joseph Edward Mayer boarded with her family. They married on January 19, 1930. The couple moved to the United States. Johns Hopkins University had hired him as an associate professor of chemistry.

The university would not hire Maria as a professor because of strict anti-nepotism rules. Similar rules existed at most universities during the depression. They kept her from getting a job consistent with her education level.

The university hired her as an assistant in the Physics Department. She taught some courses and worked with German correspondence. She received a tiny salary, a place to work, and access to the facilities. That was important to her. She worked with Karl Herzfeld. Herzfeld was an Austrian-American physicist. They collaborated on several papers.

During the summers, she returned to Göttingen to work and collaborate with her former examiner, Born.

She and Joe had two children, Mary Ann and Peter.

World War II

The rise of the Nazis ended her trips to Germany. Soon after the war started, her husband, Joe, was fired. They suspected the dean of physical sciences fired him to get Maria out of the laboratory, but it could have been that there were too many German scientists in the department or because of complaints that his chemistry lectures contained too much modern physics.

He accepted a position at Columbia University in 1940. They gave Maria an office but not a paid or official position. She kept working because physics was fun.

Photograph of the second woman to win the nobel prize in physics, Maria Goppert Mayer, who is  seated at a desk, holding a slide rule. Behind her is a chalkboard with equations written on it.

Within nine years, she produced ten papers applying quantum mechanics to chemistry, one of which became a milestone. Also, with her husband, she wrote Statistical Mechanics, a textbook that sold for 44 years.

National Women’s Hall of Fame

A Paid Professional

She got her first paid professional position in December 1941, teaching science part-time at Sarah Lawrence College.

In early 1942, she joined the Manhattan Project. She was part of a project to discover a way to separate the fissile uranium-235 isotope in natural uranium. It was impractical then.

We found nothing, and we were lucky… we escaped the searing guilt felt to this day by those responsible for the bomb.

Maria Goeppert Mayer via www.nobelprize.org

A Nobel Prize Worthy Idea

After the war, she worked another unpaid job at the University of Chicago. Around that time, she received a part-time job offer to work in nuclear physics at Argonne National Laboratory. She protested she knew nothing about nuclear physics, but took the job.

Two years later (1949), she proposed that inside the nucleus, there was a series of layers of protons and neutrons, arranged like the layers of an onion, with neutrons and protons spinning around their axes and orbiting the center of the nucleus at each level.

After she published her theory, she learned that Hans Jensen and his colleagues had simultaneously made the same discovery. She and Jensen published a book together.

A Full Professorship

In 1959, more than thirty years after beginning her career as a scientist, The University of California, San Diego hired Maria as a full professor.

The Nobel Prize

This photo was taken in 1963, as physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972) was being escorted by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden to a gala banquet following the ceremony during which she received the Nobel Prize in physics for development of the model of atomic nuclei in which the orbits of protons and neutrons are arranged in concentric "shells".
Maria Goeppert Mayer escorted by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden to the gala after the Nobel Prize Ceremony

They awarded Maria Goeppert Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen half the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for their proposal of the shell nuclear model. (Eugene P. Wigner of the United States won the other half for unrelated work.)

She was the second woman who won the Nobel Prize in physics, after Marie Curie. (It was another fifty years before another woman won the prize).

Death and Legacy

Maria suffered a stroke shortly after moving to California, but returned to work for years. In 1971, she had a heart attack and slipped into a coma. She never regained consciousness and died of heart failure on February 20, 1972.

In her honor, the American Physical Society (APS) created the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award for young female physicists at the beginning of their careers. Argonne National Laboratory also presents an annual award in her honor to young women scientists or engineers. On Venus, there is a crater about 35 km in diameter that is named Crater Goeppert Mayer. They inducted Maria into the Women’s Hall of Fame and included her in the third American Scientists collection of US postage stamps.

Her impact on science, on physics, was enormous. She changed our understanding of atoms.

Second Woman Who Won the Nobel Prize

Maria Goeppert Mayer didn’t plan to win the Nobel Prize. Didn’t think about it when she made her discovery. She was just excited to find the last piece of the puzzle she wanted to solve.

Being second isn’t losing when you’re the second woman who won the Nobel Prize in physics. But is her name as common as Marie Curie? I didn’t study physics, and I never heard of her before. Did you know Maria discovered the “layers” of protons and neutrons around an atom’s nucleus?

If you liked this post, you might like to read about the woman men wanted to ignore.

Image Credits

Top portrait: Nobel foundation, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Middle portrait: ENERGY.GOV, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bottom photograph: Smithsonian Institution from United States, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons