Does Great Science Require Great Science Fiction?

I enjoyed this recent article by Neal Stephenson in the World Policy Journal, but I think he and his editors may have buried their lede. Stephenson, a bestselling science fiction (SF) author who grew up watching the Apollo missions, is concerned about the lack of visionary science and engineering projects in our own time. Accordingly, he frames his essay as a lament about the decline of American innovation, of "our ability to get important things done," and so on. We've all seen plenty of commentary to this effect, especially since the Space Shuttle completed its last mission. Midway through, however, Stephenson recounts the following anecdote from a 2011 conference called Future Tense:


“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaims Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (and one of the other speakers at Future Tense). He refers, of course, to SF writers. The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense. Hence the Hieroglyph project, an effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age.

This struck me as a remarkable claim—not on Stephenson's part, of course, but Crow's. It's one thing for authors to trumpet their own importance, but to see a university president actually call on fiction writers to lead the country forward is startling. In effect he asks them: how can America build a great future unless you imagine it for us? The name "Hieroglyph," by the way, derives from a certain Hieroglyph Theory advanced at the same conference:

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Through the connection between hieroglyphs and hierophants, or interpreters of sacred mysteries, I was reminded of a line from Percy Shelley's "Defence of Poetry." According to Shelley, "poets"—meaning all imaginative writers—"are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present." If he were around today, Shelley might very well applaud the Hieroglyph Theory. In a previous post I discussed how his own political poetry has had a considerable influence on modern political history. And it was his wife, Mary Shelley, who is often said to have invented modern science fiction with her novel Frankenstein. That book views the future of science and technology with trepidation, but for better or for worse it has proved prophetic. The Frankenstein archetype has been invoked over the years in connection with everything from bionic limbs and heart transplants to plastic surgery and genetic engineering. If the Hieroglyph Theory is to be believed, Frankenstein—to say nothing of the genre it launched—has helped create the miracle and monster of modern civilization.

Personally, I'm not sure whether science fiction tends to foster scientific reality or whether science tends to forge ahead no matter what, spawning technologies both dreamt and undreamt. (I don't remember Jules Verne ever predicting the electric toaster, yet there it is.) I do think, though, that the genre is irreplaceable in its capacity to dramatize, and judge, the potential impact of future technologies. In other words, we may not need people like Stephenson to dream up the nanobots and neuroenhancers so much as to excite us or warn us about them. Either way, I agree with Crow and Stephenson that more and better science fiction can only be a good thing. I look forward to the Hieroglyph anthology, and I hope it features a few visions worthy of Asimov.

[Image: NASA artist's conception of a Mars mission, Lew Bossinas, 1989. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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