Dreaming of Galaxies. Here's to James Webb.

James Webb will grant a peerless gaze at the universe the likes of which we've never seen.

This post originally appeared on the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here.


The building 29 cleanroom at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland is a tinkerer's dream. There, in an assortment of expensive pieces, rests NASA's preeminent project of discovery: the James Webb Space Telescope.

Under development by NASA and Northrop Grumman engineers, the tennis court-sized telescope is currently slated for launch in 2018. When it takes its position in a solar orbit 930,000 miles from Earth -- four times the distance to the moon -- James Webb will grant a peerless gaze at the universe the likes of which we've never seen.

Just two years ago, the outlook for James Webb wasn't nearly so optimistic. In July 2011, the United States House of Representatives' appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science moved to cancel the project, contending that the project was "billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management." For a time, it appeared that James Webb would go the unfortunate way of the Superconducting Super Collider: mothballed and left incomplete, a billion-dollar reminder of what could have been. But in November 2011, cooler heads prevailed. James Webb survived. 

Space scientists across a spectrum of disciplines are now firmly looking forward to the future. Astronomers hope to use James Webb to identify the first stars that formed in the wake of the Big Bang, to examine the evolution of dark energy, as well as to study the physical and chemical properties of foreign planets and solar systems, potentially picking out the building blocks of life. Key to these aims is James Webb's chosen method of stargazing: infrared imaging.

Infrared imaging focuses on wavelengths of light within the infrared spectrum -- usually 700 nm to 1 mm. Those lengths are very short in absolute terms, but still far longer than visible light. A big benefit of focusing on infrared light is that it's emitted by almost any source, provided said source is not cooled to absolute zero. It also has the ability to pass through astronomical gas and dust without being scattered, granting clearer images. 

When light travels extremely far distances on the order of billions of light years, it shifts to the infrared spectrum. This means that James Webb, with its large, collecting array of mirrors, will be perfectly positioned to gather this light and peer farther into the galaxy, and thus back in time, than ever before.   

As Stacy Palen, director of the Ott Planetarium at Weber State University recently stated onScience Friday, we may find more, much more, than we've bargained for.

"One of the great things about these discovery machines is that you think you know what it's capabilities are, and you think you know what it's gonna see. But when it comes right down to it, we've never looked at the Universe at this resolution in the infrared before, and we've never had this quality of data before, and we've never been able to look at this level of detail. And so I think the surprises are gonna be fabulous as we start to open a window that's always been closed.


Back in 1990, James Webb's remarkable predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, was launched into orbit a mere 374 miles from Earth. Since then, it's far surpassed its original stated goals, delivering soaring, captivating images of the cosmos and functioning as perhaps the single most useful scientific instrument ever produced. Any astronomer in the world can submit a project proposal and request time on the telescope. Ideas and submissions constantly pour in, a torrent that has resulted in over 10,000 scientific papers based on Hubble data. This "science for the people" approach is slated to continue with James Webb. And of course, we'll also be privy to even more dazzling photographs.

"The reason that the Hubble Space Telescope images were so staggeringly beautiful when we saw them was because the resolution of the telescope was so high, Palen told Science Friday. "And James Webb, because it's a larger telescope, is going to give us even more detail".

Nothing extraordinary comes without costs. James Webb, like Hubble, is slated to run well beyond original budgetary estimates, a fact which -- as mentioned earlier -- almost got the project canned. But this is expected. When building state-of-the-art machines to gaze far into the unknown, you often experience unforeseen snags. Attempting to do something that's never been done before is rarely easy. Such actions can, however, deliver astounding results.  


(Image: James Webb Replica via NASA/Chris Gunn)
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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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