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5 Topics That Are "Forbidden" to Science

A "forbidden research" conference at MIT tackles areas of science constrained by ethical, cultural and institutional restrictions. 

5 Topics That Are "Forbidden" to Science


The recent changes in Washington do not seem to bode well for fact-driven, scientific points of view on many issues. But there are already a number of sensitive areas of science where important research is stalling due to outside pressures or serious questions asked by the scientists themselves.

A yearly conference organized by the MIT Media Lab tackles “forbidden research”, the science that is constrained by ethical, cultural and institutional restrictions. The purpose of the conference is to give scientists a forum to consider these ideas and questions and to discuss the viability and necessity of studying topics like the rights of AI and machines, genetic engineering, climate change and others.

Edward Snowden, who appeared remotely at the 2016 conference, summarized its “theme” as “law is no substitute for conscience.“ Pointing to his work against pervasive digital surveillance, he reiterated that “the legality of a thing is quite distinct from the morality of it.”

The major “forbidden” topics discussed at the conference were, unsurprisingly, wrought with political implications - 

1. Messing with Nature

How much should we mess with nature? We now have an opportunity to potentially greatly advance our abilities and eradicate diseases with genetic engineering. But how much interference with the way nature designed us is ok? Who should decide how much is ok? 

It is possible to use “gene” drives” to gene-edit an entire species, like, for instance, to get rid of mosquitoes. Not many would miss the pesky insects, but spreading the modified genetic traits throughout their population could have unintended consequences, not to mention the effect on the food chain.

Still, these concerns do not necessarily outweigh the possibility that gene-editing them could be extremely beneficial to us. The questions of how gene-editing can be safely incorporated into our lives will continue to persist as technology keeps improving. 

 “Some things are forbidden and arguably shouldn’t be, but other things perhaps we need some more barriers,” says Kevin Esvelt, a synthetic biologist with the Media Lab.

2. Engineering the Climate

One way to help address climate change is via solar engineering. This involves releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect some of the sunlight away from Earth. Doing this could tamp down rising temperatures, possibly bringing them back to pre-industrial levels. 

This approach is certainly open to significant challenges. Atmospheric testing is necessary to see whether doing this could damage the ozone layer while adding more pollutants to the atmosphere. Yet, it’s something that to could work and address global warming. Without a serious discussion, which starts by agreeing that global warming is a real issue, we are just doing nothing while the problem potentially grows worse and worse.

“We have collectively decided we prefer ignorance. We need a serious, open, no-nonsense international research program, and we don’t have one. That is political cowardice,” said Harvard professor David Keith.

3. Robot Ethics

As robotic technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds, the questions of where the lines between the robots and humans will be drawn abound. For example, there is potential to protect children from sexual deviance by creating sex robots for pedophiles. This kind of research is nearly impossible, however, due to the ethical and legal restrictions in the field.

“I want to know [if] we can use robots therapeutically to help,” said robot ethicist Kate Darling from MIT’a Media Lab. “We have no idea if we can, and we can’t research it because of the huge social stigma.”

MIT Media Lab's "Forbidden Research" conference 2016. Credit: MIT Media Lab, Youtube.

4. Secure Communication Technology 

It’s a real challenge to create communication tech that is not being spied on by somebody, from corporations to the government. This was stressed by Edward Snowden and hacker and engineer Andrew Huang, who appeared at the conference.

Snowden elaborated on the distinction between the moral and legal in these examples: 

“Our investigation regards countering what we’re calling lawful abuses of digital surveillance. Lawful abuse, right, what is that, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Seems like it might be a contradiction in terms. (…) But if you think about it for just a moment it might seem to be a little bit more clear. After all, the legality of a thing is quite distinct from the morality of it. Segregation, slavery, genocides, these have all been perpetuated under frameworks that said they were lawful, as long as you abided by the regulations that were sort of managing those activities,” said Snowden.

5. Universal Access to Science

Should all publicly-funded research be available to everyone on Earth? This was the inspiration for SciHub, a Russian science that featured 55 million scientific papers for free. Many of them were pirated and pulled from behind paywalls.

Kazakh student Alexandra Elbakyan, who created the site, said at the conference that she can’t travel to the U.S. or Europe because she might be arrested. On the other hand, because the site has been resilient and not taken down, she thinks “the only thing now is to make it legal”.

The nature of science is to discover secrets, not keep them—Alexandra Elbakyan, @ringo_ring #forbiddenML

— MIT Media Lab (@medialab) July 21, 2016

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Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

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With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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